Lou - gave me a scare, there! It's always a nervous moment when your engine packs up. But, at least the Fokkers have learned not to mess around with 'Odin' anymore! As much as I have enjoyed witnessing your scoring streak, I hope you get a good long break from them. I'm sure the resourceful Swany will find a way of getting back to his Georgette for more.....French lessons. Great episode - looking forwards to more!
Carrick - a Nieuport! I'm jealous! Now you'll be giving those Monoplanes a hiding! Happy hunting with the 'Bebe'.
Fullofit - That funeral introduction had me starting to sweat for a minute...excellently written, as usual. But, what a shame about the C.O - I hope his successor is fitting of the title. Good attack on the Aviatik - shame the Lewis ran dry...I bet those Fliegers will be spinning one hell of a yarn in their mess tonight ! Some of those close passes were terrifying to watch! Excellent flying display, and brave, too - I would have panicked and left three times over by the time you were through with him! I really appreciate the videos, by the way - still being a relative 'Newbie' to WoFF it helps a lot to see an old hand at work.
2nd. Lieut. Graham A. Campbell, MC, No. 24 Squadron R.F.C, Somewhere in the Mud, France.
April 7th, 1916.
At nightfall I said my final good-byes to the old French couple, and slipped out into the cold darkness, my revolver drawn. There was no time for names, sadly, but with them I left my silk under-gloves. It was all I could think to gift them as I left, and I hoped they understood its sentiment - I owed them my lives.
The town of Courcelette sat mere feet from the German lines, and as I silently crept through the dark I could hear them joking and laughing, singing together to keep the misery at bay. I approached the town limits on all fours, slowly crawling and making myself as low as possible to the ground to remain unseen. Just as I was passing the farmost buildings, there was a pop, a whizzing sound, and suddenly the ground was illuminated in a brilliant green light. Immediately I fell on my front, making out that I was dead, as above me the star-shell hung ominously in the sky.
Eventually the light faded, and again I continued my slow-crawl, trying not to gag at the stench of death that filled the air. My hand rested on something soft, and wet, and I recoiled and nearly cried out as I realised I had been leaning on the torn-apart corpse of a war-horse. On my knees, I stared in disgusted shock at the dull reflection of the moonlight in its eye, before snapping to my senses and continuing on.
I had made it a good distance away from the town and into the mud when the second star-shell went up. This time, however, I was on my feet, and within seconds of the light illuminating the mud I heard far-off cries in German, followed by the familiar staccato of a machine-gun. I threw myself almost head-first into a shell-hole as bullets whipped around my feet, rolling to a stop next to a recently-dead infantryman. As the light flickered out, I caught a glimpse of the rats feeding on his legs and stomach, and I retched.
I sat in that shell-hole, with the dead soldier (a German) meters away from me in pitch blackness, for what felt like hours. Every now and then I cringed as I felt the weight of a rat shooting across my legs. In the end I found my courage and sheepishly crawled out of the hole, making my way back towards the English lines. In the distance, a red star-shell went up from our lines, as if answering the Germans’ one. In the distance, a wounded man was crying out for help. I tried to ignore the sound, but it pierced me to my soul, and I begun to hum softly to myself to try and cover-up the anguished cries.
First light had started to break by the time I had traversed the horrors that No-Mans-Land presented me with, and it was in my tired, sick, and miserable state that I flopped down into a shell-hole within earshot of the British lines. I couldn’t make out the words, but I heard the distant mumble of conversations, and the more evident sharply barked commands of the officers. Cupping my hands around my mouth, I cried out “Hello! I’m a pilot! Can I come over?”. The air seemed to stand still, the chatter immediately ceasing, before a voice finally responded. “Hands up! Let’s see you, then”. I obliged, my hands appearing over the lip of the shell-hole before I poked my head out. Ahead, I saw distant guns trained on me. After a few seconds, the voice cried out “Okay, come on then”. Just then, there was a sharp crack and I felt something whizz past an inch from my ear. Ahead of me, a small spot of dirt was churned up. Sniper!. I broke into a sprint, and a Tommy jumped to his gun, but was mercifully pulled off by another soldier. A second shot whizzed past me, again coming sickeningly close, but by the time the Sniper was ready to make his third shot I had dove into the trenches head-first, crashing down hard and crying out in pain as I landed on my shoulder.
