About bloody time! Congratulations, Raine. Very, very well deserved.
Now, then. Some distressing news from les Americanes.
Adj. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Americaine', Behonne Aerodrome, France.
June 2nd, 1916:
On the morning of the 2nd, Thenault had called me into his office for the first time. As to be expected, it was a luxurious study decorated in fine golden ornamentation. The window looked out towards the sleepy town of Bar-le-Duc from behind heavy red curtains, and lining the walls were bookshelves, matching the finely-shaped mahogany of the Capitane’s heavy writing desk, in which resided aged academic books, their spines worn from hours spent within the hands of amateur scholars.
I stood before the Capitane, who sat well-postured in his fine leather armchair. Slowly, with deliberation, he raised himself to stand and produced a cigar box from within a desk drawer, handing me one and lighting another for himself. “They are quite excellent, James. And they are contraband! So, that only improves the flavour”. He gave me a wink. Thanking him, I lit my own cigar and, as gestured by Thenault, took a seat in the chair opposite him. Resting his cigar in a large glass ashtray, he leaned over two pieces of paper laid flat on his desk.
“I’ll cut to the chase. It appears that you and Michael have both claimed the same Fokker from yesterday”. My eyebrows raised slightly in surprise, as I thought back to the fight. I was sure he had been set alight before Michael had even gotten close! Perhaps I was mistaken. Leaning back, Thenault gazed at me expectantly. “Well?”.
I sat quietly for a moment, considering. In my head, I saw no reason why Michael would attempt to claim my victory, unless he was certain he had delivered the killing blow. Was it possible that he had arrived before the Fokker had caught fire, and I was so absorbed in my gunnery that I hadn’t seen him? By any means, I was sure that he had made an honest mistake. Finally, I answered Thenault. “Give the victory to Michael” I said, with a smile on my face. The corner of Thenault’s mouth turned upwards. “Very well. The victory shall be awarded to Michael”.
With the officialdom out of the way, Thenault invited me downstairs to have breakfast with him. I accepted - although, it felt bizarre to be dining alongside the Commanding Officer. In Escadrille 31, we never so much as saw a man with a commission, let alone shared the same space with them! We were joined by Bill Thaw and Norman Prince, who had come down from their rooms nursing heavy hangovers following a night of decadence on the town. As we greeted each other and sat down around the dining table, two orderlies arrived bringing us each a plate with a large Omelette, of the type only the French can make. I was astounded by how delicious the meal was, after the typical rations of Ochey.
After our breakfast, Thenault drove us to the Aerodrome, which was already alive with personnel immersed in their day’s work. An engine droned overhead, and I looked up to see the sky-blue Nieuport of Chapman turning loops and slips and spins in a jovial display of stunting. Thenault laughed as he watched the Nieuport finally stand on its tail, hang in the air for a moment, and swoop back down to earth in one fluid motion.
At noon Thenault gathered the pilots as the mechanics begun to wheel our machines out of their hangars. As we stood before him, gone was the joviality and informality I had enjoyed over breakfast, replaced now with the calm professionalism that had awed me upon my arrival at the Escadrille. “Gentlemen. Today we are to fly a patrol over the city of Verdun. I shall lead the low flight, which will consist of James and Michael Fullard, Johnson, and Cowdin. McConnell, you shall lead the higher patrol and watch over us, lest we be attacked from above. Balsley and Chapman will fly with you. We are looking for Bosche reconnaissance machines, but don’t neglect to keep an eye out for any marauding Fokkers! We shall take off in twenty minutes”.
The sky was beautifully clear and tame as we lifted from the aerodrome and climbed towards Verdun. Below us, the River Aisne shone like gold in the warmth of the sun, and happily we traced its line towards the Argonne forest. In the back of my mind, however, was my forced landing on the 30th, and so I kept an eye downwards for places to land, should I need to. Below were the long rolling hills of Verdun, accented by fences and telephone wires. Very few acceptable landing places made themselves apparent to me.
Suddenly, as I was appraising a long wheat field by the banks of the Aisne, a flash of white caught my eye. I gave my full attention and saw three sets of wings, reflecting brightly in the midday sun. At first I assumed it to me McConnell’s flight, but an instant later I recalled that they were supposed to be the high flight...I rocked my wings, gaining Thenault’s attention, and indicated to the shapes. He peered over the side of his cockpit, turned back to me and nodded once, then swung our flight around to pursue. As we closed, I was astounded, for here in front of us, flying not 500 meters from the ground, were three Eindeckers!
We dove towards their tails and at once they snapped around to face us. I watched as Thenault carved their formation in two, firing at one machine in a head on-pass. A moment later and we had broken into a furious furball, machines looping and circling to get on each other’s tails. I found myself behind one German and fired a long burst into him. At once his machine erupted into flames, and I curved away to a flank. Then, my mouth wide-open in shock, I watched as Michael’s Nieuport promptly settled in behind my Eindecker and fired a second burst into the machine. My blood boiled. I watched as the Eindecker’s nose dropped and Michael followed. A moment later and my rage was replaced by horror. Michael’s Nieuport gave a sickening jolt, and the lower wing started to buckle. In a panic I watched as my brother tried to wrench his Nieuport out of its dive and the bottom wings snapped entirely away. For a moment, his machine carried on, almost comically resembling a Morane, but then the upper wings folded also and his Nieuport fell dart-like towards earth.
Black spots flashed in front of my eyes. My nostrils and mouth were taking in air, but I wasn’t breathing. As I watched in helpless, sickening horror, Michael’s Nieuport crashed into the earth and splintered into nought but matchwood, small clouds of dust being kicked up from where the now-severed pieces of his machine cascaded across the earth. Time slowed, and stopped completely. What had just happened…? My brother was dead. Frantically I circled to earth and landed alongside his wrecked machine, narrowly missing a fence as I did so, and rushed out from my Nieuport, crying out Michael’s name in pitiful desperation. When I reached his machine, I found his body twisted unnaturally, his face blankly staring downwards at the floor of his machine. Blood dripped from the end of his nose, and from his mouth which hung slightly open, his jaw cocked to the side, its bone jutting out from his cheek. I pulled him from the wreckage and held him close, crying out my pain and confusion in a long, animal sound.
That is how Thenault found me after he landed alongside my Nieuport - clutching Michael’s body to my chest, sobbing and cursing, asking why, before finally falling silent as I was detached from the world suddenly, all feelings washing away except for a deep, immovable grief which swallowed me whole. Thenault had his hand on my shoulder. He was saying something. The grief swallowed his words too. Blankly I looked up at him, his face, sheet-white, was a mixture of pity, sadness and shock. Overhead, the other Nieuports circled.