Adj. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.31, Ochey Aerodrome, France.
May 27th 1916:
I was sitting down to breakfast when Messier entered through the door to the Barracks from out of the rain. Removing his cap and ignoring the obligatory hail of insults, he turned to me. “Fullard. The C.O. needs to see you at once. Come on - grab your coat”. I did so and followed the Orderly out onto the aerodrome, down the path to the C.O’s building. As Messier pushed the door open, I asked “any idea what this is about?”. He simply shrugged, before beckoning me inside. De Villneuve sat behind his desk, his hands steepled as he regarded me with a look of deep contemplation on his face. Finally, he spoke. “Have a seat, Fullard”. I obliged, and de Villeneuve offered me a cigarette. I accepted, and he struck a match, lighting his own cigarette and then my own.
“I have good news for you. You’ve been promoted to Adjutant”. My face lit up. Adjutant! Wait until Michael hears! “Thank you, sir!” I cried, but was halted by a wave of de Villeneuve’s hand. “With your new rank will come a new assignment. From now on, you are to fly a Nieuport 12, and will be taking reconnaissance photographs. Immediately my excitement turned to ashes. “....sir?”.
“I know that’s probably not what you want to hear, but you must understand how vitally important reconnaissance work is. As a Commissioned Officer, I expect you to carry out these missions consistently, and effectively. Your observer will be Caporal Lefevre. You will be able to meet him today before your scheduled mission”. Sympathy flashed for a moment in de Villeneuve’s eyes, but was quickly replaced by an undeniable will. “Is that understood?”
I tried in vain to hide my bitter disappointment. I wondered what would become of my Nieuport 11 , which Thierry had toiled so indefatigably to repair. I didn’t want to give it up.
“Yes sir, understood”.
De Villeneuve leaned back on his chair with a faint smile. “Good”. I slowly rose to my feet and turned for the door.
“Of course, this assignment won’t be permanent. I imagine you’ll be flying Bebes again in your new posting”. I paused, my hand hovering over the dull brass doorhandle. Slowly I turned to face de Villeneuve again, who was now wearing a knowing smirk. “New posting? What new posting?”
“I have received correspondence from Major Barès at General Headquarters, detailing your imminent transfer to Escadrille 124, where you will be a flight leader. I don’t know when exactly the order shall arrive, and in all honesty I am not really supposed to tell you this, but I thought you ought to know”. My heart skipped a beat. “124? But, isn’t that…?”
At noon I watched Thierry and Souris wheel my new machine onto the airfield, parking it next to Tartaux’s Nieuport. Alongside the three Nieuport 12s, I looked longingly at the Bebes of Lemoine, Jensen and Devienne. As I approached the flight line, Lemoine came over to me, fumbling with his flying coat. “Say, Fullard, can you help me with this damned button? I can’t get it done”. With a smirk, I took a hold of his flying coat.
“Ok, stand straight”. “Yup”. “I said stand straight!” “Merde! I am!” “Nearly….there…Dammit. I can’t quite reach”. “Oh, come on! Put some effort into it!” “Well I would if you’d stand straight! Straighten your back! That’s an order, Sergent...” “Don’t push it, Americain”.
Grinning, I managed to loop the button into its hole, and stood back. With a laugh, Lemoine gave me a mock-salute, before patting me on the back. “So, Nieuport 12s, eh? Hard luck! But don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on you”. I batted his arm away with a laugh, and turned for my own machine, calling over my shoulder “You’d better, Lemoine!”.
Beside my own machine awaited my observer, Caporal Jacquez Lefevre. Even with his flying gear, it was evident that the youth was thin and frail. From the corners of his flying cap protruded small tufts of messy brown hair, and his feminine face was dotted with freckles. As I approached, he saluted stiffly. “Adjutant Fullard, Sir! It is an honor to fly with you!”. Confusedly, I returned his salute. I wasn’t yet used to being reacted to as an officer. “Er, sure. Say, I hope you’re handy with that rear gun”. Eagerly, Lefevre nodded. At that moment, a chillingly cold, monotone voice came from behind me.
“You’re the American one, aren’t you? The scout pilot”. I turned to see Tartaux, the Biplace pilot who had gone missing on my first sortie. “Uh, yes. That’s me”. Tartaux’s beady black eyes squinted at me judgmentally. “Well, these old buses are a different beast. You’ll need to adjust. Stick close to me, and don’t break formation”. Stiffly, I nodded. “Yes, sir”.
The scouts rolled first, and I watched as Devienne’s red-winged Nieuport skipped off the ground and into the blue sky. After they had cleared the air ahead of us, Desmond pushed his throttle forwards, followed by Tartaux. Then, it was my turn.
