Sgt. Graham A. Campbell, No. 20 Squadron R.F.C, Clairmarais Aerodrome, France,
February 4th, 1916.
The morning was typical for this time of year, with the frosted-over fields gleaming in the sunlight. By the time I had awoken, Jacky-Boy had already dashed off into town to see Jeanne. No such luck for me - instead, I made my way to the mess, where I found ‘Normie’ McNaughton reading through the latest Communiques, or ‘Comic Cuts’ as the RFC types had taken to calling it, and Archer, who was sketching away while looking out of the window. “Morning, Normie”, I greeted my wingman, and he looked up with a smile. “ ‘Hello, Campbell! Cold morning, hey?”. I nodded, flopping down in the armchair opposite his. “Yes, indeed, although I rather like the cold”. Normie cocked his head to the side. “Well, not me. Anyway, things might be getting a little warmer later on…”. I got the distinct impression he wasn’t referring to the weather. “Oh? How so?” I pressed, and Normie broke out in a fatalistic smile. “We’ve got the Lens show today!” he said, almost triumphantly.
To date, Lens had been the hottest shop that No. 20 has frequented, and every time we go over that way it seems to end up in a scrap. I rather wished that Edith would be flying with me, but he has since been assigned to another pilot, and I am to stay with Ackart. I only hope that he is as courageous as my Scottish ex-colleague.
After having a morning cup of coffee in the mess with Normie, we headed out, as the Ack-Emmas would surely be preparing our machines. I found Ackart waiting beside A6333, and we climbed in. He turned to face me, his face stern. “No antics, Campbell, I don’t want to end up shot like Edith” he said. Shooting him a cold glare, I replied “Certainly not, sir” and pulled down my goggles. I find Ackart more disagreeable with each morning.
Ahead of our machine, I noticed Kris Bristow walking towards Normie’s machine. He turned and waved to me, and I waved back, calling out “Not with Jimmy anymore?”. He shook his head in confirmation - it seems like I’m not the only one to have lost my observer.
We made our final checks, and Ackart loaded the gun as I tied my charm to the control column, and then we were off and headed out past St. Omer, to make our long, wheeling climb. There was plenty of low cumulus, and visibility was fairly poor, and soon we had lost sight of Normie & Tepes. When they finally reappeared - it was from behind the other side of a cloud we were rounding, and we all got the wind right up as we suddenly had two Fees about to barrel headlong into our formation from the left! Graves immediately threw his machine into a steep dive, just avoiding Normie’s undercarriage, and I watched in horror as his observer went over the side of the Nacelle, only staying aboard the machine by clinging to the forward Lewis for dear life! No doubt there would be one hell of a row in the mess later.
Shakily, Graves put his fee back in front of our now-reunited flight, and we headed out towards the lines before any other mishap could befall us. After a cautious flight, we crossed the lines at Neuve-Chapelle without any further incidents.
After a short while of patrolling, I saw movement in the mud below. Leaning over the side of the canopy, I made out the shape of an Aviatik, being escorted by a Fokker, down near the ground. Sitting ducks for the five of us! I tried to signal to Graves, but he would take no notice, so I expectantly turned to Ackart. He slowly shook his head; ‘NO’. Irritably, I slumped back in my seat. Out on the edge of our trench-lines, another Fokker, alone, weaved left and right through little white archie puffs. I gritted my teeth, anxious to attack something. There were five of us - what chance did the lone Eindecker have? But, Graves was immovable. Soon after, we turned for home. But, this disappointing show had one last unwelcome moment in store for me as, just short of Clairmarais, 6333’s engine cut out again. Switching to Gravity got the Beardmore humming over again, and I put in at Clairmarais, before fetching an engine fitter and informing him that the fuel line seal had gone again.
A Temperamental Fee!
At around half past One, after having my lunch in the mess with Normie, I returned to my Billet to find Jacky-Boy happily packing his things into a suitcase. “Going somewhere?” I asked. Without looking up from his packing, he shouted back “I’ve been given a 48-hour pass! I’m off to-” “St. Omer, perhaps?” I interrupted, teasingly. He turned, and winked at me, before going back to his packing. I left him to it, taking a stroll back to the aerodrome, to visit old A6338. I was happy to learn that the engine was to be fitted by the end of the evening, having arrived by truck shortly after ‘B’ flight’s departure. I looked over my machine, beaten-up and holed by Hun gunfire, and felt a great affection for the old girl. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me, and I pulled one mechanic to the side. “Say, do you think you could put in a clasp to hold this?” I asked, producing the small tea-bindle charm. The mechanic knowingly smirked. “Oh, no bother at all, ser! We’ll have it done just as soon as the new Beardmore’s settled in”. I thanked him, and turned to leave. As I went, one of the engine fitters called out “By the way, the new engine’s a peach - she’ll be the envy of the squadron!”. I turned back, grinning. “Excellent stuff! Thank you, gentlemen!”. As one, they touched their caps.
