Flying for France
With The American Escadrille At Verdun
By James R. McConnell
(Sergeant—Pilot in the French Flying Corps)
[The World's Work, November 1916]
[Mr. McConnell is twenty-eight years of age, was born in Chicago and educated at Haverford School in Pennsylvania and afterward at tie University of Virginia. After leaving college he worked for a short time in New York and then became Land and Industrial Agent of a small railroad in North Carolina. In January, 1915, he left his work in North Carolina and sailed from New York to become a driver in the American Ambulance in France. During this service he was mentioned in the Orders of the Day for conspicuous bravery in attending the wounded under fire and was given the much-coveted "croix de guerre." While in the Ambulance service he became imbued with the belief that the French were fighting the fight for democracy against autocracy and militarism, and he therefore enlisted in the French aviation service in which, since April, 1916, he and other American aviators have been fighting for France.—THE EDITORS.]
BENEATH the canvas of a huge hangar mechanicians are at work on the motor of an airplane. Outside, on the borders of an aviation field, others loiter awaiting their aerial charges' return from the sky. Near the hangar stands a hut-shaped tent. In front of it several short-winged biplanes are lined up; inside it three or four young men are lolling in wicker chairs.
They wear the uniform of French army aviators. These uniforms, and the grim-looking machine guns mounted on the upper planes of the little aircraft, are the only warlike note in a pleasantly peaceful scene. The war seems very remote. It is hard to believe that the greatest of all battles—Verdun—rages only twenty-five miles to the north, and that the field and hangars and mechanicians and aviators and airplanes are all playing a part therein.
Suddenly there is the distant hum of a motor. One of the pilots emerges from the tent and gazes fixedly up into the blue sky. He points, and one glimpses a black speck against the blue, high overhead. The sound of the motor ceases, and the speck grows larger. It moves earthward in steep dives and circles, and, as it swoops closer, takes on the shape of an airplane. Now one can make out the red, white, and blue circles under the wings which mark a French warplane, and the distinctive insignia of the pilot on its sides.
"Ton patron arrive!" one mechanician cries to another. "Your boss is coming!" The machine dips sharply over the top of a hangar, straightens out again near the earth at a dizzy speed a few feet above it and, losing momentum in surprisingly short time, hits the ground with tail and wheels. It bumps along a score of yards and then, its motor whirring again, turns, rolls toward the hangar, and stops. A human form, enveloped in a species of garment for all the world like a diver's suit, and further adorned with goggles and a leather hood, rises unsteadily in the cockpit, clambers awkwardly overboard, and slides down to terra firma.
"Hell," mumbles that gentleman, as he starts divesting himself of his flying garb.
"What's wrong now?" inquires one of the tenants of the tent.
"Everything, or else I've gone nutty," is the indignant reply, delivered while disengaging a leg from its Teddy Bear trousering. 'Why, I emptied my whole roller on a Boche this morning, point blank, at not fifteen feet off. His machine gun quit firing and his propeller wasn't turning and yet the darn fool just hung up there as if he was tied to a cloud. Say, I was so sure I had him it made me sore—felt like running into him and yelling, "Now, you fall, you bum!"
He is the first of the American Escadrille, composed of Americans who have volunteered to fly for France for the duration of the war, to return to their station near Bar-le-Duc, twenty-five miles south of Verdun, from a flight over the battle front of the Meuse. Almost immediately other dots appear in the sky, and one by one turn into airplanes as they wheel downward. Finally all six of the machines that have been aloft are back on the ground and the American Escadrille has one more sortie over the 'German lines to its credit.
PERSONNEL OF THE AMERICAN ESCADRILLE
Like all worth-while institutions, the American Escadrille, of which I have the honor of being a member, was of gradual growth. When the war began, it is doubtful if anybody anywhere envisaged the possibility of an American entering the French aviation service. Yet by the fall of 1915, scarcely, more than a year later, there were six Americans serving as full-fledged pilots, and in the summer of 1916 the list numbered fifteen or more, with twice as many again training, for their pilots' licenses in the military aviation schools.
The pioneer of them all was William Thaw, of Pittsburgh, who is to-day the only American holding a commission in the French flying corps. Lieutenant Thaw, a flyer of considerable reputation in America before the war, had enlisted in the Foreign Legion in August, 1914. With considerable difficulty he had himself transferred, in the early part of 1915, into aviation, and the autumn of that year found him piloting a Caudron biplane, and doing excellent observation work. At the same time, Sergeants Norman Prince, of Boston, and Elliot Cowdin, of New York, who were the first to enter the aviation service coming directly from the United States, were at the front on Voisin planes with a cannon mounted in the bow. Sergeant Bert Hall, who signs from the Lone Star State and had got himself shifted, from the Foreign Legion to aviation soon after Thaw, was flying a Nieuport fighting machine, and, a little later, instructing less advanced students of the air in the Avord training school. His particular chum in the Foreign Legion, James Bach, who also had become an aviator, had the distressing distinction soon after he reached the front of becoming the first—and so far the only—American to fall into the hands of the enemy. Going to the assistance of a companion who had broken down in landing a spy in the German lines, Bach smashed his machine against a tree. Both he and his French comrade were captured; and Bach was twice court-martialed by the Germans on suspicion of being an American—"Franc-tireur''—the penalty for which is death! He was acquitted, but of course still languishes in a prison camp "somewhere in Germany." The sixth of the original sextet was Adjutant Didier Masson, who did exhibition flying in the States until, Carranza having grown ambitious in Mexico, he turned his talents to spotting los Federales for General Obregon. When the real war broke out, Masson answered the call of his French blood and was soon flying and fighting for the land of his ancestors.
