Sgt. James Bradley Fullard, Esc. N.31, Ochery Aerodrome, France.
April 11th, 1916 (Part 1).
After meeting the Squadron Commander last night, we headed to the simple comforts of the Mess for supper. There, we had the chance to meet some of the new pilots, who were seemingly anxious to get a good look at us.
There was Sergent Ortoli, a tall, dark-skinned pilot with a receding hairline and deep-set eyes who was from the French-owned island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. Despite his ungainly appearance, Ortoli had a razor-sharp wit, always with a well-timed sarcastic remark ready for any comment. Beside him at the table sat Emile Devienne, standing at only five feet and two inches tall, with a youthful, unshaven and terribly frail appearance and, rarely, no moustache (although I had the impression that this was not by choice).
Caporal Jensen was a curious fellow, not French in fact, but Danish. Jensen had actually been a Civil pilot before the outbreak of war, and had immediately had volunteered at its outbreak. He was a bulky, well built man in his thirties, of average height, who sported a short, middle-parted head of dark brown hair. He had also adopted the ‘French Look’, a thick, squared off moustache, and the accent with which he spoke French was just as bizarre as the one he spoke English with. Jensen was the type to treat everything said with dead seriousness, and to overlook a joke. In among a squadron of rowdy Frenchmen, all displaying their subtly crafted humor, I soon found out that this made for superb entertainment.
At the head of the table sat Theophile Lemoine, a wide, portly pilot with red hair to match his alcohol-reddened nose. He clearly had a penchant for wine - the stuff seemed to vanish down his gullet en masse throughout the course of the night, and his loud statements were interrupted by the occasional hiccup. I noticed, to my distaste, that he had a nasty habit of wiping his hands on his unkempt tunic. Of all the pilots in the squadron, I was the least interested in Lemoine.
Sitting beside me, was Sergent Jean Chaput. Emanating confidence as he freely and carelessly made jokes and smalltalk with the other pilots, he had a roguish, perpetually smiling face underneath a mess of cropped black hair. Something about the easy fluidity of his gestures, the unassuming smile, the slow blinking of the eyelids as his wine glass danced in his hand, hinted at his skill in the air. It seemed implacable, but somehow I knew the man would be a killer, if he was not already.
And, of course, there was Victor Vertadier, with his curled moustache, his somehow messily-combed hair, and his upturned blue eyes, at the corners of which laugh-lines subtly showed. Ours was a merry band, and one night only was enough for me to feel that I was at home. After we had eaten our supper, Vertadier and I retired down the thin hallway to our rooms, intent on getting a good night’s rest before our first outing in the hostile skies of France, but, naturally, we were both far too excited for sleep.
I was gently shaken awake this morning by Georges, who left Victor and I with a plate of neatly-stacked buttered toast, before softly announcing “Gentlemen, you’re on escort duty in an hour’s time”. I checked my wristwatch - 7:15. With a spring in our step we threw our uniforms on and darted down the thin hallway into the mess. There we found Lemoine, sprawled out on a seat at the table, his head in his hands. “Là, Là, Là, I drank too much” he was muttering to himself, before noticing our arrival and trying (unsuccessfully) to make himself look presentable. “Okay, new ones, here’s how it is!” he said to us in his booming, grating voice. “Today one of our Two-Seaters needs to take some photographs at St. Mihiel. You two will be escorting him, and I’ll be chasing your tails to make sure le Bosche don’t get you on your first day. Got it?”. We both nodded. “Good! Now, come and see your machines”.
We followed Lemoine as he plodded towards one of the wooden hangars, and as we entered we saw four mechanics lost in focus, working on a pair of stunningly sleek Nieuport scouts. “Hey, you greasy dogs! Come and meet your new Pilotes!” he called at them, and as one they swung around to face us.
“There’s two mechanics for every machine,” Lemoine explained to us. “This one is yours, Fullard, and Vertadier, this machine belongs to you”. I looked, awestruck, at the Nieuport scout, running a hand softly down the side of the outer V-strut. The mechanic, leaning against its fuselage, grinned. “Beautiful, no? The Nieuport 11 ‘Bebe’. These coucous are unmatched in the sky, by German or English!”. I nodded, slowly, my eyes still on my machine. “I’m Thierry Durand, your Chief Mechanic. This one behind me” - he gestured to a small and very youthful mechanic, clean-shaven, with a leather cap on, “is Alexander Astier, my assitant - but, we call him Souris”. The young mechanic gave me a lazy salute.
At 8 O’Clock, after we had donned our flying coats and helmets, I watched Thierry and Souris lazily wheel my machine out onto the line. Victor and I were buzzing in anticipation of our first flight, while Lemoine stood lazily beside us, smoking a cigarette and occasionally stealing a swig from a hip flask he kept in his breast pocket. Rolling back his sleeve, he checked his wristwatch and then patted us on the back. “Okay, come on then,” he said, and we trailed behind him like ducklings as he strode onto the field.
Beside the larger Nieuport 12, the two-seat machine that sat by our scouts, stood a pilot and his observer. “Morning Tartaux, Bertillan,” Lemoine said to them, before climbing up deftly into his machine. They grunted a response. Victor and I then boarded our machines, pulling our flying goggles over our faces, as our mechanics prepared to swing our props. Just before swinging my prop, Thierry winked at me and happily chirped “Bon Voyage, Monsieur!”.
We followed the Nieuport 12 up, with Lemoine tailing us, and as we climbed I felt a thrill coursing through my veins. This was it! In my head I pictured the enemy machines I knew of - the Fokker Monoplane, which looked like a Morane Bullet, only with a squared Fuselage, and the Aviatik - the large, ungainly two-seater. At every second as we flew towards St. Mihiel I expected to see scores of them.
