We got down from the train late in the after noon at a
village which reminded us, at first glance, of a boom town in the Far West.
Crude shelters of corrugated iron and rough pine boards faced each other down
the length of one long street. They looked sadly out of place in that
landscape. They did not have the cheery, buoyant ugliness of pioneer homes in
an unsettled country, for behind them were the ruins of the old village,
fragments of blackened wall, stone chimneys filled with accumulations of
rubbish, garden-plots choked with weeds, reminding us that here was no outpost
of a new civilization, but the desolation of an old one, fallen upon evil days.
A large crowd of permissionnaires had left the train
with us. We were not at ease among these men, many of them well along in middle
life, bent and streaming with perspiration under their heavy packs. We were
much better able than most of them to carry our belongings, to endure the
fatigue of a long night march to billets or trenches; and we were waiting for
the motor in which we should ride comfortably to our aerodrome. There we should
sleep in beds, well housed from the weather, and far out of the range of shell
"It is n't fair," said J. B. "It is going to war de luxe.
These old poilus ought to be the aviators. But, hang it all! of course, they
couldn't be. Aviation is a young man's business. It has to be that way. And you
can't have aerodromes along the front-line trenches."
Nevertheless, it did seem very unfair, and we were
uncomfortable among all those infantrymen. The feeling increased when attention
was called to our branch of the service by the distant booming of anti-aircraft
guns. There were shouts in the street, "A Boche!" We hurried to the door of the
cafe where we had been hiding. Officers were ordering the crowds off the
street. "Hurry along there! Under cover! Oh, I know that you're brave enough,
mon enfant. It is n't that. He's not to see all these soldiers here. That's the
reason. Allez! Vite!"
Soldiers were going into dugouts and cellars among the
ruined houses. Some of them, seeing us at the door of the cafe, made pointed
remarks as they passed, grumbling loudly at the laxity of the air service.
"It's up there you ought to be, mon vieui, not here," one of
them said, pointing to the white eclatements.
"You see that?" said another. "He's a Boche, not French, I
can tell you that. Where are your comrades?"
There was much good-natured chaffing as well, but through it
all I could detect a note of resentment. I sympathized with their point of view
then as I do now, although I know that there is no ground for the complaint of
laxity. Here is a German over French territory. Where are the French aviators?
Soldiers forget that aerial frontiers must be guarded in two dimensions, and
that it is always possible for an airman to penetrate far into enemy country.
They do not see their own pilots on their long raids into German territory.
Furthermore, while the outward journey is often accomplished easily enough, the
return home is a different matter. Telephones are busy from the moment the
lines are crossed, and a hostile patrol, to say nothing of a lone avion, will
be fortunate if it returns safely.
But infantrymen are to be forgiven readily for their
outbursts against the aviation service. They have far more than their share of
danger and death while in the trenches. To have their brief periods of rest
behind the lines broken into by enemy aircraftwho would blame them for
complaining? And they are often generous enough with their praise.
On this occasion there was no bombing. The German remained
at a great height and quickly turned northward again.
Dunham and Miller came to meet us. We had all four been in
the schools together, they preceding us on active service only a couple of
months. Seeing them after this lapse of time, I was conscious of a change. They
were keen about life at the front, but they talked of their experiences in a
way which gave one a feeling of tension, a tautness of muscles, a kind of ache
in the throat. It set me to thinking of a conversation I had had with an old
French pilot, several months before. It came apropos of nothing. Perhaps he
thought that I was sizing him up, wondering how he could be content with an
instructor's job while the war is in progress. He said: "I've had five hundred
hours over the lines. You don't know what that means, not yet. I'm no good any
more. It's strain. Let me give you some advice. Save your nervous energy. You
will need all you have and more. Above everything else, don't think at the
front. The best pilot is the best machine."
Dunham was talking about patrols.
"Two a day of two hours each. Occasionally you will have six
hours' flying, but almost never more than that."
"What about voluntary patrols?" Drew asked. "I don't suppose
there is any objection, is there?"
Miller pounded Dunham on the back, singing,
"Hi-doo-dedoo-dum-di. What did I tell you! Do I win?" Then he explained. "We
asked the same question when we came out, and every other new pilot before us.
This voluntary patrol business is a kind of standing joke. You think, now, that
four hours a day over the lines is a light programme. For the first month or so
you will go out on your own between times. After that, no. Of course, when they
call for a voluntary patrol for some necessary piece of work, you will
volunteer out of a sense of duty. As I say, you may do as much flying as you
like. But wait. After a month, or we'll give you six weeks, that will be no
more than you have to do."
We were not at all convinced.
"What do you do with the rest of your time?"
