High Adventure (Part I)
The story of an American writer who volunteered to fly warplanes for the French during World War I
Read PDFS of part two, part three, part four,
part five, part six, and part seven.
It was a cool, starlit evening, early in September, 1916, that I first met Drew of Massachusetts, and actually began my adventures as a prospective member of the Escadrille Américaine. We had sailed from New York by the same boat, had made our applications for enlistment in the Foreign Legion on the same day, without being aware of each other's existence; and in Paris, while waiting for our papers, we had gone, every evening, for dinner, to the same large and gloomy-looking restaurant in the neighborhood of the Seine.
As for the restaurant, assuredly we were not drawn to it by the quality of the food. We might have dined better and more cheaply elsewhere. But there was an air of vanished splendor, of faded magnificence, about the place, which, in the capital of a warring nation, appealed to both of us. Every evening the tables were laid with spotless linen and shining silver. The wine-glasses caught the light from the tarnished chandeliers in little points of color. At the dinner-hour, a half-dozen ancient serving-men silently took their places about the room. There was not a sound to be heard except the occasional far-off honk of a motor or the subdued clatter of dishes from the kitchens. The serving-men, even the tables and the empty chairs, seemed to be listening, to be waiting for the guests who never came. Rarely were there more than a dozen diners-out during the course of an evening. There was something mysterious in these elaborate preparations, and something rather fine about them as well; but one thought, not without a touch of sadness, of the old days when there had been laughter and lights and music, sparkling wines and brilliant talk, and how those merrymakers had gone, many of them, long ago to the wars.
As it happened on this evening, Drew and I were sitting at adjoining tables. Our common citizenship was our introduction, and after five minutes of talk, we learned of our common purpose in coming to France. I suppose that we must have eaten after making this latter discovery. I vaguely remember seeing our old waiter hobbling slowly down a long vista of empty tables on his way to and from the kitchens. But if we thought of our food at all, it must have been in a purely mechanical way.
Drew can talk — by Jove, how the man can talk! — and he has the faculty of throwing the glamour of romance over the most trivial and commonplace adventures. In truth, the difficulty which I am going to have in writing this narrative is largely due to this romantic influence of his. I might have succeeded in writing a plain tale, for I have kept my diary faithfully, from day to day, and can set down our adventures, such as they are, pretty much as they occurred. But Drew has bewitched me. He does not realize it, but he is a weaver of spells, and I am so deeply enmeshed in his moonshine that I doubt if I shall be able to write of our experiences as they must appear to those of our comrades in the Franco-American Corps who remember them only through the medium of the revealing light of day.
Not one of these men, I am sure, would confess to so strange an immediate cause for joining the aviation service as that related to me by Drew, as we sat over our coffee and cigarettes, on the evening of our first meeting. He had come to France, he said, with the intention of joining the Légion Étrangère as an infantryman. But he changed his mind, a few days after his arrival in Paris, upon meeting Jackson of the American Aviation Squadron, who was on leave after a service of six months at the front. It was all because of the manner in which Jackson looked at a Turkish rug. He told him of his adventures in the most matter-of-fact way. No heroics, nothing of that sort. He had not a glimmer of imagination, he said. But he had a way of looking at the floor which was 'irresistible,' which 'fascinated him with the sense of height.' He saw towns, villages, a network of trenches, columns of toy troops moving up ribbons of road — all in the patterns of a Turkish rug. And the next day, he was at the headquarters of the Franco-American Corps, in the Champs Élysées, making application for membership.
Now it is strange that we should both have come to France with so little of accurate knowledge of the corps, of the possibilities for enlistment, and of the nature of the requirements for the service. Our knowledge of it, up to the time of sailing, had been confined to a few brief, scattered references in the press. It was perhaps necessary that its existence should not be officially recognized in America, or its furtherance encouraged. But it seemed to us at that time that there must have been actual discouragement on the part of the government at Washington. However that may be, we wondered if others had followed clues so vague or a call so dimly heard.