Except for Bach, all of these men are at present in the American Escadrille. Of its other members Sergeant Givas Lufbery, American citizen and soldier, but dweller in the world at large, was among the earliest to wear the French airman's wings. Exhibition work with a French pilot in the Far East prepared him efficiently for the task of patiently unloading explosives on German military centres from a slow-moving Voisin, which was his first mount. Upon the heels of Lufbery came two more graduates of the Foreign Legion, Kiffin Rockwell, of Atlanta, Ga., who had been wounded at Carency, [Kiffin Rockwell was killed in action on September 23d last, after this article was written.—The Editors] and Victor Chapman, of New York, who in recovering from his wounds became an airplane bomb-dropper and so caught the craving to become a pilot. At about this time one Paul Pavelka, whose birthplace was Madison, Conn., and who from the age of fifteen had sailed the Seven Seas, managed to slip out of the Foreign Legion into aviation and joined the other Americans at Pau.
Chouteau Johnson, of New York; Lawrence Rumsey, of Buffalo; Dudley Hill, of Peekskill, N. Y.; and Clyde Balsley, of El Paso, one after another doffed the ambulance driver's khaki for the horizon blue of the French flying corps. All of them had seen plenty of action collecting the wounded under fire, but all of them were tired of being non-combatant spectators. More or less the same feelings actuated me, I suppose. I had come over from Carthage, N. C. in January, 1915, and worked with an American Ambulance section in the Bois le Prêtre. All along I had been convinced that the United States ought to aid in the struggle against Germany. With that conviction, it was plainly up to me to do more than drive an ambulance. The more I saw the splendor of the fight the French were fighting, the more I began to feel like an embusqué—what the British call a "shirker." So I made up my mind to go into aviation.
ENTERING THE FRENCH AIR SERVICE
A special channel had been created for the reception of applications from Americans, and my own was favorably replied to within a few days. It took four days more to pass through all the various departments, sign one's name to a few hundred papers, and undergo the physical examinations. Then I was sent to the aviation depot at Dijon and fitted out with a uniform and personal equipment. The next stop, was the school at Pau, where I was to be taught to fly. My elation at arriving there was second only to my satisfaction at being a French soldier. It was a vast improvement, I thought, over the American Ambulance.
Talk about forming an all-American flying unit, or escadrille, was rife while I was at Pau. What with the pilots already brevetted, and the elèvés, or pupils in the training schools, there were quite enough of our compatriots to, man the dozen airplanes in one escadrille. Every day somebody "had it absolutely straight" that we were to become a unit at the front, and every other day the report turned out to be untrue. But at last, in the month of February, our dream came true. We learned that a captain had actually been assigned to command an American escadrille and that the Americans at the front had been recalled and placed under his orders. Soon afterward we elèvés got another delightful thrill.
Thaw, Prince, Cowdin, and the other veterans were training on the Nieuport. That meant the American escadrille was to fly the Nieuport, the best type of avion de chasse, and hence would be a fighting unit. It is necessary to explain parenthetically here that French military aviation, generally speaking, is divided into three groups, i.e., the avions de chasse, or airplanes of pursuit, which are used to hunt down enemy aircraft or to fight them off; avions de bombardement, big, unwieldy monsters for use in bombarding raids; and avions de réglage, cumbersome creatures designed to regulate artillery fire, take-photographs, and do scout duty. The Nieuport is the smallest, fastest-rising, fastest-moving biplane in the French service. It can travel 110 miles an hour, and is a one-man apparatus with a machine gun mounted on its roof and fired by the pilot, with one hand while with the other and his feet he operates his controls.* The French call their Nieuport pilots the "aces" of the air. No wonder we were tickled to be included in that august brotherhood!
Before the American Escadrille became an established fact, one of its members, Elliot Cowdin, succeeded in bringing down a German machine, and thus winning the first Médaille Militaire, the highest decoration that can be awarded a non-commissioned officer or private. He and Thaw, having mastered the Nieuport, had managed to be sent to the Verdun front, and it was there that Cowdin' s machine gun scored its bull's eye. After completing his training, receiving his military pilot's brevet, and being perfected on the type of plane he is to use at the front, an aviator is ordered to the reserve headquarters near Paris to await his call. Kiffin Rockwell and Victor Chapman had been there for months, and I had just arrived, when on the 16th of April orders came for the Americans to join their escadrille at Luxeuil, in the Vosges.
The rush was breathless! Never were flying clothes and fur coats drawn from the quartermaster, belongings packed, and red tape in the various administrative bureaus unfurled with such headlong haste. In a few hours we were aboard the train, panting but happy. Our party consisted of Sergeant Prince and Rockwell, Chapman, and myself, who were only corporals at that time. We were joined at Luxeuil by Lieutenant Thaw and Sergeants Hall and Cowdin. For the veterans our arrival at the front was devoid of excitement; for the three neophytes—Rockwell, Chapman, and me—it was the beginning of a new existence, the entry into an unknown world. Of course Rockwell and Chapman had seen plenty of warfare on the ground", but warfare in the air was as novel to them as to me. For us all it contained unlimited possibilities for initiative and service to France, and for them it must have meant, too, the restoration of personality lost during those months in the trenches with the Foreign Legion. Rockwell summed it up characteristically.
"Well, we're off for the races," he remarked.
There is a considerable change in the life of a pilot when he arrives on the front. During the training period he is subject to rules and regulations as stringent as those of the barracks. But once assigned to duty over the firing line he receives the treatment accorded an officer, no matter what his grade. Save when he is flying or on guard, his time is his own. There are no roll calls or other military frills, and in place of the bunk he slept upon as an elèvé he finds a regular bed in a room to himself, and the services of an orderly. Even men of higher rank who, although connected with his escadrille, are not pilots, treat him with respect. His two mechanicians are under his orders. Being volunteers, we Americans are shown more than the ordinary consideration by the ever-generous French Government, which sees that we have the best of everything.
