My Island Home
This is the third installment of an autobiography which will mean much to Atlantic readers. JAMESS NORMAN HALLwas lowa born and bred, and the hills and the Skunk River close to the little town of Colfax were to him what Hannibal and the Mississippi a were to Sam Clemens. Hall worked as a salesman in a dry-goods store while still in high school. He got his degree at Grinnell by dint of waiting on table, peeling potatoes, cutting grass and shoveling snow. Always he had wanted to write, and though his poems and essays were rejected with grim monotony, he kept plugging away. His first job as a social worker took him to Boston, where he spent his days trying to salvage broken lives in the bleakest of slums and his nights pounding his typewriter in an attic room overlooking Louisburg Square. Then in 1914 he decided to invest his tiny savings in a trip to England. Our serial, which is a four-part abridgment of the book, resumes at that point.
by JAMES NORMAN HALL
ON May 27, l914, I sailed for Liverpool on the steamship Laconia and I went steerage for the simple reason that I could not have gone any other way. My funds were barely enough to carry me through a summer in England. I had two plans in mind. The first was to reach Nether Stowey in Somerset, where Coleridge had lived while writing The Ancient Mariner. I would visit the country thereabout and walk the roads that Coleridge and Wordsworth had walked together at that time. My second intention was to spend the rest of the summer trying to write. I was not compelled to earn my living during the three months in England, but I still wanted to prove to myself that it could be done. Romanticists rarely profit by experience and I had been able to persuade myself that my luck would be better in England.
I was as fort unate in finding lodgings in London as I had been on Beacon Hill in Boston. It might have been a sister of my landlady al 91 Pinckney Street who showed me into a fourth-floor room of a somewhat decayed but genteel lodginghouse at 47 Bernard Street, W.C. It was larger and more comfortable than my room on Louisburg Square, and the rent was only thirteen shillings and sixpence per week, including breakfast. As my landlady quietly closed the door behind her on the way out, I had the feeling of a man awaiting the crack of a pistol at the beginning of a three-mile race. Mine was to be a three-month race, and if I were to win it I knew that no time should be lost in making a start. And so, grimly but hopefully I unpacked my few belongings and placed my typewriter on the table with a box containing 500 sheets of clean new paper beside it on my right hand. With a kind of panicky feeling and with only a blurred notion of what I wanted to write, I drew up my chair and said to myself, “Now, then! To work!”
My mother used to save her children’s letters, and this one of mine tells what happened:—
LLANGOLLEN, WALES, July 26th, 1914
DEAR MOTHER: —
Alas for my hopes of earning something by writing this summer! After nearly six weeks in London, during which time every one of my manuscripts came back, I decided to seek inspiration in the country. I bought a second-hand bicycle and headed south, travelling for two days in that direction. Then I headed north again, avoiding London, and biked as far as Chester, where I spent two days, though I wish it might have been as many weeks. But I wanted to see Wales. I plan to stay here for a week or two and then make a leisurely journey south and cross the Bristol Channel into Somerset.
I’m afraid this summer is going to prove a flop insofar as writing is concerned, or I should say. selling what I write. I see now that I shall have to go home at the end of September. And then — what? I don’t want to go into business. I have a feeling in my bones that I was not cut out for a business man. I want to go home, of course, to see you all, and while I’m there perhaps dad could give me a job in the bottling works, or I could go back to Gould’s clothing store with John and Billy Davis. This may seem to you like backing in my tracks, but I would stay only until spring. Remember, mother, that many a man who wants to write has a hard time getting started. . . .
Copyright 1916, 1932, 1936, 1941, 1951, 1952 by Edutr of James Xormaa Hull
As I traveled north through the beautiful countryside in the direction of Wales, I had not the faintest premonition that I was enjoying with all England the last days of the Indian summer of an age that was all but gone. The peaceful farms and villages seemed rather to belong to people living in a Golden Age that might never come to an end. I caught glimpses of family groups having afternoon tea in their gardens, of others looking on at cricket matches, or fishing from the grassy banks of streams, or st rolling through the fields, or floating dreamily along in punts on gently winding rivers. It seemed to me that I was passing through an earthly paradise—as it was, in fact. Here were people who had long since learned the art of living; who kept broad margins of leisure around their lives. Business in England seemed to be an avocation rather than the be-all and end-all of existence. No wonder, I thought, that England has nourished so many poets; the country itself proclaimed that all of these people were poets at heart.
It was in the village of Beddgelert that I walked, all unsuspecting, into my first news of World War I. I had arrived from Llangollen only the evening before, and had taken lodgings for the night at an ancient inn lighted by small leaded windowpanes in walls three feet thick. Next morning I saw a dozen or more men in uniform gathered at the post office. I fell into conversation with one of them, first about Snowdon, which he had often climbed, and his account of the view from the summit made me more than ever eager to see it. Presently I asked in a by-the-way fashion about his army service and it he was quartered thereabout. He was not in the regular army, he said, but in a Territorial regiment which had just been called up because of the war.
