MFair - Indeed, sounds like Jericho needs to get away from the front. I can't blame him. It's hard enough going up in the N11, never mind a Morane! That's a close call with those four Eindeckers - good thing Jericho's an old hand. Sounds like your observer was a little lucky! Here's hoping he gets patched up in due time.
Carrick - close call there! Good job knocking down two Bosches, but a shame that one of your boys went down in the process.
Fullofit - Ah, Le Violet has returned, and is back to his scoring ways! Here's hoping that No. 28 gets confirmed. That is one brutal name for the poor sod that'll be flying on Gaston's wing - hopefully the next 'Chausette' manages to stay paired up for a while
Sgt. James B. Fullard, Escadrille N.31, Ochey Aerodrome, France.
May 19th 1916:
“Sacrebleu, are we getting up this early every day?” Quinchez asked, as Georges handed him a mug of cocoa with an apologetic smile. “Very sorry sir, but you are scheduled for the dawn patrol”. I fastened the buttons on my horizon-blue tunic, tilting my head up and fumbling at the two infuriating neck clasps at the collar.
“Want a hand?” Quinchez asked. “No thanks, I’ve nearly…..there. All done”. As he packed his pipe, Quinchez looked over at me inquisitively. “Say, Fullard. How come you all keep telling me to stay out of fights with the Bosche?”. I sighed, pausing to roll myself a cigarette and lighting a match. After exhaling a thin plume of grey-blue smoke, I responded. “I arrived from the G.D.E with a friend of mines, the man that used to occupy your cot. On our first patrol, he dove his Nieuport into the ground while chasing the tail of a Fokker. The first time I ever encountered a Biplace, I was nearly shot dead. Soon enough we’ll welcome an extra man in a fight, but for now it’s better to watch. To learn”.
He nodded, becoming lost in thought. Flashing him a smile, I patted him on the shoulder. “Come on then, let’s go find out where they’re sending us today”.
In the mess we found Jensen and Devienne. I nodded a greeting to them as we entered, and Jensen grunted a response. As I sat down, Devienne pushed a plate of stacked-up buttered toast in my direction. “Did you hear, Ortoli is claiming your Fokker from yesterday?”. In between chews I shrugged. “Well, we both fired at the same time, and both hit. It could have been his. By any means, he deserves it for getting through all that artillery fire”. Devienne nodded. “He did seem a little shaken last night, didn’t he?”.
Jensen, who had been studying a map of the front, now flicked his gaze upwards at the three of us. “ɢᴏᴏᴅ ɴᴇᴡs. ᴡᴇ'ʀᴇ ɴᴏᴛ ɢᴏɪɴɢ ᴛᴏ ᴛʜᴇ ғʀᴏɴᴛ ᴛᴏᴅᴀʏ. ᴡᴇ'ʟʟ ʙᴇ ᴘᴀᴛʀᴏʟʟɪɴɢ ᴏᴠᴇʀ ᴛᴏᴜʟ”. I raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure that is good news, Jensen. You know what Bosche machine comes as far back as far back as Toul”. The hulking Dane ran a thumb across his lip as he considered this. “ᴡᴀʟғɪsᴄʜ? ʜᴍ. ʏᴏᴜ ᴍɪɢʜᴛ ʙᴇ ʀɪɢʜᴛ. ɪɴ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴄᴀsᴇ, ɪ ᴡᴀɴᴛ ᴜs ᴀʟʟ ᴛᴏ sᴛᴀʏ ᴄʟᴏsᴇ. ᴡᴇ ᴅᴏɴ'ᴛ ᴀᴛᴛᴀᴄᴋ ᴜɴʟᴇss ɪ sɪɢɴᴀʟ ɪᴛ”. Hastily, Devienne and I had agreed. Being among the unlucky few to have fought the new German type, we were in no great rush to repeat the act.
On the flight line, the scarlet of Devienne’s upper wing shone brilliantly against the dewy, muted green of the gently rolling grass. As we made for our machines, I stopped Quinchez in his tracks. He looked at me with a faint smile, which quickly faded when he saw the seriousness in my face. “Quinchez. Do you think you can fight in the air?”. His chest swelled. “Mais oui, of course! If we meet le Bosche, I won’t disappoint”. I nodded slowly. “Alright. If we see the Bosche, come in behind me and find yourself a target. But don’t forget to keep looking behind you. And if we run into Rolands, you fly straight back here. No excuses. Okay?”. He frowned. “But, what i-” “No excuses”.
