"I'm looking for two balloonatics," said Talbott, as he came
into the messroom; "and I think I've found them."
Percy, Talbott's orderly, Tiffin the steward, Drew, and I
were the only occupants of the room. Percy is an old legionnaire, crippled with
rheumatism. His active service days are over. Tiffin's working hours are filled
with numberless duties. He makes the beds, and serves food from three to five
times daily to members of the Escadrille Lafayette. These two being eliminated,
the identity of the balloonatics was plain.
"The orders have just come," Talbott added, "and I decided
that the first men I met after leaving the bureau would be balloonatics. Virtue
has gone into both of you. Now, if you can make fire come out of a Boche
sausage, you will have done all that is required. Listen. This is interesting.
The orders are in French, but I will translate as I read:
On the umteenth day of June, the escadrilles of Groupe de
Combat Blank [that's ours] will cooperate in an attack on the German
observation balloons along the sector extending from X to Y. The patrols to be
furnished are: (1) two patrols of protection, of five avions each, by
the escadrilles Spa. 87 and Spa. 12; (2) four patrols of attack, of three
avions each, by the escadrilles Spa. 124. [that's us], Spa. 93, Spa.10o, and
The attack will be organized as follows: on the day set,
weather permitting, the two patrols of protection will leave the field at 10.30
A.M. The patrol of Spa. 87 will rendezvous over the village of N. The
patrol of protection of Spa. 12 will rendezvous over the village of C. At
10.45, precisely, they will start for the lines, crossing at an altitude of
thirty-five hundred metres. The patrol furnished by Spa. 87 will guard the
sector from X to T, between the town of O and the two enemy balloons on
that sector. The patrol furnished by Spa. 12 will guard the sector from T to Y,
between the railway line and the two enemy balloons on that sector. Immediately
after the attack has been made, these formations will return to the aerodrome.
At 10.40 A.M. the four patrols of attack will leave the
field, and will rendezvous as follows. [Here followed the directions.] At
10.55, precisely, they will start for the lines, crossing at an approximate
altitude of sixteen hundred metres, each patrol making in a direct line for the
balloon assigned to it. Numbers l and 2 of each of these patrols will carry
rockets. Number 3 will fly immediately above them, offering further protection
in case of attack by enemy aircraft. Number 1 of each patrol will first attack
the balloon. If he fails, number 2 will attack. If number l is successful,
number 2 will then attack the observers in their parachutes. If number l fails,
and number 2 is successful, number 3 will attack the observers. The patrol will
then proceed to the aerodrome by the shortest route.
Squadron commanders will make a return before noon to-day,
of the names of pilots designated by them for their respective patrols.
In case of unfavorable weather, squadron commanders will be
informed of the date to which the attack has been postponed.
Pilots designated as numbers l and 2 of the patrols of
attack will be relieved from the usual patrol duty from this date. They will
employ their time at rocket shooting. A target will be in place on the east
side of the field from 1.30 P.M. to-day.
"Are there any remarks?" said Talbott, as if he had been
reading the minutes at a debating-club meeting.
"Yes," said J. B. "When is the umteenth of June?"
"Ah, mon vieux! that's the question. The commandant knows,
and he is n't telling. Any other little thing?"
I suggested that we would like to know which of us was to be
"That's right. Drew, how would you like to be the first
"I've no objection," said J. B., grinning as if the frenzy
of balloonaticking had already got into his blood.
"Right! that's settled. I'll see your mechanicians about
fitting your machines for rockets. You can begin practice this afternoon."
Percy had been listening with interest to the conversation.
"You got some nice job, you boys. But if you bring him down,
there will be a lot of chuckling in the trenches. You won't hear it, but they
will all be saying, 'Bravo! Epatant!' I've been there. I've seen it and I know.
Does 'em all good to see a sausage brought down. 'There's another one of their
eyes knocked out,' they say."
"Percy is right," said J. B. as we were walking down the
road. "Destroying a balloon is not a great achievement in itself. Of course,
it's so much equipment gone, so much expense added to the German war-budget.
That is something. But the effect on the infantrymen is the important thing.
Boche soldiers, thousands of them, will see one of their balloons coming down
in flame. They will be saying, ' Where are our airmen?' like those old poilus
we met at the station when we first came out. It's bound to influence morale.
Now let's see. The balloon, we will say, is at sixteen hundred metres. At that
height it can be seen by men on the ground within a radius of " and so
forth and so on.
We figured it out approximately, estimating the numbers of
soldiers, of all branches of service, who would witness the sight. Multiplying
this number by four, our conclusion was that, as a result of the expedition,
the length of the war and its outcome might very possibly be affected. At any
rate, there would be such an ebbing of German morale, and such a flooding of
French, that the way would be opened to a decisive victory on that front.
But supposing we should miss our sausage? J. B. grew
"Have another look at the orders. I don't remember what the
instructions were in case we both fail."
I read, "If number 1 fails and number 2 is successful,
number 3 will attack the observers. The patrol will then proceed to the
aerodrome by the shortest route."
This was plain enough. Allowance could be made for one
failure, but two the possibility had not even been considered.
