An Airman’s Odyssey – by Lt James Arthur Collins, MC

Part Forty-Four: In which I enjoy a Scots interlude

Since the short while we had at Bruay I hadn’t seen much of Sergeant Wilson other than our times together in the air. It seemed odd to rely so much on a man and then to say toodle-oo and retire each to his own mess. But such is the way of the Army, and I suppose it’s all for the best. An hour of two spent decoding his Scots broth of an accent and my head aches and I’m ready for a long spell of staring out the window with my mouth open.

Our little arrangement in B Flight was convenient. The flight mess proper, with its bar and anteroom, was in a small house three doors down the main road from the Café du Progrès. We took our meals in a back room of the Café, so that room too was technically part of the mess and therefore officers’ territory. But the main room of the Café where the locals sat and smoked and drank coffee and muttered under their breath at the passing soldiery – that was No Man’s Land. I checked in with the Major before inviting the good sergeant to meet me there for coffee. He approved, provided we talked shop, didn’t drink liquor, didn’t make a habit of familiarity, and didn’t meet there when the other officers were eating.

“Become too familiar and you become an object of contempt. Do you not know that from home?” he said. I ventured that our retinue of household staff at home in Canada had been too slim and frighteningly female to teach me much about social norms.

Wilson was chatting away. “Ah’m no workin’ in the smithy’s shop since ah wis given the third stripe, ye see. So I found the wee Froggy smithy doon the lane. Except the Parlez-voos dinnae call them smithies. They say they’re ‘forgerin’. It has t’ dae wi’ the forge, like in the iron works at hame, see?”[1]

I stared at the object on the table, its painted eyes slightly crossed.

“It’s a Teddy bear, see, surr? An’ solid cast iron it is. Ah made it doon at the Froggy forgerin’ shop. Aye, an’ it’s a bank for the wee bairns tae pit their bawbees in.” [2] He pointed out the slot in the crazed animal’s head. “Ah’m gonny make ‘em and sell ‘em efter the war.”

Momentarily, I planned to mention that if the thing ever fell over it was highly likely to kill a small child. I held back, searching for another way to express the concern. “It’s rather heavy,” I observed.

“Och aye, that’s so if some durty sod wis tae half-inch the bear he’d no rin awa’ frae the polis.” [3]

Wilson the entrepreneur! My wonder knew no bounds. He was up for leave soon and planned to go home to see his sainted mother. I envied him. He described the meal she’d make – which involved boiling something I didn’t understand. And he described how he’d visit his local and try to take the little Irish girl there to the pictures. Except he’d clearly picked up the slang of London in the sergeant’s mess and he referred to them as the “Dolly Mixtures.”[4]

He obviously enjoyed his coffee and Mademoiselle Defossez refilled the cup, allowing enough room for another two fingers of Collins Yukon Gold to be added from my flask. I owed Sergeant Wilson. In the past two days we’d crossed the lines four times and each time we’d been intercepted by groups of Fokkers. This afternoon we’d held off three of them for nearly ten miles until we crossed the lines and, with the engine failing, put down in a field near Albert. Wilson wasn’t much of a shot, but he had a healthy habit of waiting until the Hun was 250 yards away and driving him off with short bursts that were close enough to be disconcerting. It had been a short drive home to Lahoussoye, leaving the Ack Emmas to their job of recovering the machine. The nerves had not yet settled.

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"...we’d held off three of them for nearly ten miles until we crossed the lines..."

I could smell supper in the kitchen. It was time for him to go. We finished our coffees and I bade him enjoy his evening. I knew he would. It hadn’t been announced yet – that was up to the disciplinary sergeant-major – but at dinner Sergeant Wilson would learn he had been awarded the DCM.


[1] Just a guess, but Wilson is rendering the French “forgeron,” or blacksmith.

[2] “It’s a bank for the little kids to put their halfpennies in.”

[3] In the King’s English: “Indeed, that is so if some blackguard were to steal the bear he would be unable to run away from the police.”

[4] Dolly Mixtures were a popular candy and Cockney rhyming slang of the period for “motion pictures.” A little earlier, Wilson uses “half-inch” for “pinch,” another likely acquisition from his East London colleagues.

Attached Files Another Fokker attack.png