Wow! So much going on at the moment! Congrats on the new decorations, all, and Raine, brilliant effort with the Zeppelin. I see a V.C in Collins' future.
Adj. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Americaine', Bar-le-Duc, France.
August 26th, 1916:
In the first hours on the morning of the 26th, we were each woken by an apologetic Caporal and instructed to head downstairs, where our breakfast was already waiting. As we stepped into the dining room, we were met with Thenault, who stood in candlelight waiting for us, a trench map rolled under his arm.“Gentlemen. Congregate in the lounge in five minutes time. Today, we have a special assignment”.
We hurriedly scarfed down our food, knocked back our coffees, and made our way next-door to the lounge. “Airfield attack?” Rockwell mused. “Nah, I bet it’s another damned Loos Junction show” replied Rumsey. We found Thenault and Bill Thaw awaiting us with the map laid out on a central oak table. “Gather round, and listen up. We’ll be covering troop movements today, along with two Caudrons from Escadrille 105. We are to meet here -” he indicated to a small forest just West of Behonne - “and we shall escort the Caudrons to the front. Just here”. There were some mutterings as he pointed to the twin lakes of Refuge and Wargeveaux, just across the lines from the large three-fingered Lac de Madine. We all knew the spot well - it was a pretty hot sector. “Thaw will lead the first flight, consisting of Blanchon, Johnson, Fullard and Rockwell. I shall take Pavelka and Rumsey higher and act as top cover. Now, we are not going out and looking for trouble today, understood? Our job is to get the Caudrons back safely. We’ll leave the Bosche alone so long as they leave us alone. Now, to the airfield. Our machines will be ready when we get there”.
We were afforded plenty of time to ponder the meaning of this infantry push as we were driven towards Behonne. Hall mused that we were going to push the Bosche right back out of St. Mihiel, but the rest of us found it unlikely. I noticed that everybody seemed jumpy, nervous. The way you get when you expect a big fight. Only Luf remained unfazed, propped up in the corner of the staff car with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. He looked to be lost in some deep thought.
I had made low-light take-offs before, but with the majority of the squadron’s machines rolling at once I was highly conscious of each droning Le Rhone around me. Fighting my instinct to turn away from the sound, I focused on keeping my eyes fixed on the fain shimmer of Thaw’s machine just ahead of me. We climbed up and headed towards the Rendez-vous. All the while I wondered how we would ever find the Caudrons in this darkness. Fortunately, however, the sky began to lighten slightly as we approached, with the first pink rays of sun brightening the clouds. We quickly spotted the two Caudrons and Thaw led us onto their right wing, just above them. As we approached the lines, with Thenault’s flight hovering protectively above us, the sun finally bloomed into its full radiance, bathing the landscape in a river of gold. I looked over the rolling hills of Verdun in awe. I’ll miss all this when the Bosche finally get me, I thought to myself, and was immediately taken aback at my own fatalism. Immediately I thought of Michael, and then of my parents. Did they know yet, that their son was dead?
The grey-brown wound of No-Man’s-Land crept out of the morning fog, and with it came a layer of clouds I hadn’t yet seen. Rainclouds - and they had freshly opened over No-Man’s-Land. I set aside my wandering thoughts, turning my attention instead to looking for the Bosche as we flew into the biting rain. Below, I noticed yellow-white flashes - artillery shells bursting in the Poilu’s trenches. The Bosche were responding to our push. As we flew East down the length of the lines, it seemed that every inch of the French lines was being churned up and thrown into the air. It reminded me of the first family trip to the beach I could remember - Andrew had just turned two, and he was excitedly grabbing handfuls of sand and tossing them into the air. #%&*$#, James. Forget Andrew.
The Caudrons kept their course, swooping over a forward German trench from which I could see a thousand muzzle-flashes. The two bombers each dropped a payload of bombs, and I watched as the Observer in the back discaded some Flechettes and a pair of stick grenades over the top. I couldn’t help but smile as I saw one Flechette falling with a streamer in the French Flag’s colours attached to it. Immediately after dropping their bombs, the Caudrons turned back for home and we gratefully followed. By this point both my Nieuport and I had been soaked through. We returned to Behonne, quickly discarding our drenched flying gear and catching a ride back to the Villa at Bar-le-Duc.