When we had all assembled, Talbott headed northeast, the
rest of us falling into our places behind him. Then I found that, despite the
new motor, my machine was not a rapid climber. Talbott noticed this and kept me
well in the group, he and the others losing height in renversements and
retournements, diving under me and climbing up again. It was fascinating to
watch them doing stunts, to observe the constant changing of positions.
Sometimes we seemed, all of us, to be hanging motionless, then rising and
falling like small boats riding a heavy swell. Another glance would show one of
them suspended bottom up, falling sidewise, tipped vertically on a wing,
standing on its tail, as though being blown about by the wind, out of all
control. It is only in the air, when moving with them, that one can really
appreciate the variety and grace of movement of a flock of high-powered avions
I was close to Talbott as we reached the cloudbank. I saw
him in dim silhouette as the mist, sunlight-filtered, closed around us.
Emerging into the clear, fine air above it, we might have been looking at early
morning from the casement
"opening on the foam Of perilous seas, in faery
The sun was just rising, and the floor of cloud glowed with
delicate shades of rose and amethyst and gold. I saw the others rising through
it at widely scattered points. It was a glorious sight.
Then, forming up and turning northward again, just as we
passed over the receding edge of the cloud-bank, I saw the lines. It was still
dusk on the ground and my first view was that of thousands of winking lights,
the flashes of guns and of bursting shells. At that time the Germans were
making trials of the French positions along the Chemin des Dames, and the
artillery fire was unusually heavy.
The lights soon faded and the long, winding battle-front
emerged from the shadow, a broad strip of desert land through a fair, green
country. We turned westward along the sector, several kilometres within the
French lines, for J. B. and I were to have a general view of it all before we
crossed to the other side. The fort of Malmaison was a minute square, not as
large as a postage-stamp. With thumb and forefinger I could have spanned the
distance between Soissons and Laon. Clouds of smoke were rising from Allemant
to Craonne, and these were constantly added to by infinitesimal puffs in black
and white. I knew that shells of enormous calibre were wrecking trenches,
blasting out huge craters; and yet not a sound, not the faintest reverberation
of a gun. Here was a sight almost to make one laugh at man's idea of the
importance of his pygmy wars.
But the Olympian mood is a fleeting one. I think of Paradis
rising on one elbow out of the slime where he and his comrades were lying,
waving his hand toward the wide, unspeakable landscape. "What are we, we chaps?
And what's all this here? Nothing at all. All we can see is only a speck. When
one speaks of the whole war, it's as if you said nothing at all the words
are strangled. We're here, and we look at it like blind men."
To look down from a height of more than two miles, on an
endless panorama of suffering and horror, is to have the sense of one's
littleness even more painfully quickened. The best that the airman can do is to
repeat, "We're here, and we look at it like blind men." We passed on to the
point where the line bends northward, then turned back. I tried to concentrate
my attention on the work of identifying landmarks. It was useless. One might as
well attempt to study Latin grammar at his first visit to the Grand Canon. My
thoughts went wool-gathering. Looking up suddenly, I found that I was alone.
To the new pilot the sudden appearance or disappearance of
other avions is a weird thing. He turns his head for a moment. When he looks
again, his patrol has vanished. Combats are matters of a few seconds' duration,
rarely of more than two or three minutes. The opportunity for attack comes
almost with the swiftness of thought and has passed as quickly. Looking behind
me, I was in time to see one machine tip and dive. Then it, too, vanished as
though it had melted into the air. Shutting my motor, I started down, swiftly,
I thought; but I had not yet learned to fall vertically, and the others I
can say almost with truth were miles below me. I passed long streamers
of white smoke, crossing and recrossing in the air. I knew the meaning of
these, machine-gun tracer bullets. The delicately penciled lines had not yet
frayed out in the wind. I went on down in a steep spiral, guiding myself by
them, and seeing nothing. At the point where they ended, I repressed and put on
my motor. My altimeter registered two thousand metres. By a curious chance,
while searching the empty sky, I saw a live shell passing through the air. It
was just at the second when it reached the top of its trajectory and started to
fall. "Lord!" I thought, "I have seen a shell, and yet I can't find my patrol!"