"Sleep," said Dunham. "Read a good deal. Play some poker or
bridge. Walk. But sleep is the chief amusement. Eight hours used to be enough
for me. Now I can do with ten or twelve."
Drew said: "That's all rot. You fellows are having it too
soft. They ought to put you on the school regime again."
"Let 'em talk, Dunham. They know. J. B. says it's laziness.
Let it go at that. Well, take it from me, it's contagious. You'll soon be
I dropped out of the conversation in order to look around
me. Drew did all of the questioning, and thanks to his interest, I got many
hints about our work which came back opportunely, afterward.
"Think down to the gunners. That will help a lot. It's a
game after that: your skill against theirs. I could n't do it at first, and
shell fire seemed absolutely damnable."
"And you want to remember that a chasse machine is almost
never brought down by anti-aircraft fire. You are too fast for them. You can
fool 'em in a thousand ways."
"I had been flying for two weeks before I saw a Boche. They
are not scarce on this sector, don't worry. I simply could n't see them. The
others would have scraps. I spent most of my time trying to keep track of
"Take my tip, J. B., don't be too anxious to mix it with
the first German you see, because very likely he will be a Frenchman, and if he
is n't, if he is a good Hun pilot, you'll simply be meat for him at
first, I mean."
"They say that all the Boche aviators on this front have had
several months' experience in Russia or the Balkans. They train them there
before they send them to the Western Front."
"Your best chance of being brought down will come in the
first two weeks."
"No, sans blague. Honestly, you'll be almost helpless. You
don't see anything, and you don't know what it is that you do see. Here's an
example. On one of my first sorties I happened to look over my shoulder and I
saw five or six Germans in the most beautiful alignment. And they were all
slanting up to dive on me. I was scared out of my life: went down full motor,
then cut and fell into a vrille. Came out of that and had another look. There
they were in the same position, only farther away. I did n't tumble even then,
except farther down. Next time I looked, the five Boches, or six, whichever it
was, had all been raveled out by the wind. Eclats d'obus."
"You may have heard about Franklin's Boche. He got it during
his first combat. He did n't know that there was a German in the sky, until he
saw the tracer bullets. Then the machine passed him about thirty metres away.
And he kept going down: may have had motor trouble. Franklin said that he had
never had such a shock in his life. He dived after him, spraying all space with
his Vickers, and he got him!"
"That all depends on the man. In chasse, unless you are sent
out on a definite mission, protecting photographic machines or avions de
bombardement, you are absolutely on your own. Your job is to patrol the lines.
If a man is built that way, he can loaf on the job. He need never have a fight.
At two hundred kilometres an hour, it won't take him very long to get out of
danger. He stays out his two hours and comes in with some framed-up tale to
account for his disappearance: 'Got lost. Went off by himself into Germany. Had
motor trouble; gun jammed, and went back to arm it.' He may even spray a few
bullets toward Germany and call it a combat. Oh, he can find plenty of excuses,
and he can get away with them."
"That's spreading it, Dunham. What about Huston? is he
getting away with it?"
"Now, don't let's get personal. Very likely Huston can't
help it. Anyway, it is a matter of temperament mostly."
"Temperament, hell! There's Van, for example. I happen to
know that he has to take himself by his bootlaces every time he crosses into
Germany. But he sticks it. He has never played a yellow trick. I hand it to him
for pluck above every other man in the squadron."
"What about Talbott and Barry?"
"Lord! They haven't any nerves. It's no job for them to do
their work well."
This conversation continued during the rest of the journey.
The life of a military pilot offers exceptional opportunities for research in
the matter of personal bravery. Dunham and Miller agreed that it is a varying
quality. Sometimes one is really without fear; at others only a sense of shame
prevents one from making a very sad display.
"Huston is no worse than some of the rest of us, only he has
n't a sense of shame."
"Well, he has the courage to be a coward, and that is more
than you have, son, or I either."
Our fellow pilots of the Lafayette Corps were lounging
outside the barracks on our arrival.
They gave us a welcome which did much to remove our feelings
of strangeness; but we knew that they were only mildly interested in the news
from the schools and were glad when they let us drop into the background of
conversation. By a happy chance mention was made of a recent newspaper article
of some of the exploits of the Escadnlle, written evidently by a very
imaginative journalist; and from this the talk passed to the reputation of the
Squadron in America, and the almost fabulous deeds credited to it by some
newspaper correspondents. One pilot said that he had kept record of the number
of German machines actually reported as having been brought down by members of
the Corps. I don't remember the number he gave, but it was an astonishing
total. The daily average was so high, that, granting it to be correct, America
might safely have abandoned her far-reaching aerial programme. Long before her
first pursuit squadron could be ready for service, the last of the imperial
German air- fleet would, to quote from the article, have "crashed in
smouldering ruin on the war-devastated plains of northern France."
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