I've been away and haven't been able to catch up on everyone's stories yet. Here is a bit to continue Collins's tale in the meantime.
An Airman’s Odyssey – by Lt James Arthur Collins, MC
Part Forty-Nine: In which the great attack begins
We were gathered in the spare shed. The shadows of the poplar leaves played over the canvas roof and the smell of dope and petrol and castor oil clung to us all. “You may smoke if you wish,” the General said. Smoking was normally forbidden in the Bessoneaux. After much fussing with pipes and matches, he began. “As you have no doubt deduced, there is a major push in the offing. Tomorrow morning, the Third and Fourth Armies, and the French on our right, will hit the enemy on both sides of the Albert-Bapaume road. The preparations that have gone into this attack are without parallel. More firepower, more planning, more men, more aircraft – more of everything than in any previous battle in our long history. You gentlemen of No. 3 Squadron have played a major role registering the guns on their targets, photographing the trenches, harassing the rear areas, and the other – the contact patrols. Well done, all of you. Well done, Major.”
Major Harvey-Kelly stood off to the side and gave a perfunctory, manly nod. “You’ll have much to do tomorrow and in the days to come. I am sure you’ll do your bit with all the...all the...oomph you can give. Any questions?”
We all knew better than to raise our hand. Except Sergeant Wilson, standing behind the two rows of folding chairs occupied by the officers.
“Yes, that sergeant. What is your name, sergeant?”
“Sergeant Wilson, surr.” The Major mentioned sotto voce that he was an observer and the General looked pleased.
“And your question?”
“Aye. Ah’m wunnering who yon oriental gentlemen across the road are?” Except Wilson did not use the term “oriental gentlemen.” The General seemed a bit flustered, and Captain Baring stepped in to answer for him.
“They are Pathans – hill men from the northwest frontier of India. The most wonderful horsemen. But mind your manners. They’ll slit your throat for honour. I daresay the Hun will have a grim time with that lot.” I’d already walked over to admire their camp and the great skill they – the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade – showed in their manoeuvres. The surrounding countryside was awash with our second-line forces ready for the push.
General Trenchard did not stay for tea. He, Baring, and two young staff captains climbed into their Rolls and were off minutes later. I did, however, have a moment to thank Captain Baring for his assistance in finding how my mother had contrived to have me sent home from France prematurely. I watched from a respectful distance as the Disciplinary Sergeant-Major gave poor Wilson a terrible dressing-down.
It rained a little that evening and then cleared. The terrible drumroll to the east continued. I retired early and was awakened at five with a tea and a biscuit. The first patrol was with Lewis and Whistler. We headed to the northern part of the attack sector, south of Miraumont on the Ancre River. Orders were to steer clear of La Boisselle until after a pair of mines would detonate. Over Hamel, the three Moranes split up, each to conduct contact patrols over a different part of the front. Around six-thirty the gunfire intensified. It became impossible to make out details on the ground from 3000 feet up. I watched Lewis’s machine in the distance heading south along the valley. A sudden movement caught my eye. The earth convulsed and spewed upward like a long brown pinecone erupting from the landscape, and then it fell apart, spreading outward as it fell. The plume of earth rose until it was at eye level. Then a second eruption mounted skyward, slightly less huge and a little to the west of the first. I was a good five miles north, but the shock waves nearly pulled the stick from my hand as they threw our little Parasol about. I hoped Lewis was well away from it.
We dropped down to a thousand feet and sounded our klaxon, but no flares were visible. The contact patrol concept was no bon. In the end we had to fly over the Hunnish trenches at five hundred feet and try to distinguish muddy grey uniforms from muddy khaki ones. Our own shells jostled the machine and threatened us with instant destruction. It seemed to me that the barrage had lifted to the second line too soon, and we could make out German soldiers emerging from their dugouts and rushing to man what was left of their trenches. After two hours, we climbed away with great relief and headed home. The rest of the day saw two more contact patrols, neither of which worked as we had practised so carefully. The entire push north of the Bapaume road seemed to be bogged down.
"In the end we had to fly over the Hunnish trenches at five hundred feet and try to distinguish muddy grey uniforms from muddy khaki ones."
The next day was glorious – a clear sky and a warm sun. At dawn we attacked a Hun airfield south of the main battle area and were attacked by three Fokkers. Our escort, a single Bristol scout, put up a stout defence as we fought the westerly wind homeward. As we finally crossed our lines I noticed the little Bristol far below. He was scrambling for home with a persistent Fokker on his tail. I dropped our Morane down three thousand feet and drew alongside the Hun. Wilson let him have several bursts and he immediately gave up his pursuit and stormed off eastward.
Two more patrols followed that day, reconnaissance and contact patrol duties. There were no air Huns about. It seemed that things had gone better to the south of the road towards Montauban.
The craters from the Boisselle mines were visible for miles, the white chalk standing out from the grass and mud. A little farther north there was another large white circle north of Beaumont-Hamel.
3 July was a repeat performance, with much low work and risky business, but no HA about at all. And then the rains came.
On the 4th I visited the Indian cavalry and brought Jericho’s horse, Moon. Their risaldar-major was an imposing character named Dil Mohamed. He expressed interest and I told him the story of how Jericho had won over the animal and how I needed to sell him to give money to his fiancée, but I did not want to see him mishandled. I expressed my admiration for the way I’d seen him ride and asked if he might be interested in acquiring Moon.
Dil Mohamed took Moon’s long face in his hands and looked into his eyes. Then he placed his forehead against the horse’s. He took the bridle and said something in his own language. Moon followed him across the field. Dil examined the saddle and made several adjustments, and with one sudden and smooth move mounted Moon. He rode off at a gallop across the fields and out of sight. Several of the Pathans laughed as I stood alone, wondering if I’d see Jericho’s horse again. It was a full ten minutes before Dil returned.
“It is a very good horse. It is worth £95, but I will pay £75. No more. This will be my horse, not the King’s horse. It will be taken care of as your friend would take care of it.”
I agreed on the spot. It made me somewhat nervous to accept Dil Mohamed’s cheque, but I remembered what Baring had said about Pathan honour. To some degree it made me willing to trust this man, and to some degree it made me think the better of doubting him.
We were still grounded on the 5th by driving rain and winds, and I got permission to take a motorcycle into Amiens. I cashed the cheque without difficulty and, using a note I’d found in Jericho’s Bible, traced Camille down to a boarding house. It was a heart-rending hour, but I left her with nearly three thousand francs, some from the sale of Moon, some from Jericho’s pockets, and some from me. She said she would think about buying a little cafe, and I pressed her to get away from this part of France, away from anyone who knew her here, and start afresh. She cried a great deal and promised she would. I hoped she meant it.