Wincing, I was pulled to my feet by an infantry Lieutenant, who immediately put a revolver to my stomach. I looked at him in shocked silence, and with a fierce look he said to me “We’ve been told to look out for pilots on the ground. A lot of spies going around, you know?”. Promptly I was whisked into a bunker dug out from the mud and sat at gunpoint in front of a thin, impossibly tired looking Captain.
“So, you say you’re an airman? Flying corps?”. I nodded, and he let out an ‘uh-huh’ with an air of disbelief. “What regiment?”. “Regiment…?” I repeated, confused, and he frowned, writing something down in a notebook. He then glanced back up at me, expectantly. “I’m in 24 Squadron, not a regiment” I explained, which seemed to set him at ease, slightly. “And how come you’re appearing out of the morning at our doorstep from Hunland?” he asked. “I was shot down. Yesterday, in a big scrap over Bethune. It must have been around six or seven in the morning”. He frowned, nodding slowly, and then turned back to his book, again jotting something down, before turning to the Lieutenant. “Who was sentry yesterday morning?” he asked. “Why, I think it was Privates Simmons and Wilkins”. “Fetch them, would you?”. “Sir”.
After fifteen minutes of intense stares, and a guard being posted at my back, two filthy Tommies were bustled in. The Captain looked at them, then gestured to me. “This man says he was shot down in an air fight yesterday morning, on the edge of Hunland. Did you see any fights?”. They looked at me with their eyes squinted, as if they could have recognised my face from the scrap. “Yeah, Sir, there was one scrap. Early-like, just after sunrise. A big one, too! About fifteen planes, I reckon. But I didn’t see any land, only fall”. The Captain placed a hand on his revolver, but then the other spoke. “No, you dolt, remember we saw one of our boys land on our side? And before that, one plane went spiralling down with a great big smoke trail, and two others followed? I only saw one flying away from that!”.
My face lit up. “That was me!” I cried, “It was me and two Huns! I’d just gotten one when the other hit my engine! He came right over me as I was landing!”. A long silence gripped the room, before eventually the Captain nodded. “24 Squdron, eh? Who’s your C.O?”. “Major Lanoe Hawker, Sir”. “Okay, I’ll telephone for him. Where abouts can I reach him?”. “Bertangles Aerodrome. The western field”.
I was briefly brought before a doctor to be checked over. After a brief, expertly precise examination, he removed his small half-moon glasses. “Well, son, you’ve been lucky. I’ve had one or two airmen brought to me after crashes, and…” he trailed off, staring past me for a moment, before snapping out of whatever memory he was in. “Anyway. You have a concussion, and it looks like you’ve sprained your shoulder when you tumbled in. Are you heading back to your squadron?”. I nodded. “Well, let me write your a C.O a note. You’ll need to sit the next couple days out, I think”. He wrote the note, and I stuffed it into the pocket of my tunic.