This led to a discussion of our individual aptitudes for the service, and we made many comforting discoveries about each other. It is permissible to reveal them now that we are at the point of becoming breveted pilotes, for the encouragement of others who, like ourselves at that time, may be conscious of deficiencies, and who may think that they have none of the qualities essential to the successful aviator. Drew had never been farther from the ground than the top of the Woolworth building. I had once taken a trip in a captive balloon. Drew knew nothing of motors, and had no more knowledge of mechanics than would enable him to wind a watch without breaking the mainspring. My ignorance in this respect was a fair match for his.
We were further handicapped for the French service by our lack of the language. Indeed, this seemed to be the most serious obstacle in the way to success. With a good general knowledge of the language it seemed probable that we might be able to overcome our other deficiencies. Without it, we could see no way to mastering the essential mechanical knowledge which we supposed must be required as a foundation for the training of a military pilote. In this connection, it may be well to say that we have both been tremendously handicapped from the beginning. We have had to learn, through actual experience in the air, and at considerable risk to life and limb, what many of our comrades, both French and American, knew before they had ever climbed into an aeroplane. But it is equally true that scores of men become very excellent pilotes, with little or no knowledge of the mechanics of the business.
In so far as Drew and I were concerned, these were matters for the future to decide. It was enough for us at the moment that our applications had been approved, our papers signed, and that to-morrow we were leaving for the École d’Aviation Militaire to begin our training. And so, after a long evening of pleasant talk and pleasanter anticipation of coming events, we left our restaurant and walked together through the silent streets to the Place de la Concorde. The great windy square was almost deserted. The monuments to the lost provinces bulked large in the dim lamplight. Two disabled soldiers hobbled painfully across the bridge and disappeared in the deep shade of the avenue. Their service had been rendered, their sacrifices made, months ago. They could look about them now with a peculiar sense of isolation, and with, perhaps, a feeling of the futility of the effort they had made. Our adventures were all before us. Our hearts were light and our hopes high. As we stood by the obelisk, talking over plans for the morrow, we heard, high overhead, the faint hum of motors, and saw two lights, one green, one red, moving rapidly across the sky. A moment later the long, slender finger of a searchlight probed questioningly among the little heaps of cloud, then, sweeping in a wide arc, it revealed in striking outline the shape of a huge biplane circling over the sleeping city. It was one of the night-guard of Paris.
On the following morning we were at the Gare des Invalides with our luggage a long half-hour before train-time. The luggage was absurdly bulky. Drew had two enormous suit-cases and a bag, and I a steamer trunk and a family-size portmanteau. We looked so much the typical American tourists that we felt ashamed of ourselves, not because of our nationality, but because we revealed so plainly, to all the world military, our non-military antecedents. We bore the hallmark of fifty years of neutral aloofness, of fifty years of indifference to the business of national defense. What makes the situation most amusing in retrospect is the fact that we were traveling on third-class military passes, as befitted our rank as élèves-pilotes and soldiers of the deuxième classe.
To our great discomfiture, a couple of poilus volunteered their services in putting our belongings aboard the train. Then we crowded into a third-class carriage filled with soldiers — permissionnaires, blessés, réformés, men from all corners of France and her colonies. Their uniforms were faded and weatherstained with long service. The stocks of their rifles were worn smooth and bright with constant usage, and their packs fairly stowed themselves upon their backs.
Drew and I felt wretchedly uncomfortable in our smart civilian clothing. We looked too soft, too clean, too spick-and-span. We did not feel that we belonged there. But in a whispered conversation we comforted ourselves with the assurance that if ever the United States took her rightful stand with the Allies, in six months hundreds of thousands of American boys would be lugging packs and rifles with the same familiarity of use as these French poilus. They would become equally good soldiers, and soon would have the same community of experience, of dangers and hardships shared in common, which make men comrades and brothers in fact as well as in theory.
