NANCY, a moonlight night, and "es sales Boches
encore." I have been out on the balcony of this old hotel, a famous tourist
resort before the war, watching the bombardment and listening to the deep throb
of the motors of German Gothas. They have dropped their bombs without doing any
serious damage. Therefore, I may return in peace to my huge bare room, to
write, while it is still fresh in mind, "The Adventure of the Camouflaged
For the past ten days I have been attached it is only
a temporary transferto a French escadrille of which Manning, an American,
is a member. The escadrille had just been sent to a quiet part of the front for
two weeks' repos, but the day after my arrival orders came to fly to
Belfort, for special duty.
Belfort! On the other side of the Vosges Mountains, with the
Rhine Valley, the Alps, within view, within easy flying distance! And for
special duty. It is a vague order which may mean anything. We discussed its
probable meaning for us, while we were pricking out our course on our maps.
" Protection of bombardment avions " was Andre's guess.
"Night combat" was Raynaud's. Every one laughed at this last hazard. "You see?"
he said, appealing to me, the newcomer. "They think I am big fool. But wait."
Then, breaking into French, in order to express himself more fluently: "It is
coming soon, chasse de nuit. It is not at all impossible. One can see at
night, a moonlight night, very clearly from the air. They are black shadows,
the other avions which you pass, but often, when the moonlight strikes their
wings, they flash like silver. We must have searchlights, of course; then, when
one sees those shadows, those great black Gothas, vite! la lumiere!
Pop-pop-pop-pop-pop I C'est fini!"
The discussion of the possibility or impossibility of night
combat continued warmly. The majority of opinion was unfavorable to it: a
useless waste of gasoline; the results would not pay for the wear and tear upon
fighting planes. Raynaud was not to be persuaded. "Wait and
see," he said. There was a reminiscent thrill in his voice, for he is an old
night bombarding pilot. He remembered with longing, I think, his romantic night
voyages, the moonlight falling softly on the roofs of towns, the rivers like
ribbons of silver, the forests patches of black shadow. "Really, it is an
adventure, a night bombardment."
"But how about your objectives?" I asked. "At night you can
never be sure of hitting them, and, well, you know what happens in French
"It is why I asked for my transfer to chasse" he told me
afterward. "But the Germans, the blond beasts! Do they care? Nancy, Belfort,
Chalons, Epernay, Rheims, Soissons, Paris, all our beautiful towns! I am
a fool! We must pay them back, the Huns! Let the innocent suffer with the
He became a combat pilot because he had not the courage of
We started in flights of five machines, following the Marne
and the Marne Canal to Bar-le-Duc, then across country to Toul, where we landed
to fill our fuel tanks. Having bestowed many favors upon me for a remarkably
long period, our aerial godfather decided that I had been taking my good
fortune too much for granted. Therefore, he broke my tail skid for me as I was
making what I thought a beautiful atterrissage. It was late in the
afternoon, so the others went on without me, the captain giving orders that I
should join them, weather permitting, the next day.
"Follow the Moselle until you lose it in the mountains. Then
pick up the road which leads over the Ballon d 'Alsace. You can't miss it."
I did, nevertheless, and as always, when lost, through my
own fault. I followed the Moselle easily enough until it disappeared in small
branching streams in the heart of the mountains. Then, being certain of my
direction, I followed an irregular course, looking down from a great height
upon scores of little mountain villages, untouched by war. After weeks of
flying over the desolation of more northerly sectors of the front, this little
indulgence seemed to me quite a legitimate one.
But my Spad (I was always flying tired old avions in those
days, the discards of older pilots ) began to show signs of fatigue. The
pressure went down. Neither motor nor hand pump would function, the engine
began to gasp, and, although I instantly switched on to my reserve tank, it
expired with shuddering coughs. The propeller, after making a few spins in the
reverse direction, stopped dead..
