Still playing catch-up, but wanted to give you all an update! I have been keeping an eye on everyone else's stories....my, it really is getting dicey out there, isn't it?
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell. No. 20 Squadron R.F.C. Clairmarais Aerodrome, France.
February 18th, 1916:
I have not written my diary for some days now. I have not had the heart.
After our binge on the 8th, we were all terribly excited to get into the air and claim another Fokker for No. 20. As ‘C’ flight had the early shows that week, I would spend my mornings with Jacky-Boy and Jimmy Reynard, having our breakfast in the Vincent. Jimmy and I would pal around at a table of our own, while Jacky-Boy would slip away to woo Jeanne, often times bringing her gifts of flowers, chocolate, and whatever other gestures his military pay would allow for. For certain, our tails were all up, and even the mild-mannered young Switch-off would, before going out on patrol, throw his red scarf over his shoulder and boldly exclaim to us “Today is the day I will bag my first Hun!” with a grin on his face.
Three cold, wet days passed without a sign of the Hun, in which we came back from our patrols drenched through from flying in heavy rainfall. Despite this, we were still under the effect of Billinge and Reid’s success, and plenty of smiles and hearty songs filled the mess each night. Sometimes, after hours, Jacky-Boy, Switch-off, Reynard and I would take a few bottles to our Billett and play cards, or chess, or help each other write home. Spirits were high!
On the morning of the 12th, we awoke to more heavy rain. Cheerily making our way to the briefing-room, Jacky-Boy seemed unnaturally excited. When he head in the briefing that ‘A’ flight was to go across the lines, on a D.O.P (that is to say, Distant Offensive Patrol, or as we more accurately described it, “Looking for Trouble”). As we left, he whooped in delight and cried out “I knew it!”. Puzzled, Reynard and I looked over at him. “Knew what, Jacky?” I asked, and he beamed at me. “When I awoke today, I had this incredible feeling of, just, knowing I would finally run into the Hun! I can’t explain it, but I just knew!”. I looked at Reynard, who shrugged. “He’s gone aff his heid” he simply explained, and Jacky-Boy laughed loudly. “Drinks will be on me tonight, boys! I’m off to shoot myself down a Hun monoplane - you’ll see!”.
We went through our morning routine, and at the Vincent Jacky-Boy continued to excitedly babble to Jeanne about how he ‘just knew’ that he would finally get his chance to ‘shoot one of those blighters down!’. Admittedly, it put Reynard and I on edge - something seemed strained about his excitement, almost reluctant, but we couldn’t put our finger over it. We finished up our breakfast, and headed back, leaving Jacky-Boy to continue to ramble to a perplexed looking Jeanne.
‘B’ flight was on the Loos show that day, and in old A6338 we battled through fierce whipping rain and clouds. As we flew, I thought of how disappointed Jacky-Boy would be...the Huns never come up when the weather’s off! Needless to say, our patrol was uneventful, and we returned home without having seen a Hun. However, shortly after the rain came off, and the winds died down, just in time for ‘A’ flight’s show. Beaming from ear to ear, Jacky-Boy climbed into his bus, with Edith following. I approached him, and gave him a pat on the back. “You just take care up there, Jacky. No recklessness!”. He laughed and batted me away. “I’m not the one that’s been shot out of the two of us!” he retorted, and from the front Nacelle Edith protested with a quick “Oi!”. I laughed with the pair, before strolling away.
As per usual, the men assembled early in the evening in the mess. Pearson took up his usual position by the piano, and the singing begun. After about an hour of merrymaking, we heard ‘A’ flight’s Fees buzzing towards the aerodrome. A few minutes later and the crews came in to join us. We gave a quick cheer as they stepped in before going back to our mischief, and the two crews were offered seats and bottles. I noticed Edith and Jacky-Boy hadn’t come in, but didn’t think much of it - plenty of us had been getting lost in the harsh weather recently. After maybe another hour, I begun to wonder just where those two had gotten to. I asked Reid if he had seen them at all when he had come back, and he shook his head. “Afraid not, old boy. You see, it was all terribly cloudy up there, and before we knew it Jacky-Boy had vanished!”. I nodded, thanking him. After another hour, the absence of Edith and Jacky-Boy was starting to be noted by the men. The revelry died down slightly, and pilots said things such as “They’ve probably ditched down the lines, and are staying overnight somewhere!”. Generally, we accepted this, with only Switch-Off being visibly distressed by their absence. Eventually, I turned in for the night. As I reached my Billett, I found Switch-Off sitting on his bed, his eyes watery. Turning to me, he asked “Do you think they’re okay?”. I paused, thinking back to Jacky-Boy’s strange enthusiasm in the morning. I wasn’t sure. But, so as not to worry young Switch-off further, I replied. “He has Edith as his observer, and he’s got the luck of the devil! I’m sure he’s just fine. Get some sleep”.
The next morning we gathered again in the briefing room. The major seemed tired, and irritable, as we shuffled into our seats. After being given our briefings, we made to leave, but were halted by the Major booming out “One last thing, gentlemen”. Slowly sliding back into our seats, we uneasily looked at each other. “We have had a telephone call last night. 2nd. Lieutenant Fisher and Captain Edith got into a fight with a Fokker Monoplane during their patrol yesterday. Regrettably, 2nd. Lieutenant Fisher was instantly killed when he was struck in the head by a bullet. Captain Edith was able to climb into the cockpit and land the machine, and will be back with us by the end of the day. We shall hold the funeral this evening”.
The air stood still. Wide-eyed pilots and observers looked at each other, unspeaking, in the dimly lit room. I felt like my chest had cracked, and then frozen, as my breathing ceased. I looked over at Reynard, who had gone pale white. After a long, silent pause, the Major mumbled “That will be all”, gathered his papers, and made for the door. It was several minutes before we started to filter back out onto the aerodrome.
Jacky-Boy’s funeral seemed to pass in a daze. We stood in a semicircle around the Major, and a priest, who both gave short speeches. I didn’t hear a single word. In the mess, we quietly drank, stunned into silence. Eventually, we heard the first solemn notes of Pearson’s piano ring out, as he begun to sing “There’s a long, long trail”. Slowly, we joined in, the volume increasing, as we poured our emotion into our voices for our friend, our comrade. As he sung, I watched the tears stream down Switch-Off’s face. By the end of the night, both Switch-off and I had become terribly drunk, and Reynard had to enlist Pearson’s help to get us both back to our Billetts, and into bed. I hadn’t even realised in my grief that Edith had arrived around mid-day.
The rest of the week passed in what felt like a dream. During patrols I was numb, and inattentive. Normie was in a similar funk, but luckily Graves kept an eye on us. As per usual, we saw no Huns. On the 15th, I went to the Vincent, flowers in hand, to give Jeanne the news and console her. Through the window, I saw her at her table with an Artillery Captain, laughing at something he was saying, and then to my shock I watched as they passionately kissed. It didn’t feel real - as if Jacky-Boy had been made a non-person by that Hun bullet. Dropping the flowers in the mud, I returned to the aerodrome.
By the 18th, we had begun to come to terms with Jacky-Boy’s death - all except for Switch-off. The poor lad was distraught, seldom appearing in the mess and not talking at our billett. He had neatly organised Jacky-Boy’s things, in preparation for the Batman taking them away. Later that evening, we had a small uplifting surprise, as Kris Bristow returned. That night, during our typical mess binge, we broke the news to him. His face went dark. “Oh. I see. Poor Jacky. It can’t be helped, I suppose”.
No. 20 had suffered its first loss. Suddenly, the war felt very real.