Whew! Take it easy out there, lads, it's getting rough! Raine - glad your man survived his injury, and some story the scar will make when it's all over!
Sgt. Graham A. Campbell, No. 20 Squadron R.F.C, Clairmarais Aerodrome, France.
May 7th, 1916:
The charm and carefree days have left us behind at No. 20. Often I will wake in the night, rotten with sadness, having woken from a dream in which I was back at Hounslow Heath with Jacky-Boy. Edith, with far more experience of war and loss than myself, claims that “Only the Drink helps, laddie, and it’s no much”. Poor Switch-Off is still distant, but we are gladly seeing small shimmers of his happy personality return. Ackart, on one occasion, referred to him as a “Brave Fool”, and if it were not for his rank then Jimmy Reynard and I may have shut his mouth for him. But, as Graves later offered to me (as, during one night, I drunkenly blurted my distaste of Ackart’s harsh comment to him), he is just dealing with the loss in his own way, for even the cold Captain Ackart was fond of Jacky.
On February Nineteenth ‘B’ Flight had our first show North up the lines, towards Nieuwpoort and the coast. It was there that our flight of three happened upon a flight of three Fokker Eindeckers. Ackart was immediately on his gun as they came over the top of us, their insolent black crosses mocking us, before they dropped down to attack. Immediately a yellow Fokker was behind Reid’s machine, and I watched as Reid’s observer scrambled up in his seat to fire backwards. I swung old 6338 to get on the Hun’s tail, and a quick burst from Ackart saw the Hun off. Before I could follow, there was the stink of phosphor and the flash of tracers through my left planes. Panicked, I skidded left and desperately tried to see past the rear of the nacelle for my attacker. For several seconds it was all I could do to stay in my left-hand spiral, gritting my teeth and listening to the staccato of the Hun’s cursed synchronised machine-gun at my tail - but, old 6338 had a fighting spirit, and within three turns the green shape of my attacker flitted into sight at the edge of my vision. Coaxing all of 6338’s determination out of her, I pulled the stick hard into my stomach - and we were on the Hun’s tail! I grimaced, thinking in my head that we would send this #%&*$# down in Jacky’s name, but ahead of me in the Nacelle Ackart sat, frozen, his eyes glazed over with fear. Forgetting our respective ranks, I roared “Shoot, you fool!” at the petrified Captain, but it was no good. He had the wind-up proper, and he couldn’t hear me over the roar of the engine anyway. I cried out in agitation as the Hun tightened his own turn, and disappeared behind me again. Soon after, more bullets were crashing into us, and ahead of me Ackart fell back into his nacelle, his hands covering his ears as he ducked down for protection. I begun to weave left and right - I had seen the Hun machines now, and had noticed that they had no ailerons - so I thought that I may be able to beat the dreaded Scout in the roll. I was right, and we were behind him again. Sheepishly, Ackart fumbled at his gun, but as soon as he had a grasp on it he froze up again. For a split second, the Hun looked over his shoulder, and I saw below his flying goggles a thick moustache. He turned back, quickly, before zooming up and above us and turning for his own lines. With no sight of Graves or Reid, I turned back for our lines, bitterly leaving the Hun to get away Scott-Free.
As we landed, I quickly disembarked to see that poor 6338 had been shot about badly. The Ack-Emmas and I counted thirty-three bullet holes between us, and two cracked spars. Ackart remained in his Nacelle for some time, before eventually being brought a cup of tea by Cpl. Howard and coaxed from the machine. Fortunately, Reid put down not long after me, and Graves phoned an hour or two later, having landed in a field. He and Bristow had both escaped injury.
Around Four O’Clock a car arrived with a new pilot, one Lt. Jeffrey McHarg, Jacky-Boy’s replacement. He has taken Jacky’s old bunk in our Billett, and seems a nice enough chap. Quiet, and keeps to himself. He joined us in the mess that night, for our usual round of songs and drinks. That night, I sat with Ackart, Reid, and his observer, Beckwith. As he nursed his whiskey with both hands, Ackart was visibly shaking. I nudged him with my elbow. “Those Huns nearly got us, eh? We’ll have better luck on the next show”. He mumbled something, but I didn’t hear it over the noise of the mess.
The next day, I went to the hangar to retrieve my tea-pouch charm from 6338 - with her two broken spars, she would be grounded for the next couple days - and tied it to the flight stick of 6331. As we readied ourselves for the morning show over Loos, Ackart sidled up to me. “I’m not sure I can go up” he muttered, and I glanced at him sideways. “Nonsense, Ackart. Don’t let those Huns get the wind-up y-” “I haven’t got the bloody wind-up! I’m just ill is all!” he roared. I was taken aback. “Then - what’s the matter with you?” I said back, through my teeth, and climbed into the cockpit. For a moment Ackart’s face contorted into a look of misery, his eyes watering up, before he climbed into the front nacelle. Across from me, Normie shot me an inquiring glance from his own cockpit. I slowly shook my head, and he nodded once before turning back to check his control surfaces. Fortunately, the show was a quiet one and, apart from some strong winds, we were not bothered.