On our arrival at Luxeuil we were met by Captain Thenault, the French commander of the American Escadrille—officially known as No. 124, by the way—and motored to the aviation field in one of the staff cars assigned to us. I enjoyed that ride. Lolling back against the soft leather cushions, I recalled how in my apprenticeship days at Pau I had had to walk six miles for my laundry.
THE AMERICAN ESCADRILLE
The equipment awaiting us at the field was even more impressive than our automobile. Everything was brand new, from the fifteen Fiat trucks to the office, magazine, and rest tents. And the men attached to the Escadrille! At first sight they seemed to outnumber the Nicaraguan army—mechanicians, chauffeurs, armorers, motor cyclists, telephonists, wireless operators, Red Cross stretcher bearers, clerks! Afterward I learned they totaled seventy-odd, and that all of them were glad to be connected with the American Escadrille.
In their hangars stood our trim little Nieuports. I looked mine over with a new feeling of importance and gave orders to my mechanicians for the mere satisfaction of being able to. To find oneself the sole proprietor of a fighting airplane is quite a treat, let me tell you. One gets accustomed to it, though, after one has used up two or three of them—at the French Government's expense.
Rooms were assigned to us in a villa adjoining the famous hot baths of Luxeuil where Caesar's cohorts were wont to besport themselves. We messed with our officers, Captain Thenault and Lieutenant de Laage de Mieux, at the best hotel in town. An automobile was always on hand to carry us to the field. I began to wonder whether I was a summer resorter instead of a soldier.
Among the pilots who had welcomed us with open arms, we discovered the famous Captain Happe, commander of the Luxeuil bombardment group. The doughty bomb-dispenser, upon whose head the Germans have set a price, was in his quarters. After we had been introduced, he pointed to eight little boxes** arranged on a table.
"They contain Croix de Guerre for the families of the men I lost on my last trip," he explained; and he added: "It's a good thing you're here to go along with us for protection." There are lots of Boches in this sector."
I thought of the luxury we were enjoying: our comfortable beds, baths and motor cars; and then I recalled the ancient custom of giving a man selected for the sacrifice a royal time of it before the appointed day.
THE ESCADRILLE'S FIRST SORTIE
The American Escadrille was sent to Luxeuil primarily to acquire the teamwork necessary to a flying unit. Then, too, the new pilots needed a taste of antiaircraft artillery to familiarize them with the business of aviation over a battlefield. The Germans shot well in that sector, too. Lieutenant Thaw's machine was hit at an altitude of 13,000 feet.
The memory of the first sortie we made as an escadrille will always remain fresh in my mind because it was also my first trip over the lines.*** We were to leave at six in the morning. Captain Thenault pointed out on his aerial map the route we were to follow. Never having flown over this region before, I was afraid of losing myself. Therefore, as it is easier to keep other airplanes in sight when one is above them, I began climbing as rapidly as possible, meaning to trail along in the wake of my companions. Unless one has had practice in flying in formation, however, it is hard to keep in contact. The diminutive avions de chasse are the merest pinpoints against the great sweep of landscape below and the limitless heavens above. The air was misty and clouds were gathering. Ahead there seemed a barrier of them. Although as I looked down the ground showed plainly, in the distance everything was hazy. Forging up above the mist, at 7,000 feet, I lost the others altogether. Even when they are not closely joined, the clouds; seen from immediately above appear as a solid bank of white. The spaces between are indistinguishable. It is like being in an Arctic ice field.
To the south I made out the Alps. Their glittering peaks projected up through the white sea about me like majestic icebergs. Not a single plane was visible anywhere, and I was growing very, uncertain about; my position, My "splendid isolation had become oppressive when one by one, the others began "bobbing up above the cloud level.
We were over Belfort and headed for the trench lines. The cloud banks dropped behind, and below us we saw the smiling plain of Alsace stretching eastward to the Rhine. It was distinctly pleasurable, flying over this conquered land. Following the course of the canal that runs to the Rhine sighted, from a height of 13,000 feet over Dannemarie, a series of brown, woodwormlike tracings on the ground—the trenches!
BURSTING, SHRAPNEL COULDN'T BE HEARD
My attention was drawn elsewhere almost immediately, however. Two balls of black smoke had suddenly appeared close to one of the machines ahead of me, and with the same disconcerting abruptness similar balls began to dot the sky above, below, and on all sides of us. We were being shot at with shrapnel. It was interesting to watch the flash of the bursting shells, and the attendant smoke puffs—black, white, or yellow, depending on the kind of shrapnel used. The roar of the engine drowned the noise of the explosions. Strangely, enough, my feelings, about it were wholly impersonal.
We turned north after crossing the lines. Mulhouse seemed just below us, and I noted with a. keen sense of satisfaction our invasion of real German territory. The Rhine, too, looked delightfully accessible. As we continued northward I distinguished the twin lakes of Gérardmer sparkling in their emerald setting. Where the lines crossed the Hartmanns-Weilerkopf there were little spurts of brown smoke as shells burst in the trenches. One could scarcely pick out the old city of Thann from among the numerous neighboring villages, so tiny it seemed in the valley's mouth. I had never been higher than 7,000 feet and was unaccustomed to reading country from a great altitude. It was also bitterly cold, and even in my fur-lined combination I was shivering. I noticed, too, that I had to take long, deep breaths in the rarefied atmosphere. Looking downward at a certain angle, I saw what at first I took to be a round, shimmering pool of water. It was simply the effect of the sunlight on the congealing mist.
