High Adventure. Vii


A LITTLE more than a year after our first meeting in the Paris restaurant which has so many pleasant memories for us, Drew completed his first one hundred hours of flight over the lines, an event in the life of an airman which calls for a celebration of some sort. Therefore, having been granted leave for the afternoon, the two of us came into the old French town of Bar-le-Duc, by the toy train which wanders down from the Verdun sector. We had dinner in one of those home-like little places where the food is served by the proprietor himself. On this occasion it was served hurriedly, and the bill presented promptly at eight o’clock. Our host was very sorry but, ‘Les sales Boches, vous savez, messieurs?' They had come the night before. A dozen houses destroyed, women and children killed and maimed. With a full moon to guide them, they would be sure to return tonight. ‘Ah! cette guerre! Quand serat-il fini?’

He offered us a refuge until our train should leave. Usually, he said, he played solitaire while waiting for the Germans; but with houses tumbling about one’s ears, he much preferred company. ‘And my wife and I are old people. She is very deaf, heureusement. She hears nothing.’

J. B. declined the invitation. ’A brave way that would be to finish our evening!’ he said as we walked down the silent street. ‘I wanted to say, “Monsieur, I have just finished my first one hundred hours of flight at the front.” But he would n’t have known what that means.’

‘No, he would n’t have known,’ I said. Then we had no further talk for about two hours.

A few soldiers, late arrivals, were prowling about in the shadow of the houses, searching for food and a warm kitchen where they might eat it. Some insistent ones pounded on the door of a restaurant far in the distance.

‘Dites donc, patron! Nous avons faim, nom de Dieu! Est-ce-que tout le monde est mort ici? ’

Only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then,
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men.

It was that kind of silence, profound, tense, ghostlike. We walked through street after street, from one end of the town to the other, and saw only one light — a faint glimmer which came from a slit of a cellar-window almost on a level with the pavement. We were curious, no doubt. At any rate, we looked in. A woman was sitting on a cot-bed with her arms around two little children. They were snuggled up against her, and both fast asleep; but she was sitting erect, in a strained, listening attitude, staring straight before her. Since that night we have believed, both of us, that, if wars can be won only by haphazard night-bombardments of towns where there are women and children, then they had far better be lost.

But I am writing a journal of high adventure of a cleaner kind, in which all the resources in skill and cleverness of one set of men are pitted against those of another set. We have no bombdropping to do, and there are but few women and children living in the territory over which we fly. One hundred hours is not a great while as time is measured on the ground; but in terms of combat-patrols, the one hundredth part of it has held more of adventure, in the true meaning of the word, than we have had during the whole of our lives previously.

At first we were far too busy learning the rudiments of combat to keep an accurate record of flying time. We thought our aeroplane clocks convenient pieces of equipment rather than necessary ones. I remember coming down from my first air-battle, and the breathless account I gave of it at the bureau — breathless and vague. Lieutenant Talbott listened quietly, making out the compte rendu as I talked. When I had finished, he emphasized the haziness of my answers to his questions by quoting them. ‘Region: “You know, that big wood.” Time: “This morning, of course.” Rounds fired: “Oh, a lot!” ’ and so forth. Not until we had been flying for a month or more, did we learn the right use of our clocks and of our eyes while in the air. We listened with amazement to after-patrol talk at the mess. We learned more of what actually happened on our sorties, after they were over, than while they were in progress.

All of the older pilots missed seeing nothing that there was to see. They reported the numbers of the enemy planes encountered, the types, where seen, and when. They spotted batteries, trains in stations back of the enemy lines, gave the hour precisely, reported any activity on the roads. In moments of exasperation Drew would say, ‘I think they are stringing us! This is all a put-up job!’ Certainly, this did appear to be the case at first. For we were air-blind. We saw little of the activity all around us, and details on the ground had no significance. How were we to take thought of time and place and altitude, note the peculiarities of enemy machines, count their numbers, and store all this information away in memory, at the moment of combat? This was a great problem.

‘What I need,’ J. B. used to say, ‘is a traveling private secretary. I’ll do the fighting and he can keep the diary.’