By the time we had reached our destination we had persuaded ourselves into a much more comfortable frame of mind. There we piled into a cab, and soon we were rattling over the cobblestones, down a long, sunlit avenue in the direction of B——. It was late of a fine, mild afternoon when we reached the summit of a high plateau and saw before us the barracks and hangars of the École d’Aviation. There was not a breath of air stirring. The sun was just sinking behind a bank of crimson cloud. The earth was already in shadow, but high overhead the light was caught and reflected from the wings of scores of planes which shone like polished bronze and silver. We saw the long graceful lines of Blériot monoplanes, like huge dragon-flies, and as pretty a sight in the air as heart could wish. Farther to the left, we recognized Farman biplanes, winged battleships in comparison with the Blériots, and twin-motor Caudrons, much more graceful and alert of movement.
But, most wonderful of all to us then, we saw a strange, new avion—a biplane, small, trim, with a body like a fish. To see it in flight was to be convinced for all time that man has mastered the air, and has outdone the birds in their own element. Never was swallow more consciously joyous in swift flight, never eagle so bold to take the heights or so quick to reach them. Drew and I gazed in silent, awestruck wonder, our bodies jammed tightly into the cab-window, and our heads craned upward. We did not come back to earth until our ancient, earth-creeping conveyance brought up with a jerk, and we found ourselves in front of a gate marked ‘École d’Aviation Militaire de B——.’
After we had paid the cabman, we stood in the road, with our mountain of luggage heaped about us, waiting for something to happen. A moment later a window in the administration building was thrown open and we were greeted with a loud and not overly musical chorus of
Oh, say, can you see by the dawn’s early light—
It all came from one throat, belonging to a chap in leathers, who came down the drive to give us welcome.
'Spotted you toute suite,' he said. 'You can tell Americans at six hundred yards by their hats. How's things in the States? Do you think we're coming in?'
We gave him the latest budget of home news, whereupon he offered to take us over to the barracks. When he saw our luggage he grinned.
'Some equipment, believe me! Attendez un peu while I commandeer a battalion of Annamites to help us carry it, and we'll be on our way.'
The Annamites, from Indo-China, who are quartered at the camp for guard and fatigue duty, came back with him about twenty strong, and we started in a long procession to the barracks. Later, we took a vindictive pleasure in witnessing the beluggaged arrival of other Americans, for in nine cases out of ten they came as absurdly over-equipped as did we.
Our barracks, one of many built on the same pattern, was a long, low wooden building, weatherstained without and whitewashed within. It had accommodation for about forty beds. One end of the room was very manifestly American. There was a phonograph on the table, baseball equipment piled in one corner, and the walls were covered with cartoons and pictures clipped from American periodicals. The other end was as evidently French, in the frugality and the neatness of its furnishings. The American end of the room looked more homelike, but the French end more military. Near the centre, where the two nations joined, there was a very harmonious blending of these characteristics.
Drew and I were delighted with all this. We were glad that we were not to live in an exclusively American barracks, for we wanted to learn French; but more than this, we wanted to live with Frenchmen on terms of barrackroom familiarity.
By the time we had given in our papers at the captain's office and had passed the hasty preliminary examination of the medical officer, it was quite dark. Flying for the day was over, and lights gleamed cheerily from the barrack-room windows. As we came down the principal street of the camp, we heard the strains of 'Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,' to a gramophone accompaniment, issuing from the chambre des Américains.
See them shuffle along,
Oh, ma honey babe,
Hear that music and song.
It gave us the home feeling at once. Frenchmen and Americans were singing together, the Frenchmen in very quaint English, but hitting off the syncopated time as if they had been born and brought up to it as we Americans have.