His emerald-green, piercing eyes met my gaze, as he drew himself up to his full height. With a look of focus, he repeated - “No excuses”.
After we were all aboard our machines and airborne, Jensen climbed lazily around Ochey, bringing our flight up to 8,000 feet before turning towards Toul. At my back, Quinchez’ machine followed intently, every movement fluid and measured. He was anticipating his first fight. Behind him, at the rear of our formation, Devienne lazily swayed from side to side. Occasionally the side of his helmet flashed in his windscreen as he checked behind us for impending danger.
As we approached Toul, two shapes appeared from the North. Tensely, I glanced over at Jensen. He had seen them too, and was keeping his eyes firmly fixed on them. We approached from below, and the shapes took form. Aviatiks. Immediately Jensen gave the signal to climb. As one, we lifted our noses up to give chase. The two German machines split apart, each turning for the front in a desperate bid to escape. Like wolves, we stalked one of the now-alone Bosche, and I crept underneath his tail, firing a long burst into him before curving away to a flank. As I looked back, I saw Quinchez take up position behind the Aviatik and start firing. Careful, stay under his tail… I willed him in his head, watching anxiously as the tracers flashed into the Bosche machine.
Quinchez did well, and not once did he give the Bosche observer a shot, but his aim was lacking and, despite scoring some good hits, the Bosche flew on. I couldn’t help but smile as Quinchez imitated me, curving away to a flank in a descending spiral, avoiding return fire from the Aviatik. I settled onto the tail of the German again and fired a second burst, but in a flash of panic realised that he was going much slower than I had anticipated. Planning to sail underneath the Aviatik, I continued firing.
It was then that it happened. In an instant, with no warning, the Aviatik pitched sharply down. With a cry of terror I threw the stick forwards with such force that the safety straps bit into my shoulders agonisingly. Time seemed to slow as the horizon tilted, and with my mouth agape I looked up at the belly of the Aviatik, close enough to touch. I saw the tears and holes left by our bullets, the spats of red that had soaked through the bottom of the observer’s cockpit. From the side of the fuselage hung the limp arm of the observer, the glimmer of a watch-face around its wrist flashing in the light.
The bracing wires of my nieuport screamed out in fervent protest as we fell, completely vertical. The Aviatik was keeping pace with my own plummeting machine, blocking me from pulling out of the dive. Almost in a daze of horror and overpowering fear, I watched the fabric begin to tear on the wings. It was then that some animalistic instinct, some base desire, to stay alive, took dominion over my body, as I kicked the rudder hard to the right, yanking the stick to follow and quarter-rolling my Nieuport, before pulling back on the stick and tearing myself out of the dive.
There was a horrendous groaning sound that I felt, rather than heard, as my little Nieuport suffered under the force, and with a sickening jolt I watched as the lower left wing buckled slightly, the Vee-strut splintering and cracking. For a few moments I flew numbly along. The entire ordeal had been two, maybe three seconds long. It felt a lifetime. Feeling nausea rise, I leaned over the right side of the cockpit, expecting to be sick over the side. As I did, I saw the last white flashes of the Aviatik as it broke apart in its own death-dive, the tail whipping violently back and forth as the wings shed themselves one-by-one. I hastily looked away before the German machine hit the ground.
My hands trembling violently, I turned back towards Ochey, cutting the throttle as low as I could afford to in fear of the damaged lower wing being torn away completely. “Okay. You’re okay, Fullard. Get a grip. There’s an airfield at Toul. Land there” I told myself. It wasn’t long before I spotted the airfield. In confusion, I noticed that the artillery guns were firing. Looking up, I saw the remaining Aviatik, making his solemn trip towards the lines. In careful, agonisingly slow circles, I descended. Looking over my shoulder, I noticed that another Nieuport was following me down. Turning to focus on my landing, I tried vainly to steady my hands as the ground rushed up towards me. No sooner had my wheels touched the ground when there was a spark at my nose, followed by a horrible shaking as splatters of oil obscured my windscreen. I quickly switched the magneto off as my machine ground-looped to a halt.
I was staring forwards, my face blank, as the mechanic ran up to my side, whistling loudly and flicking water from his fingertips. “Là! Là! Là! Là! But I have never seen such a close call!”. I didn’t respond to him. He slightly frowned, stepping up on the fuselage stirrup and looking into my cockpit. “Are you hurt?” he asked. Snapping out of my daze, I turned to face him. “No...no, I’m…” I stammered, shakily rising from the cockpit. With an expression of sympathy worn on his face, the mechanic helped me down from my cockpit. At the same time, the second nieuport came in to land, and I saw the Greek Archer on its side. It was Quinchez.
