Lederhosen - sounds tense! I wonder if it wasn't an ace you ran into...
Sgt. James B. Fullard, Esc. N31, Ochey Aerodrome, France.
April 12th, 1916.
At first light I bade farewell to the men of Escadrille C.66, and, after having my route marked on my map by one of their pilots, I took off once more into the icy rain, and by 7 O'Clock I was back at Ochey. Taxiing my Nieuport up to the side of its hangar, I saw Thierry shaking his head in disgust, and gave him an apologetic grin as I climbed out of the cockpit. “Sorry, Thierry, I got lost yesterday in the dark”. “Who cares about that!” he cried, as Souris appeared to help him wheel the drenched machine into the hangar, “Look at her - she’s soaked through! Are you trying to kill my machine?!”.
After a lengthy apology, and a begrudging acceptance on Thierry and Souris’ part, I made for my Barracks, miserably pushing the door open. “Là! Là! you’re soaked!” came Lemoire’s voice as I squelched into the mess, and I looked up to see him and Devienne at the table, both wearing schoolboy grins. As I fell heavily into the chair at the head of the table, Lemoire passed me a cigarette. “You’ll catch your death up there, flying in that rain!” he crooned, as Devienne snickered behind his hand, lowering it to add “Well, now we know it’s temps aéronautique. I’m going back to bed”. As he disappeared through the door into the corridor, Lemoire called after him “Bonne nuit, little Devienne!”.
Lighting my cigarette for me, and striking a match for his own, Lemoire slouched down into his chair. “Well? Did you find our Biplace?” he asked, with a disinterested sigh. I told him we hadn’t. “Ah. C'est dommage” he said quietly, almost to himself, as he took a swig from his faithful hip flask. We sat in quiet for a moment, before he slapped his arms against his sides and declared “Well! I’m off to bed”.
I trudged back to my room, changing (again) out of my wet clothes and into a spare uniform, before lying on my cot and listening to the faint tap-tap-tap of the rain against the tar-paper roof, and the faint snores coming from the other rooms. Slowly, I dozed off, only stirring again at the sound of my door opening. As my eyes flitted open I saw that it was Georges. “Don’t mind me,” he whispered, as he stooped down and removed Victor’s duffle-bag from under the bed, slinging it over his shoulder before taking the spare uniform down from the wall-hook above Victor’s cot. With the items in hand, he hobbled out and left me in peace once more, the methodical click of his cane disappearing down the hallway.
It wasn’t until lunchtime that the pilots started showing signs of life. I heard heavy footsteps emerge from behind one of the doors, and from another came Lemoire’s cry of “Listen to that row! Jensen’s awake!”. From the room beside me, Ortoli called back “Ah! I thought it was a thunderstorm”. A few chuckles came from other rooms. Deciding I’d allowed myself to lounge for long enough, I dragged myself to my feet and wandered down the corridor, bumping into little Devienne as he came out of his own room. One by one, the NCOs of Escadrille 31 gathered around the table - as Lemoire appeared in a set of blinding orange and blue pyjamas, there was an uproar of laughter - and we chatted idly among ourselves as we waited for the Cooks to prepare lunch.
Ortoli, who had seemed to develop a liking (or at least an interest) for me, sat next to me. “Well, Fullard, how are you getting on?” he asked, and I sighed. “Not so well, actually. War flying is a lot different than I had expected. Already, I’ve been lost in the dark and rain and I’ve lost a friend”. He looked surprised, his eyebrows raising underneath his sparse hairline. “But, Mon Ami, surely you didn’t expect to come to war and not encounter death?” he asked. “No, no, I knew that that would be part of it. Just - Victor and I were so excited to finally be sent to a squadron. And, I suppose, I never thought that he might die”.
Ortoli ran a thumb across his lip. “Hm. I understand what you mean. But, C’est la Guerre, you will get used to it, sadly. Before you there was a fellow named Cormier, a really friendly sort, and a brilliant pilote. He joined us in January, and by the end of the month he was the life of the Mess hall. Four days before you arrived, he was shot in the neck while chasing an Aviatik, dead before he hit the ground. And it’s not just him! N.31 has lost 4 aviateurs in the past two months, and now poor Tartaux and...Vertadier, it was? Yes, him too. It is always sad, of course, but what is there to do but carry on? If we dwell on our dead friends, their bad luck, or our good luck and near-misses, how can we cope, mon ami? Jensen over there has had it the worst - he’s been with N.31 since the beginning, when we had only Morane L’s. He’s seen more aviateurs lost than any of us”.
