I've been a bit caught up recently, so I'll have to go back and catch up on everyone's stories!
A Sky Torn Asunder: The Memoirs of William D. Grey.
Part 4: Car Trouble.
Word finally reached the pilots of SPAD 31 over breakfast on the morning of December 5th. Jayaud had never made it out of yesterday’s combat - his Spad had been discovered two miles North of where our battle had taken place, resting among a small copse of trees. He had been hit by a single bullet, just below the back of the neck.
The younger pilots of the Escadrille had mixed reactions - equal parts anger, fear and shock. The older pilots allowed themselves a moment of quiet, introspective sadness, and murmured quiet farewells under their breath.I was mildly surprised at the pilots' muted reaction, but I supposed that they had become used to losing pilots. By any means, the pace of life went on unaffected at Fere-En-Tardenois, and at 9 O’Clock the C.O sent his orderly to summon Davet and I to his office.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” the C.O. greeted us. “Sgt. Amette, I have a task for you. We’re down two Spads since yesterday’s fight, so I’m sending you over to Le Bourget to fetch a couple of replacements. Take Sgt. Grey with you and show him around, then both of you can ferry a Spad back each. Pierre can get you there”. “Shall I pick us up a couple of those new 200 horsepower coucous?” Davet asked, and the C.O. laughed out loud. “Sure! If you can find any!”. With that we saluted and turned to leave. As Davet swung the door closed, the Capitane called after us. “Oh! And this isn’t a sightseeing trip! You’d better be back before the sun starts to set!”.
After a brief search we found Pierre hanging around the hangar which belonged to SPAD 48 and chatting to (or rather, by their expressions, irritating) a mechanic, who was trying to ignore the distraction as he reassembled a stripped-down Vickers.
“...I tell you, man, you won’t find a year better than this in all of France! What, you don’t like wine?” Pierre was frustratedly asking one of the mechanics, a rather cheap-looking bottle of Vin Rouge extended out before him.“I like wine just fine”, the mechanic responded, “...but for the last time, if you want a Bosche’s rudder so badly then get one of your damned pilots to bring you one! But look, here’s your chance! Here come two of them now!”. Davet waved to the pair as we approached. “What’s up, Pierre? We have a job for you” he said, and the little chauffeur let out a sharp, exasperated breath. “Now? Merde! I’m busy!”. Davet raised an eyebrow. “Busy how?” he asked, incredulously. Pierre waved the question away, but the mechanic was happy to oblige. “He won’t shut up about trying to bargain a Bosche rudder off of us to hang on his wall. I told him he ought to get you to fetch him one”. Davet laughed. “Pierre, you should ask our American friend here to get you one! He can't seem to help knocking down Bosches whenever he flies!”.
I waved the suggestion away. “Just luck is all” I replied. Davet patted me on the back. “Oh, I don’t know about that, mon ami. It’s not a common thing for a new pilot to do. But anyway, forget that. Come on Pierre, you’re driving us over to Le Bourget”. The Chauffeur threw his arms up in exasperation.
“Le Bourget! That’s ages away! What, are you picking up a new ship?”. “Yup. Capitane’s orders”. “Merde! Fine. Grey, you’d better get me that damned rudder”. “I assume I’ll be getting that bottle of wine for my trouble?” I asked, jokingly. “Like hell you will! You’ll be paying me back for the taxi service!”.
Begrudgingly, the little Chauffeur led us to his Fiat, parked at the end of the thin, straight road that led up to the aerodrome, and after pausing to watch a flight of nine Spads lifting off, we set out, with Pierre’s little fiat darting precariously down the winding countryside roads towards the great sprawling hub that was Paris.
Strangely, I didn’t remember much of Paris upon my arrival into France. I suppose this was due to the enormity of it all - on every corner were crowds of Poilus chasing women, bustling Cafes with soldiers and aircrews on leave, seas of uniforms - French, British and Belgian - intermixed with the city’s civilian population. I did, however, remember the little Cafe that sat below my modest little second-storey hotel room opposite the Gare du Nord (on the outer steps of which could be seen a myriad of sleeping soldiers), which had taken to serving “Style Anglais” breakfasts in very generous portions, alongside some of the finest coffee I had ever had. I hadn’t been to Le Bourget before - I wondered if it was close to that little Cafe.