I stared blankly at him. “War? What war?" I asked, and he stared in his turn at me. “Where have you been?” he said. “Don’t you know that England, France, and Russia are at war with Germany and Austria?”
All through the summer I had read no newspapers and had lived in such solitary fashion that I had spoken with scarcely anyone. I had heard something about the assassination of an Austrian archduke, in Serbia, but had no idea that it was an event of world-shaking importance. The following day I returned to Llangollen, sold my bicycle, and proceeded by train to London. This must have been August 8 or 9. The next two weeks I spent walking the streets and squares of London: Piccadilly, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, the Horse Guards Parade. This last was the place where I spent most of my time, watching the long lines of young men moving slowly up to and into the recruiting offices. On August 17 the woodshed poet joined one of these lines, and when he left the Horse Guards Parade two hours later he was Private J. N. Hall, 9th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, with a guaranteed stipend of one shilling per day.
ON the day following my enlistment I joined my just-formed battalion at Hounslow Barracks, near London — the headquarters, or depot, of the Royal Fusiliers, an ancient London regiment with a distinguished history. I was in a daze, not yet realizing what had happened to me, and my fellow volunteers appeared to be in the same condition. We were immediately provided with uniforms, LeeEnfield rifles, and the other equipment essential to the infantryman. The greatest annoyance to me during that first week was the lack of side pockets in our trousers. From boyhood on it had been a problem with me to know what to do with my hands, and I had solved it in the only possible way by putting them in my trousers pockets. This had become as instinctive with me as breathing; the moment I started to walk my hands slid automatically into my pockets. Now, in uniform, they slid down the seams of my trousers. I remember how, on my first day at Hounslow, a sergeant paused to regard me critically, observing how my hands made repeated efforts to dive into pockets no longer there. “No place to put ‘em — what?” he said. “Just you wait a bit. We’ll show you what your hands are for.” A good many others were almost as pocket-conscious as myself, but we soon learned the innumerable uses to which soldiers’ hands are put, and forgot that we’d ever had pockets.
When I first joined up I felt like a hermit crab deprived of his shell, desperately seeking another, and the only one available was our bell tent, which I shared with fourteen other men. I tried at first to draw a cloak of silence and anonymity around me, but that was soon torn to shreds; in fact, it was destroyed well before we came to St. Martin’s Plain, near Shorncliffe Camp, in Kent, where we were to train for seven months. Although the 9th Royal Fusiliers was a battalion of an old London regiment, we had men from all parts of the United Kingdom: a scattering of North Countrymen, a few Welsh, Scotch, and Irish, men from the Midlands and from the South of England. Most were Cockneys, born within the sound of Bow bells. It was clear at once to my comrades that I fitted into none of these categories. Although in a sense f didn’t belong, this was far from being the handicap I had dreaded. I have never met a more friendly lot of men than my comrades of C Company. I was called “Jamie, the Yank,”and the mere fact of my presence among them offered proof that “the Stites” were heart and soul with England in her war against Germany. As a soldier I had no time to regret my lost opportunities for musing and daydreaming. We were busy from dawn until dark every day in the week except Sunday. The friendships I formed with men with whom I thought at first that I had little in common were, and the memories of them still are, beyond price to me.
After seven months of the hardest kind of training we marched to Aldershot, 125 miles from our camp. We were no longer the ragtag army of the previous autumn. The pasty-faced rookies were now seasoned, well-disciplined men in superb health. The esprit de corps was excellent; we all believed that Lord kitchener’s First Hundred Thousand contained no finer battalion than the 9th Royal Fusiliers.
Aldershot was our last training area before we were sent to France; our entire 12th Division was being assembled there. At this time we received our machine guns, one per company; nothing to what the Germans had, but all that England could then furnish her battalions. I was made No. 2 of the gun team of Company and found here a band of brothers within a band of brothers. We were excused from all the drills of the rifle-carrying infantrymen and worked from dawn to dark perfecting ourselves in the use of this new weapon. It seems strange to me now that I should have given so little thought to the purpose behind this I raining: to make us killers far beyond the power of the rifleman, who at best could fire no more than fifteen rounds per minute. The only way I can explain it is that I could not at that time visualize the horrors of war without actual experience of it. We saw — all of us machine gunners, while serving in turn in the butts at target practice — machine-gun bullets making sieves of the targets, tearing them to ribbons. But we did not —at least I did not, because I could not—visualize the targets as living men receivig that hail of death.