I saw no repeat of Ackart’s outburst, although for the next couple shows he appeared to be nervous in the air, suddenly snapping his head around as if he’d seen something, only to slump back into his seat in relief. The next few days were quiet, save for the arrival of a new Fee being ferried in from the aircraft Depot by Pearson on the 27th. The days passed by with nothing of interest apart from the brief scraps of information we could procure on the battle raging at Verdun - it sounded like a horrific spectacle. But - the Fokkers were not to stay quiet very long.
On the 1st, after my morning show, I decided to go to the Vincent for lunch. As expected, Jeanne was there, and lit up when she saw me. “Archie!” She cried, as I walked in. I ignored her mistake. “Table for one, please, Jeanne”. I grumbled, trying to mask the resentment in my voice. She seemed taken aback, but directed me to a small table near the rightmost wall - underneath a painting of a Nieuport scout in flight. “Coffee?” she asked. “Please” I responded, “and also some lunch. Whatever you have”. She brought the food and coffee and, to my annoyance, sat down opposite me. “So, where is Jacky? I haven’t seen him in weeks!” she asked, and I bristled. Sighing deeply, and sipping my coffee, I looked at her in the eye. “Sorry, Jeanne, Jacky’s gone West”. She looked at me, puzzled. “West? What do you…” she started, but I cut her off. “A Hun got him not too long ago”. Her face twisted first into shock, before tears welled in her eyes. “Mon Dieu…” she whispered, as I stood up from my half-eaten meal. “Best he didn’t find out about you, and your infantry Captain anyways”. I said, coldly, and she gasped. “Take care” I murmured, dropping some coins on the table and walking out. As I stepped into the street, the drone of a Fee came overhead. Looking up, I watched as one of our machines wobbled through the sky. At the time I thought “deary me, the fellow’s making a mess of flying”, but as I later discovered upon my return to the aerodrome, it was Lt. Ellis from ‘A’ flight, shot through the forearm in a scrap with a Fokker. Unluckily for him, it wasn’t quite a Blighty.
That night saw another outburst from Ackart - this time worse. In the middle of our evening songs, he suddenly cried out “I won’t go up again, dammit!”, before stumbling to his feet and running out of the mess. We fell silent for a few moments, before going back to our songs. The next morning, I went to see the Major.
“Campbell. What do you need?” he asked me, looking tiredly over his reading glasses. “Well, sir, it’s about my observer”. His eyebrow raised, and then he thumbed through a folder on his desk. “Captain Ackart. What about him?”. “Well, sir, his recent outbursts are concerning me. I feel he may be…” I trailed off. “Out with it!” the Major barked, and I nodded. “Apologies. It’s just, well, I feel that he may be unreliable as an observer. I would like to request a new observer”. The Major sighed. “#%&*$# it, Campbell” he uttered, before lighting a cigar. “Very well. I’ll see to it that you are assigned a new observer”.
A day later, we watched in horror as ‘C’ flight came back to base, one machine short, and another machine trailing a thick white cloud of mist. It was Jimmy Reynard’s bus - he’d had Ackart as his observer that day. I tore over to his machine, before it had stopped, and reeled back in horror to see him clutching at a wound in his side. “Damned Fokker got me!” he explained, a pained grin on his face, before he offered an arm for me to help him out. I did, and with Pearson and Edith rushed him to the medical tent. I looked back to see Ackart, white with fear, still gripping tightly onto his Lewis gun, sitting in his position. In the medical tent, the doctor proclaimed with a smile “Jimmy, you’re a lucky man. The bullet struck a rib, cracking it, but it glanced off the bone. You’ll be just fine in a week or two”. Just then, we heard the sound of a machine-gun firing its staccato hatred. Spinning around in shock, we ran out onto the field. “A raid?” Edith shouted, as Corporals and pilots scrambled every which-way on the field, diving behind whatever cover they could find. I soon pinpointed the source of the gunfire - it was Ackart, still in Reynard’s bus, firing wildly ahead of him with the Lewis gun and screaming in horror. Thankfully, the gun soon jammed, but still Ackart held the trigger down, crying out in a terrible animalistic shriek of terror, before eventually passing out. As soon as he had slumped down, a small group of Ack-Emmas hoisted him from the machine and came bundling towards the medical tent, disappearing past us into the flap. No songs were sung in the mess that night - instead, we all quietly contemplated what we had seen. For those of us who had been out on a show, we recounted the horrible sight quietly, over our drinks.
As I write, I am stunned at how quickly our war has changed. Gone is the carefree attitude we came over from England with, and with Jacky-Boy, Ellis, and now Reynard and Ackart, we have realised our mortality. In some ways, I feel that I may as well have shot Reynard myself, having passed on to him a dud observer, but as Edith has said before, there is nought but to get on with it. Word is that General Trenchard has been making inspection rounds, so we will just have to keep a stiff upper lip.