I needed one, too, a man air-wise and battle-wise, who could calmly take note of my clock, altimetre, temperature, and pressure-dials, identify exactly the locality on my map, count the numbers of the enemy, estimate their approximate altitude — and all this when the air was criss-crossed with streamers of smoke from machine-gun tracer bullets, and opposing aircraft were manœuvring for position, diving and firing at each other, spiraling, nose-spinning, wing-slipping, climbing, in a confusing intermingling of tricolor cocardes and black crosses.

We made gradual progress, the result being that our patrols became a hundred-fold more fascinating — sometimes, in fact, too much so. It was important that we should be able to read the ground, but more important still to remember that what was happening there was of only secondary concern to us. Often we became absorbed in watching what was taking place below us, to the exclusion of any thought of aerial activity, of our chances for attack or of being attacked.

The view from the air of a heavy bombardment, or of an infantry attack under cover of barrage fires, is a truly terrible spectacle, and in the air one has a feeling of detachment which is not easily overcome. But it must be overcome, as I have already said, and as I cannot say too many times for the benefit of any young airman who mayread this journal. During an offensive the air swarms with planes. They are at all altitudes, from the lowest artillery reglage machines at a few hundreds of metres, to the highest avions de chasse at 6000 metres and above. Reglage, photographic, and reconnaissance planes have their special work to do. They defend themselves as best they can, but they almost never attack. Combat avions, on the other hand, are always looking for victims. They are the ones that are chiefly dangerous to the unwary pursuit pilot.

An airman’s joy in victory is a shortlived one. Nevertheless, a curious change takes place in his attitude toward his work, as the months pass. I can best describe it in terms of Drew’s experience and my own. We came to the front feeling deeply sorry for ourselves, and for all airmen of whatever nationality, whose lives were to be snuffed out in their promising beginnings. I used to play ‘The Minstrel Boy to the War Has Gone’ on a tin flute, and Drew wrote poetry. While we were waiting for our first machines, he composed ‘The Airman’s Rendezvous,’ written in the manner of Alan Seeger’s poem.

And I in the wide fields of air
Must keep with him my rendezvous.
It may be I shall meet him there
When clouds, like sheep, move slowly through
The pathless meadows of the sky
And their cool shadows go beneath.
I have a rendezvous with Death
Some summer noon of white and blue.

There is more of it, in the same manner, all of which he read me in a husky voice.

I, too, was ready to weep at our untimely fate. The strange thing is that his prophecy came so very near being true. He had the first draft of the poem in his breast-pocket when he was wounded, and has kept the gory relic to remind him — not that he needs reminding — of the airy manner in which he canceled what ought to have been a bona-fide appointment.

I do not mean to reflect in any way upon Alan Seeger’s beautiful poem. Who can doubt that it is a sincere, as well as a perfect expression of a mood common to all young soldiers? Drew was just as sincere in writing his verses, and I put all the feeling I could into my tin-whistle interpretation of ‘The Minstrel Boy.’ What I want to make clear is, that a soldier’s moods of self-pity are fleeting ones, and if he lives, he outgrows them.

Imagination is an especial curse to an airman, particularly if it takes a gloomy or morbid turn. We used to write ‘To Whom It May Concern ’ letters before going out on patrol, in which we left directions for the notification of our relatives and the disposal of our personal effects, in case of death. Then we would climb into our machines, thinking, ‘This may be our last sortie. We may be dead in an hour, in half an hour, in twenty minutes.’ We planned splendidly spectacular ways in which we were to be brought down, always omitting one, however, the most horrible as well as the most common — in flames.

Thank fortune we have outgrown this second and belated period of adolescence, and can now take a healthy interest in our work!

Now, an inevitable part of the daily routine is to be shelled — persistently, methodically and, often, accurately shelled. Our interest in this may, I suppose, be called healthy, inasmuch as it would be decidedly unhealthy to become indifferent to the activities of the German anti-aircraft gunners. It would be far-fetched to say that any airman ever looks forward zestfully to the business of being shot at with one-hundredand-fives; and seventy-fives, if they are well placed, are unpleasant enough. After one hundred hours of it, we have learned to assume that attitude of contemptuous toleration which is the manner common to all pilotes de chasse. We know that the chances of a direct hit are almost negligible, and that we have all the blue dome of the heavens in which to manœuvre. Furthermore, we have learned many little tricks by means of which we keep the gunners guessing.

