ON New Year’s morning, as it was snowing hard and there was no flying, I sat by a cozy fire, in the house of some English people. Curious thing, running into them here. They are of the tribe of English who wander over the face of the earth, and make England what she is. The man of the house is an expert on —, and has pursued his unusual vocation in Cuba, Jamaica, Honduras, Guiana, ‘Portuguese East’ and other parts of Africa, as well as in Ceylon and a few other places I forget. Here he is now, as expert for the French. His wife and seven children, who speak French, Portugese, Spanish, and Zulu, I think, follow him everywhere, and are everywhere eqaually at home. I have tea with them after work, and, needless to say, they are a Godsend in this desolate place. Let us all pray that next New Year’s day we shall be thanking God for a victorious peace and returning to civilian life, never to put on uniforms again. The finest uniform of all is the old civilian suit — brass buttons and gold braid to the contrary.
For this winter air-work, which is the coldest known occupation, I think, this is the way we dress. First, heavy flannels and woolen socks. Over that, a flannel shirt with sleeveless sweater on top, and uniform breeches and tunic. Boots and spiral puttees (very warm things, if not put on too tightly) go on next, and over all we pull on a great combination, or fur-lined, ‘teddy-bear’ suit — waterproof canvas outside. Over our boots we pull fur-lined leather flying boots, reaching half-way up to our knees. For head-gear, a fur-lined leather cap, and around my neck, several turns of gray muffler. A variety of mask and a pair of ‘ triplex ’ goggles to protect one’s face from the icy breeze. With all this, and heavy fur gloves, one can keep reasonably warm.
As the 16th of January was the first good flying day for some time, there was much activity. After lunch I went to the aerodrome just in time to see the combat patrol come swooping down. An excited crowd was gathered about the first machine in, and I learned that one of our best pilots had just been brought down by a German twoseater, and that H—, a nineteenyear-old American in our sister escadrille here, had promptly brought the Hun down. I was proud to think that, an American had revenged our comrade. This makes H—;’s second German within a week — a phenomenal record for a beginner. He is an unusual youngster, and handles amachine beautifully. He seems to have the mixture of dash, cold nerve, and caution which makes an ‘ace.’
The German fell 10,000 feet directly over the trenches, but at the last moment managed to straighten out a bit and crashed 200 yards inside his lines. H— followed him down, and gliding over the trenches at 100 feet, saw one German limp out of the wreck and wave a hand up at the victor.
Another American boy had quite an exciting time lately when his motor went dead far inside the enemy lines. Luckily he was high at the time; so he flattened his glide to the danger-point, praying to be able to cross into friendly country. Down he came, his ‘stick’ dead, the wind whistling through the cables, until close ahead he saw a broad belt of shell-marked desolation, crisscrossed by a maze of meaningless trenches. The ground was close; automatically he straightened out, avoiding a pair of huge craters, touched, bumped, crashed into a thicket of wire, and turned over. A jab at the catch of his belt set him free; but the really important thing was whether or not he had succeeded in crossing the German lines. Wisely enough, he crawled to a shellhole, and from its shelter began to reconnoitre warily. Muddy figures began to appear from various holes and ditches, and at length a soldier who, so far as appearances went, might have belonged to any army, leaned over the edge of the hole and said something in French. Young S—at that began to breathe for the first time in at least a quarter of an hour. His discoverer led him to a spacious dug-out where two generals were at lunch — a wonderful lunch, washed down with beverages forbidden to any but generals. The great ones made the corporal welcome, laughed themselves ill over his voluble but wonderful French, plied him with food and good Scotch whiskey, and sent him home in one of their superb closed cars.
Now that so many young Americans are beginning to fly in France, I fancy that the people at home must wonder what sort of a time their sons or brothers are having — how they live, what their work is, and their play. Most people who have an immediate interest in the war must by now possess a very fair idea of the military aviation training; but of the pilot’s life at the front I have seen little in print.
I can speak, of course, only of conditions in the French aviation service; but when our American squadrons take their places at the front, the life is bound to be very similar, because experience has taught all the armies that, to get the best results, pilots should be given a maximum of liberty and a minimum of routine, outside of their duty, which consists in but one thing—flying.
