2nd. Lieut. Graham A. Campbell, No. 20 Squadron R.F.C (On Leave), London, England.
March 23rd, 1916.
God speed, Tommy!
The ferry rocked precariously on the choppy seas as I held on tightly to the railing, trying to distract myself by watching the patterns carved by the smokestack above me. It didn’t work. Feeling my stomach churning, I wondered how our men in Sir Jellicoe’s fleet were expecting to live and fight in such unfavourable conditions. After an hour at sea, I hastily concluded that it must be flying for me, and if, by some cruel design of fate, I was transferred to the navy, an immediate request for a posting in the RNAS would be in order.
Turning my eyes forward, I watched as through the sleet and mist a great landmass appeared off the bow - England. One or two infantrymen whooped and cheered in delight at seeing home, and my own spirits were similarly lifted. However, the moment was spoiled when I was suddenly sick over the side of the ship. Still - it was better up here than it was below deck, where disfigured soldiers and airmen stood, sat and laid in quiet, private misery. I had come above deck to escape the disturbing sight.
Slowly England crept up, her arms wide, the white cliffs shining against the dull sky, as the Ferry lazily swung about for Folkestone. Another hour and we were pulling into the chaotic mass of bodies and ships that was Folkestone Harbor. As we approached the dock, a Ferry bound for France was pulling out to sea, packed to the brim with hundreds of bright-eyed infantry, waving to us vigorously at us as we passed. Towards the Stern, a group of Tommies hung a Union Jack over the side of the railing, grinning broadly. I waved back, as did some of the men on our boat. Others - the ones who had been in the worst of it - did not.
We came to rest alongside a concrete pier and the gangplank was lowered into a writhing chaotic mess of infantry. Above the din I heard Lieutenants and Captains barking orders at the masses of soldiers, forming ranks and lines in preparation for boarding. Alongside the edges of the Harbor were hundreds of smaller sailboats, around which was the commotion of men, women and children loading and unloading cargo. As I was bustled onto the pier, narrowly skirting around the side of a red cross stretcher, I took a closer look at the sailboats. They were crewed by tired, blood-streaked families with hard faces, although among the misery some smiles and joviality could be seen. The old boats were handsome, and as I studied them bobbing on the choppy sea I noticed that many of them had been daubed ‘Oostende’. Quickly I realised that they were Belgian immigrants, seeking shelter in England from their shelled-out homes, and I took a moment to pity them before being barked at to “Get out the way, flyboy!” by a red-faced Sergeant Major.
Belgian Immigrants at Folkestone
Fighting against the current of soldiers and skirting around stacked-up crates of supplies, I made my way into Folkestone, breathing a sigh of relief and lighting a cigarette as, more inland, the herd thinned out. It was only as I had begun to stroll down the winding cobbled streets that I realised I hadn’t the foggiest where I was supposed to be going. Fortunately, I quickly came across an MP, rushing up to him and stopping him. “Excuse me! I’m headed to London. Could you tell me how to get there?”. The MP eyed me irritatedly. “What! You came over from here, didn’t you?”. I shook my head and pointed to the R.F.C wings on my tunic, explaining that I had flown over. “Tch! Typical...you want to go to Folkestone Warren Halt” he explained, his annoyance growing, before pointing me in the right direction. I sarcastically thanked him and took my leave.
Mercifully, the station was a ways from town, and far less crowded than the chaotic port. At the far end of the platform a group of infantry were playing dice. To the other end stood a tall dark-haired Lieutenant, a riding-crop folded underneath his arm. To my delight, I spotted an R.F.C badge on his cap. Sheepishly, I approached him. “Excuse me, sir, is this where I get the train to Victoria station?”. He looked over, at first seemingly annoyed, but his face lit up as he spotted my wings. “Ah! You’re an airman! It’s dreadful to come home this way, is it not? Yes, this is the right stop”. I thanked him, as in the distance the smoke-trail of a steam train approached. The Lieutenant offered a hand to me. “Lieutenant Watson. 29 Squadron”. Shaking his hand, I exclaimed “29! My, you’re on DeHavs!”. “Oh, yes! Wonderful machine!”
The train at Folkestone Warren Halt
We boarded the steam-train, taking a booth together and sitting opposite each other as it pulled away from the station. “Oh! I forgot to introduce myself. Serg- er - 2nd. Lieutenant Campbell. 20 Squadron”. “Aha! An F.E pilot!” he eyed over my uniform. “And recently commissioned, I take it? Good stuff! Tell me, have you run across many Fokkers?” he asked.“Oh, naturally. Never done scrapping with them, it seems!”. Watson laughed. “Hard luck, old boy! I, myself, have only encountered two. But both times I gave them a bloody good hiding!”.
“Good! Did you shoot them down, then?” I asked. Suddenly he was flustered, beginning to stammer. “Well, er, not shot down, but they were quick to turn tail, I say! How about you, old boy? Gotten any huns?”. Despite myself, my chest swelled. “Four, officially! Two Fokkers. But I’ve left one or two extra wrecks in Hunland”. He was visibly surprised. “Four, you say? My, you must have some stories to tell!”. He snapped his fingers. “Oh! I’ll tell you what - you should come to the Savoy! That’s where I intend to spend my leave, and there are all manner of Airmen there with some truly ripping stories! Why, I’m sure I even saw Hawker in there once!”.
