Lou - beautiful scenery! And that strutter looks great!
Lederhosen - ouch! From an Albatros to a Fokker D! I wonder what inspired Idflieg to do that? Either way, it seems that it doesn't matter to Willi - good luck getting the confirmation...
Sous. Lt. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Américaine', Bar-le-Duc, France.
August 31st, 1916.
I awoke blissfully late in the day and, after lethargically throwing my uniform on, went downstairs just in time to encounter Norman Prince, who had spent his morning conscripting an expeditionary force to head to Verdun, in search of a piano for the sitting room. “Well, James, you in?” he asked me with a grin, and I shrugged. “Sure, why not. But who’s going to play the thing?”. Prince quickly scanned around him before answering. “It’s going to be a gift for Capitane Thenault. He loves to play, but since our hop over from Luxeuil we haven’t had a piano”. At that moment Bert Hall appeared from the dining room, yawning and stretching. “Hey, Bertie!” Called Prince, “We’re off to Verdun after first patrol today to find a Piano. How about it?”. He looked at us down the length of his crooked nose. “Hell with that! Sounds like needless work” he bluntly replied, and disappeared through into the sitting room. Rumsey raised an eyebrow. “Cheery guy, ol’ Bert.” he muttered. Bill Thaw scoffed. “Yep. Real joy to have around, ain’t he?”.
By the time Thenault had returned from his daily morning walk of his dog Fram, we had finalised our plans to head off to Verdun, as well as our means of transportation. Prince, Thaw, Rumsey, Blanchon and I would all head back to the villa after first patrol, where we would get one of the Corporals to drive us out in one of our Escadrille’s Fiat trucks. After having my breakfast I drove over in a Staff Car to Behonne, with Blanchon in the passenger seat. All the while we mused over our planned trip. “Verdun! It’ll be some excitement for a change, no?” Blanchon said, laughing. “That close to the lines on foot? Yeah, it’ll be exciting, all right…” I replied with a grin.
By the time we were pulling into Behonne the rain had started to spit with increasing heaviness. Blanchon stepped out of the car and held a palm outward to test the weather. “Lá, Lá, we may be off to find that piano sooner than we think. It looks like it’ll be coming down heavy pretty soon”. He turned to me with a smirk. “Temps Áeronautique, eh?”. I smiled, but felt a stab of sorrow at the old French phrase. It reminded me of Devienne. The rain started coming down heavier still, and we darted into the nearest Bessonau for cover. As we did, Blanchon caught his foot on a box of tools, spilling its contents out onto the floor. “Careful, curse you!” came a roar from under the wing of the closest Nieuport. Surprised, Blanchon peered down to assume the identity of the offended man.
“Oh, sorry Luf. Working on your Ship again?” Blanchon said, scooping up some of the spilt tools and piling them back into the box. “Oui, the left wheel feels loose when I taxi. Pass me that spanner there, would you? The one with the handle painted red”. “You can tell? on this rough old airfield? Here you go”. Luf took the spanner from Blanchon and begun toiling away at the undercarriage. “But of course” he replied nonchalantly. I watched him as he worked, feeling almost as though we had intruded upon Lufbery’s inner sanctum. “You really love that machine, don’t you?” I asked. Lufbery paused as he checked the wheel mounting. “I look after her, so that she might do the same for me” was his answer.
Satisfied with his handiwork, we gave Luf a hand in getting back out from under his machine. As we did, De Laage stepped through the entryway. “Ah. Here you are. Thenault’s giving the assignments in the ready room in a few minutes”. We thanked him and followed him out towards the ‘ready room’, in reality just a small hut-like tent beside the flight line. “I think we should build a proper ready room, out of wood. We could find a boiler to put in it and make it quite cozy,” De Laage offered as we approached the tent. “Oui, a splendid idea! I’ll lend a hand” Blanchon answered.
In the room we found the rest of our pilots, gathered around in varying states of dampness, as Thenault stood with his arms folded behind his back. After a quick check of his wristwatch, he cleared his throat and we fell silent. “As you can see, Gentlemen, the weather’s taken quite the turn. Nevertheless, we have work to be done. The first job of the day is an escort patrol. Assigned pilots are Thaw, Blanchon, Rumsey and Masson, and Fullard shall lead. You are to meet two Caudrons of Escadrille 13 over their Aerodrome at Beauzee-Sur-Aire. A second pair of Caudrons will be operating near you, with an escorting flight from N.48. Remember, if you have to make a forced landing for whatever reason, look out for telephone wires. They’ll be harder to see in the rain. I’ll leave the rest of the assignments on the blackboard here, so make sure you check your assigned flights!”.
It was a comical sight, seeing my little Nieuport 16 with its leaders’ streamers alongside the larger, more powerful Nieuport 17s. Rumsey seemed to think so as well. “Well, at least we’ll have no trouble keeping up with you in the lead” he remarked, offering me a cigarette. “No, I don’t imagine you will”. Rumsey produced a match and lit our cigarettes. “How you keep on flying that nose-heavy pig is beyond me, James”. I shrugged. “Well, Laurence, you know, I’ve become quite proud of my little Ship. She may be a pig, but she’s been good to me so far”. Rumsey smirked. “How proud will you be when the rest of the formation leaves you in the dust?”. I grinned. “Careful, Sergeant, or I may just order you to swap machines with me!”. Rumsey laughed and punched me on the arm. I pushed him away jokingly. “Anyway, we’d better get on with it before the Capitane gives us a roasting”.
Our take-off was dubious, to say the least. Our machines had been turned against the Westerly wind, which left us barely enough room to clear the trees. Nonetheless, we all got up okay and, after the flight had formed behind me, I turned towards C.13’s aerodrome. There, we quickly found our friends in the Caudrons and assumed our place beside them. As one, we turned for the lines.
