It's great to see many of the DiD diehards posting again. Welcome back, Robert and MFair. Carrick, keep up the great photos. Lederhosen, wonderful illustrated story! Fullofit, best of luck with Urbain's new Spad! And Banjoman, thank you for your constant support and contributions. I hope you're getting some flying time while you're away.
And Macklroy, I hope to see your stories here soon. Welcome!
I'll be away in England for two weeks visiting my son and his family. So Colin Urquhart has this big catch-up story and then he's off on leave. With luck, he's seen the last of his Nieuport Bebe!
A journal of the Great War – By an Anonymous Aviator (Colin Urquhart)
With the beginning of December the weather turned foul again. I wanted to join the others in the cabin for a jaunt into Doullens and dinner at Quatre Fils, but I was duty officer and had to stay back while the fellows took off. I spent the afternoon of the first preparing for my role as French language instructor to the lower deck. The classes were going well, and my special project, AB Dalgliesh, was actually picking up on a few phrases and grammatical concepts, although to hear his Glaswegian tongue bludgeoning the language of love was a Hunnish bit of torture indeed. He was most interested to learn phrases that one would use while courting, things like “I picked these flowers for you.” It was disconcerting. Dalgliesh was a scruff, as my father would say, big and brutish-looking, with a broken nose and a scar over one eye that split his eyebrow. And I’d learned that he’d left school at nine to work with his uncle in a forge. Here in the squadron he followed his old calling; he worked as a helper to the squadron blacksmith. I should point out, in case one day someone reads this, that we did all our own maintenance, unlike the RFC boys across the way. They sent anything complicated back to an aircraft depôt.
Dalgliesh was not the only one who harboured thoughts of love. There was a lovely young maid named Marie-Paul, a farm girl from down the road a way. Every morning she brought a hand-cart of produce and milk to the wardroom and messes. My cabin-mate Simpson was besotted with her and insisted on walking her home whenever he was not on duty.
Galbraith reported ill. It may have been nerves, but he seemed to lose all ability to focus. He was sent away for a rest. Squadron Commander Bromet made a little speech about him that night in the wardroom, praising his aggressive fighting spirit and example. I shall miss Galbraith, as he was the only other Canadian I knew well in the squadron. There was another Canadian, Trapp, in A Flight, but he was a very quiet type.
On the 2nd we sent the tender into Boulogne to shop for the messes and I managed to get D’Albiac to assign me to lead the foraging party. The city was a marvel. In two years we had managed to turn this French seaside resort into a bit of England. The Union flag flew everywhere and nearly all the signage was in English. The docks were a thrill to see. Cranes swung horses from ships to dry land. Sergeants-major bellowed. Two Scottish pipe bands vied with each other. And tens of thousands of soldiers marched or paraded or loitered about. The haul of the day included twelve bottles of Scotch whiskey for the wardroom, three barrels of beer, a case of champagne, and a half case of gin. I bought a pound of Stilton and a bottle of port, and then wondered how I would ever manage to get some for myself once I unpacked it back at Vert Galant. My work party were energetic, as I promised their PO that they could have an hour to themselves, no questions asked, if we got everything bought and on the tender by two o’clock. When they returned their sly looks and sheepish grins betrayed their debased pastimes.
The rain continued through the 3rd. A replacement arrived and set up in our cabin – a Canadian too! His name is Luke Edmund, from somewhere in Alberta.
Plans are underway for a Christmas Revue. WO Brice, the stores officer, and Leading Mechanic Black were the impresarios in charge. The squadron commander reminded us that the wardroom was not to be undone by the lower decks, so an “all-girl” revue of Wood, Jenner-Parson, and Thom was put together. Such affairs are difficult balancing acts. One has to find material raunchy enough to suit the audience, yet tame enough not to embarrass the commander in front of his assembled, brass-hatted guests.
4 December 1916 dawned a beautiful clear day with scarcely a breeze and we put up many patrols. For some reason I was given only one job, a line patrol south of Arras to be led by Compston. We tooled about for more than two hours without seeing a single Hun. Strangely, Goble and Little escorted some Fees from 32 Squadron in nearly the same area an hour later and were in no fewer than four scraps! Little bagged a Halberstadt, although he got back late, only after we’d nearly given up hope.
Corbett, a friendly fellow I hadn’t yet got to know well, fell that afternoon – our second loss.
I found my nerves beginning to bother me. It was a combination of two things: I no longer trusted my little Nieuport to get me back if we ran into any half-decent Huns, and I knew I was up for leave on 12 December. I’d made up my mind to go to England, although I fancied getting out of London and seeing the countryside. Soar kept on about the countryside. I needed some time alone and I wanted to see bits of England without aerodromes and classrooms.
