Fullofit - even in the mighty Strutter, the last thing anyone needs is a Dud observer! Hopefully a strongly-worded recommendation to the C.O will see someone more, ahem, appropriate occupying Chesty's passenger seat!
Lou - Raspberry tart? Blackberry and Blueberry preserves? Cream for your coffee?! Sounds like Swany's living the life! You'll have to make sure not to be relocated anytime soon!
Sous Lieutenant James B. Fullard, Escadrille N.124 'Américaine', Bar-le-Duc, France.
September 2nd, 1916.
On the morning of the 1st we awoke to find the rain more ferocious than ever, confining us to the ground for the day. Not a single pilot of the American Escadrille bothered even leaving the Villa for the entire day, and the only excitement to be had was a visit from the pilot of the Caudron we had escorted yesterday. Arriving with three jars of marmalade by way of thanks, the skinny young pilot, who can’t have been a day older than twenty, joined us for lunch, trying on his elementary English to amuse himself. “Sorry about losing you yesterday, pal,” I offered, “I couldn’t see a damned thing for all the rain by the end of our scrap with the ol’ Bosche”. The pilot waved my apology away. “Non, M’sieur. Wee should never ‘ave been flying in that weatheure”. “And how about your other man? The one who fell away with a busted engine?”. The French pilot’s eyes became glassy as they watered over slightly. “Oh. He caught a...how you say. câble téléphonique. I’m afraid he died, as did his observers“. The chatter around the table fell into a respectful quiet. “I see. That’s a real shame. Sorry to hear”.
The melancholy of the heavy weather was broken up in the evening, as we were lounging around the sitting room. I was mid-conversation with De Laage, discussing a rumour about a lightning-fast new prototype scout we’d picked up on, when the door flew open with a force that made us all swing around. Standing in the doorway with a childlike grin on his face was Thenault. “I’ve had word about McConnell. He’s going to be just fine! They say he’ll be back with us by the end of the month!”. An uproarious cheer rattled the mess, and promptly the whiskey and Pinard made an appearance. We toasted to the health of old Mac.
As is typical of French rain, it continued on throughout the night to plague us the following morning. However, it seemed that the worst of it had passed, and so Prince quickly set about the reorganisation of the piano hunting party. “We’ll go today, through this damned rain if need be!” he told us excitedly, “Caporal Gardet’s said he can drive us”. Our expedition consisted of myself, Prince, Blanchon, Thaw and Rumsey. Being the new man and eager to fit in, Paul Pavelka also said he’d come along. We welcomed the help. At the breakfast table Blanchon and I nearly gave the game away. We had been discussing how, if we did find an intact piano, to best load it onto the truck when Thenault walked in. “What’s this?” he asked happily, “What are you putting into a truck? Maybe I can help”. I was fumbling in my mind for an excuse, but my level-headed French partner in crime was sharper. Coolly, he waved Thenault’s offer away. “Ah, don’t worry, Capitane. We were just joking about taking our Nieuport 16s back to the depot and demanding Bebes instead!”. The Capitane laughed as I breathed out a sigh of relief. “Not a bad idea! Well, if you can get it done between patrols, feel free. I’ve tried to get in touch with those idiotes at Nieuport to have your new machines delivered, but they’re no help at all”.
At 9 O’Clock the pilots started making their way to Behonne where we crowded into the Ready Room tent, studying the blackboard there which bore our assignments for the day. To our delight, we found that our flights had been cancelled due to the weather. Perfect! We can get away to Verdun for sure!. Nudging Prince in the ribs, I asked “So, lunch at 1 and then off we go?”. With a foxlike smile he nodded.
Back at the villa, the ‘Piano Hunters’ prepared for our sortie to Verdun, borrowing horizon-blue greatcoats from some of the enlisted men. Caporal Gardet, our chauffeur for the raid, greeted us from the cab of the Fiat truck as we stepped out, and we all piled into the back, with Prince going up front, and after the obligatory cigarettes had been passed around we set off for the wartorn city. After a long and cramped ride it became suddenly apparent to me the increased volume of the dull ‘Boom-Boom-Boom’ of the big artillery guns firing. At the edge of Verdun we were stopped at a roadblock by a small group of Poillus. From the front I heard a harsh voice demand to know our business. “We came to see the front” was Prince’s reply, spoken in accented French. I heard the guard call over his superior. After a moment, a second voice sounded, as a Poillu appeared at the rear of the truck, staring over us with a distrusting look before disappearing again. “More in the back,” I heard him say. A moment later and we were ordered out of the truck by a Sous-Lieutenant and lined up by the side of the road.