Let us suppose, for example, that an American boy — we will call him Wilkins, because I never heard of a man named Wilkins flying — has passed through the schools, done his acrobatics and combat-work, and is waiting at the great dépôt near Paris for his call to the front. Every day he scans the list as it is posted and at last, hurrah! his name is there, followed by mysterious letters and numbers — G.C. 17, or S.P.A. 501, or N. 358. He knows, of course, that he will have a single-seater scout, but the symbols above tell him whether it will be a Spad or a Nieuport. and whether he is to be in a groupe de combat (‘traveling circus,’ the British call them) or in a permanent fighting unit.
Wilkins is overjoyed to find he has been given a Spad, and hastens to pack up, in readiness for his train, which leaves at six P.M. When his order of transport is given him, he finds that his escadrille is stationed at Robinet d’Essence, in a fairly quiet, though imaginary, sector. Before leaving the dépôt he has issued to him a fur-lined teddy-bear suit, fur boots, sweater, fur gloves, and a huge cork safety helmet, which Wisdom tells him to wear and Common Sense pronounces impossible. Common Sense wins; so Wilkins gives the thing to the keeper of the ’effets chauds pour pilotes,'and retires.
His flying things stuffed into a dufflebag, which he has checked directly through to far-off Robinct, our hero boards the train with nothing but a light suitcase. He is delirious with joy, for it is long since he has been to Paris, and at the dépôt discipline has been severe and luxury scant. Every journey to the front is via Paris, and the authorities wink a wise and kindly eye at a few hours’ stopover. Outside the station, an hour later, Wilkins is conscious of a sudden odd feeling of calm, almost of content, which puzzles him until he thinks a bit. Finally he has it — this is what he is going to fight for, what all the Allies are fighting for: this pleasant, crowded civilian life; the dainty Frenchwomen going by on the arms of their permissionnaires, the fine old buildings, the hum of peaceful pursuits. In the schools and at the waiting dépôt he had nearly lost sight of real issues; but now it all comes back.
At his hotel he calls up Captain X— of the American Aviation, — an old friend, who is in Paris on duty, — and is lucky enough to catch him at his apartment. They dine at the Cercle des Alliés — the old Rothschild palace, now made into a great military club, where one can see many interesting men of all the Allied armies lunching and dining together. Dinner over, they drop in at the Olympia, watch the show a bit, and greet a multitude of friends who stroll about among the tables. A great deal of air-gossip goes on: A— has just bagged another Roche; B—, poor chap, was shot down two days ago; C—is a prisoner, badly wounded. At a table near-by, Wilkins, for the first time, sets eyes on Lufbery, the famous American ‘ace,’ his breast a mass of ribbons, his rather worn face lit up by a pleasant smile as he talks to a French officer beside him.
At eleven our young pilot says goodbye to his friend and walks through the darkened streets to his hotel. What a joy, to sleep in a real bed again! The train leaves at noon, which will give him time for a late breakfast and a little shopping in the morning. After the first real night’s sleep in a month, and a light war-time breakfast of omelet, bacon, broiled kidneys, and coffee, he is on the boulevards again, searching for a really good pair of goggles, a furlined dying cap to replace the hopeless helmet, and a pair of heavy mittens. Old friends, in the uniforms of American subalterns, are everywhere; many wear the stiff-looking wings of the American Flying Corps on their breasts. All are filled with envy to hear that he is leaving for the front; their turn will come before long, but meanwhile the wait grows tiresome.
At length it is train time, and so, hailing a taxi and picking up his bag on the way, Wilkins heads (let us say) for the Gare de l’Est, getting there just in time to reserve a place and squeeze into the dining-car, which is crowded with officers on their way to the front. These are not the ‘embusqué’ type of officers which he has been accustomed to in the schools, — clerkish disciplinarians, insistent on all the small points of military observance, — but real fighting men and leaders; grizzled veterans of the Champagne and the Somme, hawk-nosed, keen-eyed, covered with decorations.