The number of casualties in World War I — killed, wounded, missing in ad ion, and prisoners of war — as given in The World Almanac, comes to a total of 37,508,686. The number of killed and died of wounds is given as; Allied Powers, 5,152,115; Central Powers, 3,386,200—a total of more than 8,500,000 men. It is not possible for me to grasp the significance of such a number. I recall an occasion when I saw our 12th Division marching in column of route, and how great an extent of country it covered, the column to the rear dwindling to the vanishing point, the line ahead stretching away over the hills, descending into the valleys and reappearing over other hills beyond. I try in vain to imagine a shadowy host of 8,500,000 men moving in column of fours at a pace of three miles per hour, and how many days, weeks, and months it would take them to pass a given point. The mind can at least grope toward a realization of tragedy on a colossal scale by thinking of them, not as dead, but as they were in life: an endless column of young men in the very flower of manhood, laughing and talking as they march past —the best blood of Europe, whose loss, and that of their unborn children, is so woefully felt in the world today. The War of Attrition so stubbornly clung to and believed in by the High Commands of France, England, and Germany surely accomplished its grim purpose during the years 1914—1918.
We arrived at the front at a fortunate time, for us. The Second Battle of Ypres, when the Germans first used gas in quantity, was just ended. On many a day the newspapers had “nothing to report” with respect to the Western front, but from the soldiers’ point of view this was often an understatement. It was not “nothing” to us when comrades were killed by snipers’ bullets, or when three, five, or a dozen men were blown to bits by shell or trench-mortar fire, or were caught in the open and mowed down by machine-gun fire.
On these nights of official calm we machine gunners were kept busy enough. We crept through saps beneath our wire into no man’s land to lie in wait for enemy working parties building up trenches destroyed by shellfire or mending their barbedwire entanglements. And when, by the light of star shells or trench rockets, one was discovered, we would give it a heavy burst of fire and crawl quickly through the rank grass to another position before enemy whiz-bangs could begin searching for us with shrapnel. We fired from the trenches as well as in front of them. It was our duty to see that our guns lived up to their purpose as “weapons of opportunity and surprise.” With the aid of large-scale maps we located all the roads within range back of the enemy lines: roads which we knew were used by troops moving in or out of the line and by ration parties and horse-drawn transport wagons bringing up supplies: and at irregular intervals we covered them with long bursts of concentrated, searching fire.
The German machine gunners did the same. They, too, profiled by their knowledge of night life in the firing line. They knew as we did that the roads immediately back of the trenches were filled at night with troops, transport wagons, and fatigue parties, and that men become so weary of living in ditches that they are willing to take risks for the joy of getting out on top of the ground. Our men were killed or wounded nightly, often because they were too weary to be cautious, and doubtless we did as much execution with our own guns.
War has one compensation — a great one — which peace cannot provide to anything like the same extent; namely, the strength of the friendships formed among men sharing equally the misery, boredom, horror, and danger of active service. I recall a rainy autumn evening of boredom at its worst. All along the line the trenches had caved in, becoming a series of mudholes filled with water: there was no hope of repairing them until the rain had stopped. Men, chilled to the bone, stood or crouched where and how they could, their ground sheets over their heads to protect them from the coarsest of the wet. Near our gun position was a waist-deep hole. A temporary bridge of boards had been built over it, but in the darkness it could not be seen.
We heard someone approaching, sliding into hole after hole, cursing to himself as though he believed himself alone in that part of Dante’s hell. He fell with a resounding splash into the hole near our gun position. We heard him pick himself up and stand there, in silence. Apparently he could find no words with which to comment upon this last bit of misery heaped upon misery.
Then an exasperating voice near by said, “Na, then, matey! Bathin’ in our private pool without a permit ?”
Another voice said, “Grease aht of it, son! That’s our tea water you’re a-standin’ in.”
The man, waist-deep in muddy water, must have been half frozen, but for a moment he made no attempt to move on.
“One o’ you fetch me a bit of soap,”he replied, in a coaxing voice. “Don’t talk about tea water to a bloke ain’t had a bawth in seven weeks.”
TOWARD the end of September there was increased artillery fire for miles along our sector of front. It came from our batteries and we knew that it must be the prelude to infantry action. Then came sudden orders to move. Within twenty-four hours the roads were filled with the incoming troops of a new division. We made a forced march to a railhead and were soon moving southward to take part in the Battle of Loos. I remember the brief remarks of the CO of us machine gunners.
“Listen carefully, men. We are moving up to take over captured German trenches near Loos. No one knows yet the situation there. The men you are going to relieve have had a tough time. The trenches are full of dead. Those who are left are worn out with the strain and need sleep. They won’t want to stop long after we come in and we can’t expect much information from them. We will have to find out things for ourselves. Our immediate orders are to hold those captured trenches and to repulse counterattacks. What we are to do later we will know when the time comes.”