From the doctor’s office the same Lieutenant from before led me down the trench-lines towards the communications dugout. Some soldiers waved cheery hellos to me, others regarded me with disgust. “Cosy back there, is it?” one snarled at me, pointing into our lines as he said it. “Yes, but not up there” I responded, nodding my head upwards. He spat on the ground, as I clenched my fists, walking past him. The Lieutenant shot a quick ‘Shut up, you!” at him, and that was the end of it. At the phone, the Lieutenant asked the operator for my squadron, and had a brief exchange, before handing the phone to me. “They want a word”. I took the phone, breathing a heavy sigh. “Hello? Campbell”. On the other side of the line came Hawker’s relieved voice. “Campbell, thank god! We all thought you’d gone west, old boy! Why, we even held a funeral service for you this morning!”. “Oh, my apologies, sir, for not turning up”. The sound of his booming laugh on the other end of the line was a gift after my ordeal. “Well, I’ll send Powell out in a car right away. Where abouts are you?”. “Err…hang on a minute”. I covered the receiver and turned to the Lieutenant. “Where are we?” I asked, and he sighed in irritation and snatched the phone from me. “Trench map reference 10F71. Yes, near Albert. Yes. I’ll send him there. Thank you, sir”. He hung up, and turned to me. “Righto. Come on, we’ll get you in a truck for Albert. You’ll be picked up there by a Chauffeur at the foot of the Basilica”.
The drive out was short, but disturbing. In the front-cab of a Bedford we passed endless waves of Walking Wounded moving towards Albert on one side of the road, and nervous youthful replacements walking the other way, on the other side. Eventually I was dropped off in Albert, next to the foot of the grand Basilica that towered above the town. All around were scores of infantry, artillery pieces being towed by horse, supplies, red cross ambulances - a seemingly endless ocean of khaki. Something big is coming up I thought as I looked over the swell of soldiers. After a quiet two-hour wait, a car roared around the corner on two wheels, coming to a screeching stop in front of me. Happily, Powell leaned over and swung the door open for me. “‘Ello, Sir! You look ruff!” he chirped. Exhausted, I fell into the seat beside him. “Cheer up, fella!” he told me, as the car jumped forwards and shot through the waves of infantry (some of which had to throw themselves out of the way of the reckless Sergeant). “You could be one of these poor sods!”. I looked at him, shaking my head.
We raced up the road past Doullens and on to Vert Gallant at terrifying speed, before sharply turning onto the road that led through the town of Bertangles. The small, modest houses were dwarfed by the grandiose Chateau that gleamed in white in sunlight - the Headquarters for our group. I watched it sail past the window as we sped on towards the airfield. Turning onto our field, I shakily stepped out of the car.
Staring out over the field, I felt a sudden sense of a great pressure being relieved, and my knees went. I caught myself on the hood of the car, as Powell rushed to my side. “Steady on, sir! You’re okay!” he nervously said, helping me find my footing again. “Sorry. Thank you” I muttered, and after he was sure I was on my feet proper, he took a long look at me. “You’ve really had a rough one…” he said, and placed a cigarette in my mouth, lighting it for me, before patting me on the back and jumping back into the car, driving it off to be parked.
As I wandered into the mess, I found Wilkie reading the latest edition of Comic Cuts, and Andrews smoking his pipe. At my entry, their faces lit up. “Campbell! My word! We thought you were for it!” cried Wilkie, jumping up and shaking my hand. Andrews, from his chair, called out “Yes! I saw that Hun driving you down! Awfully sorry I couldn’t help, but I had one of my own. But, you must tell us how you managed to get back!”.
I slumped backwards into one of the armchairs. “Perhaps later, Andrews, I’m awfully tired. Have ‘B’ already gone up today?”. Andrews nodded. “We only had the one show today. Back in time for a morning cuppa!”. I smiled, letting myself sink backwards into the comfy chair. Suddenly, a thought occurred to me, and I turned back to Andrews with a start. “Freddy...where’s Freddy?”.
I felt my heart sink as Andrews gave me a sympathetic look, and Wilkie bowed his head. “Oh, I’m awfully sorry, Campbell...Foster’s gone West”.
I stared past him, as the room fell away. “Freddy’s...dead?” I whispered, and Wilkie put a hand on my shoulder. “We think he must have crashed in the dark, after he dropped out”. I felt tears welling in my eyes, but swallowing hard I forced them down. Freddy’s dead. I had thought that nothing would be able to kill the man - but to think that he had died in a simple flying accident…
“I can’t stand this bloody war” I whispered in a shaky voice, as Wilkie and Andrews looked at each other in concern.