Back in his compartment, our pilot dozes through the afternoon, until, just as it has become thoroughly dark, the train halts at Robinet. On the platform, half a dozen pilots of the escadrille, smart in their laced boots and black uniforms, are waiting to welcome the newcomer, and escort him promptly to the mess, where dinner is ready. Dinner over, he is shown to his room — an officer’s billet, with a stove, bathtub, and other unheard-of luxuries.
Next morning, one of his new comrades calls for Wilkins, presents him to the captain, who proves very chic and shows him his machine, which has just been brought out from the dépôt. The armorer is engaged in fitting a Vickers gun on it, so Wilkins spends the rest of the day at the hangar, sighting the gun, adjusting his belt, installing altimeter, tachometer, and clock.
An hour before sundown all is ready; so the American climbs into his seat for a spin, fully aware that many appraising eyes will watch his maiden performance. Off she goes with a roar, skimming low, over the field, until her full speed is attained, when the pilot pulls her up in a beautiful ‘zoom,’ banking at the same time to make her climb in a spiral. Up and up and up, her motor snarling almost musically — and suddenly she stops, quivers, and plunges downward, spinning. A hundred yards off the ground she straightens out magically, banks stiffly to the left, skims the hangars, and disappears. The mechanicians watching, hands on hips, below, nod to one another in the French way. ‘Il marche pas mol, celuilà,’ they say — high praise from them.
Wilkins, meanwhile, has flown down the river, to where a target is anchored in a broad shallow. Over it he tilts up and dives until the cross hairs in his telescopic sight centre on the mark. ‘Tut-tut-tut,’ says the Vickers, and white dashes of foam spring out close to the canvas. He nods to himself as he turns back toward the aerodrome.
At dinner there is much talk, as the weather has been good. A&emdash and L—had a stiff fight, with a twoplace Hun, who escaped miraculously, leaving their machines riddled with holes. M—had a landing cable cut by a bullet; J— had a panne, and was forced to land uncomfortably close to the lines. At eight o’clock an orderly comes in with the next day’s schedule: ‘Wilkins: protection patrol at 8 A.M.’
The French have not the English objection to ‘talking shop,’ and over the coffee the conversation turns to the difficulties of bringing down Huns and getting them officially counted — ‘homologue’ the French call it. The great airmen, of course, — men like Bishop, Ball, Nungesser, and Guynemer, — get their thirty, forty, or fifty Boches; but nevertheless it is a very considerable feat to get even one, and growing harder every day. Nearly all the German hack-work — photography, reglage of artillery, observation, and so forth —is now done by their new two-seaters, very fast and handy machines and formidable to attack, as they carry four machine-guns and can shoot in almost any direction. Most of the fighting must be done in their lines; and far above, their squadrons of Albatross single-seaters watch ceaselessly for a chance to pounce unseen.
Add to this the fact that, to get an official count, the falling Hun must be checked by two independent observers, such as observation-balloon men, and you can see that it is no easy trick.
Just before bedtime, the leader of the morning’s patrol explains the matter to Wilkins. The rendezvous is over a near-by village at 3,000 feet. Wilkins is to be last in line on the right wing of the V, a hundred yards behind the machine ahead of him. Signals are: a wriggle of the leader’s tail means, ‘ Open throttles, we’re off’; a sideways waving of his wings means, ‘I’m going to attack; stand by’; or, ‘Easy, I see a Boche.’
After a not entirely dreamless sleep and a cup of coffee, our hero is at the hangars at 7.30, helping his mechanic give the ‘taxi’ a final looking over. At 8 he takes the air and circles over the meeting-place till the V is formed. Just as he falls into his allotted station the leader, who has been flying in great circles, throttled down, wriggles his tail, opens the throttle wide, and heads for the lines, climbing at a hundred miles an hour.