That night, Switch-Off, Jimmy Reynard and I saw Jacky-Boy off, before heading to the mess for the evening sing-song. Sure enough, Pearson was already in position at the battered old Piano, its endearingly out-of-tune voice filling the mess. Abruptly, he stopped, and turned to the crowd of us that had gathered, merrily securing our first drinks of the evening. “Okay chaps, any requests?”. Immediately, Edith called out “Mademoiselle from Armentieres!”, which was answered by an approving cheer from us all.
With our arms around each-other’s shoulders, spilling drinks down each-other’s tunics, we belted out the tune loud, of course reaching a climax at the ever-loved “Hinky-Dinky Parlez-Vous!!!”.
I stumbled back towards my Billet earlier than most, accompanied by Switch-off, who had quickly learned in France that he had no real stomach for alcohol. As we staggered down the freezing road by the aerodrome, I pondered upon my time in France, the reality compared to my initial expectations at Hounslow, in those early days flying B.E’s. Drunkenly, I turned to Switch-off, his scarf pulled up around his face against the chill.
“Say, Switchy, how do you find France?”. He turned to me, his boyish features wearing a look of surprise. After a pause, followed by a stutter, came his response: “Well, whatever do you mean, Graham?”. “I mean, when we were in Hounslow, with Freddy and the other chaps, what did you expect? Do you feel better off, or worse?”. Switch-off’s face tightened, as he begun to concentrate and feel out his response, and for a moment he looked almost of the same age and maturity as the rest of us. “I suppose,” he begun, before falling into another long pause. “I suppose that I am happy. The war is quiet in the air, and we don’t get shot at very much. The poor devils in the trenches must lose their friends an awful lot, but we seem to get on okay”. I nodded slowly. “True, we are lucky in that aspect. For me, I expected more fighting, for it rather feels like I’m not doing my bit”. Switch-off smiled, but looked saddened. “Don’t be so silly, Graham! We’re all doing our bit, you know. You, more so than most of us! Why, you’ve already gotten a Hun, and we all know you’ll jump at the chance to get another!”.
We had nearly reached the door to our Billet, and again Switch-off wore that serious look on his face as he turned to me, unravelling the blood-red scarf from around his throat. “I heard Ackart complaining after you came back today, something about trying to chase a Hun”. I opened my mouth to reply, but Switch-off continued. “You ought to be more careful, Graham”. I fell silent, surprised by the lad’s concern. As we stepped out of the cold February air, he offered one more insight:
“We were all in a terrible funk, the day you and Edith were shot down. Jimmy kept telling us all that you were made of sterner stuff. We tried our best to believe him. When you hadn’t arrived back by nightfall, well, we feared that you’d both been killed. Jack was especially down in the dumps - for days, none of us could say much to him. Only his visits to the Vincent, to see Jeanne seemed to cheer him up. She was terribly kind to him, and sorry that you were missing”.
And that was the first moment that the reality of our war truly set in. We had been lucky so far, at No. 20, with only two men lightly wounded, but the underlying reality of death seemed suddenly to appear from every shadow, whispering and inviting. I wanted to talk to Switch-off some more, but before I had collected my thoughts the boy had succumbed to the night’s decadence, and was sprawled out on his bunk in full uniform, peacefully dozing away. As I removed my tunic, crawling into my own bunk, I bit back a laugh at the thought that, out of our whole outfit, it was this youth, this child who had somehow been sent into this hellish war, who was the most prolific of us all.
Having a terrific time with the campaign so far! Looking at everybody's wonderfully fleshed-out personas, I'm trying to do a little 'character-building' of my own. Hopefully, Campbell, Jacky-Boy, Reynard and the rest of the gang will start to develop a bit more personality in time! Looking forwards to everybody's next installments
Oh - P.S - nice new bus, Fullofit! Here’s hoping you can ditch the spare seat soon!