Fullofit - Chesty is a force of nature. I dread to think how many Bosches will fall if he ever gets his sly hands on that Nieuport of *ahem* his...
Raine - Wow. Just wow. THREE ZEPPELINS. That's huge...Collins is England's guardian angel! I wonder if we'll see the first pilot VC and bar in our altered-history timeline?
Sous. Lt. James B. Fullard, Esc. N.124 'Americaine', Luxeuil, France.
September 23rd, 1916.
The rain continued to hamper operations, and we spent much of our time in the mess among our new British and Canadian friends. To our amazement they seemed to fly no matter the weather, and more than once I saw their Strutters departing during Temps Aeronautique from my quiet little hotel room in Luxeuil. On the morning of the 22nd, before our scheduled patrol, I visited the hangars with Chesty and Raymond Collishaw to give my machine a final once-over. The Canadian was impressed with the type, but Chesty seemed...familiar...with my ship. Leaning closer to me, Ray whispered in my ear “he desperately wants one of those, you know. Been harassing daddy for days to get a shot in a Nieuport before you turned up!”.
We were all thrilled when our Nieuport 17s were wheeled out onto the aerodrome for their maiden flight. With a great grin on his face Rockwell slapped me on the back. “Hell, look at these darlings! We’ll win the war in a week with these ships!”. I laughed as I buttoned up my combination. We went through the ritual of passing cigarettes - it was my turn to provide, and I handed off my cigarette case to Blanchon. Smirking, he struck a match. “Well, I’m keen to see what our ace can do in one of these little coucous” he said, nudging me in the ribs. I laughed and waved him away.
De Laage gathered us on the airfield in front of our machines. “Ok, boys. Today we’re going after a Bosche Balloon South of St. Die. I will be leading, and Fullard will take over if I am indisposed for any reason. Remember, this is dangerous work, so keep a sharp lookout! Our English friends say that the Bosche are still flying Eindeckers in this sector, but all the same”.
We boarded our Nieuports and took off into the icy morning air. The horizon had turned a deep salmon-pink as the sun quietly climbed up into the sky, and as the first rays of light bathed the land in gold I was stunned into breathlessness by the beauty of the Alsace, its great rolling hills and expansive forests stretching on in wondrous, enchanted scenery. As we flew East towards the lines, I found myself transfixed by the sight. So enthralled was I that I almost failed to notice the qualities of my new machine - unlike its nose-heavy little sister, the Nieuport 17 was incredible to fly. Each twitch on the control column came with a feather-light reaction from the controls, as I tilted the nose up the machine hungrily lapped up the altitude, seemingly infinitely. Gently I weaved left and right. Now, this was an aeroplane. In that moment, with the mountains bathed in dawn, in this new machine, I felt completely serene for the first time since my arrival in France.
As we saw the scar of no-man’s-land coming into view my mind returned to that of a war pilot. Looking down at the vast forests below us, I checked my map for potential places to land, should I need to, before pointing us on course for the enemy balloon and dropping altitude. I spotted it shining in the morning glow and made straight for it, holding my breath in anticipation. Fighting my instincts telling me to turn away as a hail of machine-gun fire came up at me, I got close and let the Le Prieurs fly - all of them missed. "Damned useless things” I muttered, charging my Milatraleuse and circling around for a strafing run. Setting the balloon in my sights again as the ground crew fought to winch it down, I fired off a long burst. Suddenly smoke started to trickle from the bullet holes, and I banked away just in time to watch the balloon explode into a blinding fireball.
Satisfied, we headed home and I made my report. That night, however, I found Thenault in a heated argument over the telephone. After slamming the receiver down and shaking his head in disgust he turned to me. “Sorry, James. They’ve rejected your balloon claim. God only knows why”. I sighed and shrugged. “Well, it can’t be helped. Fancy a drink?”.
The next day I awoke early to the sound of an almighty commotion coming from the hallway. As I opened my door there was a yellow flash at my feet as Whiskey bolted into my room, diving underneath my bed. In puzzlement I tried to retrieve the cub who growled in protest. A moment later the two young daughters of the proprietor knocked on my door. “Monsieur, ‘ave you seen Whiskee?” they asked me. One of them was holding a pink ribbon in her hands. I raised an eyebrow. “You’re not trying to put that there ribbon on poor old Whiskey by any chance, are you?”. The two girls feigned shock. “non, Monsieur! Of course not! We just want to, ah...feed him some leftovers!”. I smirked. “I saw him go down to the end of the hall”. The girls faces lit up, and with a quick “Merci!” they ran off.
I opened a bottle of Yukon Gold (bought from the Canadians) and poured a small amount into a mug, laying it at the foot of the bed and coaxing the young lion cub out. “You owe me one, buddy” I told him, scratching him behind the ears as he lapped the drink up.
The morning of the 23rd was cloudy, but the rain had seemingly receded once more. Fortunately for me, I was scheduled for only one patrol in the morning, leaving the rest of my day free to lounge around the aerodrome as I pleased. Around noon I returned to the hotel for lunch. As I was sat at the dining table I choked on my coffee at the sight of an utterly defeated Whiskey trailing at Luf’s feet - around his neck was a large pink bow.
After watching the evening patrol depart and having a quick drink in the mess with the Canadians, I retired to the hotel for the night, heading into the lounge where I found Thenault, Lufbery and De Laage sat at one of the smaller tables. “Evening, fellas!” I happily greeted them. Thenault turned to face me, but did not answer. It was then that I noticed the tears welling in his eyes. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. “What’s wrong?” I asked him quietly. It was Lufbery who answered me, a disturbing mix of venom and misery caught in his voice.
“Kiffin Rockwell’s dead”.
1) Whiskey's Ribbon:
Taken from George Thenault's Memoir: "At the Pomme d'Or Hotel, Whiskey won the hearts of the two charming daughters of the proprietor, who put a pink ribbon round his neck and took great pains to find out what he liked best to eat".