“Aviateurs without machines? How unusual” he said, his hand resting threateningly on the pistol at his hip. “What are you inferring, Sir?” Prince asked, irritation detectable in his voice. The Sous-Lieutenant snapped around to face him. “You claim to be pilots but you have no planes! You speak in French but your accent is foriegn! You say you want to see the lines, precisely where the Bosche have been trying to break through!”. With a sharp click, the brass button of his holster came undone. “We shoot spies round here, you know?”. Prince gritted his teeth, fury flashing on his face, and made to reply. I quickly put a hand on his shoulder to stop him, before stepping forwards. I locked eyes with the Frenchman. “What, did you think all aviators lived up there and never came down?” I asked. The Lieutenants mouth fell open in outraged shock. “As for the accents, Monsieur, we are pilots of the American Escadrille”. The Frenchman recomposed himself. “Is that so? Can you prove it?” he asked. Behind him, one of the Poillus shifted uncomfortably. “Ah, sir...they’re telling the truth. That’s James Fullard, l’As Americain. I’ve seen his picture in the newspapers”. The Lieutenant spun around to face the man, his face turning beet red, before swinging back to me. “We’ll be on our way now” I said coldly, before turning back to my fellow pilots. “Back in the truck, boys” I said in English. Snickering among themselves, they all piled back into the truck as the now-defeated Lieutenant watched on. Putting one foot onto the cab of the truck, I met the Lieutenant’s gaze once more. “Oh. By the way. Call us spies again and I'll put you on the floor”.
As the truck rolled through the ruined streets of Verdun, my fellow pilots burst into fits of laughter. Rumsey ruffled my hair and punched me on the arm, an ear-splitting grin on his face. “James, you devil! That was brilliant!”. I smirked. “Each of you owe me a Whiskey. And it had better be a large one!”. We disembarked for the second time and piled back out into the rain, splitting into two groups and making our way down the rubble-streets in search of our quarry.
After two hours’ searching, with various spoils obtained (including a fine little gramophone complete with a record mounted on it) we heard a cry coming from the end of the road. “Over here!” Pavelka was shouting out, “I think I’ve found one!”. We all rushed over and, sure enough, there was a Piano jutting out from the shattered wood and brick. Immediately we set about clearing the rubble, and with an almighty heave we lifted the piano down onto the road. The cover hung loose, one of its hinges buckled, and three or four keys were missing, but it was otherwise intact. “It’s a bit shabby, but so are we! It’ll do!” Prince exclaimed happily, and with a cheer we set about hauling our spoils back to the Fiat, loading them up into the back. In total we had obtained a new leather chair, our gramophone, and a second wooden chair to use as a piano stool. However, we found the fatal flaw in our plan - with all the gear loaded into the truck, we had to contort ourselves into horribly uncomfortable positions just to get back in, and by the end of the return trip we were all miserable with cramp.
The sky had darkened by the time we returned. Spotting us at the foot of the steps, Luf rushed out to give us a hand in hauling our spoils into the Foyer of the villa. Hearing the commotion, Hall and De Laage appeared from the mess. “Merde! Where did you get that?!” De Laage asked, astounded. “Never mind that, give us a hand in getting it through, will ya?” Rumsey replied. After much back-and-forth, accented by the odd argument about which way to swing the cumbersome instrument, our piano sat in its new home against the farmost wall of the sitting room. Our Gramophone was installed on a reappropriated writing desk. As our gang had a late supper in the dining-room, we heard the thud-thud of Thenault coming downstairs from his office. We shot each other excited glances as we heard the door to the mess swing open, and with the cry of “Mon Dieu!” we all gave a cheer.
That night we had one of the most pleasant and memorable evenings since my arrival in France some months ago. Thenault wasted no time in trialling our new piano, playing away softly as we cultivated a merry drunkenness. Then, for the first time, I heard the pilots break out into the Escadrille’s favourite song from their Luxeuil days. Sipping at my whiskey, I allowed myself to be lost in the words.
We meet 'neath the sounding rafters, the walls all around us are bare. they echo with peals of laughter, it seems that the dead are there. so stand by your glasses steady, the world is a web of lies! here's a toast to the dead already, hurrah for the next man to die!