We flitted away the train ride discussing various aspects of the air war - encounters with Fokkers, our machines, the devilish Star Turn of No. 3 in his deaded Morane (Watson reckoned he had a more powerful engine fitted into his machine, owing in part to his success) , and on a more sombre note, the two dreaded Hun names - Boelcke and Immelmann. Before long we were pulling into Victoria, and again I had vast waves of infantry to contend with. As we departed, I felt a stab of sorrow as I recalled how Jacky-Boy had enjoyed spending his free days at Hounslow coming to Victoria, watching the soldiers leaving for the coast.
Watson bid me farewell, again urging me to visit the Savoy. In among the waves of soldiers on the platform were several booths, at which lines of Tommies were exchanging their Franks for Pounds. I decided to try my luck and lined up to cash my cheque. After a brief and curt encounter with the teller, I stepped out onto the street victorious. I was in awe of London - smoke from chimneys seemed to cancel the sky as on the busy roads motorcars and carriages zipped back and forth. I concluded that, before all else, I should find a place to stay. Recalling Graves’ recommendation of the Cavendish, I decided to head there.
Having 17 Pounds to my name, I decided to indulge myself in the luxury of flagging a taxicab down along Grosvenor Place. As we drove, I marvelled at Buckingham Palace Gardens and the Wellington Arch. I was awfully braced to see the Palace itself, atop which a Union Jack fluttered defiantly in the grey sky. At around Four O’Clock we reached Jermyn Street.
Immediately as I bustled out of the cab I knew I had the right locale. Officers of all kinds seemed to burst out of its seams, mixed in with well-dressed socialites and frantic attendees. Almost immediately my suitcase was snapped up by a Porter, whom I followed inside. Quickly, I was surprised by a lady in a flowing white dress, her bobbed hair level with her attractive rouged mouth. “My, what’s this? A Sergeant pilot?” she crooned. Feeling embarrassed for a reason I couldn’t explain, I mumbled “Recently commissioned, actually. I’m a Second Lieutenant now, but I haven’t yet bought my uniform”. Her head tilted back as she laughed, before she leaned in closer. “Not to worry, dear. We’ll sort you out a room right away. You can get settled in, then you must come and join us in the sitting room!”. In a moment I knew this must be the Rosa Lewis of legend. Feeling like a child, I followed her lead and was soon shown to a beautiful high-walled room, furnished by an impossibly soft bed, delicate velvet curtains, an assortment of sitting chairs and a tall wardrobe. Connected to my room was a bathroom, which I stared at longingly. I had quite forgotten it was possible to take a bath! “Get yourself settled in, dear” she smiled, and I turned, fishing into my pocket. “How much do I owe for this?” I asked, and to my surprise she simply winked. “Oh, dearie, that’s somebody elses problem!” and with that, she promptly shut the door.
I drew a bath, changing out of my dirt-streaked uniform. It was wonderfully relaxing to clean myself up, and I felt utterly refreshed. My next order of business was cleaning my uniform as best I could, before making my way to the lounge on the main floor. In there were all manner of pilots, drunkenly laughing and conversating. I caught Rosa’s eye as I entered and again she winked at me. I flitted around the room, chatting with some pilots and the odd gentleman or lady (the ladies gasped in awe at my stories of battling the Hun in the air), enjoyed champagne and caviar, and soon I was thoroughly enjoying the evening - for I rather felt like a gentleman myself! I had become something of a novelty to the airmen, many of whom had never encountered a Sergeant Pilot. Some were dubious about my claims that I had been promoted, and fewer still believed that I had downed four Huns!
At the height of the evening, I was surprised to hear a ladies’ voice crying out my name. Spinning on my heel, I was met with the unexpected sight of Aunt Ina, draped in a fine ballgown, who was rushing forwards to embrace me and kiss me on the cheek. The surprise was most welcome - I had quite forgotten that Aunt Ina lived in London! Grinning, I requested a servant to bring us a bottle of champagne and two glasses.
Aunt Ina bore no blood relation to me, but had earned her title as she was a very close friend of my mother’s. The two had grown up together in Scotland, growing carefree on a luxurious, wealthy youth. Oftentimes in their later years, Ina had given my mother money to help with her ‘situation’ - that is to say, her choice to marry my father, a working-class veteran of the Boer war. I had always greatly enjoyed Ina’s visits in my youth, as she would arrive with a case full of all manner of presents from the Capital. Now, as she stood before me in my uniform, I saw pride swell in her eyes. “Oh, Graham, how you’ve grown! Are you doing well in France? You must tell me everything that’s happened!”.
I talked for a long time about my experiences so far, of flying and fighting in the air, of camaraderie and bitter loss, of the tragically young Switch-Off and the devil-may-care Reynard, and of the two occasions on which I had been shot down. She flinched as I showed her the wound stripe on my sleeve, and sympathised as I recalled Jacky-Boy’s disappearance. Eventually, I told her of how I had been commissioned, and how I had returned to England to purchase my new uniform. At this news she jumped up out of her seat excitedly. “Oh! Splendid! We must buy you the best-made uniform that can be had!”. Before I could react, she had fished into her purse and produced thirty pounds, stuffing it into the pocket of my tunic. In alarm I protested: “Ina, you can’t!”. But she simply hushed me before becoming lost in a fantasy about the tailor taking my measurements.
I stayed and talked with Aunt Ina for the rest of the eve, and she promised to call upon my parents and tell them all about how I was doing. I walked her to the door, bade her goodnight, and returned to my room where I was almost immediately asleep upon sinking into the luxurious bed.
Big thanks to Raine for pointing out some of the historical locales that Graham might encounter while on leave in London!