He produced a pipe, packing it and lighting it with a match, before inhaling deeply and becoming lost in thought, as I turned his words over in my head. I was sad that Victor had died, but I realised that Ortoli was right. What was the point in dwelling on his death? It did me no good.
For lunch we had eggs and ham, served alongside buttered rolls and cocoa, which we hungrily lapped up. Across the way, Chaput called out “Lemoire, who was flying with Tartaux yesterday?”. With a mouthful of food, Lemoire replied “Oh, it was, err...I don't remember. Ah! Mais oui, it was Bertillon!”. Chaput’s face contorted. “No! Ah, Bertillon! Such a shame, he was an A-1 fellow”. There were murmurs of agreement. “So, you saw nothing at all yesterday, Fullard?” Ortoli asked me, as the pilots turned expectantly towards me. “Nothing” I replied, to mumbled disappointment.
At that moment the door to the mess opened, inviting in an icy draft that was met with cries of protest, as in stepped a wiry Orderly, dripping wet. Immediately at his appearance came shouts of irritation from the pilots. “What are you doing here, Messier? Can’t you see the weather? Go away!” cried Lemoire, throwing a bread roll at the orderly, who expertly sidestepped it. With his arms folded, he tapped his foot until the abuse subsided.
“You know,” Messier said with a glare, “I only tell you the roster assignments. I don’t come up with them”. There was a series of boos, as Ortoli responded “Bad enough! Out with it then, you gloom merchant!”. Messier unfolded his arms and stuck them in his pockets. “Well, don’t worry, you delicate flowers, only one of you has to go up today. The C.O. wants a replacement Biplace, and he has said that you, Lemoire, can be the one to fetch it from Le Bourget, seeing as it was under your care when it went missing”. The other pilots howled with laughter as Lemoire bolted upright out of his chair, slamming his hands down on the table. “What!” he cried, his face turning nearly as red as his hair, “How does he expect me to even fly in this storm, never mind all the way back from Le Bourget! And in a Nieuport 12, no less!”. Messier shrugged. “Those are your orders. Pierre will be waiting for you in the fiat”. With that, he promptly disappeared back out into the rain, with another blast of cold air.
Chaput, Ortoli and little Devienne were clutching their sides in a choking fit of hilarity, and even I couldn’t help but burst out laughing, at the sight of an enraged Lemoire storming off into the corridor in his dazzling pyjamas, slamming the door to his room behind him. Five minutes later (the laughter hadn’t quite died down yet) he reappeared in his powder blue uniform. “Merde! I should write my will!” he cried out as he opened the door, looking out onto the soaked aerodrome. “Get on with it, and get that door closed!” Ortoli yelled at him, as another buttered roll went flying, this time aimed for Lemoire's head. This one found its mark, and I wondered if Ortoli was as accurate with a Lewis.
The remainder of the day passed much the same, with me slowly getting to know the colleagues that I would be spending my each and every day with. Through our idle conversations, I decided that I liked them. They, too, were fond of me - but I wasn’t one of them yet. As I found out through their idly told stories, these men had been fighting and bleeding together for months. Those that sat around me now had mourned the loss of many other colleagues of theirs, and it was their losses that forged their bonds. Lemoire arrived back at around Four O’Clock, just before suppertime, soaked to the bone and pale-white with fear, making his red hair stand out marvellously against his face. As he told us over supper, the harrowing flight back in the Nieuport 12 had taken two hours, and he had flown at near stall-speed for the entire journey. “Man, if I had not kept full concentration for even a second, old Lemoire would be bound for the Cemetery!” he cried out to us, to the response of laughter and exaggerated pity.
I finished the day by penning a letter to my brother, Michael, asking him how his air-war was going and telling him the details of my first day at the front. Although I didn't know where, or even how, to send the letter, I felt better for writing it, and trusted that Ortoli or one of the others could help me get it to Michael. As I climbed into my cot that night, lying down alongside Victor’s neatly-made, unoccupied bunk, I fancied that I was an old hand at War Aviation, even though it was only the end to my second day at the Escadrille, and I hadn't even flown. How naive - there were many, many lessons yet to learn.
All missions scrubbed until the 16th, due to the weather! Drat!