By way of illustration, we are patrolling, let us say, at 3500 metres, crossing and recrossing the lines, following the patrol leader, who has his motor throttled down so that we may keep well in formation. The guns may be silent for the moment, but we know well enough what the gunners are doing. We know exactly where some of the batteries are, and the approximate location of all of them along the sector; and we know, from earlier experience, when we come within range of each individual battery. Presently one of them begins firing in bursts of four shells. If their first estimate of our range has been an accurate one; if they place them uncomfortably close, so that we can hear, all too well above the roar of our motors, the rending gr-r-row, gr-r-row of the shells as they explode, we sail on calmly, — to all outward appearance, — manœuvring very little. The gunners, seeing that we are not disturbed, will alter their ranges, four times out of five, which is exactly what we want them to do. The next bursts will be far distant, hundreds of metres below or above us; whereupon we show signs of great uneasiness, and the gunners, thinking that they have our altitude, begin to fire like demons. We employ our well-earned immunity in preparing for the next series of batteries, or in thinking of the cost to Germany, at one hundred francs a shot, of all this futile shelling.

Drew, in particular, loves this costaccounting business, and I must admit that much pleasure may be had in it, after patrol. They rarely fire less than fifty shells at us during a two-hour patrol. Making a low general average, the number is nearer one hundred and fifty. On our present front, where aerial activity is fairly brisk and the sector a large one, three or four hundred shells are wasted upon us often before we have been out an hour.

It will be long before this chapter of my journal is in print. Having given no indication of the date of writing, I may say, without indiscretion that we are again on the Champagne front. We have a wholesome respect for one battery here, a respect that it has justly earned by shooting which is really remarkable. We talk of this battery, which is east of Rheims and not far distant from Nogent l’Abbesse, and take professional pride in keeping its gunners in ignorance of their fine marksmanship. We signal them their bad shots — which are better than the good ones of most of the batteries on the sector— by doing stunts: a barrel turn, a loop, or two or three turns of a vrille. As for their good ones, they are often so good that we are forced into acrobacy of a wholly individual kind. Our avions have received many scars from their shells. Between 4500 and 5000 metres, their bursts have been so close under us that we have been lifted by the concussions and set dowm violently again at the bottom of the vacuum; and this on a clear day, when a chasse-machine is almost invisible at that height, and despite its speed of 200 kilometres an hour. On a gray day, when we are flying between 2500 and 3000 metres beneath a film of cloud, they repay the honor we do them by our acrobatic turns. They bracket us, put barrages between us and our own lines, and give us more trouble than all the other batteries on the sector combined.

For this reason it is all the more humiliating to be forced to land with motor-trouble, at the precise moment when they are paying off some old scores. This happened to Drew while I was writing up my journal. Coming out of a tonneau in answer to three coups from the battery, his propeller stopped dead. By planing flatly (the wind was dead ahead, and the area back of the first lines there is a wide one, crossed by many intersecting lines of trenches) he got well over them, and chose a field as level as a billiard-table for landing-ground. In the very centre of it, however, there was one post, a small worm-eaten thing, of the color of the dead grass around it. He hit it just as he was setting his Spad on the ground, — the only post in a field acres wide, — and it tore a piece of fabric from one of his lower wings. No doubt the crack battery has been given credit for disabling an enemy plane. The honor, such as it is, belongs to our aerial godfather, among whose lesser vices may be added that of practical joking.

The remnants of the post were immediately confiscated for firewood by some poilus, living in a dugout near by.


The French attack, which has been in preparation for the past month, is to begin at dawn to-morrow. It has been hard, waiting; but it must have been a great deal worse for the infantrymen, who are billeted in all of the surrounding villages. They are moving up tonight to the first lines, for they are the shock troops who are to lead the attack. They are chiefly regiments of chasseurs — small men in stature, but clean, hard, well-knit — splendid types. They talk of the attack confidently. It is an inspiration to listen to them. Hundreds of them have visited our aerodrome during the past week, mainly, I think, for a glimpse of Whiskey and Soda, our lions, who are known to French soldiers from one end of the line to the other. Whiskey is almost full-grown, and Soda about the size of a wild cat. They have the freedom of the camp and run about everywhere.