"By the shortest route." There was a piece of sly humor for
you. It may have been unconscious, but we preferred to believe that the
commandant had chuckled as he dictated it. A sort of afterthought, as much as
to say to his pilots, "Well, you young bucks, you would-be airmen: thought it
would be all sport, eh? You might have known. It's your own fault. Now go out
and attack those balloons. It's possible that you may have a scrap or two on
your hands while you are at it. Oh, yes, by the way, coming home, you'll be
down pretty low. Every Boche machine in the air will have you at a
disadvantage. Better return by the shortest route."
One feature of the programme did not appeal to us greatly,
and this was the attack to be made on the observers when they had jumped with
their parachutes. It seemed as near the border line between legitimate warfare
and cold-blooded murder as anything could well be.
"You are armed with a machine-gun. He may have an automatic
pistol. . It will require from five to ten minutes for him to reach the ground
after he has jumped. You can come down on him like a stone. Well, it's your
job, thank the Lord! not mine," said Drew.
It was my job, but I insisted that he would be an
accomplice. In destroying the balloon, he would force me to attack the
observers When I asked Talbott if this feature of the attack could be
eliminated he said:
"Certainly. I have instructions from the commandant touching
on this point. In case any pilot objects to attacking the observers with
machine-gun fire, he is to strew their parachutes with autumn leaves and such
field- flowers as the season affords. Now, listen! What difference, ethically,
is there, between attacking one observation officer in a parachute, and
dropping a ton of bombs on a train-load of soldiers ? And to kill the observers
is really more important than to destroy the balloon. If you are going to be a
military pilot, for the love of Pete and Alf be one!"
He was right, of course, but that did n't make the prospect
any the more pleasant.
The large map at the bureau now had greater interest for us
than ever. The German balloons along the sector were marked in pictorially,
with an ink line, representing the cable, running from the basket of each one
down to the exact spot on the map from which they were launched. Under one of
these, "Spa. 124 was printed, neatly, in red ink. It was the farthest distant
from our lines of the four to be attacked, and about ten kilometres within
German-held territory. The cable ran to the outskirts of a village situated on
a railroad and a small stream. The location of enemy aviation fields was also
shown pictorially, each one represented by a minute sketch, very carefully
made, of an Albatross biplane. We noticed that there were several aerodromes
not far distant from our balloon.
After a survey of the map, the commandant's afterthought,
"by the shortest route," was not so needless as it appeared at first. The
German positions were in a salient, a large corner, the line turning almost at
right angles. We could cross them from the south, attack our balloon, and then,
if we wished, return to French territory on the west side of the salient.
"We may miss some heavy shelling. If we double on our tracks
going home, they will be expecting us, of course; whereas, if we go out on the
west side, we will pass over batteries which did n't see us come in. If there
should happen to be an east wind, there will be another reason in favor of the
plan. The commandant is a shrewd soldier. It may have been his way of saying
that the longest way round is the shortest way home."
Our Spads were ready after luncheon. A large square of tin
had been fastened over the fabric of each lower wing, under the rocket
fittings, to prevent danger of fire from sparks. Racks for six rockets, three
on a side, had been fastened to the struts. The rockets were tipped with sharp
steel points to insure their pricking the silk balloon envelope. The batteries
for igniting them were connected with a button inside the car, within easy
reach of the pilot. Lieutenant Verdane, our French second-in- command, was to
supervise our practice on the field. We were glad of this. If we failed to
"spear our sausage," it would not be through lack of efficient instruction. He
explained to Drew how the thing was to be done. He was to come on the balloon
into the wind, and preferably not more than four hundred metres above it. He
was to let it pass from view under the wing; then, when he judged that he was
directly over it, to reduce his motor and dive vertically, placing the bag
within the line of his two circular sights, holding it there until the bag just
filled the circle. At that second he would be about 250 metres distant from it,
and it was then that the rockets should be fired.
The instructions were simple enough, but in practicing on
the target we found that they were not so easy to carry out. It was hard to
judge accurately the moment for diving. Sometimes we overshot the target, but
more often we were short of it. Owing to the angle at which the rockets were
mounted on the struts, it was very important that the dive should be vertical.
One morning, the attack could have been made with every
chance of success. Drew and I left the aerodrome a few minutes before sunrise
for a trial flight, that we might give our motors a thorough testing. We
climbed through a heavy mist which lay along the ground like water, filling
every fold and hollow, flowing up the hillsides, submerging everything but the
crests of the highest hills. The tops of the twin spires of S cathedral
were all that could be seen of the town. Beyond, the long chain of heights
where the first-line trenches were rose just clear of the mist, which glowed
blood-red as the sun came up.
The balloons were already up, hanging above the dense cloud
of vapor, elongated planets drifting in space. The observers were directing the
fire of their batteries to those positions which stood revealed. Shells were
also exploding on lower ground, for we saw the mist billow upward time after
time with the force of mighty concussions, and slowly settle again. It was an
awe-inspiring sight. We might have been watching the last battle of the last
war that could ever be, with the world still fighting on, bitterly, blindly,
gradually sinking from sight in a sea of blood. I have never seen anything to
equal that spectacle of an artillery battle in the mists.
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