Some wonderful stories are maturing. I am thoroughly enjoying Fullofit's cast of characters at Escadrille C17. Maeran, your Christmas story was a tour de force -- but I have come to expect such things from you. Lady Diana Baldwin sent me scrambling t0 see if she married some unknown pilot, but alas! I was interested to discover she was a cousin of Rudyard Kipling. And her father, before becoming Prime Minister, served as parliamentary secretary to Andrew Bonar Law, who was born just a few miles from my home outside Rexton, New Brunswick, Canada. Ace_Pilto, I'm looking forward to Drongo's meeting with his "connection." Lou, congratulations on the claimed Fokker. Your description of how it fell out of control foreshadowed your similar effect on Mark Jericho - MFair will have to steer his boy clear of akvavit in the future. Maybe you can use it in your hut's lanterns instead! Carrick, that was a really close call! Take care, my friend. And Hasse, another brilliant episode. Nice to see your man chauffeured to the front by Gustav Leffers!
Jim Collins has finally started his war...
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins
Part Ten: In which I take up my sword, meet Archie, and rejoin some old friends
Despite the filthy weather, I managed several more hours on the Morane in the safe confines of St-Omer. Men came and went, yet each morning I pursued the same routine. I rose, washed up in cold water, shaved in tepid water, and dressed for the long walk to the pilots’ pool mess. There I received some bread that I could toast myself at the stove, some weak tea, the ubiquitous plum and apple jam, and a lone hard-boiled egg. There was always the offer of porridge, but I have never been able to keep the stuff down. “Try it with brown sugar,” a chap said. First, there was no brown sugar in sight, and second, anything one must try with brown sugar to get down is certain to be vile.
From there I would return to my hut to bundle up against the elements, pulling on fleece combinations, a silk undershirt, a cotton shirt, heavy twill trousers, a cable knit (non-regulation) sweater, the spencer I’d bought in Salisbury, my fur-lined brown leather flying coat, and chamois and fur-lined cap. I had finally been issued with a pair of the fine “boots, knee, clumsy” which were much warmer than anything else I had put on my feet to date.
Thence to the hangars. There were times when only a BE was available. Patrick had told me only the best pilots were assigned to Moranes, so I pushed for our lone Parasol whenever I could. Still, there were several days when, dressed for real work, I whiled away the hours chatting with the ack emmas and smoking cigarettes and waiting for the sleet and high winds to abate.
On 11 January 1916, I’d just landed from a long flight in the Parasol (in which I’d flown to the east far enough to make out a long brown stain on the horizon – the front!) when word came that a tender would be picking me up in thirty minutes and to have my kit packed. I rushed to my hut and threw everything I owned together, and then sprinted to the offices for orders. Patrick was out for lunch and a dazed corporal shuffled papers for several minutes before uncovering a brown envelope with my name on it. I was bound for 3 Squadron – the same Morane outfit as Swany Swanson!
A driver arrived with an officer from the squadron in tow. It took a second or two to register. The fellow who jumped down from the tender as though dismounting from a horse was lean and lanky and tanned. It was my old cowboy pal from Long Branch and Netheravon, Mark Jericho!
“Took you long enough to get here, partner,” he said with an impish grin.
“I told them I knew you and they didn’t want to let me in France,” I replied. Jericho gave me a playful punch in the chest that I wasn’t ready for. It nearly knocked me down.
“Let’s get out of here. I’m due on patrol in a couple of hours,” he said. “You know that Swany’s with us too, don’t you?” We were bound for a place called Auchel, which was halfway to Arras, an hour’s drive away on the icy pavé. The tender threaded its way through squalid low villages of red brick row houses, small farm buildings with giant manure heaps, and squat stone churches. Everywhere the machinery of war clogged the roads: horses, oxen, wagons, men and more men. Ragged children and women in long aprons and clogs watched the passing show.
The aerodrome sat beside a small straight stretch of road at the edge of Auchel, not far from the neighbouring village of Lozinghem. Rolling hills bordered the town and field, an unusual feature in this otherwise flat part of France. Auchel was a mining town. Steam and smoke curled in grey ribbons from the pitheads with their hoist towers. In the muddy streets. pitmen shuffled home in their grimy blue dungarees and odd, flat wide-brimmed hats, looking like sooty versions of Sancho Panza. A little to the south of the field, two slag-heaps rose like grey pyramids from the countryside. I made a mental note of these, in case we ever had fog.
A row of sturdy wooden hangars lined the southwest edge of the field, which would be a challenge. High ground on one side, buildings on the other, and of course the towering slag-heaps – someone had an evil sense of humour. There was a large wooden building that housed the squadron office and mess. It seemed that the officers and men were, for the most part, billeted in houses behind the office. I made my way to the office and dropped my bag inside the door. Two officers bent over a table near the back wall, examining papers. A corporal clerk banged away on a typewriter. After a minute, one of the officers – they both wore major’s rank – looked up and smiled.
“I say, you’re the new man from Depot. Collins, is it?” I saluted and answered affirmatively. This major had a thin and aristocratic face. “You’ve joined a fine unit, Mr. Collins. Are you up to it?”
“I hope so,” I said, rather weakly or so I thought at the moment.
“Well, you shan’t have me to deal with, I’m afraid. This is Major Harvey-Kelly. He is taking over as your commander as of...” He took out his watch. “Bay, you’re the pukka sahib now, I’m afraid.” Bay was a nickname, I assumed, but its meaning was lost on me.