The guns are thundering at a terrific rate, the concussions shaking our barracks and rattling the dishes on the table. In the mess-room the gramaphone is playing, ‘I’m Going ’Way Back Home and have a Wonderful Time.’ Music at the front is sometimes a doubtful blessing.

We are keyed up, some of us rather nervous, in anticipation of to-morrow. Porter is trying to give Irving a light from his own cigarette. Irving, who does n’t know the meaning of nerves, asks, ‘Who in hell are you waving at?’ Poor old Porter! His usefulness as a combat pilot has long past, but he hangs on, doing the best he can. He should have been sent to the rear months ago.

The first phase of the battle is over. The French have taken 11,000 prisoners, and have driven the enemy from all the hills, down to the low ground along the canal. For the most part, we have been too high above them to see the infantry actions; but knowing the plans and the objectives beforehand, we have been able to follow, quite clearly, the progress of the battle.

It opened on a wet morning with the clouds very low. We were to have gone on patrol immediately the attack began, but this was impossible. About nine o’clock the rain stopped, and Rodman and Davis were sent out to learn weather conditions over the lines. They came back with the report that flying was possible at 200 metres. This was too low an altitude to serve any useful purpose, and the commandant gave us orders to stand by.

About noon, the clouds began to break up, and both high and low patrols prepared to leave the ground. Drew, Dunham, and I were on high patrol, with Lieutenant Barry leading. Our orders were to go up through the clouds, using them as cover for making surprise attacks upon enemy reglage machines. We were also to attack any enemy formations sighted within three kilometres of their old first lines. The clouds soon disappeared, and so we climbed to 4500 metres and lay in wait for combat-patrols.

Barry sighted one and signaled. Before I had placed it, he dived, almost full-motor, I believe, for he dropped like a stone. We went down on his tail and saw him attack the uppermost of three Albatross single-seaters. The other two dived at once, far into their own lines. Dunham, Drew, and I took long shots at them, but they were far outside effective range. The topmost German made a feeble effort to manœuvre for position. Barry made a renversement with the utmost nicety of judgment, and came out of it about thirty metres behind and above the Albatross. He fired about twenty shots, when the German began falling out of control, spinning round and round, then diving straight, then past the vertical, so that we could see the silver under-surface of his wings and tail, spinning again until we lost sight of him. (This combat was seen from the ground, and Barry’s victory confirmed before we returned to the field.)

Lieutenant Talbott joined us as we were taking our height again. He took command of the patrol, and Barry went off hunting by himself, as he likes best to do. There were planes everywhere, of both nationalities. Mounting to 4000 metres within our own lines, we crossed over again, and at that moment. I saw a Letord — a three-passenger reglage machine—burst into flames and fall. There was no time either to watch or to think of this horrible sight.

We encountered a patrol of five Albatrosses almost on our level. Talbott dived at once. I was behind him, and picked a German who was spiraling either upward or downward — for a few seconds I was not sure which. It was upward. He was climbing to offer combat. This was disconcerting. It always is to a green pilot. If he is running, you may be sure that he is at least as badly rattled as you are. If he is a singleseater and climbing, you may be equally certain that he is not a novice, and that he has plenty of sand. Otherwise, he would not accept battle at a disadvantage in the hope of having his inning next.

I was foolish enough to begin firing while still about 300 metres distant. My opponent ungraciously offered the poorest kind of a target, getting out of the range of my sights by some very skillful manœuvring. I did not want him to think that he had an inexperienced pilot to deal with. Therefore, judging my distance very carefully, I did a renversement in the Lieutenant Barry fashion, but it was not so well done. Instead of coming out of it above and behind the German, when I pulled up in ligne de vol I was under him!

I don’t know exactly what happened then, but the next moment I was falling in a vrille — spinning nose-dive — and heard the well-known crackling sound of machine-gun fire. I kept on falling in a vrille, thinking that this would give the German the poorest possible target. This is a mistake which many new pilots make. In a vrille, the machine spins pretty nearly on its own axis, and although it is turning, a skillful pilot above it can keep it fairly well within the line of his sights.