We machine gunners were always heavily loaded, for, in addition to the usual infantryman’s burden, we had our guns and ammunition boxes to carry, so it was hard going for us in the mud. We crossed what had been the first line of British trenches before the attack began, and from there the ground was covered with the bodies of our fallen comrades, proof of the heavy toll the Germans had taken for every yard of ground given. Some were huddled in groups of two or three as though they had crept together for companionship before they died. Some were lying just as they had fallen; others were hanging in tangles of barbed wire, which the heaviest of bombardments never completely destroys. We saw them only in the distant light of trench rockets and stumbled on and over them as darkness returned. I can still hear the voices of dead-tired men passing the word back to those who followed them in file: “Mind the hole. . . . Mind the wire. . . . Mind the bloke,”as we moved slowly forward. “Bloke" all but lost its significance as referring to a living man.
The trenches and dugouts in these enemy lines were a revelation to us; the deep dugouls were palaces compared with the wretched little surface “funk holes" to which we were accustomed, but the ground here was unusually favorable. Under a clayish surface soil was a stratum of solid chalk. Some of the dugouts were from twelve to fifteen feet below the surface, and still intact for all the hail of high explosive that had been rained upon them, but the stairways leading down to them were choked with earth and debris. There were also surface dugouts capable of holding an entire platoon, but these had not been proof against shellfire. Most of them were in ruins; the tiers of logs that covered them, beneath a surface screen of three or four feet of earth, had been splintered like matchwood and scattered far and wide. Our C Company gun team took up quarters in one of these surface dugouts which was only half destroyed.
It is a truism to say that death comes swiftly in war and that one’s luck is the result of pure chance. The most trivial circumstance may save or destroy. There were always two men on duty at the gun position, the other members of the team in reserve near by when the gun was not in action. We off-duty men were making tea in our halfruined dugout when Richard McHard, one of the men at the gun, came in to look for his water bottle. He asked me to take his place at the gun while he searched for it. I had no sooner reached the firing trench than the Germans began a heavy bombardment of our sector of the line. As I reached the gun position a shell made a direct hit on the dugout I had just left. Seven of our comrades were inside. Three of them were killed outright, three died within the half hour, and one escaped with a crushed leg that had to be amputated at the field hospital. What had happened to our little group was happening all along our sector of front. The line was a shambles of loose earth and splintered logs; at many places it was difficult to see where the trench had been. Had the Germans launched a counterattack immediately after the bombardment, we would have been hard put to hold the position.
For a full month we had no opportunity to remove any of our clothing. We were moved from one position to another through the wreckage of trenches where tangled masses of telephone wires, seemingly gifted with a kind of malignant humor, caught in the piling-swivels of our rifles or coiled themselves around our feet. Trenches were repaired only to be destroyed while the work was still in progress. Twice we received orders that we were to attack at dawn; then the order was countermanded. There were many such orders and counterorders, alarms and excursions. Through them all my comrades kept their balance and their air of grim unconcern, but many a one wished he might be “struck pink” if he knew “wot we was a doin’ of, anyway.”
The Battle of Loos was but an incident in the War of Attrition which was to end only with the war itself. I have read that it was the bloodiest battle in English history up to that time, but it was nothing when compared with the losses during the Battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, to come in 1916 and 1917. Around 60,000 men were killed at Loos. The gain in territory amounted to one mile on a front of four miles.
A feeling of gloom settled upon the troops everywhere, after the fiasco at Loos. Even the most hopeful of soldiers had no further illusions as to the probable length of the war. The stalemate would continue indefinitely — for years, perhaps. But there was one prospect to cheer men facing another winter of trench warfare. Leave was to be given. I was ordered to report at regimental headquarters at Hounslow and was directed to an officer who greeted me in a very friendly fashion which surprised me. “I’ve good news for you, Corporal. Do you know why you’ve been sent for?”
“Am I to be given leave to go home?” I asked.‘
“Better than that,” he replied. “You’re to be discharged from the army.”
“Discharged! . . . But I joined up for three years, or the duration. I would like a spell of leave, but do I have to take my discharge?”
“Don’t be foolish, young man,”he said. “Why shouldn’t you take it? America isn’t in the war. Evidently someone with influence has been using it to get you out of the army. The orders are that you are to be given your discharge, but you needn’t accept it if you don’t want to. Take it or leave it.”The officer smiled faintly. ”There’s nothing to prevent your re-enlisting if you want to later. . . . Well, which is it to be — Iowa, or the trenches once more?”
“I will take my discharge,” I replied.
I doubt whether in the whole of London there could have been found that day a happier, more miserable man than former Lance Corporal 690, J. N. Hall. I was going home, leaving that band of brothers whose friendship was one of the finest things that had ever come to me, and many of whom I would never see again. If ever there was a split personality I was one at that time, and for days and weeks thereafter, I was like a man suffering from amnesia, vainly trying to discover his proper identity.
