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View of Combles.
Scene at an aerodrome. See larger image.

One branch of our military machine developed with astonishing rapidity and skill during those Somme battles. The young gentlemen of the Air Force went "all out" for victory, and were reckless in audacity. How far they acted under orders and against their own judgement of what was sensible and sound in fighting-risks I do not know. General Trenchard, their supreme chief, believed in an aggressive policy at all costs, and was a Napoleon in this war of the skies, intolerant of timidity, not squeamish of heavy losses if the balance were tipped against the enemy. Some young flying-men complained to me bitterly that they were expected to fly or die over the German lines, whatever the weather or whatever the risks. Many of them, after repeated escapes from anti-aircraft shells and hostile craft, lost their nerve, shirked another journey, found themselves crying in their tents, and were sent back home for a spell by squadron commanders, with quick observation for the breaking-point; or made a few more flights and fell to earth like broken birds.

Sooner or later, apart from rare cases, every man was found to lose his nerve, unless he lost his life first. That was a physical and mental law. But until that time these flying-men were the knights-errant of the war, and most of them did not need any driving to the risks they took with boyish recklessness.

View of Combles.
Group of our gallant airmen in front of one of our machines. See larger image.

They were mostly boys -- babes, as they seemed to me, when I saw them in their tents or dismounting from their machines. On "dud" days, when there was no visibility at all, they spent their leisure hours joy-riding to Amiens or some other town where they could have a "binge". They drank many cocktails and roared with laughter over bottles of cheap champagne, and flirted with any girl who happened to come within their orbit. If not allowed beyond their tents, they sulked like baby Achilles, reading novelettes, with their knees hunched up, playing the gramophone, and ragging each other.

There was one child so young that his squadron leader would not let him go out across the battle-lines to challenge any German scout in the clouds or do any of the fancy "stunts" that were part of the next day's program. He went to bed sulkily, and then came back again, in his pajamas, with rumpled hair.

"Look here, sir," he said. "Can't I go? I've got my wings. It's perfectly rotten being left behind."

The squadron commander, who told me of the tale, yielded.

"All right. Only don't do any fool tricks."

Next morning the boy flew off, played a lone hand, chased a German scout, dropped low over the enemy's lines, machine-gunned infantry on the march, scattered them, bombed a train, chased a German motor-car, and after many adventures came back alive and said, "I've had a rare old time!"

On a stormy day, which loosened the tent poles and slapped the wet canvas, I sat in a mess with a group of flying-officers, drinking tea out of a tin mug. One boy, the youngest of them, had just brought down his first "Hun". He told me the tale of it with may details, his eyes alight as he described the fight. They had maneuvered round each other for a long time. Then he shot his man en passant. The machine crashed on our side of the lines. He had taken off the iron crosses on the wings, and a bit of the propeller, as mementos. He showed me these things (while the squadron commander, who had brought down twenty-four Germans, winked at me) and told me he was going to send them home to hand beside his college trophies. . . . I guessed he was less that nineteen years old. Such a kid! . . . A few days later, when I went to the tent again, I asked about him.

"How's that boy who brought down his first 'Hun'?"

The squadron commander said:

"Didn't you hear? He's gone west. Brought down in a dog-fight. He had a chance of escape, but went back to rescue a pal . . . a nice boy."

They became fatalists after a few fights, and believed in their luck, or their mascots -- teddy-bears, a bullet that had missed them, china dolls, a girl's lock of hair, a silver ring. Yet at the back of their brains, most of them, I fancy, knew that it was only a question of time before they "went west", and with that subconscious thought they crowded in all life intensely in the hours that were given to them, seized all change of laughter, of wine, of every kind of pleasure within their reach, and said their prayers (some of them) with great fervor, between one escape and another, like young Paul Bensher [i.e. Bewsher](1), who has revealed his soul in verse, his secret terror, his tears, his hatred of death, his love of life, when he went bombing over Bruges.

On the mornings of the battles of the Somme I saw them as the heralds of a new day of strife flying toward the lines in the first light of dawn. When the sun rose its rays touched wings, made them white like cabbage butterflies, or changed them to silver, all a-sparkle. I saw them fly over the German positions, not changing their course. Then all about them burst black puffs of German shrapnel, so that many times, I held my breath because they seemed in the center of the burst. But generally when the cloud cleared they were flying again, until they disappeared in the mists over the enemy's country. There they did deadly work, in single fights with German airmen, or against great odds, until they had an air space to themselves and skimmed the earth like albatrosses in low flight, attacking machine-gun nests, killing or scattering the gunners by a burst of bullets from their Lewis guns, dropping bombs on German wagon transports, infantry, railway trains (one man cut a train in half and saw men and horses falling out), and ammunition-dumps, directing the fire of our guns upon living targets, photographing new trenches and works, bombing villages crowded with German troops. That they struck terror into these German troops was proved afterward when we went into Bapaume and Péronne and many villages from which the enemy retreated after the battles of the Somme. Everywhere there were signboards on which was written "Flieger Schutz!" (aircraft shelter) or German warnings of: "Keep to the sidewalks. This road is constantly bombed by British airmen."

They were a new plague of war, and did for a time gain a complete mastery of the air. But later the Germans learned the lesson of low flying and night bombing, and in 1917 and 1918 came back in greater strength and made the nights horrible in camps behind the lines and in villages, where they killed many soldiers and more civilians.

The infantry did not believe much in our air supremacy at any time, not knowing what work was done beyond their range of vision, and seeing our machines crashed in No Man's Land, and hearing the rattle of machine-guns from hostile aircraft above their own trenches.

"Those aviators of ours," a general said to me, "are the biggest liars in the world. Cocky fellows claiming impossible achievements. What proof can they give of their preposterous tales? They only go into the air service because they haven't the pluck to serve in the infantry."

That was prejudice. The German losses were proof enough of our men's fighting skill and strength, and German prisoners and German letters confirmed all their claims. But we were dishonest in our reckoning from first to last, and the British public was hoodwinked about our losses. "Three of our machines are missing." "Six of our machines are missing." Yes, but what about the machines which crashed in No Man's Land and behind our lines? They were not missing, but destroyed, and the boys who had flown in them were dead or broken.

To the end of the war those aviators of ours searched the air for their adventures, fought often against overwhelming numbers, killed the German champions in single combat or in tourneys in the sky, and let down tons of high explosives which caused great death and widespread destruction; and in this work they died like flies, and one boy's life -- one of those laughing, fatalistic, intensely living boys -- was of no more account in the general sum of slaughter than a summer midge, except as one little unit in the Armies of the Air.


(1) Bewsher, Paul, 1894-1966. The bombing of Bruges. New York : Hodder and Stoughton, 1918. (A collection of short poems reprinted in part from the Graphic and the Weekly dispatch.)

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