NOW IT CAN BE TOLD
PSYCHOLOGY ON THE SOMME
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.
|Group of our gallant airmen in front of one of
our machines. See larger
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
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.)