My first meeting with Ellery Sedgwick, who was then editor of the Atlantic Monthly, must have occurred only a few days after my arrival in Boston. My friend Laurence Winship had put something in the Boston Globe about the arrival of a former social worker with the M.S.P.C.C. who had just returned from the battlefields in France, and this must have been how Mr. Sedgwick first heard of me. I seem to remember receiving a note from him asking me to call.
Mr. Sedgwick asked if I had ever done any writing, and I said, “Yes, a little. At least, I’ve always wanted to write,”without informing him how often I had tried to “make" the Atlantic. He then spoke of a book just published by Houghton Mifflin Company: The First Hundred Thousand, by Major John Hay Beith, a British officer who had written, under the pen name “Ian Hay,”of his experiences as a member of Lord Kitchener’s volunteer army. “It is an excellent story,” Mr. Sedgwick went on, “and is certain to have a great success in America where we know so little thus far of the actual battle experience of British soldiers in France.
Well, I want you to write some articles for the Atlantic about the experiences of a private in the British Army. The fact that you are an American will make them all the more interesting to readers over here. And you will be doing a real service to the Allied cause; I can assure you of that. Except for a few towns and cities on the Atlantic seaboard, America is not awake to the significance of this war. Most people still believe that it is merely another of Europe’s perpetual squabbles to be settled by Europe alone. They think it is none of our business and are strongly back of President Wilson, who believes we should keep out of it.”
“Would you want me to stress the fact that we should be in it?” I asked.
“No. . . . No preaching, or exhorting, or reproving the American people for their neutrality.”He smiled faintly as he added: “After all, who are you? A young American known to no one except your friends, who joined the British Army and has now returned direct from the battlefields of Franee. I want you to write a simple, straightforward narrative of your experiences: your day-to-day life in the trenches; the kind of men you served with; the hardships and dangers you shared together. Don’t try to be ‘literary.’ Write as you would if you were telling of your experiences in letters to a friend. And don’t leave out any touches of humor. Life in the trenches cannot be all sheer tragedy, and readers will want to know the lighter side of it as well.”
“How many articles would you want?” I asked.
“One to start with. I can speak more definitely about others when I’ve seen what you can do.”
Instead of walking on air as I left the Atlantic office, I was in a more than sober frame of mind. How could I accept Mr. Sedgwick’s generous offer even though, as he had said, it might mark the beginning of a literary career for me? I knew my failings too well to believe that I could sit down and rattle off at high speed a story of my experiences, Besides, I was going home and wanted to spend all the time I had with my family, particularly with my father. And so I left for Iowa, trying to put out of mind all thought of the future save the happy prospect immediately before me of spending Christmas at home.
When the festivities of Christmas Eve and Chiristmas Day were over, I shut myself in my room with the feeling that I had no time to lose. My parents and the other members of the family knew nothing of my plans. They believed that I was out of the army for good, and I lacked the courage to tell them the truth, But I had, of course, told them of my commission from the Atlantic Monthly and they were pleased as only one’s family can be. Even my brother Harvey was impressed; at last the woodshed poet seemed to be making some progress.
I had the article finished well before the month was ended. I sent it at once to Mr. Sedgwick and received a wire from him a few days later: “First article excellent. Send more.”
At last I really was launched on the long-wishedfor literary career. Nevertheless, I knew what my immediate reply to Mr. Sedgwick should have been: “Very sorry, but must return to service in France. May be able to send further articles from there.” But I decided to go on with Kitchener’s Mob, the book I was writing, and finish it before spring.
Never have I spent so miserable a winter as the one of early 1916. My conscience gave me no peace. I knew that I should not be sitting at home writing about the war, but that my duty was to return to France to my comrades in the 9th R.F. I kept in constant touch with them by letter and so knew what was taking place at the front. Nothing, from the War Office point of view, was happening; it was a continued story of boredom and misery, with the trench lines just where they had been in the autumn, with endless processions of working parties strengthening them at night, adding successive lines of support trenches. “And the Jerries are doing the same,”one of my comrades wrote. “It looks to me as though both sides will be stuck in the mud here for years to come.” Scarcely a letter received but contained news of comrades killed, and I wondered whether, by the time I returned, there would be any of them left.
Meanwhile, I was asked to give a talk at the Methodist church about my experiences in France. The church was packed on the evening when I did so. It was my first public appearance at home since the night when I graduated from high school and clung so grimly to the opening lines of my oration: One hundred years ago the morning broke. . . .” The faces looking up at me appeared to be the same, except that my brother Harvey was not in the second row as he had been on that memorable night. I had no memorized speech to deliver on this occasion. I merely talked, simply and informally, with no attempt to preach the duly of the U.S.A. with respect to the war. I had the feeling that my audience considered me as something of a curiosity — a Colfax boy who had joined the British Army. Whatever for? In those days which now seem so remote, Iowans, like the folk of the Middle West generally, took little interest in European affairs. The war was no concern of ours. If the countries of Europe could not take an example from the great peaceful U.S.A., let them stew in their own juice.