ROCKWELL GETS A GERMAN
We had been keeping an eye out for German machines since leaving our lines, but none, had shown: up. It wasn't surprising, for we were too many. Only four days later, however, Rockwell brought down the Escadrille's first airplane in his initial aerial combat. He was flying alone when, over Thann, he came upon a German on reconnaissance. He dived and the German turned toward his own lines, opening fire from a long distance. Rockwell kept straight after him. Then, closing to within thirty yards; he pressed on the release of his machine gun and saw the enemy gunner fall backward and the pilot crumple, up sideways in his seat. The plane flopped downward and crashed to earth just behind the German trenches. Swooping close to the ground, Rockwell saw its debris burning away brightly. He had turned the trick with but four shots and only one German bullet had struck his Nieuport. An observation post telephoned the news before Rockwell's return, and he got a great welcome. All Luxeuil smiled upon him—particularly the girls. But he couldn't stay to enjoy his popularity. The Escadrille was ordered to the sector of Verdun.
While in a way we were sorry to leave Luxeuil, we naturally didn't regret the chance to take part in the aerial activity of the world's greatest battle. The night before our departure some German aircraft destroyed four of our tractors and killed six men with bombs, but even that caused little excitement compared with going to Verdun. We would get square with the Boches over Verdun, we thought it is impossible to chase, airplanes at night, so the raiders made a safe getaway.
As soon as we pilots had left in our machines, the trucks and tractors set out in convoy, carrying the men and equipment. The Nieuports carried us to our new post in a little more than an hour. We stowed them away in the hangars and went to have a look at our sleeping quarters. A commodious villa half way between the town of Bar-le-Duc and the aviation field had been assigned to us, and comforts were as plentiful as at Luxeuil.
Our really serious work had begun however, and we knew it. Even as far behind the actual fighting as Bar-le-Duc one could sense one's proximity to a vast military operation. The endless convoys of motor trucks, the fast flowing stream of troops, and the distressing number of ambulances brought realization of the near presence of a gigantic battle.
Within a twenty-mile radius of the Verdun front aviation camps abound. Our Escadrille was listed on the schedule with the other fighting units, each of which has its specified flying hours rotating so there is always an escadrille de chasse over the lines. A field wireless to enable us to keep track of the movements of enemy 'planes became part of our equipment.
Lufbery joined us a few days after our arrival. He was followed by Johnson and Balsley, who had been on the air guard over Paris. Hill and Rumsey came next, and after them Masson and Pavelka. Nieuports were supplied them from the nearest depot, and as soon as they had mounted their instruments and machine guns they were on the job with the rest of us. Fifteen Americans are or have been members-of the American Escadrille, but there have never been as many as that on duty at any one time.
Before we were fairly settled at Bar-le-Duc, Hall brought down a German observation craft and Thaw a Fokker. Fights occurred on almost every sortie. The Germans seldom cross into our territory, unless on a bombarding jaunt, and thus practically all the fighting takes place on their side of the line. Thaw dropped his Fokker in the morning, and on the afternoon of the same .day there was a big combat far behind the German trenches. Thaw was wounded in the arm, and an explosive bullet detonating on Rockwell's windshield tore several gashes in his face. Despite the blood which was blinding him. Rockwell managed to reach an aviation field and land. Thaw, whose wound bled profusely, landed in a dazed condition just within our lines. He was too weak to walk, and French soldiers carried him to a field dressing station, whence he was sent to Paris for further treatment. Rockwell's wounds were less serious and he insisted on flying again almost immediately.
A BATTLE IN THE AIR
A week or so later Chapman was wounded. Considering the number of fights he had been in and the courage with which he attacked it was a miracle he had not. been hit before. He always fought against odds and far within the enemy's country. He flew more than any of us, never missing an opportunity to go up, and never coming down until his gasolene was giving out. His machine was a sieve of patched-up bullet holes. His nerve was almost superhuman and his devotion to the cause for which he fought sublime. The day he was wounded he attacked four machines. Swooping down from behind, one of them, a Fokker, riddled Chapman's plane. One bullet cut deep into his scalp, but Chapman, a master pilot, escaped from the trap, and fired several shots to show he was still safe. A stability control had been severed by a bullet. Chapman held the broken rod in one hand, managed his machine with the other, and succeeded in landing on a nearby aviation field. His wound was dressed, his machine repaired, and he immediately took the air in pursuit of some more enemies. He would take no rest, and with bandaged head continued to fly and fight.
The Escadrille's next serious encounter with the foe took place a few days later. Rockwell, Balsley, Prince, and Captain Thenault were surrounded by a large number of Germans, who, circling about them, commenced firing at long range. Realizing their numerical inferiority, the Americans and their commander sought the safest way out by attacking the enemy machines nearest the French lines. Rockwell, Prince, and the captain broke through successfully, but Balsley found himself hemmed in. He attacked the German nearest him, only to receive an explosive bullet in his thigh. In trying to get away by a vertical dive his machine went into a corkscrew and swung over on its back. Extra cartridge rollers dislodged from their case hit his arms. He was tumbling straight toward the trenches, but by a supreme effort he regained control, righted the 'plane, and landed without disaster in a meadow just behind the firing line.
Soldiers carried him to the shelter of a near-by fort, and later he was taken to a field hospital, where he wavered for days between life and death. Ten fragments of the explosive bullet were removed from his stomach. He bore up bravely, and became the favorite of the wounded officers in whose ward he lay. When we flew over to see him they would say, Il est un brave petit gars, l'aviateur américain [He's a brave little fellow.] On a shelf by his bed, done up in a handkerchief, he kept the pieces of bullet taken out of him, and under them some sheets of paper on which he was trying to write to his mother back in El Paso.