Wilkins is so busy keeping his position that he has scarcely time to feel a thrill or to look about him. Suddenly, from below comes a vicious growling thud, another, and another: Hrrrump, hrrrump, hrrrump. He strains his head over the side of the fuselage. There below him, and horribly close, he thinks, dense black balls are springing out — little spurts of crimson at their hearts. The patrol leader begins to weave about to avoid the ‘Archies,’ banking almost vertically this way and that in hairpin turns, and poor Wilkins, at the tail end, is working frantically to keep his place. He has never seen such turns, and makes the common mistake of not pulling back hard enough when past 45 degrees. The result is that he loses height in a side-slip each time, and gets farther and farther behind his man.
Meanwhile, far up in the blue, their shark-like bodies and broad short wings glimmering faintly in the upper sunlight, a patrol of Albatross monoplanes is watching. Thousands of feet below, close to the trenches, they see the clumsy photographic biplanes puffing back and forth about their business. Above these, they see the V of Spads turning and twisting as they strive to stay above the photographers they are protecting. But wait, what is wrong with the Spad on the right end of the V — a beginner surely, for at this rate he will soon lose his patrol? As if a silent signal had been given, five Albatrosses detach themselves from the flock, and reducing their motors still more, point their sharp noses downward, and begin to drift insensibly nearer.
Wilkins has been having a tough time of it, and at last, in a 300-foot wing-slip, has lost his comrades altogether, and is flying erratically here and there, too intent and too new at the game to watch behind him. Suddenly, two sparks of fire like tiny shooting stars whizz by him, a long rip appears in the fabric of his lower wing, and next moment, clear and unmistakable, he hears, ‘Tut, tut, tut, tut.’ He nearly twists his head off, and perceives with horror that five sinister forms, gray, sharp-snouted, and ironcrossed, are hemming him in, above, below, behind. His thoughts, which occupy possibly a second and a half, may be set down roughly as follows: ‘Five Boche single-seaters — too many — must beat it — how? Oh, yes — climb in zig-zags and circles, heading for our lines.’
Leaving Wilkins for a moment, I must tell you a curious thing which shows that men have much in common with dogs. You know how, in his own yard, a fox-terrier will often put a mastiff to flight — and a fox-terrier, at that, who fears for his life when he ventures on the street? The same thing applies to flying — over the German lines you have a sort of a small, insignificant feeling, look at things pessimistically, and are apt to let your imagination run too freely. The minute you are over friendly country, that changes: your chest immediately expands several inches, you become self-assertive, rude, and over-confident. Thus Wilkins.
In a wild series of zooms and halfspirals, to throw off his pursuers’ aim, he reaches his own lines safely, and finds that all but one Albatross have given up the chase. One of them, possibly a beginner anxious for laurels, is not to be thrown off; so the American resolves to have a go at him.
They are at 12,000 feet. The German is behind and slightly below, manœuvring to come up under the Spad’s tail. A second’s thought, and Wilkins banks sharply to the left, circles, and dives before the Boche has realized that it is an air-attack. With the wind screaming through his struts, he sees the enemy’s black-leather helmet fair on the crosshairs of the telescope, and presses the catch of the gun. A burst of half a dozen shots, a pull and a heave to avoid collison. As he rushes past the Albatross, he sees the pilot sink forward in his seat; the machine veers widly, begins to dive, to spin. Good God — he’s done it — what luck — poor devil!
And that night at mess, Wilkins stands champagne for the crowd.
Young H— has had another wild time. He ran across a very fast German two-seater ten miles behind our lines, fought him till they were twenty miles inside the Boche lines, followed him down to his own aerodrome, circled at fifty feet in a perfect hail of bullets, killed the Hun pilot as he walked (or ran) from machine to hangars, riddled the hangars, rose up, and flew home.
He shot away over 500 rounds — a remarkable amount from a single-seater bus, as the average burst is only five or six shots before one is forced to manœuvre for another aim.
On a raw foggy day, in the cozy living-room of our apartment, with a delicious fire glowing in the stove, and four of the fellows having a lively game of bridge, one is certainly comfortable — absurdly so. Talk about the hardships of life on the front!