That talk was a complete failure except as entertainment. I had hoped to arouse these old friends and neighbors — to give them a dear idea of whift war meant and of I the courage of the men who were fighting it—but I did not succeed. It was all too far away, too remote from their own experience. I related the incident of the rainy autumn evening when the trenches were reduced to a series of mudholes and the man fell into the hole of waist-deep water near our gun position,
“Na, then, matey! bathin’ in our private pool without a permit?”
“Grease aht of it, son! That’s our tea water you’re a-standin’ in.”
There was a general ripple of laughter at this, as there might have been had I told a funny story about “Pat and Mike.”They failed to see its significance as an illustration of the kind of spirit which kept English soldiers going and enabled them to accept whatever situation with a kind of wry humor which is beyond praise.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the times in my life when I have given way to deep anguish of spirit, and this night was one of them. The reason for it is still somewhat obscure to me, but I believe the underlying cause was the outburst of amused laughter which greeted the story just mentioned. I kept control of my feelings until I ended my talk, and for fifteen or twenty minutes afterward while answering questions. Then I managed to slip away down the alley leading to the depot. There was not a soul in the station. I sat by the pothellied soft-coal stove in the Gents’ waiting room, and what happened then I will pass over. The reason must have been that I felt such a renegade, sitting behind a “Wilson machine gun at home when I knew I should be with my comrades in France. Then, as I got control of myself, I heard the whistle of Number Six far away to the west, and went out to the station platform to see the brilliant headlight I remembered so well lighting the track down the Mitchellville grade.
I walked forlornly home and up to my room where the sheets of my Kitchener’s Mob manuscript were scattered on the table and on the floor beside it. I sat at the table, chin in hands, staring at vacancy. On a shelf near by lay the little packet of letters I had received from my C Company comrades, the pages soiled with the mud of the trenches. I had read and reread them until I knew them almost by heart. “Little Willy Gunn was killed last week. You’ll know how we miss him" . . . “Joe Hammond got his, a piece of shell-casing through the head. Good old Joe! The best mouth-organ player in the Company" . . . “Bobby Windle had a wonderful piece of luck. He got a Blighty one, a dose of shrapnel in the back. He’s out of this mudhole for the rest of the winter, anyway.”
It was on this same night that I wrote:
RETURN TO FLANDERS
He rose and followed. Nothing stirred
Save that the air was ringing still
With the call he’d heard.
Where it was neither night nor day;
How forlorn, how desolate
No words could say.
Though dead, seemed begging still to die.
That evil place seemed very heaven.
He knew not why.
Then, in a flash, his body knew
And cried in anguish: “What is this
You make me do?”
Why spirit found that stricken plain
So beautiful, or why it said,
“Home! Home again!”
This was a chapter in my Kitchener’s Mob experience that I would have liked to send to Mr. Sedgwick: it told more of the meaning of true comradeship than I could have said in a book of prose. But he had not asked for verse, and it was not until many years after, in 1932, that I submitted and he published the poem. At the time, few readers would have understood what I was trying to explain.
AT LONG last, five months after my discharge from the British Army, I was ready to return to England. While making preparations for leaving, Mr. Sedgwick asked me to dinner at his home on Beacon Hill. Mr. Sedgwick said that he had another writing project in mind for me if I cared to accept it. He wanted two or three articles for the Atlantic concerning the Escadrille Lafayette, a squadron of American volunteer airmen serving with the French, which had recently been placed on active duty at the front.
I accepted Mr. Sedgwick’s generous offer with alacrity. I had been deeply interested in flying since the summer of 1909 when I had seen the monoplane in which Blériot had crossed the Channel on exhibition at Selfridge’s store in London. And in 1911 or 1912— I’ve forgotten which year it was I attended what was, I believe, the first aviation meet ever held in the U.S.A., at Squantum, Massachusetts.
At the time of my arrival in Paris the Lafayette Squadron was being transferred from an airfield near Bar-le-Due in the Verdun sector to one near Luxeuil in the Vosges, and I had the good fortune to meet some of the pilots who had a day or two of leave while the transfer was being made. Paul Rockwell, of Asheville, North Carolina, who, with his brother, Kiffin, had crossed to France in August, 1914, to enlist as volunteer infantrymen in the Foreign Legion, had been wounded in the desperate fighting in the early months of the war and had been invalided out of the service. When I arrived in France he was in charge of the Paris bureau of the Chicago Daily News. With Paul Rockwell I formed an immediate friendship, and it was thanks to him that I had an opportunity to meet some of the pilots.
