Harry, I wonder what Konrad is up to. I’m even doubting his dad is really sick. You’ve got a good villain going there.
Fullofit, I wish France were more imaginative with gongs. Gaston deserves them all! Collins is happy to have N37 so close.
MFair, the next instalment is dedicated to Jericho.
An Airman’s Odyssey – by Lt James Arthur Collins, MC
Part Forty-Eight: In which I lose a friend
Now the pace became intense. The guns continued without let-up. If anything, it seemed even more guns were in action. In our little billet, Madame Poidevin sobbed quietly to herself in the kitchen. Her husband, mercifully deaf, sat in the parlour and held his hand over his chest. “Je peux sentir le tonnere,” he said, feeling the pulsing air.
We flew three times a day. Invariably the first patrol was an attack over the lines, often an aerodrome or rail yard bomb run. The second was more of the same or a reconnaissance. The third was generally training for a new sport called “contact patrol,” in which we flew with a klaxon horn affixed to our undercarriage. When we sounded the klaxon, the soldiers below were to send up flares so that we could report their position to headquarters. To do this we dropped a message with a streamer attached on a target sheet laid out by the headquarters. It was working well in practice. Sergeant Wilson opined that no man in the actual assault would send up a “braw shiny effin’ Verey licht tae tell the Jerries where he wis.”
Attack on enemy reserve trench near La Bassée
On 28 June we flew over the front north of Boisselle. The ground over the first two lines of enemy trench was obscured with smoke and dirt from a thousand explosions, the very air rippling with the concussions. Our Moranes were hurtled about the sky by near misses from our own howitzers. I landed at seven-thirty and had breakfast in the hangar. A simple canteen was set up in one of the sheds with tea, biscuits, and boiled eggs. That way we would not have to walk into town between patrols. I strolled over to C Flight’s hangar. Jericho was leading Jordan over to hit the aerodrome at Bertincourt. That place was home to some very keen Huns, and Jordan was still new to this work. They were due back around eight.
At ten after eight, the Ack Emmas were glancing at a clock that stood on one of the work benches. By eight-thirty I was mouthing a silent prayer when a faint intermittent buzz emerged from the continuous rumble of the barrage to the east. Over the poplars at the north edge of the field, a Parasol was blipping its way home. We watched, breath held, as it touched down, bounced lightly, and rumbled up to the shed. It was Jordan. His observer, Chilton, was slumped forward and barely visible. “Help me, for Christ’s sake,” Jordan was screaming. The mechanics placed a step-ladder beside the machine. The first man up pulled Chilton back against his seat and quickly turned away, suppressing a heave. His eyes were watering and he shook his head and jumped down. The Technical Sergeant appeared and ordered the others off the ladder. He looked at Chilton and called for the men to fetch a groundsheet, a rope, and water. Jordan walked past me in a daze.
“Where is Jericho?” I asked him.
“With Chilton,” he replied and continued to the squadron office. I returned to my hangar. We were not due to take off until eleven-thirty. I slumped on a stool and lit a cigarette until one of the riggers told me that one could not smoke in the hangar. I went outside in the drizzle.
I went to see the OC Squadron and told him I’d see to Jericho’s possessions and write his mother. Major Harvey-Kelly replied that I was welcome to write Jericho’s mother but that I should wait a day or two as it was his duty to break the news to family once everything was confirmed. But there really was no hope. Jordan’s report was detailed. He’d seen Jericho's Morane fall vertically from 2500 feet and was sure Jericho was unconscious the whole way down.
We flew north to near Monchy at mid-day and attacked a rail yard.
For the next two days the barrage and drizzle continued. On the morning of 29 June we bombed a Hun battery position near Thiepval. Several Fokkers attacked us and our lone escort, a French Nieuport scout. Wilson chased one off and damaged another. I turned our machine to try to get the coup de grace on the smoking Fokker, but we could not catch him before he passed low over the enemy lines, and there was simply too much iron in the air to follow.
Before our afternoon flight that day, I visited Jericho’s billet and went through his things. He had a package of letters and photographs from Camille. I put them in a manila envelope without looking at them. I would try to find the girl and give them to her. Jericho had told me that as soon as he got leave he planned to marry her. I collected what money he had, a considerable sum in fact, and placed it in the manila folder. The flying kit and non-personal effects were left in the room for the others in his flight to share. I found a wooden box with a few personal items: a locket with a woman’s picture – his mother, I presumed, a Bible, a gold pocket watch, his MC. I placed whatever other personal effects it would be appropriate to send home in the box. It would go to the squadron office to be sent in the post. Finally, I found his Colt Peacemaker under his pillow. It probably would not make it through the mail. I placed it in my pocket and headed out of the house.
After leaving the squadron office, I wandered over to the stables. Corporal O’Toole, the groom, was there. I asked after Moon, Jericho’s horse. The animal was well, he said. I went to see him, and stroked his muzzle. The sad brown eyes knew something was wrong. I slipped the corporal a couple of pounds and instructed him to take good care of Moon until we figured out what would become of him without his master.
And then it was time to fly again. That day and the next. It all blurred together.