The mess is the best I have seen, and very reasonable for these times a dollar and a half per day each, including half a bottle of wine, beer, or mineral water at each meal. A typical dinner might be: excellent soup, entree, beefsteak, mashed potatoes, dessert, nuts, figs, salad. While no man would appreciate an old-fashioned home-type American meal more than I, one is forced to admit that the French have made a deep study of cookery and rations designed to keep people in the best shape. There is a certain balance to their meals — never too much concentrated, starchy, or bulky food, The variety, considering the times, is really wonderful. Breakfasts my pal and I cook ourselves, occasionally breaking out some delicacy such as kidneys en brochette.
We have an amusing system of fines for various offenses: half a franc if late for a meal; a franc if over fifteen minutes late; half a franc for throwing bread at the table; half a franc for breaking a tail-skid (on a ‘cuckoo’); a franc for a complete smash; a franc and a half if you hurt yourself to boot; and so on. A fellow hit a tree a while ago, had a frightful crash, and broke both his legs. When he leaves the hospital, the court will decide this precedent and probably impose on him a ruinous fine.
Of course no one ever pays a fine without passionate protests; so our meals are enlivened by much debate. As we have a very clever lawyer and a law student almost his equal, accuser and accused immediately engage counsel, and it is intensely entertaining to hear their impassioned arraignments and appeals to justice and humanity: deathless Gallic oratory, enriched with quotations, classical allusions, noble gestures; such stuff as brings the chamber to its feet, roaring itself hoarse; and all for a ten-penny fine!
A good bit of excitement lately, over uniforms. In aviation, one knows, there is no regulation uniform: each man is supposed to wear the color and cut of his previous arm. The result is that each airman designs for himself a creation which he fondly believes is suited to his style of soldierly beauty — and many of these confections have n’t the slightest connection with any known French or Allied uniform. One may see dark-blue, light-blue, horizon-blue, black, and khaki; trousers turned up at the bottom; open-front tunics (like a British officer), and every variety of hat, footwear, and overcoat.
I, for instance (being in the Foreign Legion), wear khaki, open-fronted tunic, a very unmilitary khaki stock necktie, Fox’s puttees, and U. S. Army boots. Naturally, I have to duck for cover whenever I see the general loom up in the offing; for he is a rather particular, testy old gentleman, very military, and can’t abide the ‘fantasies’ of the aviator tribe. Lately he has caught and severely reprimanded several of the boys; so I guess that I shall have to have the tailor make certain unfortunate changes in my garments.
The wreather of late has been wretched for flying. A low, frosty mist hangs over the countryside; the trees, especially the pines, are exquisite in their lacy finery of frost. The few days we have of decent weather are usually interesting, as the Hun ventures over chez nous to take a few photographs, and with a little luck the boys are able to surprise him into a running fight. At night, when the tired war-birds buzz home to roost, a crowd of pilots and mechanics gathers before the hangars. All gaze anxiously into the northeastern sky. The captain paces up and down — though he has flom four hours, he will not eat or drink till he has news of his pilots. Jean is missing, and Chariot, and Marcel. Night is drawing on — the sky flushes and fades, and faces are growing just a trifle grave.
Suddenly a man shouts and points, — Jean’s mechanician, — and high up in the darkening east we sec three specks—the missing combat patrol. Next moment the hoarse drone of their motors reaches our ears; the sound ceases; in great curving glides they descend on the aerodrome. We hear the hollow whistling of their planes, see them, one after another, clear the trees at ninety miles an hour, dip, straighten, and rush toward us, a yard above the grass. A slight bumping jar, a halfstop, and each motor gives tongue again in short bursts as the pilots taxi across to the hangars, snapping the spark on and off.
Then a grand scamper to crowd around our half-frozen comrades, who descend stiffly from their ‘zincs,’ and tell of their adventures, while mechanics pull off their fur boots and combinations. Other ‘mccanos’ are examining the machines for bulletand shrapnelholes — often a new wing is needed, or a new propeller; sometimes a cable is cut half through. Snatches of talk (unintelligible outside the‘fancy’) reach one; we, of course, know only the French, but the R.F.C. stuff is equally cryptic.