Then Paul suggested that I see Dr. Edmund L. Gros, an American who had lived long in Paris and was one of the heads of the American Ambulance Service. Dr. Gros was the warm friend of all the American volunteers serving with the French, whether as infantrymen, ambulance drivers, or airmen. I explained briefly to Dr. Gros about my service in the British Army and my commission from the Atlantic Monthly. He listened quietly while I was telling him this; then he said, “Do you feel obliged to re-enlist as an infantryman in the British Army? Why not join up as an airman with your compatriots over here?”
I stared blankly at him. I heard his words, but their significance did not come home to me for a moment or two. “As an airman! You mean, it would be possible to do this?”
“Why not?” Dr. Gros replied.
Three days later, ex-private 690 Royal Fusiliers had become EV (Engagé Volontaire) 11921 in the Aviation Section of the French Foreign Legion. In my confused state of mind there was only one thing I was certain of: “pour la durée de la guerre” would mean just that. No more “home leave.”
At that time double controls were not used in training pursuit pilots, or pilotes de chasse as the French call them. Apparently the French authorities believed a man should learn to fly without help if he was to make a good pursuit pilot. Although it was rather an alarming experience at first for the novice, he gained confidence as he proceeded and was proud of the fact that he learned to fly on his own with no more assistance than what his instructors gave him before he left the ground.
Our first sorties were made in what were called “Penguins” — Blériots with clipped wings which could not rise from the ground, and with 25horsepower engines. In these we learned to make straight-line runs across the field, and as soon as this simple maneuver was mastered we were promoted to the next class, using full-winged Blériots with 35-horsepower engines in which we rose to a height of fifty feet or more, flying across the field and coming down on even keel, so to speak, by “coupé-contact,” at the far side of the field. Then came the pique class, in which we flew at an altitude of one or two hundred feet and, cutting off the motor, dived for a landing, straightening out when only a few feet from the ground. Following this came the tour-de-piste class, in which the young birdman made the five-mile circumference of the field at an altitude of three or four hundred feet; and when he had done this for the first time without cracking up on landing, he was at the peak of felicity. Life, he thought, had no other experience to offer which could possibly equal that one.
Then came an hour’s endurance flight at a height of two thousand meters, and two cross-country flights of sixty kilometers or thereabout. The crowning glory before he received his wings as a brevetted pilot was a three-point cross-country flight, landing at air fields about one hundred kilometers apart to fill his gas tank, and a return to his home field.
When I see a pursuit plane of 1950, its huge instrument panel covered with scores of gadgets, and think of our little Blériots, Caudrons, Nieuports, Morane Parasols, and Spads, I realize how fortunate a man was who learned to fly thirty-five years ago. The conquest of the air was then so recent, and the glory, the wonder of it was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Our instruments were few indeed: a compass, an altimeter, a revolution-counter, an oilpressure gauge, and sometimes a wind gauge. Our engines could not be depended on, and in a pursuit plane we could carry only enough gas for a twohour flight; but every pilot felt a personal affection for his little ship which I doubt is felt by the pursuit pilots of today. Furthermore, we were not in enclosed cockpits, but in the open air where we could enjoy our flights at from 80 to 125 miles per hour and really see the country over which we flew.
One of my earliest experiences with the squadron was, certainly, the most embarrassing. While in training I had written a letter home describing some of the pleasures of learning to fly, and — by a slip of the pen, surely—I added to my account : “I know, now, why birds sing.” A part of this letter got into the local paper and was copied into some city paper — anything that had to do with flying was copy in those days. Well, some friend in America of one of the pilots saw this, cut out the item, and sent it to him; and the latter—I believe it was Kenneth Marr— read it aloud at the squadron mess. I never did live it down. In 1950 I was spending a few days in New York City, and a dozen old Lafayette Corps men living in or near New York got together for a reunion. We had not met in more than thirty years, and spent a delightful evening living over the old days in France. Henry Jones, who looks scarcely older than he did when we were flying together, except that he is now completely bald, lifted his glass to me and said: “Tweet, tweet, Jimmy! I know why birds sing.”
ONE of my earliest adventures in the air happened only a few days after I joined the squadron. Our airfield was at Chaudun, a village not far from Soissons, on the Aisne. The front in that sector was quiet at the time and routine patrols were in order: one high patrol daily at an altitude of from 3000 to 5000 meters, and one low patrol at 3500 meters and below. I went out on high patrol with four other planes. As we passed over the lines, I was so intent upon looking down over the vast extent of country, with its complicated systems of trenches stretching away as far as the eye could reach, that I lost my companions. Looking up presently, I found myself alone. It was my business, of course, to keep my eye upon the flight leader, not his to look out for possible stragglers.
