Well, I'm finally back home, but real life is determined to keep me from WOFF for a little while. Over the next two weeks I'm on the road constantly with work, but I'm also planning to go with my business partner to the Indy 500 on the 25th. I'm still working through all the fine stories I've missed. I'll catch up slowly. To cover my absence and allow for a possible flight or two, Collins's story has taken a bit of a turn...
An Airman’s Odyssey – by James Arthur Collins
Part Thirty-Six: In which I am torn from my friends
I returned from Amiens the next afternoon before dinner. I’d planned to remain until later, but after spending a day walking about and shopping it began to feel a bit lonely and I craved the company of my mates in the squadron, so I phoned to arrange a drive back to Lahoussaye.
The fellows were already gathering in the flight mess, having become thoroughly bored after two long days of poker and vingt-et-un. To my absolute delight, Dalton had returned to us after his disappearance, having spent two days in the lines with an artillery unit and waiting for his machine to be recovered. I had a wonderful meal of sausage and potatoes in our little room at Madame Defossez’s Café de Progrès and then wandered over to the farmhouse that house the senior NCOs to invite Sgt Wilson for a stroll. He wasn’t much for sightseeing, but I’d bought him a nice bottle of cognac in Amiens and we walked down to the village church and sat in the back pews chatting out of the rain and sharing sips and rude jokes until the curé kicked us out. In a slightly slurred voice, drunkenly offered to confess his sins but the old priest seemed to lack the time for that, for he unceremoniously showed us the door.
I’d barely got back to my billet when a corporal knocked at the Poidevin house and told me I was wanted by the Major. A tender was waiting outside to carry me over to the field, where I reported to the squadron office. Major Harvey-Kelly was not wearing his usual kindly expression. I saluted and looked tentatively at the chair in front of his desk.
“Remain standing, Collins. This won’t take long,” he said. “With whom have you spoken?”
“What do you mean, sir?” I replied.
“Don’t play me for a fool, Collins. I have here an order to send you to Home Establishment.”
I had no firm idea at this time what Home Establishment meant and told him so. The Major blew up in my face. “If you’re tired of this war, Collins, I’ll find you a desk. But it will be a bloody isolated desk where fighting airmen won’t have to tolerate your bloody face. I’ve bloody had it with shirkers and strikers and cowards who seen this war as a holiday camp they can beg off at will.” He was quite beside himself.
It was my obvious shock that calmed him down, for I had absolutely no idea what was happening and told him so. To his credit, he settled down and invited me to sit.
“This comes from RFC HQ, he said. And I smell something political. Who do you know?”
“I’m a Canadian, sir,” I said. “No one I know has pull east of Montreal, and if they did have pull, I wouldn’t use it. I just want to fly.”
None of it mattered, though. It seemed I had orders to depart on 22 April for England and for a new squadron, 39, that was forming at Hounslow for the defence of London. I asked Major Harvey-Kelly to appeal the order or perhaps send one of the new chaps who needed more hours in the air before being sent to darkest Hunland. After all, I explained, it’s not as if I’m a flight commander. Swapping one second lieutenant for another should not be critical. He said he’d make a call but noted that – according to Wing – the order had originated at RFC HQ and change was unlikely. At least I’d have a couple more days on my little Morane. How would I tell Wilson? And what would I say to Jericho?
I flew on both 20 April and 21 April, four missions in all, and all in drizzle and cloud. On the morning of the 20th, my engine quit on me five minutes after takeoff and I was able to put down safely. I flew again that afternoon, this time leading Sergeant Bayetto on an artillery shoot. Again the engine quit, this time when Wilson and I were just short of the lines. We put down outside Millencourt, a village near Albert. As we settled into a rough field, a gust nearly flipped the Morane over and our left wingtip touched the ground and shattered. The machine spun about, nearly nosed over, and fell back with a splintering crash. Having acquired a guard for the machine from a local battalion of Seaforths and walked a half-mile to call the squadron from a village gendarmerie, Sergeant Wilson and I were invited by a local farmer to come into his modest house for some bread and cheese and wine. To our great surprise, the man and his wife had some basic English and between that and my grammar school French, we had a very pleasant couple of hours. We paid the couple for their trouble, an offer that touched off a long argument, but Wilson had drunk two bottles of the man’s vin rouge and I had helped with another so we insisted. I hope only that it will make amends for the fact that my tipsy observer paused outside to pee as we left and in so doing, he disturbed one of the poor couple’s chickens.
"As we settled into a rough field, a gust nearly flipped the Morane over and our left wingtip touched the ground and shattered."
On 21 April we flew twice, both times to drop Hales bombs on Hun positions south of Bapaume, and both times without event. Back at Lahoussoye, I had a surprisingly emotional reaction to bidding farewell to Wilson. Jericho was off on a patrol so I couldn’t say good-bye to him in person and left a note. I packed and with great sadness took my leave of the Poidevin family and of Dalton, who was reading in their small parlour. I left Dalton my gramophone and wandered over to the café to settle my mess bill. Then I was driven to the field to pick up my travel papers. Still no change had been made in my orders. I was instructed to fly a superannuated BE2 from St-Omer to Farnborough, and then report directly to Hounslow.
It was damnable, because I’d been out in France three months and in the normal course of events would be due for some home leave. Thanks to the new posting that had likely been put off indefinitely. At best I’d get a day or two off.
I departed for St-Omer before dinner. The rain was falling in sheets again and we picked our way along rutted roads northwards.