Yikes, Fullofit! Be careful! The last thing we need is something happening to Gaston - nor Violette, for that matter! Besides, the Nieuport firm are running out of wings...Seems like the Somme is just as hot for Le Violet as Verdun was! Maybe you should have 'borrowed' a N17 from one of Esc N.3's hangars
Adj. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Americaine', Bar-le-Duc, France.
July 7th, 1916.
As I made my way downstairs to breakfast, I watched as Charbonnell and Provillan, our new arrivals, were escorted through the Villa’s entrance by a porter, suitcases in hand. I was surprised to learn from Bert Hall that, following a heated complaint from Thenault, they were to be sent to some other Escadrille in a quieter sector. “You’d send these fresh-faced boys to Verdun? That’s what he said! Hell, a good thing too. We don’t need no Hun fodder round here. Let some other suckers dig their graves. Ain’t that right, Fullard?”. I tried to mask my repulsion. “Yeah, sure thing, Bert”.
On the airfield, Thenault’s face was serious. “My dear fellows. Today, we shall be attacking the Bosche aerodrome at Bechamps, where we will destroy as many grounded aeroplanes and set as many fires in their hangars as possible”. Each pilot had a varied reaction. The bravest souls among us, Prince, McConnell & Rockwell, were elated. “An airfield raid!” McConnell shouted, “We’ll make those Bosche sorry, all right!”. Bert Hall’s crooked face wore a look of mortal dread. It was sad, almost pathetic, to regard. As for Blanchon, myself and Lawrence Rumsey - a recent arrival - we opted for nervous silence.
Eight machines were lined up on the aerodrome, and we were each assigned a wingman, whom we would mutually support. Mines was Blanchon. “Stick close to my tail,” I said to him as we pulled on our flying coats, “Look behind you every three seconds. If you’re hit, get the hell away from the aerodrome, climb, and head home”. Each instruction was met with a focused nod.
As I climbed into my cockpit I noticed several darkened spots appearing on my machine’s fuselage. Looking up, I cursed under my breath as I realised it was droplets of rain. As the wind picked up and caught the flying wires they sung quietly in a metallic voice. I willed the weather to relent as the take-off flare was sent up. We rushed forwards, one by one.
The weather decided to be merciful. As we climbed towards Verdun, bold rays of sun broke through the overcast sky, and pools of blue, like great inverted lakes, appeared overhead among the clouds. Blanchon and myself soon found we were being left behind - Prince, Hall and Rumsey all flew the faster Nieuport 16s. Fortunately, as I turned back to look over my shoulder, I saw three more of our number keeping an eye on us, with Thenault’s unpainted Nieuport at their head. After climbing above 3000 meters, Prince slowed the flight and allowed us to catch up.
As we overflew Verdun and the mud came into view through gaps in the cloud, I felt nervousness set in, and I internally willed the Bosche anti-air gunners to be poor shots. We crossed over the strip of murdered nature beneath, and begun to descend. I turned back to Blanchon and pointed at him, then at myself. Stick with me. He held up an enclosed fist - Understood. My eye was caught as a huge explosion kicked up mud, thousands of feet high, on the frontlines. We continued to descend as we crossed the threshold, and abruptly the first black puffs of German artillery began to burst around us. As we approached the Bosche balloon-line, the artillery expanded into a crescendo, the worst shelling I’d experienced yet. My hands tightened on the controls. The landscape turned to green, and ahead of me the enemy aerodrome emerged from the war-fog. Beside it hung an observation balloon, lazily swaying in the wind. I cursed under my breath - that balloon would have a battalion of A.A. gunners surrounding it.
Thenault’s gang were already working as we arrived. I watched nervously as the three Nieuports looped and rolled above the aerodrome, sweeping through bursts of artillery to fire their incendiaries at the hangars. Focus. It’s your turn now. We dove down and each picked out a hangar to attack. As I fired and curved away, a sheet of tracer fire rushed upwards at me. A moment later and artillery bursts swarmed my machine like angry bees. They had me perfectly sighted. I winced as I felt hot shrapnel sing through the air. I circled back and turned my attention to the insolent balloon, firing off a three-second burst. Suddenly, although I was still firmly pressing the trigger, my weapon ceased firing. It had jammed. Muttering a curse, I begun to climb toward the lines. I would be of no use now, with a stopped weapon, and, certainly, I was of no use dead.
The patrol arrived back a half-hour after my arrival, having had little success. Thenault was curious as to why he’d seen my Nieuport turn away from the battle. Fortunately, my mechanics hadn’t yet cleared the gun jam (as they were more concerned about patching the several bullet holes my machine had accumulated), and so I showed the Capitane. “Ah,” he said, his face lighting up. “I see! Hard luck, Fullard! Hopefully next time it will be more reliable”.
Next time. I certainly hope there won’t be a next time.