I've been tied up with work, so it has been a job to get caught up with everyone. There have been some incredible stories over the past week. Fullofit, I think Gaston must have moved to Canada after the war, because that violet is the exact shade of every cheap motel room in the province of Quebec! And congratulations on Gaston's work in getting Violette down in one piece after that collision. That was a real nail-biter. Wulfe, you have so many great vignettes embedded in your stories. I loved Hawker's claims announcements, the trip across no man's land, and the line about missing his own funeral ("Apologies for not turning up"). Carrick, congratulations on the new Bebe! Lou, I love Odin's thunder. Reminds me of the aftermath of Indian food. And congratulations again on the bar to the MC, followed by three (count 'em, three) claims! Scout, best of luck with the DH2. MFair, I loved the leg-pull about the revolver. And heartiest congrats on the first confirmed victory!
Collins in back in the fray.
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins Part Thirty-Two: In which I get to know Clarke – and question myself
I was chuffed about moving to Bertangles. It was the thought of Amiens, just a few miles down the road – Amiens with its hotels and restaurants and bars, Amiens awash with khaki and coquettes. I longed to get a day off.
I awoke to a gentle drizzle and low cloud. April weather. Clarke was snoring. He was not due up until ten. Meahan showed up a few minutes later with the tea, and informed me that Captain Mealing was already over by the hangars and that we were indeed going up in this muck. Today our job was to drop bombs on a railway station north of Bapaume. Sergeant Bayetto showed up around the same time as me and Wilson, taking in tow his fresh-faced observer, a boy named Badley.
The flight itself was unremarkable, save for the strain of watching Mealing’s position in the cloud and low light. I left the Hun-watching to Wilson and flew stooped over the ridiculously short stick of the Morane. We dropped out of the cloud and Mealing winged over and led us down at the rail yard. The Huns had laid on more than the usual supply of annoyance. There were hundreds of soldiers milling around the edges of the yard and several machine gun positions. Three or four rounds slapped at the fabric of my right wing. The bombs landed in the midst of the crowd of men. We pulled away into the mist and were off for tea, leaving several dozen families to grieve their sons. The industrial scale of the murder was wearing on me.
Bayetto’s machine was damaged in that attack. His undercarriage snapped on landing. Bayetto was thrown clear, rolled several times, got up and brushed himself off. Young Badley was also thrown clear and broke his neck. No one really knew him, and I helped Chickering, his tent-mate, sort his effects. Badley’s greatcoat fit better than mine.
The days blurred together. Up before first light, and sometimes off the ground before sunrise. Rain every morning. Back for tea and eggs, lunch, and then off again. Only my log lets me piece the week together: bomb Bertincourt – chased off by Fokkers; bomb Hun lines near Fricourt – mix with more Fokkers without result; spot for the guns over Posières; hit station north of Bapaume – run from Fokkers; bomb positions east of Beaumont-Hamel – see nothing; spot for guns near Thiepval – no air Huns today.
" Up before first light..."
The afternoon of Wednesday, 5 April stands out. We’d returned at seven o’clock from Thiepval and I went straight to my tent after report. I’d barely been able to keep awake on the return flight. Clarke was off duty and asleep. I fell onto my cot and was asleep in seconds. Then it was half-past ten and warm under the sun-dappled canvas. I watched the flickering shadows of leaves on the canvas walls, brushed two earwigs from my valise.
“Hoskins is dead,” Clarke said from across the way. “Theobald too.”
They were both observers, and I didn’t know them well although they had been with us since Auchel. “What happened?” I asked.
“Hoskins’ machine caught a shell in front of Courcellette. Just disappeared. His pilot was that tall fellow.”
“I think that was him. Very tony accent.”
“Eggerton,” I said, and lit a cigarette.
Clarke sat up on the edge of the cot. “Just over a year ago I was in school – Charterhouse. My principal concern was making the first XI. Nobody died at cricket.” He laughed weakly. “Quite the thing, isn’t it?”
For some reason we both opened up. For the first time ever, I spoke about my parents’ weaknesses. My father was respected outside the home, but drank too much in it. My mother chided him mercilessly, and then drank too. My sister pretended nothing was wrong. And I played with my motorcycle. I missed my father. When he was fine he was a wonderful man. I was never close to my mother. “I worry a bit,” I said to Clarke, “that I am unable to feel all of this as I should.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“A couple of days ago I inherited a dead man’s coat. A man I drank with two nights before. A few days ago I dropped bombs into a crowd of men. And I don’t feel guilty. At least, I don’t feel guilty like I should. I’m not sure what I should feel, but I’m sure it’s not like this. I sleep. I get up. I have tea and a sandwich. And then I fly over Hunland to kill some fellows I’ve never met. And when I get back I want to go to town for drinks and dinner. It’s just strange, that’s all. Maybe I’ve switched off too many things in my life. Maybe I should be different.”
Clarke nodded. “I’m sure there will be time enough after the war to think about all that.”
“It would be nice to think so,” I replied.
We took off shortly after noon – Mealing’s machine, mine, and Bayetto’s. Two Bristols from 11 Squadron flew a thousand feet up to our rear, and Sergeant Bayetto and I shepherded Captain Mealing’s machine as he took photographs of the enemy defences around La Boisselle. I glanced over at Mealing and noticed something in the distance beyond his machine – three aircraft, closing fast. In seconds I could make out the razor-like line of an oncoming Fokker, followed by two mates. I fired a flare and we turned to meet the Huns.
The Bristols were more nimble and an exciting scrap began which lasted more than ten minutes and brought us from 6000 feet down to about 1000 feet. Wilson fired off a drum at a Hun that was trying to get behind a Bristol. And then it was over. I began to climb back to altitude, but just then a stray Fokker passed beneath us, trailing a thin wisp of smoke. I banked over and gave chase. The Hun’s engine was faltering and we gained on it quickly. Wilson swung his Lewis over the side and emptied a fresh drum at the Fokker. The enemy machine was passing over some ruins at the edge of Bapaume. I turned back at it while Wilson changed drums. We got another long burst at it and then the Hun disappeared among the rooftops. We climbed away, chased by small arms fire, and climbed eastward. Bayetto was gone but after several minutes of searching, I was relieved to see Mealing emerge overhead. We took station and headed home.
[i]"The Hun’s engine was faltering and we gained on it quickly."
Bayetto called in from Bellvue. He’d had a cylinder shot away and would return by nightfall. Captain Mealing had seen our Hun go down, so now Sergeant Wilson and I had accounted for three enemy machines. This was the first we had failed to bring down in our own lines.
Swanson came over to congratulate me graciously in the mess and we had a very mild binge, as there was a full day planned for the morrow.