Balsley was awarded the Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre, but the honors scared him. He had seen them decorate officers in the ward before they died.
CHAPMAN'S LAST FIGHT
Then came Chapman's last fight. Before leaving, he had put a couple of bags of oranges in his machine to take to Balsley, who liked to suck them to relieve his terrible thirst, after the day's flying was over. There was an aerial struggle against odds far within the German lines, and Chapman, to divert their fire from his comrades, engaged several enemy airmen at once. He sent one tumbling to earth, and had forced the others off when two more swooped down upon him. Such a .fight is a matter of seconds, and one cannot clearly see what passes. Lufbery and Prince, whom Chapman had defended so gallantly, regained the French lines. They told us of the combat, and we waited on the field for Chapman's return. He was always the last in, so we were not much worried. Then a pilot from another fighting escadrille telephoned us that he had seen a Nieuport falling. A bit later the observer of a reconnaissance airplane called up and told us how he had witnessed Chapman's fall. The wings of the 'plane had buckled, and it had dropped like a stone, he said.
We talked in lowered voices after that; we could read the pain in one another's eyes. If only it could have been some one else was what we all thought, I suppose. To lose Victor was not merely an irreparable loss to us, but to France and to the world as well. I kept thinking of him lying over there, and of the oranges he was taking to Balsley. As I left the field I caught sight, of Victor's mechanician leaning against the end of our hangar. He was looking, northward into the sky where his "patron'' had vanished, and his face was very sad.
PROMOTIONS AND DECORATIONS
By this time Prince and Hall had been made adjutants, and we "corporals" transformed into sergeants. I frankly confess to a feeling of great satisfaction at receiving that grade in the world's finest army. I was a far more important person, in my own estimation, than I had been as a second lieutenant in the militia at home. The next impressive event was the awarding of decorations. We had assisted at that ceremony for Cowdin at Luxeuil, but this time three of our messmates were to be honored for the Germans they had brought down. Rockwell and Hall received, the Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre, and Thaw, being a lieutenant, the Legion of Honor and another "palm" for the ribbon of the Croix de. Guerre he had won previously. Thaw, who came up from Paris especially for the presentation, still carried his arm in a sling.
There were also decorations for Chapman, but poor Victor, who so often had been cited in the Order of the Day, was not on hand to receive them.
Our daily routine goes on with little change. Whenever the weather-permits that is when it isn't raining, and the clouds aren't too low-—we fly over the Verdun battlefield at the hours dictated by General Headquarters. As a rule the most successful sorties are those in early morning. We are called while it's still dark. Sleepily I try to reconcile the French orderly's muttered, C'est l'heure, Monsieur, that rouses me from slumber with the strictly American words and music of "When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam' " warbled by a particularly wide-awake pilot in the next room. A few minutes later, having swallowed some coffee, we motor to the field. The east is turning gray as the hangar curtains are drawn apart and our machines trundled out by the mechanicians. All the pilots whose 'planes are in commission—save those remaining behind on guard—prepare to leave. We average from four to six on a sortie, unless too many flights—have been ordered for that day, in which case only two or three go out at a time.
GETTING UNDER WAY
Now the east is pink, and overhead the sky has changed from gray to pale blue. It is light enough to fly. We don our fur-lined shoes and combinations,, and adjust the leather flying hoods, and goggles. A lot of conversation occurs—perhaps because, once aloft, there's nobody to talk to.
"Hey, you," one pilot cries jokingly to another," I hope some Boche just ruins you this morning, so I won't have to pay you the fifty francs you took from me last night!"
This financial reference concerns a poker game.
"You do, do you?" replies the other as he swings into his machine. "Well, I'd be glad to pass up the fifty to see you landed by the Bochies. You'd, make a fine sight walking down the street of some German town in those wooden shoes and pajama pants. Why don't you dress yourself? Don't you know an aviator's supposed to be chic?"
A sartorial Eccentricity on the part of one of our colleagues is here referred to.
The raillery is silenced by a deafening roar as the engines are tested. Quiet is briefly restored, only to be broken by a series of rapid explosions incidental to the trying out of machine guns, You loudly inquire at what altitude we are to meet above the field.
"Fifteen hundred metres—go ahead!" comes an answering yell.
Essence et gaz [Oil and gas!] you call to your mechanician, adjusting your gasolene and air throttles while he grips the propeller.
Contact! he shrieks, and Contact! you reply. You snap on the switch, he spins the propeller, and the engine takes. Drawing forward out of line, you put on full power, race across the grass, and take the air. The ground drops as the hood slants up before you and you seem to be going more and more slowly as you rise. At a great height you hardly realize you are moving. You glance at the clock to note the time of-your departure, and at the oil gauge to see its throb. The altimeter registers 200 feet. You look back at the field below and see others leaving.
In three minutes you are at about 4,000 feet. You have been making wide circles over the field and watching the other machines. At 1,500 metres you throttle down and wait on that level for your companions to catch up. Soon the Escadrille is bunched and off for the lines. You begin climbing again, gulping to clear your ears in the changing pressure. Surveying the other machines, you recognize the pilot of each by the marks on the side—or by the way he flies. The distinguishing marks of the Nieuports are various and sometimes amusing. Bert. Hall, for instance, has "Bert" painted on the left side of his 'plane and the same word reversed, as if spelled backward with the left hand, on the right—so that an aviator passing him on that side at great speed will be able to read the name without difficulty, he says!
The country below has changed into a flat surface of varicolored figures. Woods are irregular blocks of dark green, like daubs of ink spilled on a table; fields are geometrical designs of different shades of green and brown, forming in composite an ultra-cubist painting; roads are thin white lines, each with its distinctive windings and crossings—from which you deduce your location. The higher you are the easier it is to read.