I had just grown used to Pierre’s recklessly fast driving, and had allowed myself to begin to slip into daydreams as I watched the green blur of the countryside sailing past, when there was a sudden loud BANG, followed by a shouted expletive from our driver and a metallic groaning. Snapping my head forwards, I saw smoke escaping from the car’s engine, as we rolled to a grinding halt by the roadside. “Salaud!” Pierre spat, punching the steering wheel. We piled out of the motor, waving wisps of smoke away from our faces, and shuffled to the edge of the road to assess the damage. After a short while’s inspection, Pierre let out a long sigh. “Well, looks like we’re stuck” he concluded, before reaching into the cab and pulling the roadmap from its position on the front passenger seat.
“We shouldn’t be far from Quincy-Voisins,” he finally said to us, returning the map to the front seat. “Maybe there’s a mechanic in town who can help us out”. We agreed. With that, Pierre opened the rear door to his fiat and stretched out on the back seat. “What? You mean to say you’re not coming?” Davet asked, and the little chauffeur scoffed. “No chance! I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you two! Besides, somebody needs to watch the car”.
What followed was an hour-long walk down the roadside to the accompanying sound of Davet going into great length about how irritating he was finding the walk. I was much relieved when, after cresting the top of a slope, the dainty little chimneyed rooftops of Quincy-Voisins came into view. Spurred on by the sight, we quickened our pace, but we soon found that there wasn’t an awful lot to the little town, and doubtfully I wondered if they’d even seen a motorcar, let alone had anybody in town who could fix one. Owing to my less-than-fantastic French, I let Davet do the talking as we searched, but my suspicions were quickly confirmed. Disheartened, we decided to stop off in a Cafe for some lunch to cheer ourselves up.
After making the hours’ return trip and waking Pierre up we deliberated on how else we might get out of our predicament. Both our airfield and the depot at Le Bourget were too far away to realistically walk to, and another review of the roadmap revealed no other nearby towns. Finally we resolved to attempt to fix the engine ourselves. The work was agonizingly frustrating, but after a long period of toil the motor finally rumbled back into life. It groaned rather than purred as we set off back along the road, and Pierre had to go easy on the speed to avoid frying the motor again, but we were finally back on the move.
By the time we had gotten to the fringes of Paris the land had been cast in a sheet of gold, as to the West the sun slowly sunk beneath the horizon. “Well, no way we’ll be getting any coucous home today” Davet concluded, grinning. “There’s nothing for it. We’ll just have to stay overnight!”. Pierre let out a whoop of joy, and I couldn’t help but be excited at the prospect of a night on the town - although, I wondered what the Capitane would have to say.
We checked-in to a little hotel on the Western side of Paris and dropped off our Combinations (Brought with us in our kit-bags) in our rooms, before Davet used the reception’s telephone to call SPAD 31 and let the Capitane know our situation:
“Allo? Oui, it’s me. Well, what happened was…what? Oui, I know that you said...oui, I know...oui...oui, I know! But, you see, we broke down!....What? No, the car! ….about three miles from, ah…”
He cupped his hand over the receiver and turned to me. “Bill, what was that town again?” he asked. “Which one?” “The one we walked to from the car, idiot!” “Uhm….Voisins-something?” “Ah, mais oui!” He un-cupped the receiver.
“...Three miles from Quincy Voisins….no, we had to fix it ourselves….what?...no, by ourselves, I said! ... Oui, it was already dark when we got here…..Ok…..Ok…..Merci….what was that?.....what?.....really?”
Davet’s face broke into a grin as he turned to look at me. “Oui, I’ll tell him! ….Ok! …. Salut”. He clicked the receiver down. “Mon ami,” he happily exclaimed, “tonight the drinks are on you! They’ve confirmed your Bosche!”.
I must admit that the details of that night are lost to me, although the horrible pounding in my head the next morning informed me that I had, apparently, enjoyed it very much. It took two whole minutes of pounding on Davet’s door before he finally awoke, in a similarly sorry state. Pierre was equally hard to rouse, and after getting an earful from our little Chauffeur we sleepily climbed back into the car and headed out for the Depot at Le Bourget.