While coming down I had given no attention to my direction.
I had lost twenty-five hundred metres in height. The trenches were now plainly
visible, and the brown strip of sterile country where they lay was vastly
broader. Several times I felt the concussion of shell explosions, my machine
being lifted and then dropped gently with an uneasy motion. Constantly
searching the air, I gave no thought to my position with reference to the
lines, nor to the possibility of anti-aircraft fire. Talbott had said: "Never
fly in a straight line for more than fifteen seconds. Keep changing your
direction constantly, but be careful not to fly in a regularly irregular
fashion. The German gunners may let you alone at first, hoping that you will
become careless, or they may be plotting out your style of flight. Then they
make their calculations and they let you have it. If you have been careless,
they'll put 'em so close, there'll be no question about the kind of a scare you
There wasn't in my case. I was looking for my patrol to the
exclusion of thought of anything else. The first shell burst so close that I
lost control of my machine for a moment. Three others followed, two in front,
and one behind, which I believed had wrecked my tail. They burst with a
terrific rending sound in clouds of coal-black smoke. A few days before I had
been watching without emotion the bombardment of a German plane. I had seen it
twisting and turning through the eclatements, and had heard the shells popping
faintly, with a sound like the bursting of seed-pods in the sun.
My feeling was not that of fear, exactly. It was more like
despair. Every airman must have known it at one time or another, a sudden
overwhelming realization of the pitilessness of the forces which men let loose
in war. In that moment one doesn't remember that men have loosed them. He is
alone, and he sees the face of an utterly evil thing. Miller's advice was,
"Think down to the gunners"; but this is impossible at first. Once a French
captain told me that he talked to the shells. "I say, 'Bon- jour, mon vieux!
Tiens! Comment ca va, toi! Ah, non! je suis presse!' or something like that. It
amuses one." This need of some means of humanizing shell fire is common.
Aviators know little of modern warfare as it touches the infantryman; but in
one respect, at least, they are less fortunate. They miss the human
companionship which helps a little to mask its ugliness.
However, it is seldom that one is quite alone, without the
sight of friendly planes near at hand, and there is a language of signs which,
in a way, fills this need. One may "waggle his flippers," or "flap his wings,"
to use the common expressions, and thus communicate with his comrades.
Unfortunately for my ease of mind, there were no comrades present with whom I
could have conversed in this way. Miller was within five hundred metres and saw
me all the time, although I did n't know this until later.
Talbott's instructions were, "If you get lost, go
home"somewhat ambiguous. I knew that my course to the aerodrome was
southwest. At any rate, by flying in that direction I was certain to land in
France. But with German gunners so keen on the baptism-of-fire business, I had
been turning in every direction, and the floating disk of my compass was
revolving first to the right, then to the left. In order to let it settle, I
should have to fly straight for some fixed point for at least half a minute.
Under the circumstances I was not willing to do this. A compass which would
point north immediately and always would be a heaven-sent blessing to the
inexperienced pilot during his first few weeks at the front. Mine was saying
North northwest west southwest south
southeast east and after a moment of hesitation reading off the
points in the reverse order. The wind was blowing into Germany, and
unconsciously, in trying to find a way out of the eclatements, I was getting
farther and farther away from home and coming within range of additional
batteries of hostile anti-aircraft guns.
I might have landed at Karlsruhe or Cologne, had it not been
for Miller. My love for concentric circles of red, white, and blue dates from
the moment when I saw the French cocarde on his Spad.
"And if I had been a Hun!"" he said, when we landed at the
aerodome. "Oh, man! you were fruit salad! Fruit salad, I tell you! I could have
speared you with my eyes shut."
I resented the implication of defenselessness. I said that I
was keeping my eyes open, and if he had been a Hun, the fruit salad might not
have been so palatable as it looked.
"Tell me this: Did you see me?"
I thought for a moment, and then said, "Yes.
"When you passed
over my head."
"And twenty seconds before that you would have been a sieve,
if either of us had been a Boche."
I yielded the point to save further
He had come swooping down fairly suddenly. When I saw him
making his way so saucily among the eclatements I felt my confidence returning
in increasing waves. I began to use my head, and found that it was possible to
make the German gunners guess badly. There was no menace in the sound of shells
barking at a distance, and we were soon clear of all of them.
