You bank and turn sideways, so as to let your observer get in some shooting while you examine your gun. From the position of the check-lever you realise that there has been a misfire. Quickly but calmly—feverish haste might make a temporary stoppage chronic—you lean over and remedy the fault. Again you press the trigger, and never was sound more welcome than the ta-ta-ta-ta-ta which shows you are ready for all comers.
Once more you turn to meet the attacking Germans. As you do so your observer points to a black-crossed bird which is gliding down after he has crippled it. But three more are closing round you. Something sings loudly a yard away. You turn your head and see that a landing wire has been shot through; and you thank the gods that it was not a flying wire.
The flight-commander and another companion have just arrived to help you. They dash at a Boche, and evidently some of their shots reach him, for he also separates himself and glides down. The two other Huns, finding themselves outnumbered, retire.
All this while the two rear machines have been having a bad time. They were surrounded by five enemies at the very beginning of the fight. One of the Boches has since disappeared, but the other four are very much there.
You sweep round and go to the rescue, accompanied by the flight-commander and the remaining British machine. Just as you arrive old X's bus drops forward and down, spinning as it goes. It falls slowly at first, but seems to gather momentum; the spin becomes wilder and wilder, the drop faster and faster.
"Poor old X," you think, "how damnable to lose him. Now the poor beggar won't get the leave he has been talking about for the last two months." Then your thoughts turn to Y, the observer in the lost machine. You know his fiancee, you remember he owes you 30 francs from last night's game of bridge.
You burn to avenge poor X and Y, but all the Huns have dived and are now too low for pursuit. You recover your place in the formation and the fight ends as suddenly as it began. One German machine has been destroyed and two driven down, but—"one of ours has failed to return."
When you return and land, you are not so contented as usual to be back. There will be two vacant places at dinner, and there is a nasty job to be done. You will have to write rather a painful letter to Y's fiancee.
Madam, you are now at liberty to give up the temporary role of a bold, bad pilot and become once more your charming self.
FRANCE, November, 1916
BACK IN BLIGHTY.
... You last heard of my continued existence, I believe, from a field post-card with but one of the printed lines uncrossed: "I have been admitted to hospital." When this was sent I had no more expectation of a return to Blighty than has a rich Bishop of not entering the Kingdom of Heaven. Nevertheless, here we are again, after a three days' tour along the Red Cross lines of communication.
Again I have been admitted to hospital. This one is more sumptuous but less satisfying than the casualty clearing station at Gezaincourt, whence the card was posted. There, in a small chateau converted into an R.A.M.C. half-way house, one was not over-anxious to be up and about, for that would have meant a further dose of war at close quarters. Here, in a huge military hospital at Westminster, one is very anxious to be up and about, for that would mean a long-delayed taste of the joys of London. At Gezaincourt rumbling gunfire punctuated the countryside stillness; aeroplanes hummed past on their way to the lines, and engendered gratitude for a respite from encounters with Archie; from the ward window I could see the star-shells as they streaked up through the dim night. At Westminster rumbling buses punctuate the back-street stillness; taxis hum past on their way to the West End, and engender a longing for renewed acquaintance with the normal world and the normal devil; from the ward window I can see the towers of Parliament as they stretch up through the London greyness. For an Englishman just returned from a foreign battlefield to his own capital it should be an inspiring view, that of the Home of Government, wherein the Snowdens, Outhwaites, Ponsonbys, and Sir Vested Interests, talk their hardest for the winning of the war by one side or the other, I am not sure which. But somehow it isn't.
I have mentioned the hospital's position, because it will help you on the day after to-morrow, if the herewith forecast is correct.
You will read this letter, hang me for my customary disturbing suddenness, and search a time-table. This will tell you that a train from your part of the country arrives in town at 11.45 A.M. (e), which bracketed letter means Saturdays excepted. By it you will travel on Tuesday morning. Then, in the afternoon, you will seek a taxi, but either the drivers will have as fares middle-aged contractors, good for a fat tip, or they will claim a lack of petrol, lady. You will therefore fight for place in a bus, which must be left at the corner of Whitehall and Queen Victoria Street. Next you will walk towards the river, past Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Talk, and so to Chelsea Embankment. Turn off by the Tate Gallery, enter the large building on your right, and you will have arrived. Visiting hours are from two to four, but as the Sister is one of the best and my very kind friend, you will not be turned out until five.