"In about ten minutes you see the Meuse sparkling in the morning light, and on either side the long line of sausage-shaped observation balloons far below you. Red-roofed Verdun springs into view just beyond. There are spots in it where no red shows and you know what has happened there. In the green pastureland bordering the town, round flecks of brown indicate the shell holes. You cross the Meuse.
VERDUN, SEEN FROM THE SKY
Immediately east and north of Verdun there lies a broad, brown band. From the Woevre plain it runs westward" to the 'S' bend in the Meuse, and on the left bank of that famous stream continues on into the Argonne Forest. Peaceful fields and farms and villages adorned that landscape a few months ago—when there was no Battle of Verdun. Now there is only that sinister brown belt, a strip of murdered Nature. It seems to belong to another world. Every sign of humanity has been swept away. The woods and roads have vanished like chalk wiped from a blackboard; of the villages nothing remains but gray smears where stone walls have tumbled together. The great forts of Douaumont and Vaux are outlined faintly, like the tracings of a finger in wet sand. One cannot distinguish any one shell crater, as one can on the pockmarked fields on either side. On the brown band the indentations are so closely interlocked they blend into a confused mass of troubled earth. Of the trenches only broken, half-obliterated links are visible.
Columns of muddy smoke spurt up continually as high explosives tear deeper, into this ulcered area. During heavy bombardment and attacks I have seen shells falling like rain. The countless towers of smoke remind one of Gustave Doré's picture of the fiery tombs of the arch-heretics in Dante's Hell. A smoky pall covers the sector under fire, rising so high that at a height of 1,000 feet one is enveloped in its mist-like fumes. Now and then monster projectiles hurtling through the air close by leave one's 'plane rocking violently in their wake. Airplanes have been cut in two by them. For us the battle passes, in silence, the noise of one's engine deadening all other sounds. In the green patches behind the brown, belt myriads of tiny flashes tell where the guns are hidden; and those flashes, and the smoke of bursting shells, are all we see of the fighting. It is a weird combination of stillness and havoc, the Verdun conflict viewed from the sky.
Far below us, the observation and range-finding 'planes circle over the trenches like gliding gulls. At a feeble altitude they follow the attacking infantrymen and flash back wireless reports of the engagement. Only through them can communication be maintained when, under the barrier fife, wires from the front lines are cut. Sometimes it falls to our lot to guard these machines from Germans eager to swoop, down on their backs. Sailing about high above a busy flock of them makes one feel like an old mother hen protecting her chicks.
"NAVIGATING" IN A SEA OF CLOUDS
The pilot of an avion de chasse must not concern himself with the ground, which to him is useful only for learning his whereabouts. The earth is all-important to the men in the observation, artillery-regulating, and bombardment machines; but the fighting aviator has an entirely different sphere. His domain is the blue heavens, the glistening rolls of clouds below, the fleecy banks towering above, the vague aerial horizon, and he must watch it as carefully as a navigator watches the storm-tossed sea.
On days when the clouds form almost a solid flooring, one feels very much at sea, and wonders if one is in the navy instead of aviation. The diminutive Nieuports skirt the-white expanse like torpedo boats in an arctic ocean, and sometimes, far across the cloud-waves, one sights an enemy escadrille moving as a fleet.
Principally our work consists in keeping German airmen away from our lines, and in attacking them when opportunity offers. We traverse the brown band and enter enemy territory to the accompaniment of an anti-aircraft cannonade. Most of the shots are wild, however, and we pay little attention to them. When the shrapnel comes uncomfortably close, one shifts position slightly to evade the range. One glances up to see if there is another machine higher than one's own. Low and far within the German lines are several enemy 'planes, a dull white in appearance, resembling sand flies against the mottled earth. High above them one glimpses the mosquito-like forms of two Fokkers. Away off to one side white shrapnel puffs are vaguely visible, perhaps directed against a German crossing the lines. We approach the enemy machines ahead, only to find them slanting at a rapid rate into their own country. High above them lurks a protection 'plane. The man doing the "ceiling work/' as it is called, will look after him for us.
TACTICS OF AN AIR BATTLE
Getting started is the hardest part of an attack. Once you have begun diving you're all right. The pilot just ahead turns tail up like a trout dropping back to water, and swoops down in irregular curves and circles. You follow at an angle so steep your feet seem, to, be holding you back in your seat. Now the black Maltese crosses on the German's wings stand out clearly. You think of him as some sort of big bug. Then you hear the rapid tut-tut-tut of his machine gun. The man that dived ahead of you, becomes mixed up with the topmost German, He is so close it looks as if he had hit the enemy machine. You, hear the staccato barking of his mitrailleuse and see him pass from under the German's tail.
The rattle of the gun that is aimed at you leaves you undisturbed. Only when the bullets pierce the wings a few feet off do you become uncomfortable. You see the gunner crouched down behind his weapon, but you aim at where the pilot ought to be—there are two men. Aboard the German craft—and press on the release hard. Your mitrailleuse hammers out a stream of bullets as you pass over and dive nose-down to get out of range. Then, hopefully, you redress and look back at the foe. He ought to be dropping earthward at several miles a minute. As a matter of fact, however, he is sailing serenely on. They have an annoying habit of doing that, these Bochies.
Rockwell, who has attacked so often he has lost all count, and who shoves his machine gun fairly in the faces of the Germans, would swear their 'planes were armored. Lieutenant de Laage, whose list of combats is equally extensive, has brought down only one. Hall, with three enemy machines to his credit, has had more luck. Lufbery, who evidently has evolved a secret formula, has dropped four, according to official statistics, since his arrival on the Verdun front. Four "palms" glitter upon the ribbon of the Croix de Guerre accompanying his Médaille Militaire.