The Nieuport 12 was heavy. Unlike the Bebe, it didn’t immediately begin to roll forwards. Instead it lurched painfully, crawling forwards like a tired old dog before finally breaking into its stride. As the wheels lifted, my machine started to dip a wing, and I came within inches of wrecking the machine against the ground then and there. Grimacing, I straightened out and formed up behind Tartaux. Ahead of me, I could see his observer disinterestedly peering back at me, observing my flying - or, fumbling. I felt myself redden.
As I manoeuvred into my position in the formation, I felt how unresponsive the controls were, and grimaced in disgust. The three Nieuport 11s soared past our left wingtips, and I longed to be there with them, in my own Bebe. I staved off the misery with thoughts of my impending transfer to the American Escadrille, where I would see my brother again.
As we approached the lines North of Marbache, I peered upwards to see the shape of three Aviatiks heading into our lines. I stared at them contemptuously as they sailed indifferently overhead, thinking what easy prey they would make. Tartaux’s observer must have shared a similar sentiment, as I saw him grinning while tracking the German machines with his machine-gun. It felt unnatural to watch the three Bosches sailing uninhibited into our lines, but nonetheless I stayed my course behind Tartaux’s Nieuport.
Overflying the German trench-lines, Lefevre ducked into his cockpit to retrieve the camera, leaning over the side and bracing himself against the structure of the fuselage. Watching Tartaux carefully, I straightened out my Nieuport and held it as level as I could as we made our run across the top of the Bosche positions. The run went smoothly, and we turned in a slow circle for a second run.
During our third run, I spotted our N11 escort suddenly snap around to the North - facing our direction. Immediately I recognised the situation. They had spotted something. Nervously I looked up and through the cutout in the top wing and quickly spotted two Aviatiks, circling above us. They were higher than our escorts, but now I saw that Lemoine and his flight had started to climb. Immediately the Aviatiks turned away to the North, with the Bebes in pursuit. A moment later, Lefevre tapped furiously on my shoulder, and I swung around. He pointed up, a look of horror on his face, and I strained my eyes, following his gesture. Then, I saw them. Two Eindeckers. The Aviatiks were a trick.
Frantically I rocked my wings, trying to signal Tartaux, but he was absorbed in his photography work, as was Desmond. Crying out in frustration, I turned West towards the lines. As I peered over my shoulder, I saw the Eindeckers diving down on the now-helpless Nieuport 12s. “Dammit! God Dammit!” I cried, as I watched the tracer slam into Desmond’s machine. A moment later it listed to the side, the first licks of flame and trails of smoke appearing at the engine cowling. Tartaux curved away to the West, both Eindeckers turning to give chase, and a moment later I was engulfed by clouds.
As we reached Ochey, I was numb. We de-planed and, silently, I made my way to write my report. The Bebes arrived shortly after me, all shot-up, but Jensen claimed he had sent one Aviatik down in flames. On the airfield, Lemoine approached me. “But where are the other Biplaces?” he asked me, and I tried to contain the rage I felt towards him in that moment. It wasn’t his fault. “The Aviatiks were a trick to lure you away. We were attacked by Eindeckers the second you turned North”. The colour drained from his face. “...the others?”. I shook my head. Frantically, Lemoine reached for his hip flask.
Ten minutes passed as we sat, hoping against hope, on the fringes of the aerodrome, when suddenly the distant sound of an aeroplane engine made itself apparent to us. Shooting up to our feet, we scanned the skies. “There!” Devienne cried, pointing to an approaching machine. “It’s Tartaux!”. Lemoine burst into relieved laughter. “Ah, Tartaux! The Bosche will never get him!”. We watched the aircraft wobble down towards land, touching down heavily before ground-looping. I immediately knew something was wrong. Two mechanics ran up to the machine, and then I heard the dreaded cry. “Toubib! Quick!”. Our relief turned to horror as we watched the limp, bloody Biplace crew be lowered onto a pair of stretchers and carried away to the medical tent.
At supper, scarcely a word was said. I replayed the event in my head, watching Desmond’s Nieuport fall in flames. Just then, de Villeneuve entered, standing at the head of our table and clearing his throat. “Gentlemen,” he begun quietly, “Tartaux and Genevois have both suffered severe wounds. We don’t know yet if they will survive.”. Silence. "And, Chaput is to be transferred to another Escadrille. He shall be leaving tomorrow. But, I do at least have some good news. I received a telegram from the front today. It seems that Quinchez is alive and well, and managed to escape back to our lines from No-Mans-Land. Pierre is on his way back with him now, and he should be rejoining us by the end of the night”. Our eyes lit up slightly, and we uttered our happiness at having Quinchez back. De Villeneuve looked over us, and then sighed. “We will pay the Bosches back for today. That will be all”.