The rain was so bitterly unpleasant that I almost missed the looming hulk of No-Man’s-Land coming into view ahead of us. I scanned as far as I could around me. How am I meant to see anything in this? I thought to myself, before glancing ahead at the Caudrons. Never mind that. How can they effectively bomb anything?. Re-focusing, I made a thorough scan for enemy machines. Suddenly the forward Caudron’s right engine coughed out a thick plume of black smoke and it shuddered slightly in the air. Drawing a black line behind it, it immediately fired a distress signal and turned for home. Hard luck to have engine trouble here, and in a ship of that size… I thought to myself. We continued on with the remaining Caudron.
Just after passing Verdun, I spotted the silhouettes of four shapes high and to our left. Wiping the rain from my goggles, I strained my eyes at them. Yes, they were Bosches. Three Monoplanes and an Aviatik. I signalled them to my flight, before pulling aside the Caudron and pointing them out to the rear gunner. He looked up for a moment and then nodded once. Looking back, I saw the first Fokker point his nose downward. So, you want a fight? I challenged them in my head, and signalled the attack.
I kept my eyes keenly on the diving Fokker, anticipating his mistake that would allow me onto his tail. As he came closer, however, I suddenly had a strange feeling. Peering over my shoulder, I spotted a second Eindecker squarely behind me, lining up his shot! Immediately I kicked hard rudder and skidded away as tracers sliced the air where I had been a second before. I turned to retaliate, but before I could a Nieuport screamed past, firing a short staccato burst into the enemy. Immediately the Bosche fell into a spin. Another Eindecker crossed my front and I quickly got onto his tail, firing a short burst. The Eindecker immediately side-slipped and rolled lazily onto its back, falling down towards the city of Verdun in a lethargic spiral. I watched it fall, satisfied. However, just when I thought it would hit the ground, the Bosche sharply pitched up and turned for the lines. I dove down after him - this time he would not get away. I felt my anticipation rise as I approached, staring at the back of the oblivious Bosche’s helmeted head, and fired a second, longer burst. The Eindecker nosed up and slipped to the side again, this time impacting heavily with the ground. Looking around me, I saw one of my wingmen duelling with the last Eindecker. The Bosche broke off towards his lines with the Nieuport in pursuit, and both melded into the mist and out of sight.
Masson appeared behind me, and together we circled, looking for the other members of my flight. However, conditions were only becoming poorer. With neither my flight nor the Caudron in sight, Masson and I turned back towards Behonne. By the time we’d reached the field it was almost impossible to see, and I feared that I would crash as I came in to land. However, we both got down okay.
About an hour later Thaw and Rumsey returned, and from them I discovered that they had managed to spot the Caudron crossing the lines and had completed the escort. Blanchon, however, hadn’t been seen since the fight. “Well, I guess our piano-hunt is off,” Rumsey remarked with a sigh, as we took shelter from the rain in a Bessoneau. “Hm” I replied, half-listening and staring out into the rain. After a moment, Rumsey sighed. “You’re wondering where Blanchon got to?”. I nodded.
“I’m sure I saw him chasing a Fokker across the lines. I hope he didn’t go too far on his own”. “I wouldn’t worry, James. Blanchon aint stupid. He’d have turned back”. “Yeah, you’re right. Probably just landed somewhere closer to the front. Let’s go get some lunch”.
Blanchon’s call came just after lunchtime. He’d landed at the aerodrome at Verdun, but only barely. In the low weather, his undercarriage had brushed a telephone wire and nearly jolted the Frenchman into the ground nose-first. If he had been just a few centimetres lower, he would have been killed. Unsurprisingly, the next patrol was cancelled, and no visitors came to the Villa throughout the day. At around two O’Clock the rain had died down a fair amount, and so Thenault decided to lead an impromptu patrol. Luf, McConnell and Pavelka accompanied them.
Two hours after their patrol had set off, Thenault and Luf returned to the Villa. Immediately as they came into the sitting room I knew something was off - Thenault was wearing that frown of his. It was a pained expression that I’d seen three times before. “What happened?” I asked him, and he looked over at me. “It’s McConnell. He crashed his plane on landing, and he’s been taken to hospital”. I felt a chill run the length of my spine. “Hell! Poor old Mac. How bad?”. Thenault shook his head. “He was conscious and talking, but, well, something’s wrong with his spine”. The chill became a shudder. “Paralysed?” I asked, my voice hushed. “I don’t know, James”.
The air was tense around the dinner table. Thenault’s chair lay empty - shortly after our conversation he had retreated into his office, awaiting a phone call from the Hospital. “Least he ain’t dead,” Bert Hall offered, and was immediately met by furious stares from the rest of us. He shrugged, his goblin-like face wearing a smirk. “Just sayin’! Could be worse!”. Beside me, I noticed Thaw’s hands ball into a fist. “Shut up, will ya, Bert?”. Hall shrugged again in response, but stayed quiet.
Our mess talks were unusual that night. Adding to the sombre mood was the news that our three Fokkers had all been rejected, due to the poor visibility. Nobody on the ground had seen anything whatsoever. Whereas we typically talked all things aviation, the subject of conversation had strangely shifted to mortality. “I wouldn’t really care if the Bosche got me,” Rumsey was saying, “But with my pay just in it would be a shame to not spend it”. Rockwell laughed. “Well, I’d sooner kill a Bosche before getting killed by one! You guys are lucky, you keep running into them. I haven’t seen a damned Monoplane in four days!”. As per usual, Rockwell’s attitude lifted our spirits. No matter how tough it all seemed, Rockwell was always ready for a scrap, always eager to return to the air.
“Well, that’s Nine O’Clock”, Masson pointed out. “I’m off to bed”.