Major “Bay” grinned and winked in my direction. “Well, then,” he said. “Time to clean up this bloody mess.” Harvey-Kelly had the face of an impudent schoolboy, but he wore the crimson and blue ribbon of the Distinguished Service Order. I was to learn later that he was the first officer of the RFC to land in France. He turned to the orderly corporal and sent him to fetch someone to show me my billet.
“Get settled in and I’ll meet you in A Flight’s hangar in an hour. We’ll need you on patrol as soon as possible and I want you up at once to see the area from the air.”
The billet was scarcely 200 yards from the field, a narrow house of red brick with yellow brick facings around the door and windows. The owners were a couple in their sixties by the name of Poirier. M. Poirier spoke no English and barely intelligible French, but Madame spoke slowly and clearly and I understood that they had two sons, one who was blessé in Paris and the other of whom was dans les tranchées au sud. M. Poirier had a fitful cough and was, I assumed, a former miner. There was another officer in the house, a chap named Bob Lillywhite. He was taciturn and I suppose pleasant enough. Shy, I think, but hardly welcoming. I changed quickly into my flying gear and trudged over to the field.
At the hangar, the Major introduced me to Russel, my observer, who had been in France three weeks. The Major listened while Russel briefed me.
“On takeoff, you’ll fly into the slight rise and trees across the way if you’re not careful. Clear those poplars and level off until you get bags of speed.”
“You’ll need a bit of right rudder under load,” added the Major.
Russel continued. “Climb to 2500 feet before turning east. As you continue to climb, you should see Bethune off the port left side. Don’t pass Bethune or we’ll end up in Berlin. Turn north until we see the Lys. At the river, come back west until the river takes a bow south towards the La Bassée Canal. Don’t go all the way until the canal and river meet. That’s too far west. If you turn south at that bow in the river, you’ll come back directly to Auchel. You might see the road running to Lozinghem and pick up the field, but long before then you’ll see the terrils.”
“The what?” I asked.
“The terrils. Bloody great slag heaps. They’re on the south and east of the town. You’ll want to be gliding into the field long before you approach Auchel. There is a bit of a ridge at the north end of the field, and you’ll need to come in just over the crest to settle down properly.”
“Piece of cake,” I said, not meaning a word of it.
Russel stared at me. “Kill me and I’ll haunt you and yours forever, Collins.”
I took off and did the circuit, following Russel’s directions exactly. I even managed a three-point landing despite the ridge. Russel shook my hand and the major, who was watching from the step of the office, nodded and went inside.
That night there was a raucous send-off for Major Ludlow-Hewitt, whom I understood to be well respected. Once the former CO’s car had removed his besotted carcass, the real party began. To my surprise, the rowdiest man of the lot was the new squadron commander. Harvey-Kelly’s party piece was to declare a selzer battle, from which no man emerged dry. I retired into the night to hunt for the billet shared by Jericho, Swany, and two others. Neither Jericho nor Swany were drinkers, and I expected to find them up. They were in one of the few huts that had been built on the field. When I got there, Jericho was writing a letter and Swany was already asleep. He’d put in a claim for a Fokker this morning and had been “over-served” at dinner.
Jericho brewed a coffee on the pot-bellied stove and added a heaping spoon of sugar. I seldom drank the stuff, but this mug was delicious. There were two armchairs and we sat the shadows cast by a guttering candle and traded life stories, his much more interesting than mine. He spoke of his introduction to “Archie,” as anti-aircraft fire was universally named. In the few days he’d been here, two pilots and their observers had gone missing. He warned me of the dangers of flying over Lille and of failing to check for the “Hun in the sun.”
The next morning I accompanied the Major and Sergeant Bayetto in a three-machine formation. Word had come down within the past few days that all aircraft with objectives over the lines were to fly in formation. It was a new experience and very much harder than I anticipated, requiring complex adjustment of throttle and mixture to keep station. I would settle in for a minute or two and then Major Harvey-Kelly would turn slightly and it would take another five minutes to regain my position.
Sgt Toni Bayetto
We were destined for a rail junction far to the south. I resolved to keep things simple and did not take my eyes off the Major, even relying on him to show me where and when to drop my four Hales bombs. I did not even see our target. If truth be told, any old Hun could have flown up behind me and thrown stones at my machine with impunity, for not once do I recall looking about. I relied for my protection entirely on Russel in the rear seat. I was startled by a loud "whump," followed by three more in close succession. Black greasy puffs appeared a few hundred feet in front of the Morane. The leader turned slightly to avoid the next eruption of whumps. "Good morning, Archie," I said to myself. By focusing on the leader I managed to suppress the wind-up. We landed nearly two hours after we took off. The good news was that we apparently hit the target, saw no air Huns, and I remained more or less in formation all the way.
"'Good morning, Archie,' I said to myself."
The next day, 14 January, we flew south to the Somme sector to drop more bombs, this time on Hun artillery positions behind Pozières. For the first time I saw other machines in the air (other that those I flew alongside, that is). I saw a lone Morane returning home and, after we dropped our bombs, I saw three dots a few miles to the east. One approached us and passed by while we re-formed west of Bapaume. It turned out to be a lone BE2. The other two were certainly Huns, for when they saw us they dived away to the east and vanished.
The front is a nightmare landscape. For a mile or two on each side of the trench lines the ground is horribly torn. Whole villages are smashed into brick dust and rubble. Roads and rail lines disappear. In the Somme area, the trenches stand out as pale lines, the soil bleached by the upturned chalk. A million shell craters catch the water or snow and ice. The world is plague-scarred.