A pilot seldom has the satisfaction of beholding the result of his bull's-eye bullet. Rarely, so difficult is it to follow the turnings and twistings of the dropping 'plane, does he see his fallen foe strike the ground. Lufbery's last, direct hit was an exception, for he followed all that took place from a balcony seat. I myself was in the "n*****-heaven," so I know. We had set out on a sortie together just before noon one August day, and for the first time on such an occasion had lost each other over the lines. Seeing no Germans, I passed my time hovering over the French observation machines. Lufbery found one however, and promptly brought it down. Just then I chanced to make a southward turn and caught, sight of an airplane falling out of the sky into the German lines.
As it turned over, it showed its white belly for an instant, then seemed to straighten out, and planed downward in big zigzags. The pilot must have gripped his controls even in death, for his craft did not tumble as most do. It passed between my line of vision arid a wood, into which it disappeared. Just as I was going down to find out where it landed, I saw it again skimming across a field, and heading straight for the brown band beneath me. It was outlined against the shell-racked earth like a tiny insect, until just northwest of Fort Douaumont it crashed down upon the battlefield. A sheet of flame and smoke shot up from the tangled wreckage. I watched it burn a moment or two, then went back to the observation machines.
I thought Lufbury would show up and point to where the German had fallen. He failed to appear, and I began to be afraid it was he whom I had seen come down, instead of an enemy, I spent a worried hour before my return homeward. After getting back I learned that Lufbery was quite safe, having hurried in after the fight to report the destruction of his adversary before somebody else claimed him, which is only too frequently the case. Observation posts, however, confirmed Lufbery's' story, and he was of course very much delighted. Nevertheless, at luncheon I heard him murmuring half to himself, "Those poor fellows!"
The German machine gun operator, having probably escaped death in the air, must have had a hideous descent. Lufbery told us he had seen the whole thing, spiraling down after the German. He said he thought the German pilot must be a novice, judging from his manoeuvres. It occurred to me that he might have been making his first flight over the lines; doubtless full of enthusiasm about his career. Perhaps, dreaming of the Iron Cross and his Gretchen, he took a chance—and then swift death and a grave in the shell-strewn soil of Douaumont. Generally the Escadrille is relieved by another fighting unit after a couple of hours over, the lines. We turn homeward, and soon the hangars of our field loom up in the distance. Sometimes I've been mighty glad to see them and not infrequently I've concluded that the pleasantest part of flying is just after a good landing. Getting home after a sortie, we usually go into the rest tent, and talk over the morning's work. Then some of us lie down for a nap, while others play cards or read. After luncheon we go to the field again, and the man on guard gets his chance to eat. If the morning sortie has been an early one, we go up again about one o'clock in the afternoon. We are home again in a couple of hours and after that two or three energetic pilots may make a third trip over the lines. The rest wait around ready to take the. air if an enemy bombardment group ventures to visit our territory—as they have done more than once over Bar-le-Duc. False, alarms are plentiful, and we spend many hours aloft squinting at an empty sky.
Now and then one of us will get ambitious to do something on his own account.**** Not long ago Norman Prince became obsessed with the idea of bringing down a German "sausage," as observation balloons are called. He had a special device for setting fire to the aerial frankfurters mounted on his Nieuport. Thus equipped, he resembled an advance agent for Pain's fireworks more than an aviateur de chasse. Having carefully mapped the enemy "sausages" he would sally forth in hot pursuit whenever one was signaled at a respectable height. Poor Norman had a terrible time of it! Sometimes the reported "sausages" were not there when he arrived, and sometimes there was a superabundancy of German airplanes on guard.
He stuck to it, however, and finally his appetite for "sausage" was satisfied. He found one just where it ought to be, swooped down upon it, and let off his fireworks with all the gusto of an American boy on the Fourth of July. When he looked again, the balloon had vanished, Prince's performance isn't as easy as it sounds, by the way. If, after the long dive necessary to turn the trick, his engines had failed to retake, he would have fallen into the hands of the Germans.
After dark, when flying is over for the day, we go down to the villa for dinner. Usually we have two or three French officers dining with us besides our own captain and lieutenant, and so the table talk is a mixture of French and English. It's seldom we discuss the war in general. Mostly the conversation revolves about our own sphere, for just as in the navy the sea is the favorite topic, and in the army the trenches, so with us it is aviation. Our knowledge about the military operations is scant. We haven't the remotest idea as to what has taken place on the battlefield, even though we've been flying over it during an attack, until we read the papers—and they don't tell us much.
Frequently pilots from other escadrilles will be our guests in passing through our sector, and through these visitations we keep in touch with the aerial news of the day, and with our friends along the front. Gradually we have come to know a great number of pilotes de chasse. We hear that So and So has "been killed, that some one else has brought down a Boche, and that still another is a prisoner.
We don't always talk aviation, however. In the course of Sinner almost any subject may be touched upon, and with our cosmopolitan crowd one can readily imagine the scope of the conversation. A Burton Holmes lecture is weak and watery alongside of the travel stories we listen to. Were O. Henry alive, he could find material for a hundred new yarns, and William James numerous pointers for another work on psychology, while De Quincey might multiply his dreams ad infinitum. Doubtless alienists as well as fiction writers would find us worth studying. In France there's a saying that to be an aviator one must be a bit "off."
After dinner the same scene invariably repeats itself, over the coffee in the "next room." At the big table several sportive souls start a poker game, while at a smaller one two sedater spirits wrap themselves in the intricacies of chess. Captain Thenault labors away at the mess-room piano, or in lighter mood plays with Farm, his police dog. A phonograph grinds out some thoroughly American ragtime ditty. It is barely nine, however, when the movement in the direction of bed begins.