I had been in a most comfortable frame of mind all the way,
for a long cross-country aerial journey, well behind the zone of fire, is a
welcome relaxation after combat patrols. It is odd how quickly one's attitude
toward rugged, beautiful country changes, when one is faced with the necessity
of finding landing-ground there. The steep ravines yawn like mouths. The peaks
of the mountains are teethragged, sinister-looking teeth. Being at five
thousand metres I had ample time in which to make a choiceample time,
too, for wondering if, by a miscalculation, I had crossed the trench lines,
which in that region are hardly visible from the air. I searched anxiously for
a wide valley where it would be possible to land in safety. While still three
thousand metres from the ground I found one. Not only a field. There were
bessonneau hangars on it. An aerodrome! A moment of joy, "but German,
perhaps! "followed by another of anxiety. It was quickly relieved by the
sight of a French reconnaissance plane spiraling down for a landing. I landed,
too, and found that I was only a ten-minutes' flight from my destination.
With other work to do, I did not finish the story of my
adventure with the camouflaged cows, and I am wondering now why I thought it
such a corking one. The cows had something to do with it. We were returning
from Belfort to Verdun when I met them. Our special duty had been to furnish
aerial protection to the King of Italy, who was visiting the French lines in
the Vosges. This done we started northward again. Over the highest of the
mountains my motor pump failed as before. I got well past the mountains before
the essence in my reserve tank gave out. Then I planed as flatly as possible,
searching for another aviation field.
There were none to be found in this region, rough, hilly
country, much of it covered with forests. I chose a miniature sugar-loaf
mountain for landing-ground. It appeared to be free from obstacles, and the
summit, which was pasture and ploughed land, seemed wide enough to settle on.
I got the direction of the wind from the smoke blowing from
the chimneys of a near-by village, and turned Into it. As I approached, the
hill loomed more and more steeply in front of me. I had to pull up at a
climbing angle to keep from nosing into the side of it. About this time I saw
the cows, dozens of them, grazing over the whole place. Their natural
camouflage of browns and whites and reds prevented my seeing them earlier.
Making spectacular virages I missed collisions by the length of a match-stick.
At the summit of the hill, my wheels touched ground for the first time, and I
bounded on, going through a three-strand wire fence and taking off a post
without any appreciable decrease in speed. Passing between two large apple
trees, I took limbs from each of them, losing my wings in doing so. My land ing
chassis was intact and my Spad went on down the reverse slope
"Like an embodied joy, whose race is just begun."
After crashing through a thicket of brush and small trees, I
came to rest, both in body and in mind, against a stone wall. There was nothing
left of my machine but the seat. Unscathed, I looked back along the
wreckage-strewn path, like a man who has been riding a whirlwind in a wicker
Now, I have never yet made a forced landing in strange
country without having the mayor of the nearest village appear on the scene
very soon afterward. I am beginning to believe that the mayors of all French
towns sit on the roofs of their houses, field-glasses in hand, searching the
sky for wayward aviators, and when they see one landing, they rush to the spot
on foot, on horseback, in old-fashioned family phaetons, by means of whatever
conveyance most likely to increase expedition their municipality affords.
The mayor of V.-sur-I. came on foot, for he had not far to
go. Indeed, had there been one more cow browsing between the apple trees,
I should have made a last virage to the left, in which case
I should have piled up against a summer pavilion in the mayor's garden. Like
all French mayors of my experience, he was a courteous, big-hearted gentleman.
After getting his breath, he was a fleshy man, and
had run all the way from his house, he said, "Now, my boy, what can I do
First he placed a guard around the wreckage of my machine;
then we had tea in the summer pavilion, where I explained the reason for my
sudden visit. While I was telling him the story, I noticed that every window of
the house, which stood at one end of the garden, was crowded with children's
heads. War orphans, I guessed. Either that or the children of a large family of
sons at the front. He was the kind of man who would take them all into his own
Having frightened his cows,they must have given
cottage cheese for a week afterward, destroyed his fences, broken his
apple trees, accepted his hospitality, I had the amazing nerve to borrow money
from him. I had no choice in the matter, for I was a long way from Verdun, with
only eighty centimes in my pocket.
Had there been time I would have walked rather than ask him
for the loan. He granted it gladly, and insisted upon giving me double the
amount which I required.
I promised to go back some day for a visit. First I will do
acrobacy over the church steeple, and then, if the cows are not in the pasture,
I am going to land, comme unefleur, as we airmen say, on that hill.
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