Staff Officers

Up to the present the greatest aid given by the air service to any of the armies in this war is that of acting as scouts; or, in other words, the air service supplies the eyes of the army and navy.

Much is said of the time when thousands of planes will be used as offensive weapons on a large scale. It is quite possible that in the future this will come to pass; but up to the present, spasmodic bombardments of fortified positions by a few planes, and the useless murder of non-combatants by German zeppelins, has been the limit of the attacking power of air fleets. There are spectacular fights in the air between airmen of the opposing sides; and, when one considers the limited perspective of a man living in a seven-foot ditch, the monotony of such a life, and man’s natural love of competition, one can easily understand the deep interest taken in these air duels by the men in the trenches.

One sometimes sees six or seven battles in the heavens in one afternoon, and another dozen machines driven back by shells from our anti-aircraft guns. Tennyson’s prophetic words, written long ago in Locksley Hall, are indeed fulfilled:—

For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rained
a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;

Let us hope that after this war for liberty and freedom has ended in the subjugation of militarism, his further prophecy in regard to “the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world” may also come true.

When airmen fly over their opponent’s lines, they are first met by shells from anti-aircraft guns and bullets from machine-guns, and between the two they are often forced to return to their own side of the lines. It is a beautiful picture, on a clear day, to see these machines, swerving this way and that, diving, ascending, out of the path of this rain of shot and shell that greets them, though it rarely brings them down. The swaying machine, cutting its way through the hundreds of white and black puffy balls, caused by the bursting shells, is a sight for gods and men; and the men, at least, never tire of watching it.

A very amusing incident, in this connection, is told by the officers of a certain Canadian battalion of infantry. Their original Lieutenant Colonel, now a General, came of a well-known and able, though rather egotistical and bombastic Canadian family. When in the trenches this Lieutenant Colonel always insisted on being accompanied by his batman or a special runner whose duty it was to carry a Ross rifle ready loaded. When he saw a German plane soaring over No Man’s Land toward him, anywhere from ten thousand to fifteen thousand feet in the air, he would cry:—

“Quick, give me that rifle!” and, putting it to his shoulder, he would pump shot after shot in the direction of the distant airman. If the latter chanced to go back from whence he came, the Lieutenant Colonel would turn to those about him with a satisfied and triumphant smile of self-approbation:—

“Ah, I’ve turned him back,” he would say.

When he learned, as he occasionally did, that he had been filling the sky with lead in a mistaken effort to hit one of our own machines, it worried him not at all, for the knowledge he had that he had “turned back” hundreds of Hun planes prevented an occasional slight mistake from damping the ardor of a spirit such as his.

When the war is over he may rest assured, as he no doubt will, that no Canadian, no Britisher, yes, it might even be written, no man, had done more in this great war to accomplish the defeat of the Hun than he!

Very often, while you are looking up at a shelled aeroplane, the bits of shrapnel and shell are heard thudding into the earth all about. On one occasion my commanding officer and I lay on the ground in a shower of this kind, while a short distance away a soldier of another battalion was severely wounded by a piece of shell casing. It is strange that more men are not hit in this manner, and the same remark may be made of the few who are wounded in proportion to the number of shells poured over in an ordinary bombardment.

A young airman described his work to me as “much monotony, and a few damned bad frights”; and this may be taken as a description of almost any branch of the service at the front. The phrase, “a young airman,” is very appropriate in speaking of most of our heroes of the air, for they are often only boys of nineteen or twenty years of age who, with the recklessness of youth, but the courage of veterans, risk their valuable young lives in dangerous reconnaissances or in battling with the enemy a mile or two in the air. Strange that buoyant, happy young fellows like these, with all their lives before them, should value the future less than those who have lived more than half of theirs. But this is the case; and it is stated, truly, that the steadiness of nerve of these heroic youngsters surpasses that of older men.

One day we relieved the —— battalion in the lines, and as the trenches were veritable mudholes, Major P—— and I took to the fields and crossed overland to our rear lines, passing through our long line of Howitzers and field guns on the way. As our batteries were just about to open a heavy strafe on the enemy, to find out the strength of their artillery on this front, we sat on the edge of a shellhole to smoke a cigarette and watch the effect of the bombardment. The batteries near us had eight or ten men to each gun, using a small derrick to carry into the dark breech of the gun the heavy shell. This was pushed home, and behind it was shoved in the charge of guncotton. Then the metal door—for all the world like the door of a small safe—was closed and bolted. The range having been given from a row of figures called across by an artillery lieutenant with field glasses, the gun was brought to the proper level by one man turning a wheel, while another, gazing through a clinometer, told when the proper range was attained. Another man pulled a string, the gun belched forth its death-dealing load, and we watched the shell bursting a mile or two away over the German lines, with a flash, a great upheaval of earth, and a cloud of smoke high in the air.

Presently to our right we heard a machine-gun playing its rat-a-tat-tat. Looking up we saw one of our own planes spitting its stream of fire at a large, red, German flyer that had been doing much damage to our machines on this front for some weeks. The Hun plane was above, thus having the advantage. Suddenly his machine made a nose-dive downward, like a hawk swooping down on its prey, and as the German had speed very much in his favor, he quickly arrived at the position he desired. His machine-gun poured forth bullets, and to our horror we saw that the tail of our aeroplane was cut cleanly off by them, as though by a huge sword. The machine, having no guiding rudder, immediately turned nose downward, and we sighed sadly and felt sick at heart as we thought of the gallant young chaps falling rapidly to their death.

It is always with a sinking feeling that you watch one of your own machines brought down. You can’t be entirely without pity even for the enemy under the same conditions. For when a man dies in a charge, or even when he is mortally hit by a sniper’s bullet or by a shell, he is either killed instantly, or he is brought back on a stretcher with hopes of recovery. But when an aviator is ten thousand feet in the air, carrying on a duel with a foe, it is often only his machine that is disabled, and while it noses down the long ten thousand feet, though it is only a matter of moments, he has time to realize that death is about to conquer him, and not in a pleasant manner.

Just before our unfortunate machine in this fight crashed into the earth one of the occupants fell or jumped from it. The other remained in his seat, facing his quickly-coming death with the same courage that made him take the chance. The tail of the machine, being the lighter, came down more slowly and struck the earth not far behind the body to which it had been attached.

In the meantime the German soared triumphantly above, but now he circled down, sailing close to the earth over his fallen opponents, apparently to see the result of his work. Then he soared aloft again, as all about him are fleecy white clouds or puffs of smoke from the explosions of shells from our anti-aircraft guns in the neighborhood. They burst everywhere except in his quickly-changing path, and he sailed back over his own lines in safety.

Stretcher bearers hurried forward from a nearby field ambulance dressing station to find that the man who had fallen from the machine was still alive, though probably fatally injured. He was hurried off to receive attention. The other was beneath the machine and beyond human aid. As the smashed machine was in plain view of the Germans it might at any moment become the target of their artillery, and the stretcher bearers here, as in all their work, showed an absolute disregard of personal danger. All honor to them! One-half hour later, being nearby with my corporal, we crossed over to the ruined aeroplane. Already the Royal Flying Corps had a guard on it to save it from souvenir hunters, and we were warned away, but were later allowed to go around it, and had a good view at close hand of its tangled mass of wires, machinery, and armament. There, with his youthful face looking up toward his Maker, lay the other occupant of the plane. Shortly his loved ones at home would receive the sad intelligence of the untimely, but honorable and courageous, death of this boy who gave up the life he was to live, the sons he was to father—”his immortality,” to use the words of Rupert Brook—in order to do his share in holding aloft the lamp of liberty and freedom.

Sometimes it is difficult to say who has command of the air at a certain section of the line. This big red plane, and a few others of its type, seemed to be speedier than any of ours on this front; but just as we have gradually surpassed the German in artillery, in the morale of our men, in control of No Man’s Land, and in general offensive power, it was only a matter of a short time till we again took control of the air on this front, as we have on others.

The control of the air depends in great part, not on the courage of the aviators, but on the efficiency of their machines. Two days later I saw this red plane, or one of its type, daringly fly over our lines, and only about 300 feet above them—an exceedingly low flight over enemy lines. A scouting plane of ours, much inferior in speed and fighting power, but manned by some brave boy who cared not for his life so long as he did his duty, flew straight at the red machine.

We watched in strained silence, while they circled about each other, their machine-guns spitting fire, and once they nearly collided, head on. The Hun decided to retreat, and flew back over his own lines; and our man, or boy, sailed away in another direction to continue the observation work he had been doing when the Hun came. Had our boy lost, his would have been just another name added to the long list of heroes of the Royal Flying Corps; for his act, in risking his life in attacking a much speedier and more dangerous machine than his own, was the act of a noble, courageous, fearless boy, well worthy of all praise, and of the finest decoration. Had he succeeded in downing his enemy, luck would have been on his side, for success in fighting in the air, as in ordinary life, often depends on chance.

Besides the courage displayed by the youthful members of the air service, they and their German enemy-rivals usually display toward each other a chivalry perhaps not equalled in any other branch of the army. It is partly due, no doubt, to the fact that the men who go into the air service, outside of their courage, are naturally lovers of the picturesque and spectacular. It is also due to the unconscious admiration one brave man has for another; the pity which he must feel for a fellowman whom he may shoot to his death ten thousand feet in the air; and finally, the knowledge that it is only a matter of time, if he remains in the service, till he meets a superior machine, if not a braver man, who may give him the same fate. This feeling does not prevent them fighting most fiercely, for each knows that while to the winner may come rewards and decorations, to the loser comes almost certain death. But if by chance they both escape through poor firing, exhaustion of ammunition, or that great element, chance, there is little or no personal hatred, but rather admiration for a brave foe.

The greatest of British airmen, the late Captain Ball, V.C., D.S.O., told of a contest in which he and a German both exhausted their machine-gun ammunition without serious injury to either; and then, after having done their best to kill each other, they sailed along side by side, laughing one at the other, till they parted company with a friendly wave of the hand to return to their own lines.

It was not uncommon, in the early part of the war, when one of our men was brought down behind the German lines, for the Germans on the following day to fly over our lines and to drop a note telling us that Lieutenant Blank had been killed in a fight on the previous day, and had been buried behind their trenches with all military honors. Needless to say our airmen displayed the same courtesy toward their opponents. The knowledge thus given often saved that depressing uncertainty on the part of the missing hero’s relations and friends, which is more disheartening than the knowledge of his death.

Personal bravery is not the monopoly of any one nation. The airmen of our brave French, Belgian, Italian, or Russian allies require no praise from my feeble pen; and those of us who have been out there have seen too many incidents of the courage of our enemies to belittle them, and we have no desire to do so. They have often been barbarous in their uncalled-for cruelties and outrageous in their acts, but they have been sometimes brave, careless of death, and chivalrous.

On one occasion I saw a German airman fly so low over our lines from the front to the rear that we could see him leaning out over the side and looking down at us in the trenches. Some companies of infantry in the front lines raised their rifles and peppered away at him. But he carelessly flew on toward the rear where a company of pioneers were digging trenches; and so struck were they at this reckless trick that they pulled off their helmets, and swinging them in the air, they cheered him. Another instance of British—Canadian in this case—love of any brave act!

The annals of our British air service are so crowded with tales of heroic deeds that they seem almost to dwarf the heroism shown in the infantry, artillery, or naval branches of our forces. Many stories worthy of the classic heroes are yet untold of boys twenty-one or twenty-two years old who grappled with their enemies in the clouds with the same undaunted fearlessness displayed by Horatius at the bridge in the brave days of old.