A few of us remain behind a little while, and the talk becomes more personal and more sincere. Only on such intimate occasions, I think, have I ever heard death discussed. Certainly we are not indifferent to it. Not many nights ago one of the pilots remarked in a tired way:
"Know what I want? Just six months of freedom to go where and do what I want. In that time I'd get everything I wanted out of life, and be perfectly willing to come back and get killed."
Then another, who was about to receive a couple of thousand francs from the American committee that aids us, as a reward for his many citations, chimed in.
"Well, I didn't care much before," he confessed, "but now with this money coming in I don't want to die until I've had the fun of spending it."
And he yawned and went up to bed.
* In a letter to a relative in North Carolina, written May 1, 1916, Mr. McConnell describes his machine and his work in greater detail: "You ask me what my work will be and how my machine is armed. First of all I mount an avion de chasse and, I am supposed to shoot down Boches or keep them away from our lines. I do not do observation, or regulating of artillery fire. That is handled by escadrilles equipped with bigger machines. I mount at daybreak over the lines; stay at from 11,000 to 15,000 feet and wait for the sight of an enemy plane. It may be a bombardment machine, a regulator of fire, an observer, or an avion de chasse looking for me. Whatever she is I make for her and manoeuvre for position. All the machines carry different gun positions and one seeks the "blind" side. Having obtained the proper position one turns down or up, whatever the case may be, and when within fifty yards opens up the machine gun. That is on the upper plane and it is sighted by a series of holes and cross webbs. As one is passing at a terrific rate there is not time for many shots, so unless wounded or one's machine injured by the first try, for the enemy plane shoots too, one tries it again and again, until there's nothing doing or the other fellow is dropped. Aside from work over the lines, which is comparatively calm, there is the job of convoying bombardment trips. That is the rotten task."
** The following quotation from a letter written by Mr. McConnell last May adds a graphic touch to the story of the "eight little boxes":
"We have the honor of being attached to a squadron that is the most famous in the French army. The captain of the outfit once lost his whole escadrille, and on the last trip eight lost their lives. It was a wonderful fight. The squadron was attacked by thirty-three Boches. Two French planes crashed to earth; then two German; another German was set on fire and streaked down followed by a streaming column of smoke. Another Frenchman fell; another German and then a French lieutenant mortally wounded and, realizing he was dying, plunged his aeroplane into a German below firm and both fell.
*** More about this first sortie is told in a letter from Mr. McConnell dated May 14, 1916: "Well, I've made my first trip over the lines and proved a few things to myself. First I can stand high altitudes. I had never been above 7,000 feet before, nor had I flown more than an hour. On my trip to Germany I went to 14,000 feet and was in air for two hours. I wore the fur head-to-foot combination they give one and paper gloves under the fur gloves you sent me. I was not cold. . In a way it seemed amusing to be going out knowing as little as I do. My mitrailleuse had been mounted the night before. I had never fired it. Nor did I know the country at all even though I'd motored along our lines. I followed the others or I surely would have been lost. I shall have to make special trips to study the land 'and be able to make it out from my map which I carry on board. For one thing the weather was hazy and clouds obscured the view.
"To-day the army moving-picture outfit took pictures of us. We had a big show. Thirty bombardment planes went off like clock-work and we followed. We circled and swooped down by the camera. Then we were taken in groups, individually, in flying togs, and God knows what all. They will be shown in the States. If you happen to see them you can recognize my machine because MAC is painted on the side.
"We didn't see any Boche planes on our trip. We were too many. The only way to do is to sneak up on them."
**** An example of "doing something on his own account" is revealed in a private, letter from Mr. McConnell, written from Verdun on July 30th:
"Weather has been fine and we've been doing a lot of work. Our lieutenant—De Laage de Meux—brought down a Boche. I had another beautiful smash-up. Prince and I had stayed too long over the lines. Important day, as an attack was going on. It was getting dark and we could see the tiny balls of fire the infantry light to show the low-flying observation machines their new positions. On return, as I was over another aviation field my motor broke. I made for field. In' darkness I couldn't judge my distance well and went too far. At edge of field there were trees and beyond a deep cut where road ran. I was skinning-ground at 170 kilometers [about 100 miles] an hour and heading for trees. I saw soldiers running to be in at finish and I thought myself that James's hash was cooked, but I went between trees and ended up head-on on the opposite bank of road. My motor took the shock and my belt held me. As my tail went up. it was cut in two by some very low 'phone wires. I wasn't bruised even. Took dinner with the officers there, who gave me a car to go home in afterwards.
"To-day I shared another chap's machine (Hill of Peekskill, who knows McCord), and got it shot up for him. De Laage, our lieutenant, and I made a sortie at noon. When in the German lines near Côte 304 I saw two Boches under me. I picked out the rear chap and dove. Fired a few shots and then tried to get under his tail and hit him from there. I missed and bobbed up alongside of him. Fine for the Boche but rotten for me. I could see his gunner working the mitrailleuse for fair, and felt his bullets darn close. I dove, for I could not shoot from that position and beat it. He kept plunking away and all together put seven holes in my machine; One was only ten inches in front of me. De Laage was too far off to get to the Boche and ruin him while I was amusing him.
"Yesterday I motored up to an aviation camp to see a Boche machine that was forced to land and was captured. The Boche machine was a beauty. Its motor is excellent and she carries a machine gun aft and one forward. Same kind of machine I attacked to-day. The German pilots must be mightily cold footed, for if the Frenchmen had aeroplanes like that they sure would raise h— with the Boches. As it is, the Boches keep well within their lines save occasionally and we have to go over and fight them there."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald