Go to WTJ Information Page Go to WTJ Portal Go to WTJ War Series Go to WTJ Archives Go to WTJ Articles Go to WTJ Gaming Go to WTJ Store Go to WTJ Home Page
Hall: High Adventure
Chapter 1b - The Franco-American Corps

Our barracks, one of many built on the same pattern, was a long, low wooden building, weather-stained without and whitewashed within. It had accommodation for about forty beds. One end of the room was very manifestly American. There was a phonograph on the table, baseball equipment piled in one corner, and the walls were covered with cartoons and pictures clipped from American periodicals. The other end was as evidently French, in the frugality and the neatness of its furnishings. The American end of the room looked more homelike, but the French end more military. Near the center, where the two nations joined, there was a very harmonious blending of these characteristics.

Drew and I were delighted with all this. We were glad that we were not to live in an exclusively American barracks, for we wanted to learn French; but more than this, we wanted to live with Frenchmen on terms of barrack-room familiarity.

By the time we had given in our papers at the captain's office and had passed the hasty preliminary examination of the medical officer, it was quite dark. Flying for the day was over, and lights gleamed cheerily from the barrack- room windows. As we came down the principal street of the camp, we heard the strains of "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," to a gramophone accompaniment, issuing from the chambre des Americains.

" See them shuffle along,
Oh, ma honey babe,
Hear that music and song."

It gave us the home feeling at once. Frenchmen and Americans were singing together, the Frenchmen in very quaint English, but hitting off the syncopated time as though they had been born and brought up to it as we Americans have.

Over in one corner, a very informal class in French-English pronunciation was at work. Apparently, this was tongue-twisters' night. "Heureux" was the challenge from the French side, and "Hooroo" the nearest approach to a pronunciation on the part of the Americans, with many more or less remote variations on this theme. An American, realizing how difficult it is for a Frenchman to get his tongue between his teeth, counter-challenged with "Father, you are withered with age." The result, as might have been expected, was a series of hissing sounds of z, whereupon there was an answering howl of derision from all the Americans. Up and down the length of the room there were little groups of two and three, chatting together in combinations of Franco-American which must have caused all deceased professors of modern languages to spin like midges in their graves. And throughout all this before-supper merriment, one could catch the feeling of good-comradeship which, so far as my experience goes, is always prevalent whenever Frenchmen and Americans are gathered together.

At the ordinaire, at supper-time, we saw all of the élève-pilotes of the school, with the exception of the non-commissioned officers, who have their own mess. To Drew and me, but newly come from remote America, it was a most interesting gathering. There were about one hundred and twenty-five in all, including eighteen Americans. The large majority of the Frenchmen had already been at the front in other branches of army service. There were artillerymen, infantrymen, marines, — in training for the naval air-service, — cavalrymen, all wearing the uniforms of the arm to which they originally belonged. No one was dressed in a uniform which distinguished him as an aviator; and upon making inquiry, I found that there is no official dress for this branch of the service. During his period of training in aviation, and even after receiving his military brevet, a pilot continues to wear the dress of his former service, plus the wings on the collar, and the star-and-wings insignia on his right breast. This custom does not make for the fine uniform appearance of the men of the British Royal Flying Corps, but it gives a picturesqueness of effect which is, perhaps, ample recompense. As for the Americans, they follow individual tastes, as we learned later. Some of them, with an eye to color, salute the sun in the red trousers and black tunic of the artilleryman. Others choose more sober shades, various French blues, with the thin orange aviation stripe running down the seams of the trousers. All this in reference to the dress uniform. At the camp most of the men wear leathers, or a combination of leathers and the gray-blue uniform of the French poilu, which is issued to all Americans at the time of their enlistment.

We had a very excellent supper of soup, followed by a savory roast of meat, with mashed potatoes and lentils. Afterward, cheese and beer. I was slightly discomfited physically on learning that the beef was horse-meat, but Drew convinced me that it was absurd to let old scruples militate against a healthy appetite. In 1870 the citizens of France ate ragout de chat with relish. Furthermore, the roast was of so delicious a flavor and so closely resembled the finest cuts of beef, that it was easy to persuade one's self that it was beef, after all.

After the meal, to our great surprise, every one cleaned his dishes with huge pieces of bread. Such waste seemed criminal in a country beleaguered by submarines, in its third year of war, and largely dependent for its food- supply on the farm labor of women and children. We should not have been surprised if it had been only the Americans who indulged in this wasteful dish-cleansing process; but the Frenchmen did it, too. When I remarked upon this to one of my American comrades, a Frenchman, sitting opposite, said: —

" Pardon, monsieur, but I must tell you what we Frenchmen are. We are very economical when it is for ourselves, for our own families and purses, that we are saving. But when it is the Government which pays the bill, we do not care. We do not have to pay directly and so we waste, we throw away. We are so careful at home, all of our lives, that this is a little pleasure for us . "

I have had this same observation made to me by so many Frenchmen since that time, that I believe there must be a good deal of truth in it.

After supper, all of the Americans adjourned for coffee to Ciret's, a little cafe in the village which nestles among the hills not far from the camp. The cafe itself was like any one of thousands of French provincial restaurants. There was a great dingy common room, with a sanded brick floor, and faded streamers of tricolor paper festooned in curious patterns from the smoky ceiling. The kitchen was clean, and filled with the appetizing odor of good cooking. Beyond it was another, inner room, "toujours reserves a mes Americains," as M. Ciret, the fat, genial patron continually asserted. Here we gathered around a large circular table, pipes and cigarettes were lighted, and, while the others talked, Drew and I listened and gathered impressions.

For a time the conversation did not become general, and we gathered up odds and ends of it from all sides. Then it turned to the reasons which had prompted various members of the group to come to France, the topic, above all others, which Drew and I most wanted to hear discussed. It seemed to me, as I listened, that we Americans closely resemble the British in our sensitive fear of any display of fine personal feeling. We will never learn to examine our emotions with anything but suspicion. If we are prompted to a course of action by generous impulses, we are anxious that others shall not be let into the secret. And so it was that of all the reasons given for offering their services to France, the first and most important was the last to be acknowledged, and even then it was admitted by some with a reluctance nearly akin to shame. There was no man there who was not ready and willing to give his life, if necessary, for the Allied cause, because he believed in it; but the admission could hardly have been dragged from him by wild horses.

But the adventure of the life, the peculiar fascination of it—that was a thing which might be discussed without reserve, and the men talked of it with a willingness which was most gratifying to Drew and me, curious as we were about the life we were entering. They were all in the flush of their first enthusiasms. They were daily enlarging their conceptions of distance and height and speed. They talked a new language and were developing a new cast of mind. They were like children who had grown up over night, whose horizons had been immeasurably broadened in the twinkling of an eye. They were still keenly conscious of the change which was upon them, for they were but fledgling aviators. They were just finding their wings. But as I listened, I thought of the time which must come soon, when the air, as the sea, will be filled with stately ships, and how the air-service will develop its own peculiar type of men, and build up about them its own laws and its own traditions.

As we walked back through the straggling village street to the camp, I tried to convey to Drew something of the new vision which had come to me during the evening. I was aglow with enthusiasm and hoped to strike an answering spark from him. But all that I was thinking and feeling then he had thought and felt long before. I am sure that he had already experienced, in imagination, every thrill, every keen joy, and every sudden sickening fear which the life might have in store for him. For this reason I forgave him for his rather bored manner of answering to my mood, and the more willingly because he was full of talk about a strange illusion which he had had at the restaurant. During a moment of silence, he had heard a clatter of hoof-beats in the village street. (I had heard them too. Some one rode by furiously.) Well, Drew said that he almost jumped from his seat, expecting M. Ciret to throw open the door and shout, "The British are coming!" He actually believed for a second or two that it was the year 1775, and that he was sitting in one of the old roadside inns of Massachusetts. The illusion was perfect, he said.

Now, why — etc., etc. At another time I should have been much interested; but in the presence of new and splendid realities I could not summon any enthusiasm for illusions. Nevertheless, I should have had to listen to him indefinitely, had it not been for an event which cut short all conversation and ended our first day at the Ecole d' Aviation in a truly spectacular manner.

Suddenly we heard the roar of motors just over the barracks, and, at the same time, the siren sounded the alarm in a series of prolonged, wailing shrieks. Some belated pilot was still in the air. We rushed out to the field just as the flares were being lighted and placed on the ground in the shape of an immense T, with the cross-bar facing in the direction from which the wind was coming. By this time the hum of motors was heard at a great distance, but gradually it increased in volume and soon the light of the flares revealed the machine circling rapidly over the piste. I was so much absorbed in watching it manoeuvre for a landing that I did not see the crowd scattering to safe distances. I heard many voices shouting frantic warnings, and so ran for it, but, in my excitement, directly within the line of descent of the machine. I heard the wind screaming through the wires, a terrifying sound to the novice, and glancing hurriedly over my shoulder, I saw what appeared to be a monster of gigantic proportions, almost upon me. It passed within three metres of my head and landed just beyond.

When at last I got to sleep, after a day filled with interesting incidents, Paul Revere pursued me relentlessly through the mazes of a weird and horrible dream. I was on foot, and shod with lead-soled boots. He was in a huge, twin-motor Caudron and flying at a terrific pace, only a few metres from the ground. I can see him now, as he leaned far out over the hood of his machine, an aviator's helmet set atilt over his powdered wig, and his eyes glowing like coals through his goggles. He was waving two lighted torches and shouting, "The British are coming! The British are coming!" in a voice strangely like Drew's.


  Copyright © 1996-2003 by The War Times Journal at www.wtj.com. All rights reserved.