Over in one corner, a very informal class in French-English pronunciation was at work. Apparently, this was tongue-twisters' night. 'Heureux' was the challenge from the French side, and 'Hooroo' the nearest approach to a pronunciation on the part of the Americans, with many more or less remote variations on this theme. An American, realizing how difficult it is for a Frenchman to get his tongue between his teeth, counter-challenged with 'Father, you are withered with age.' The result, as might have been expected, was a series of hissing sounds of z, whereon there was an answering howl of derision from all the Americans. Up and down the length of the room there were little groups of two and three, chatting together in combinations of Franco-American which must have caused all deceased professors of modern languages to spin like midges in their graves. And throughout all this before-supper merriment, one could catch the feeling of good-comradeship which, so far as my experience goes, is always prevalent whenever Frenchmen and Americans are gathered together.
At the ordinaire, at supper-time, we saw all the élèves-pilotes of the school, with the exception of the non-commissioned officers, who have their own mess. To Drew and me, but newly come from remote America, it was a most interesting gathering. There were about one hundred and twenty-five in all, including eighteen Americans. The large majority of the Frenchmen had already been at the front in other branches of army service. There were artillerymen, infantrymen, marines, — in training for the naval air-service, — cavalrymen, all wearing the uniforms of the arm to which they had originally belonged. No one was dressed in a uniform which distinguished him as an aviator; and upon making inquiry, I found that there is no official dress for this branch of the service. During his period of training in aviation, and even after receiving his military brevet, a pilote continues to wear the dress of his former service, plus the wings on the collar and the star-and-wings insignia on his right breast. This custom does not make for the fine uniform appearance of the men of the British Royal Flying Corps, but it gives a picturesqueness of effect which is, perhaps, ample recompense. As for the Americans, they follow individual tastes, as we learned later. Some of them, with an eye to color, salute the sun in the red trousers and black tunic of the artilleryman. Others choose more sober shades — various French blues, with the thin orange aviation stripe running down the seams of the trousers. All this in reference to the dress uniform. At the camp most of the men wear leathers, or else a combination of leathers and the gray-blue uniform of the French poilu, which is issued to all Americans at the time of their enlistment.
We had a very excellent supper of soup, followed by a savory roast of meat, with mashed potatoes and lentils. Afterward, cheese and beer. I was slightly disconcerted physically on learning that the beef was horse-meat, but Drew convinced me that it was absurd to let old scruples militate against a healthy appetite. In 1870 the citizens of France ate ragoût de chat with relish. Furthermore, the roast was of so delicious a flavor and so closely resembled the finest cuts of beef, that it was easy to persuade one’s self that it was beef, after all.
After the meal, to our great surprise, every one cleaned his dishes with huge pieces of bread. Such waste seemed criminal in a country beleaguered by submarines, in its third year of war, and largely dependent for its food-supply on the farm labor of women and children. We should not have been surprised if it had been only the Americans who indulged in this wasteful dish-cleansing process; but the Frenchmen did it, too. When I remarked upon this to one of my American comrades, a Frenchman, sitting opposite, said, —
'Pardon, monsieur, but I must tell you what we Frenchmen are. We are very economical when it is for ourselves, for our own families and purses that we are saving. But when it is the government which pays the bill, we do not care. We do not have to pay directly and so we waste, we throw away. We are so careful at home, all of our lives, that this is a little pleasure for us.'
I have had this same observation made to me by so many Frenchmen since that time, that I believe there must be a good deal of truth in it.
After supper, all of the Americans adjourned for coffee to Ciret's, a little cafe in the village which nestles among the hills not far from the camp. The cafe itself was like any one of thousands of French provincial restaurants. There was a great dingy common room, with a sanded brick floor, and faded streamers of tricolor paper festooned in curious patterns from the smoking ceiling. The kitchen was marvelously clean, and filled with the appetizing odor of good cooking. Beyond it was another, inner room—' toujours réservée à mes Américains,' as M. Ciret, the fat, genial patron continually asserted. Here we gathered around a large circular table, pipes and cigarettes were lighted, and, while the others talked. Drew and I listened and gathered impressions.