5 December 1916 – Asquith stepped down today. They say Lloyd George is in as PM. Can’t say it means much to me. They’re probably all as idiotic as ours back in Canada. Grange led a line patrol. West of Arras I spotted two Hun observation machines about two thousand feet above us. I pulled ahead and signalled, and then began to climb. After twenty minutes I gave up. The Nieuport just didn’t have the guts to catch them. But when I turned about the others were already gone. I patrolled the line alone for a half hour. It’s a strange feeling, being all alone. My neck ached from looking about. But I’m glad I did. Just as I was turning back west near Monchy I looked back and spotted a lone Roland two-seater diving on me. We tangled for nearly five minutes, and to my surprise the Hun two-seater handled better than my machine. He put about eight holes in the Nieuport and I spun out of the combat and headed home. When I landed, Air Mechanic Evans told me that I’d stretched the airframe badly and it would take at least two days to repair the thing.
On the 6th we attacked an observation balloon near Courcelles. I was first in and emptied my drum into it and let loose my rockets. The LePrieurs were impressive things. They fired electrically, one after the other, with an intense whoosh-whoosh-whoosh-whoosh! You had to dive rather steeply at the balloon to have any chance of hitting the thing. And then you had to continue straight on to let the last rocket clear your machine before turning. Inevitably you missed the balloon by inches as you banked vertically and hauled back on the stick. So far, I have not got the knack of the things. Compston, however, hit the balloon.
I have been gazetted for the Distinguished Service Cross! I will get the ribbon up and have my picture taken in uniform while on leave. I want to send it to my father.
I had a day off on the 7th. The Navy term is a “make and mend” – a chance to relax, sort out your kit, and pay visits to nearby squadrons. But the day was called for when the RO, John D’Albiac, told me I’d be “prisoner’s friend” for a summary trial. And I’d been specifically asked for by the prisoner!
Of course, the man under close arrest was Dalgliesh. The damned fool had head-butted a local farmer. I went to see him. He was detailed to clean the lower deck cabins and I brought him over to the squadron offices in the Bossu farm, where we found a place to speak in private.
“It’s no bluidy fair,” he protested. “The froggie had it comin’. He’s a bluidy theif, he is, see?” Amidst much swearing and nose-blowing, Dalgliesh told his sorry tale. It seems the object of his affection was one Marie-Paul Renard, the same milkmaid that Flight Sub-Lieutenant Simpson walked home.
“Yon Mister Simpson, he’s a right numpty, him. He thinks wee Mary’s fond of him, but she’s no. Wee Mary lives wi’ her auld mum, an’ her faither’s aff tae the war and disna write. He’s prob’ly deid, the auld sod. But Mary’s right fond o’ me, see. An’ I think she’s smashin’. I ken how t’ fix things on her fairm, and I’m good wi’ the coos and her wee duggit likes me. I help oot there when I can.”
Dalgliesh, it seemed, was the squadron Casanova. I asked him about the assault.
“Wee Mary’s best coo got oot the gate on Wednesday. An’ the manky auld sod that runs the fairm across from her found it and kept it, see? Said it was his, but it’s no. It had all the same marks, an’ it had a pink patch under its belly, next to the udder, see? I ken that coo, ‘cause I’ve helped tae milk the thing a hunnert times. So I go to the fairmer, a big bawfaced lout, him. An’ I tell him tae gie wee Mary her coo. But he says something in French, see, something ye haven’t taught me yet, surr. An’ it was no nice, because he does this with his hand.” Dalgliesh made a Gallic gesture of contempt.
Dalgliesh puffed out his chest. “Well surr, I pit the heid tae him.”
“You did what?”
“I gave him a Glesga kiss. Whacked him wi' ma heid. Broke his nose, surr. An’ I took the coo back tae Mary an’ her mum.”
“So you plan to plead guilty to assault, then?” I asked.
“No sir,” he said. “See, the squadron pays Mary at the start of the month for all the milk it needs. An’ the milk’s in the coo, see? So when that #%&*$# of a fairmer stole the coo, he stole the squadron milk. An’ I stopped the theft of squadron goods, surr. An’ Commander Bromet should be told that.” “And you want me to present your defence?” I asked.
“Aye surr. Yer a fine one wi’ the words, surr.”
I stood in awe of this brilliant bit of argument. For a moment I imagined Dalgliesh in a powdered wig and black robe, clutching his lapels and addressing the court. But then he was convulsed with a smoker’s cough and hacked up something into a stained handkerchief and the image was lost.
The case was heard that afternoon. Dalgliesh told the story and I explained to Squadron Commander Bromet how this blacksmith’s helper risked life and limb to reclaim the squadron’s milk. He was given two days’ stoppage of grog and the duty officer, Booker, was dispatched to warn the farmer to leave Marie-Paul and her mother alone or risk the wrath of the Royal Navy.
On 10 December we flew an offensive patrol deep into Hunland and ran into three Albatri near Pronville. I got a crack at one, but it pulled away. The others in the patrol had Pups and carried the burden of the fight, which proved inconclusive. That afternoon, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Trapp crashed his Pup and killed himself. We were losing our Canadian contingent.
The next day we aborted a reconnaissance when the snow and low cloud threatened to blind us completely. We were lucky to get back to Vert Galant. We buried Trapp at Beauval that afternoon. I was detailed as a pallbearer.
And then came the day I had waited for so long. On the morning of the 12th I picked up my papers from the RO’s office and got a tender to Calais. I would embark on the destroyer HMS Laforey and be in Dover by one in the afternoon...