‘ Spotted him at four thousand eight, “piqued” on him, got under his tail, did a chaudelle, got in a good rafale, did a glissade, went into a vrille, and lost so much height I could not catch him again.’
An R.F.C. man would say, ‘Spotted him at forty-eight hundred, dove on him, got under his tail, did a zoom, got in a good burst, did a side-slip, went into a spin,’ etc. I may say that ‘chaudelle’ or ‘zoom’ means a sudden, very steep leap upward (limited in length and steepness by the power and speed of the machine). Some of our latest machines will do the most extraordinary feats in this line — things that an old experienced pilot in America would have to see to believe. A ‘glissade’ is a wing-slip to the side, and down; a ' vrille’ is a spinning nose-dive.
Among the younger pilots are several who entertain spectators with all sorts of acrobatic feats over the aerodrome. A fine exhibition of skill and courage, but foolish at times — especially after a fight, when vital parts may be dangerously weakened by bullet-holes. Too much acrobacy strains and weakens the strongest aeroplane. I believe in doing just enough to keep your hand in, as in fights you are forced to put enough unusual stresses on your bus.
I hope to know very soon whether or not we are to be transferred to the American army. The long delay has worked hardships on a good many of us, as of course no pilot could begin to live on the pay we get. The FrancoAmerican Flying-Corps fund (for which, I believe, we must thank the splendid generosity of Mr. Vanderbilt) has helped immensely in the past, but some of the boys are in hard straits now. I hope we shall be transferred, because the pay will make us self-supporting, and any American would rather be in U. S. uniform nowadays, in spite of the bully way the French treat us, and our liking for our French comrades, with whom it will be a wrench to part.
The point regarding our present pay is this: all French aviators are volunteers, knowing conditions in the airservice beforehand. Before volunteering, therefore, they arrange for the necessary private funds; if not available, they keep out of flying. We get two and a half francs a day (as against five sous in the infantry), but on the other hand, we are lodged, and forced by tradition to live, like officers. It is fine for the chap who has a little something coming in privately, but tough for the one who is temporarily or permanently ‘ broke.’
Our boys are going to do splendid things over here. Everywhere one sees discipline, efficiency, and organization that make an American’s chest go out. The first slackness (unavoidable at the start of a huge and unfamiliar job) has completely disappeared. People at home should know of all this as quickly and as much in detail as expedient: they are giving their money and their flesh and blood, and prompt and racy news helps wonderfully to hearten and stimulate those whose duty is at home.
For myself, there is nowhere and nobody I would rather be at present than here and a pilot. No man in his senses could say he enjoyed the war; but as it must be fought out, I wouId rather be in aviation than any other branch. A pleasant life, good food, good sleep, and two to four hours a day in the air. After four hours (in two spells) over the lines, constantly alert and craning to dodge scandalously accurate shells and suddenly appearing Boches, panting in the thin air at 20,000 feet, the boys are, I think, justified in calling it a day. I have noticed that the coolest men are a good bit let down after a dogged machine-gun fight far up in the rarefied air. It may seem soft to an infantryman — twenty hours of sleep, eating, and loafing; but in reality the airman should be given an easy time outside of flying.
I was unfortunate enough to smash a beautiful new machine yesterday. Not my fault; but it makes one feel rotten to see a bright splendid thing one has begun to love strewn about the landscape. Some wretched little wire, or bit of dirt where it was not wanted, made my engine stop dead, and a forced landing in rough country full of woods and ditches is no joke. I came whizzing down to the only available field, turned into the wind, only to see dead ahead a series of hopeless ditches which would have made a frightful end-over-end crash. Nothing to do but pull her up a few feet and sail over, risking a loss of speed. I did this, and ‘pancaked’ fairly gently, but had to hit ploughed ground across the furrow. The poor ‘coucou’ — my joy and pride — was wrecked, and I climbed, or rather dropped, out, with nothing worse than a sore head, where the old bean hit the carlingue. Now all the world looks gray, though our captain behaved like the splendid chap he is about it: not a word of the annoyance he must have felt.
The very finest motors, of course, do stop on occasions. Better luck, I hope, from now on.