Pulling up in ligne de vol, I looked over my shoulder again. The German had lost sight of me for a moment in the swiftness of his dive, but evidently he saw me just before I pulled out of the vrille. He was turning up again for another shot, in exactly the same position in which I had last seen him. And he was very close, not more than fifty metres distant.

I believed, of course, that I was lost; and why that German did n’t bag me remains a mystery. Heaven knows I gave him opportunity enough. In the end, by the merciful intervention of Chance, our godfather, my godfather, I escaped. I have said that the sky had cleared. But there was one strand of cloud left — not very broad, not very long; but a refuge, oh! what a welcome refuge! It was right in my path, and I tumbled into it. Literally head over heels, I came skidding out, but pulled up, put on my motor, and climbed back at once. And I kept turning round and round in it for several minutes. If the German had waited, he must have seen me raveling it out like a cat tangled in a ball of cotton. I thought that he was waiting. I even expected him to come nosing into it in search of me. In that case there would have been a glorious smash, for there was not room for two of us. I almost hoped that he would try this. If I could not bag a German with my gun, the next best thing was to run into him and so be gathered to my fathers while he was being gathered to his. There was no crash, and taking sudden resolution, I dived vertically out of the cloud, head over shoulder, expecting to see my relentless foe. He was nowhere in sight.

In that wild tumble, and while chasing my tail in the cloud, I lost my bearings. The compass, which was mounted on a swinging holder, had been tilted upside down. It stuck in that position. I could not get it loose. I had fallen to 600 metres, so that I could not get a large view of the landscape. Under the continuous bombardment, the air was filled with smoke, and through it nothing looked familiar. I knew the direction of our lines by the position of the sun, but I was in a suspicious mood. My motor, which I had praised to the heavens to the other pilots, had let me down at a critical moment. The sun might be ready to play some fantastic trick. I had to steer by it, although I was uneasy until I came within sight of our observation balloons. I identified them as French by sailing close by one of them, so that I could see the tricolor pennant floating out from a cord on the bag.

Then, being safe, I put my old Spad through every antic we two had ever done together. The observers in the balloons must have thought me crazy, a pilot running amuck from aerial shellshock.

Looking at my watch, I received the same old start of surprise on learning how much of wisdom one may accumulate in half an hour of aerial adventure. I had still an hour and a half to get through with before I could go home with a clear conscience. Therefore, taking height again, I went cautiously, gingerly, watchfully, toward the lines.


The ‘grand and glorious feeling’ is one of the finest compensations for this uncertain life in the air. One has it every time he turns from the lines toward — home! It comes in richer glow, if hazardous work has been done, after moments of strain, uncertainty, when the result of a combat sways back and forth; and it gushes up like a fountain, when, after making a forced landing in what appears to be enemy territory, you find yourself among friends.

Late this afternoon we started, four of us, with Davis as leader, to make the usual two-hour sortie over the lines. No Germans were sighted, and after an uneventful half hour, Davis, who is always springing these surprises, decided to stalk them in their lairs. The clouds were at the right altitude for this, and there were gaps in them over which we could hover, examining roads, railroads, villages, cantonments. The danger of attack was negligible. We could easily escape any large hostile patrol by dodging into the clouds. But the wind was unfavorable for such a reconnaissance. It was blowing into Germany. We would have it dead against us on the journey home.

We played about for half an hour, blown by a strong wind farther into Germany than we knew. We walked down the main street of a village where we saw a large crowd of German soldiers, and sprayed bullets among them; then climbed into the clouds before a shot could be fired at us. Later, we nearly attacked a hospital, mistaking it for an aviation field. It was housed in bessonneau hangars, and had none of the marks of a hospital, excepting a large red cross in the middle of the field. Fortunately we saw this before any of us had fired, and passed on over it at a low altitude, to attack a train.

There is a good deal of excitement in an expedition of this kind, and soldiers themselves say that surprise sorties from the air have a demoralizing effect upon troops. But as sport, there is little to be said for it. It is too unfair. For this reason among others I was glad when Davis turned homeward.