For a time the conversation did not become general, and we gathered up odds and ends of it from all sides. Then it turned to the reasons which had prompted various members of the group to come to France, the topic, above all others, which Drew and I most wanted to hear discussed. It seemed to me, as I listened, that we Americans closely resemble the British in our sensitive fear of any display of fine personal feeling. We shall never learn to examine our emotions with anything but suspicion. If we are prompted to a course of action by generous impulses, we are almost morbidly anxious that others shall not be let into the secret. And so it was that, of all the reasons given for offering their services to France, the first and most important was the last to be acknowledged, and even then it was admitted by some with a reluctance nearly akin to shame. There was no man there who was not ready and willing to give his life, if necessary, for the Allied cause, because he believed in it; but the admission could hardly have been dragged from them by wild horses.
But the adventure of the life, the peculiar fascination of it — that was a thing which might be discussed without reserve, and the men talked of it with a willingness which was most gratifying to Drew and me, curious as we were about the life we were entering. They were all in the flush of their first enthusiasms. They were daily enlarging their conceptions of distance and height and speed. They talked a new language and were developing a new cast of mind. They were like children who had grown up over night, whose horizons had been immeasurably broadened in the twinkling of an eye. They were still keenly conscious of the change which was upon them, for they were but fledgling aviators. They were just finding their wings. But as I listened, I thought of the time which must come soon, when the air, as the sea, will be filled with stately ships, and how the air-service will develop its own peculiar type of men, and build up about them its own laws and its own traditions.
As we walked through the straggling village street back to the camp, I tried to convey to Drew something of the new vision which had come to me during the evening. I was aglow with enthusiasm and hoped to strike an answering spark from him. But all that I was thinking and feeling then he had thought and felt long before. I am sure that he had already experienced, in imagination, every thrill, every keen joy, and every sudden sickening fear which the life might have in store for him. For this reason I forgave him for his rather bored manner of answering to my mood, and the more willingly because he was full of talk about a strange illusion which he had had at the restaurant. During a moment of silence, he had heard a clatter of hoofbeats in the village street. (I had heard them too. Some one rode by furiously.) Well, Drew said that he almost jumped from his seat, expecting M. Ciret to throw open the door and shout, 'The British are coming!' He actually believed for a second or two that it was the year 1775 and that he was sitting in one of the old roadside inns of Massachusetts. The illusion was perfect, he said.
Now why — etc., etc. At another time I should have been much interested; but in the presence of new and splendid realities I could not summon any enthusiasm for illusions. Nevertheless, I should have had to listen to him indefinitely, had it not been for an event which put a sudden end to all conversation, and ended our first day at the École d’Aviation in a truly spectacular manner.
Suddenly we heard the roar of motors just over the barracks, and at the same time, the siren sounded the alarm in a series of prolonged, wailing shrieks. Some belated pilote was still in the air. We rushed out to the field just as the flares were being lighted and placed on the ground in the shape of an immense T, with the cross-bar facing in the direction from which the wind was coming. By this time the hum of motors was heard at a great distance, but gradually it increased in volume and soon the light of the flares revealed the machine circling rapidly over the piste. I was so much absorbed in watching it manoeuvre for a landing that I did not see the crowd scattering to safe distances. I heard many voices shouting frantic warnings, and so ran for it, but, in my excitement, directly within the line of descent of the machine. I heard the wind screaming through the wires, a terrifying sound to the novice, and glancing hurriedly over my shoulder, I saw what appeared to be a monster of gigantic proportions, almost upon me. It passed within three metres of my head and landed just beyond.
When at last I got to sleep, after a day filled with interesting incidents, Paul Revere pursued me relentlessly through the mazes of a weird and horrible dream. I was on foot, and shod with lead-soled boots. He was in a huge, twin-motor Caudron and flying at a terrific pace, only a few metres from the ground. I can see him now, as he leaned far out over the hood of his machine, an aviator's helmet set atilt over his powdered wig, and his eyes glowing like coals through his goggles. He was waving two lighted torches and shouting, 'The British are coming! The British are coming!' in a voice strangely like Drew's.
Read PDFS of part two, part three, part four,
part five, part six, and part seven.