I felt more than remiss and searched the sky for sight of the others, but our little ships flying at from 100 to 125 miles per hour could quickly vanish. We were flying 4000 meters above scattered masses of cumulus clouds. While seeking my flight, 1 saw the sky blossoming with blobs of blue smoke from explosions of French antiaircraft shells not more than two or three miles distant and a little below my altitude. Flying in that direction, I saw a German two-seater with its black crosses not more than a thousand feet below me. My pulse speeded up a bit. By chance I was in perfect position for attack with the sun directly behind me. “Lord!” I thought, “can it be that I am going to have a fight and a possible victory so soon after arriving at the front?" Quickly I looked behind and above and all around me for the presence of other planes but saw none. And there was the Boche all unsuspecting, flying quietly on.
It was a photographic plane. I could see the man in the rear cockpit, his machine gun pointing idly at the sky while he was busy with his camera. I throttled down, descending toward him in a shallow glide. I got hint directly in my sights and slipped my forefinger through the trigger guard on my control stick. I couldn’t have missed. Ihe plane looked huge as I approached and I could plainly see the pilot and the photographer all unconscious of their danger. And then ... I didn’t shoot. I nearly collided with the German and pulled up on my stick just in time to zoom over him at a distance of not more than twenty-five meters. As I veered I saw the photographer spring for his gun, and then the plane vanished as though it had melted into the air. When I turned again it was gone, probably into one of the masses of white cloud below us.
Why did I fail to take this superb chance for a victory during my first week at the front as an airman? I don’t know. Perhaps without my realizing it, my mind was functioning apart from my body saying, “And yet ... on the other hand . . .”until the chance was missed. When I returned to the airport without having found my patrol I was given a well-deserved dressing-down for having lost contact with the others. But this was mild compared with what it would have been had Captain Thénault known the truth. I did report having seen a German photographic plane, but said that I had lost it in the clouds. It was a poor beginning for a so-called pursuit pilot.
Not a week later I learned to my cost that Germans have no scruples about shooting a sitting duck even with the odds seven to one in their favor. Patrols for the day were over and the sun was near to setting when eight Lafayette men went out to the hangars to “show off" before some visitors from the American Air Service. I was one of them and felt keenly the honor of having been chosen for this exhibition patrol. We were to go out to the lines, patrol our sector for half an hour, and return to the field in time to land before dark, and every pilot hoped there might be some action to report when we came hack. I was then flying one of the older planes, a 140-horsepower Spad with a rebuilt engine. My mechanics had trouble in getting the engine to function properly, and the others left without me. I was in a fret of impatience until I heard the heartening roar of the engine. Quickly I climbed into the cockpit, fastened my seat belt, and adjusted my goggles, and off I went just as the sun was setting.
I flew along the lines for a quarter of an hour, perhaps, and then I spied my patrol — at least I thought it was mine — about five kilometers inside the German lines. I counted seven machines — five of them well grouped, a sixth several hundred meters above the others, and a seventh several hundred below. I turned in their direction at once. It was getting dusk and as I approached I lost sight of the plane lowest down; he was approaching at exactly my altitude and it is difficult to see a plane in that position, particularly in fading light. Suddenly he loomed up directly in front of me, firing as he came. His tracer bullets were going by on the left side but he corrected his aim and my motor seemed to be eating them up. As I banked to the right I felt a smashing blow in my left shoulder accompanied by a peculiar sensation as though it had been thrust through by a white-hot iron. Blood was trickling into my eyes so that I could scarcely see and my flying-goggles were hanging down over my ears in two parts; they had been cut through at the nosepiece. 1 have never been certain of this, but I don’t believe I fired a single shot; after the bullet that creased my forehead I couldn’t see anylhing to shoot at. There followed a vacant period that I can’t fill in, but when it passed 1 realized that I was in a kind of half-vrille —spinning nose dive—with my motor going full speed.
I have no slightest recollection of the crash: I might have fallen as gently as an autumn leaf. When I came to, it was at once, completely. I was on a stretcher and remembered immediately what, had happened. My heart was going pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat, but I fell no sensat ion of pain. This made me think I must have been badly crushed. I tried moving first one leg, then the other; then my arms, my head, my body. No trouble at all except with my left arm.
I accepted this miracle without trying to explain it, for I had something more important to wonder about: who had the handles of my stretcher? I opened my eyes end saw nothing at first but a. red blur. I wiped them dry with my right sleeve and looked again. The broad back in front of me was covered with caked mud. It was impossible to discover the color of the tunic, but the shrapnel helmet on the man’s head was French.
I spent several days in an evacuation hospital near the lines, and then, thanks to Dr. Gros, I was sent to the American Ambulance Hospital at Neuilly, a suburb of Paris. Although I tried to conceal ihe fact, I felt melancholy indeed to have been shot down so soon after my arrival at the front, and my conscience hurt me because I had failed to take advantage of the wonderful chance I‘d had to bag the German photographic plane. It was said that the average annual cost of keeping one pursuit plane in service at the front was 300,000 francs, and I felt more than ever guilty, remembering that I had not paid even one franc on the debt I owed to France for my training in aviation.
(To be coneluded)