As his Nieuport rolled to a stop, he practically threw himself from the cockpit and came sprinting over to me, tearing off his flying helmet and casting it aside as he ran. “Fullard! Are you okay! Are you hit?!” he was frantic as he arrived at my side. “I’m okay, Quinchez. I have no idea how…”.
After handing me a cigarette and finding me a wooden crate to sit on, Quinchez and the mechanic inspected my machine. Calming slightly, but still shaken, I could now see just how lucky I was. The lower left wing was bent at a sickening angle, sweeping back from the fuselage and only being affixed to the upper planes by the warped and twisted strut. A large section of fabric hung loose from the upper wing, and there were several exposed ribs on the fuselage. Weakly, I called out to the mechanic, “Can you fix her? I need to get back to my squadron”. The mechanic sadly shook his head. “Monsieur, this coucou will never fly again. It’s a miracle you landed her in the first place”.
I sat out on the aerodrome, nervously smoking my cigarette and watching the mechanics wheel my battered machine to the side of the Bessoneaux. Quinchez, contented that I was in good hands, patted me on the shoulder. “We sure showed that Bosche a thing or two, eh? I’d better head back to Ochey. I’ll let de Villeneuve know you’re safe”. He jumped back up into his Nieuport and called a mechanic over to swing his prop. A sudden thought popped into my head, and I jumped to my feet, rushing over to his cockpit.
“Quinchez! Tell them to send a crew for my machine!” “What? Why? Mon ami, she’s dead!” “The hell she is! Send a crew. Thierry can fix her up”. “...I’ll do what I can”.
I watched as Quinchez taxied around to the end of the airfield, before racing down its length and lifting up again into the sky.
Pierre arrived in his little Fiat roughly an hour after Quinchez’ departure, arriving onto the aerodrome in his usual terrifying promptness. Stepping out of the car, he flashed me a wide grin as he beckoned me over. “Fullard, mon ami Americain! Been a while since I’ve had to come and fetch you! What did you manage to do this time?”. Weakly, I climbed into the passenger seat, not meeting Pierre’s gaze. With every blink I was in that death-dive again, staring upwards at the dead German observer’s watch. It had looked expensive - the strap was silver. From the way it had rattled against his lifeless wrist, it needed a link removed. I found a distant fascination that I should even remember such a detail, during what I was sure was my final moment alive.
Climbing into the driver’s seat next to me, Pierre cast a glance my way as he started up the motor. “It was bad this time?” he asked me quietly, a surprising tone of maturity and wisdom in his voice. I stared down at my hands, which still quivered slightly. “I’m not sure what kept me alive”.
Unusually, Pierre was conservative with his driving as we rolled down the country lanes towards Ochey. We sat in silence for the journey, and Pierre walked with me to the door of my barracks. He clapped a hand onto my shoulder. “You’ll feel better once you’ve got some sleep tonight. See you around”.
“Thank you, Pierre”.
The door swung open to reveal the redheaded bear-like shape of Lemoine, sitting alone at the mess table. From behind a pair of half-moon reading glasses his eyes traced the pages of a tattered book he held in his hands. I took a seat at the end of the table, and Lemoine glanced up towards me. I met his gaze, and for a moment we sat, neither of us uttering a word.
Slowly, Lemoine set his book down on the table, before reaching into the pocket of his tunic, producing his hip-flask, and, without breaking the silence, passing it over to me.
At suppertime, there was a celebration in the mess. Ortoli had received credit for the Eindecker. Loudly he bragged about how he had shot the Hun dead as he stood on his tail, before showing his contempt to the German artillery gunners by dropping into their range and putting on a show for them, stunting all the way back to the lines. Devienne shook his head quietly on the corner of the table, before shooting me a glance. I shrugged, and he bit back a smile. Mid-speech, Ortoli was interrupted by the arrival of Messier, France’s most detested orderly. “Oh, dammit, what do you want?” Ortoli blurted out, to the background noise of boos and hisses. Narrowing his snakelike eyes, Messier held up his hands in mock-surrender. “I’m only here to congratulate the Squadron Ace!”. Immediately the noise fell away. “Squadron ace?” Chaput asked, an eyebrow raised. “Oui. Him”. I looked up and saw that Messier was pointing at me. “They found your Biplace at Toul. Lieutenant de Villeneuve offers his congratulations. Keep it up, Fullard”. A great cheer erupted around the table. From the far end, Lemoine cried out “To l’As Americain!”, raising his glass into the air.