While coming back I climbed to 5000 metres, far above the others, and lagged a long way behind them. This was a direct violation of patrol-discipline, and the result was, that while cruising leisurely along, with motor throttled down, watching the swift changes of light over a wide expanse of cloud, I lost sight of the group. Then came the inevitable feeling of loneliness, and the swift realization that it was growing late, and that I was still far within enemy country.

I held a southerly course, estimating, as I flew, the velocity of the wind which had carried us into Germany, and judging from this estimate the length of time I should need to reach our lines. When satisfied that I had gone far enough, I started down. Below the clouds it was almost night, so dark that I could not be sure of my location. In the distance, I saw a large building brilliantly lighted. This was evidence enough that I was a good way from the lines. Unshielded windows were never to be seen near the front. I spiraled slowdy down over this building, examining as well as I could the ground behind it, and decided to risk a landing. A blind chance and blind luck attended it. In broad day, Drew hit the only post in a field 500 metres wide. At night, a very dark night, I missed colliding with an enormous factory chimney (a matter of inches), glided over a line of telegraph wires, passed at a height of a few metres over a field littered with huge piles of sugar-beets, and settled, comme une fleur, in a little cleared space which I could never have judged accurately, had I known what I was doing.

Shadowy figures came running toward me. Forgetting, in the joy of so fortunate a landing, my anxiety of a moment before, I shouted out, ‘Bon soir, messieurs!’ Then I heard some one say, ‘Ich glaube —,’ and lost the rest of it in the sound of tramping feet and an undercurrent of low, guttural murmurs. In a moment my Spad was surrounded by a widening circle of round hats — German infantrymen’s hats.

Here was the ignoble end to my career as an airman! I was a prisoner, a prisoner because of my own folly, because I had dallied along like a silly girl, to ‘look at the pretty clouds.’ I saw in front of me a long captivity embittered by this thought.

Not only this, but my Spad was intact. The German authorities would examine it, use it. Some German pilot might fly with it over the lines, and attack other French machines with my gun, my ammunition!

Not if I could help it! They stood there, those soldiers, gaping, muttering among themselves, waiting, I thought, for an officer to tell them what to do. I took off my leather gloves, then my silk ones under them, and these I washed about in the oil under my feet. Then, as quietly as possible, I reached for my box of matches.

‘Qu’est-ce-que vous faites là? Allez! Vite!’

A tramping of feet again, and a sea of round hats bobbing up and down vanishing in the gloom. Then I heard a cheery, ‘Cà va, monsieur? Pas de mal ?’

By way of answer I lighted a match and held it out, torch-fashion. The light glistened on a round, red face and a long French bayonet. Finally I said, ‘Vous êtes Francais, monsieur?’ in a weak watery voice.

‘Mais oui, mon vieux! Mais oui!' this rather testily. He did n’t understand at first that I thought myself in Germany. ‘Do I look like Boche?’

Then I explained, and I have never heard a Frenchman laugh more heartily. Then he explained, and I laughed, not so heartily, and a great deal more foolishly.

I may not give my location precisely. But I shall be disclosing no military secrets in saying that I am not in Germany. I am not even in the French war-zone. I am closer to Paris than I am to the enemy first-line trenches. In a little while, the sergeant with the round, red face and the long French bayonet, whose guest I am for the night, will join me here. If he were an American, to the manner born, he might greet me in this fashion: —

‘When you have been on patrol a long way behind the enemy lines, shooting up towns and camps and railway trains like a pack of aerial cow-boys; when, on your way home, you have deliberately disobeyed orders and loafed a long way behind the other members of your group in order to watch the pretty sunset; and as a punishment for this æsthetic indulgence, have been overtaken by darkness and compelled to land in strange country, only to have your machine immediately surrounded by German soldiers; then, having taken the desperate resolve that they shall not have possession of your old battlescarred avion as well as of your person, when you are about to touch a match to it, if the light glistens on a long French bayonet and you learn that the German soldiers have been prisoners since the battle of the Somme, and have just finished their day’s work at harvesting beets to be used in making sugar for French poilus — ah, is n’t it a grand and glorious feeling?’

To which I would reply in his own memorable words, —

‘Mais oui, mon vieux! Mais oui! ’