J. B. took me aside the moment I landed. He had one of his
fur boots in his hand and was wearing the other. He had also lighted the cork
end of his cigarette. To one acquainted with his magisterial orderliness of
mind and habit, these signs were eloquent.
"Now, keep this quiet!" he said. "I don't want the others to
know it, but I've just had the adventure of my life. I attacked a German. Great
Scott! what an opportunity! and I bungled it through being too eager !" "When
was this?" "Just after the others dove. You remember"
I told him, briefly, of my experience, adding, "And I did
n't know there was a German in sight until I saw the smoke of the tracer
"Neither did I, only I did n't see even the smoke."
This cheered me immensely. "What! you did n't '
"No. I saw nothing but sky where the others had
disappeared. I was looking for them when I saw the German. He was about four
hundred metres below me. He could n't have seen me, I think, because he kept
straight on. I dove, but did n't open fire until I could have a nearer view of
his black crosses. I wanted to be sure. I had no idea that I was going so much
faster. The first thing I knew I was right on him. Had to pull back on my stick
to keep from crashing into him. Up I went and fell into a nose-dive. When I
came out of it there was no sign of the German, and I had n't fired a shot!"
"Did you come home alone?" "No; I had the luck to meet the others just
afterward. Now, not a word of this to any one!"
But there was no need for secrecy. The near combat had been
seen by both Talbott and Porter. At luncheon we both came in for our share of
"You should have seen them following us down!" said Porter;
"like two old rheumatics going into the subway. We saw them both when we were
taking height again. The scrap was all over hours before, and they were still a
thousand metres away."
"You want to dive vertically. Need n't worry about your old
'bus. She'll stand it."
"Well, the Lord has certainly protected the innocent
to-day!" "One of them was wandering off into Germany. Bill had to waggle Miller
to page him."
"And there was Drew, going down on that biplane we were
chasing. I've been trying to think of one wrong thing he might have done which
he did n't do. First he dove with the sun in his face, when he might have had
it at his back. Then he came all the way in full view, Instead of getting under
his tail. Good thing the mitrailleur was firing at us. After that, when he had
the chance of a lifetime, he fell into a vrille and scared the life out of the
rest of us. I thought the gunner had turned on him. And while we were following
him down to see where he was going to splash, the Boche got away."
All this happened months ago, but every trifling incident
connected with our first patrol is still fresh in mind. And twenty years from
now, if I chance to hear the "Chansons sans Paroles," or if I hum to myself a
few bars of a ballad, then sure to be long forgotten by the world at large,
"Oh, movin' man, don't take ma baby grand!" I shall have only to close my eyes,
and wait passively. First Tiffin will come with the lighted candle: "Beau
temps, monsieur." I shall hear Talbott shouting, "Rendezvous two thousand over
field. If get lost better-home." J. B. will rush up smoking
the cork end of a cigarette. "I've just had the adventure of my life!" And
Miller, sitting on an essence-case, will have lost none of his old conviction.
"Oh, man! you were fruit salad! Fruit salad, I tell you! I could have speared
you with my eyes shut!"
And in those days, happily still far off, there will be many
another old gray-beard with such memories; unless they are all to wear out
their days uselessly regretting that they are no longer young, there must be
clubs where they may exchange reminiscences. These need not be pretentious
affairs. Let there be a strong odor of burnt castor oil and gasoline as you
enter the door; a wide view from the verandas of earth and sky; maps on the
walls; arid on the roof a canvas "pantaloon-leg" to catch the wind. Nothing
else matters very much. There they will be as happy as any old airman can
expect to be, arguing about the winds and disputing one another's judgment
about the height of the clouds.
If you say to one of them, "Tell us something about the
Great War," as likely as not he will tell you a pleasant story enough. And the
pity of it will be that, hearing the tale, a young man will long for another
war. Then you must say to him, "But what about the shell fire? Tell us
something of machines falling in flames." Then, if he is an honest old airman
whose memory is still unimpaired, the young one who has been listening will
have sober second thoughts.
LAST SECTION ° NEXT