The wind was strong, and in the N.11s we struggled to climb above our Biplace colleague, but we managed to struggle up above him despite the ferocious Headwind. As we flew, the N.12 made a series of sharp turns, almost as if he were trying to lose us, and I figured that the pilot must be testing us, to see if he could trust us to watch his back. Eager not to disappoint, I followed his sharp manoeuvres, and eventually, seemingly satisfied, he straightened out North.
My exhilaration grew as we reached the front - an endless mass of churned-up mud, in which busted-up vehicles, tanks, endless rows of barbed wire, ruined buildings, destroyed trees, stretched on for infinite miles, accented by long lines of trenches and countless bright flashes, as artillery shells rained down. From out of the dust and smog rose a ruined city, St. Mihiel, what buildings remained standing jutted out from the earth like rotten teeth protruding from brown, infected gums. It was my first time seeing the war in person, and it was breathtaking. In my muted awe I nearly lost sight of the N.12, and I hurriedly rushed my Nieuport back to its side as we sailed out into No-Mans-Land.
We reached our target, and below me I could see the Observer reach for a small camera, leaning precariously over the side of his cockpit and photographing the lines below. Surely, the Bosche must come now! I thought, and scanned the horizons. To my disappointment, I saw nothing. I looked up - and nearly jumped out of my seat in surprise, for above us circled two large Biplanes, their dull grey outlining them in the blue sky. And - yes! On their lower wings, Crosses! They were Germans!
Hungrily, I waited for them to drop down, only to be shocked again when they promptly turned for home. Cowards! I thought, as disappointment rose up in me. Then - as I watched them - three more shapes appeared, looming above us as they seemed to materialise from out of the cloud. But, these were not the same types. They were smaller, flat-winged, razor-like...and they had no upper planes. Eindeckers.
I watched, a grin breaking out across my face, as almost in perfect unison the three Eindeckers pushed their noses down, falling in a dive towards the N.12. Looking behind me at Victor, I pointed upwards at them, and he strained his eyes, screwing up his mouth as he looked for what I had seen. No time to keep my eyes on him and make sure he’d spotted them - I was about to have my first air combat!
Two abruptly broke off their attack at the sight of us, but one came straight at me, and I turned in towards the attack. The Bosche zoomed over my head at blinding speed, and I circled around to face him once more. Now Victor saw him, and he, too, turned to join the attack. We circled with the insolent Eindecker, jockeying for position and trying to get on each-other’s tails. The Nieuport had the faster turn, and soon I was behind him. Wildly I fired at him, laughing as I did so, and he rolled onto his back and looped away. There were two yellow-white flashes at my side as both Victor and Lemoine shot after him, diving at impossible speeds, and I followed.
We took turns shooting at the Bosche, fighting over him, and at last he dove towards the ground with a Nieuport on his tail, before falling into a spin. I cried out in excitement as I saw the yellow machine crash into the earth, and immediately I looked around for my comrades. Out ahead of me, one Nieuport was flying very low to the ground, towards our lines. I followed his tail, excitement and adrenaline firing up within me, and we headed back to Ochey. We landed, and Lemoine appeared from within the Nieuport ahead of me. Still grinning, I jumped out of the cockpit and ran over to him. “That was incredible!” I cried, and he shook his head, lighting up a cigarette. “Not for Vertadier,” he said bluntly, and my smile faded. Whipping around on my heels, I realised that Victor was absent.
“What? But, where is he?” I asked meekly, and Lemoine sighed, blowing smoke from his nose. “The poor fool killed himself chasing that Fokker right down into the ground”. The ground felt as if it had dropped beneath me, as I was immediately sobered from my euphoria. “Dead…?” I echoed, and Lemoine patted me once on the back. “It’s a shame, Mon Ami, but C’est la Guerre.” With that, he strolled off back towards the mess.
Two hours passed, with no sign of Victor, or the Nieuport Two-Seater. In the mess I found Lemoine sitting over a bowl of soup, chatting idly to Ortoli and Jensen. As I closed the door behind me, Ortoli beckoned me over. “So, Fullard, you had your first scrap?” Sitting opposite him, I miserably nodded. He studied my face for a moment, then nodded in understanding. “Lemoine told us about Vertadier. It’s a pity. Were you friends?”
“Yes, but I only knew him a month” I responded. “ ᴀ ᴍᴏɴᴛʜ? ” Jensen repeated. “ ᴛʜᴀᴛ’s ᴀ ʟɪғᴇᴛɪᴍᴇ ғᴏʀ ᴀ ᴘɪʟᴏᴛᴇ ᴅᴇ ɢᴜᴇʀʀᴇ ”. Ortoli and Lemoine grunted in agreement. At that point, the door flew open with a slam, and in its frame stood a furious looking Lt. Auger. “Lemaire!” he barked, and the portly Sergeant shot up in his seat. “My office. Now”. With a fearful glance at us, Lemaire dragged his heels out towards the door, as Auger stood, red faced, waiting, before slamming the door once again behind him. I looked inquisitively at Ortoli. “He was supposed to look after you - and make sure the N.12 came home”. I reddened. “But, weren’t we supposed to do that?”. Ortoli shrugged. “Well, it’s the Lieutenant’s fault. He shouldn’t be sending new pilots to St. Mihiel, much less on escort jobs. It’s not an easy place to fly, le Bosche come at you from the North and the East”.
I peered back at the door, now stood still, and thought of unlucky old Victor, lying in a heap in the cockpit of his broken machine. It was at that point that I started to realise the nature of the work ahead of me.