But I can hear you ask leading questions. No, I am not badly wounded nor seriously ill. Neither am I suffering from shell-shock, nor even from cold feet. A Blighty injury of the cushiest is the spring actuating this Jack-in-the-Box appearance. Have patience. To-day's inactivity has bred a pleasant boredom, which I shall work off by writing you a history of the reasons why I am back from the big war. They include a Hun aeroplane, a crash, a lobster, and two doctors.
You will remember how, months ago, our machine landed on an abandoned trench, after being damaged in a scrap? A bullet through the petrol-pipe having put the carburettor out of action, the engine ceased its revs., so that we glided several miles, crossed the then lines at a low height, and touched earth among the network of last June's lines. We pancaked on to the far edge of a trench, and the wheels slid backward into the cavity, causing the lower wings and fuselage to be crumpled and broken.
My left knee, which has always been weak since a far-back accident, was jerked by contact with the parapet. Next day it seemed none the worse, so I did not take the accident seriously. During the weeks and months that followed the knee was painless, but it grew larger and larger for no noticeable reason, like Alice in Wonderland and the daily cost of the war.
Then an aggressive lobster, eaten in Amiens one fine evening, revenged itself by making necessary a visit to the casualty clearing station for attention to a mildly poisoned tummy. The doctor who examined me noticed the swollen knee, and looked grave. He pinched, punched, and pressed it, and finally said: "My dear boy, why the devil didn't you report this? It's aggravated synovitis, and, if you don't want permanent water-on-the-knee, you'll have to lie up for at least three weeks. I'll have you sent to the Base to-morrow."
My ambition did not yet soar beyond a short rest at the Base. Meanwhile it was pleasant to lie between real sheets and to watch real English girls making beds, taking temperatures, and looking after the newly wounded with a blend of tenderness and masterful competence. Their worst job appeared to be fighting the Somme mud. The casualties from the trench region were invariably caked with dirt until the nurses had bathed and cleaned them with comic tact and great success.
It being the day of an advance, scores of cases were sent to Gezaincourt from the field dressing stations. Each time an ambulance car, loaded with broken and nerve-shattered men, stopped by the hospital entrance, a young donkey brayed joyously from a field facing the doorway, as if to shout "Never say die!" Most of the casualties echoed the sentiment, for they seemed full of beans and congratulated themselves and each other on their luck in getting Blighty ones.
But it was otherwise with the cases of shell-shock. I can imagine no more wretched state of mind than that of a man whose nerves have just been unbalanced by close shaves from gun fire. There was in the same lysol-scented ward as myself a New Zealander in this condition. While he talked with a friend a shell had burst within a few yards of the pair, wounding him in the thigh and sweeping off the friend's head. He lost much blood and became a mental wreck. All day and all night he tossed about in his bed, miserably sleepless and acutely on edge, or lay in a vacant and despondent quiet. Nothing interested him, nothing comforted him—not even a promise from the doctor of a long rest in England.
There were also many victims of the prevailing epidemics of trench-fever and rabid influenza. The clearing station was thus hard put to it to make room for all newcomers by means of evacuation. For our batch this happened next evening. A long train drew up on the single-line railway near the hospital, the stretcher cases were borne to special Pullman cars, and the walking cases followed, each docketed in his button-hole by a card descriptive of wound or ailment.
You can have no idea of the comfort of a modern R.A.M.C. train as used at the Front. During the first few months of war, when the small amount of available rolling stock was worth its weight in man-power, the general travel accommodation for the wounded was the French railway truck, with straw strewn over the floor. In these the suffering sick were jolted, jerked, and halted for hours at a time, while the scorching sun danced through the van's open sides and the mosquito-flies bit their damnedest. But nowadays one travels in luxury and sleeping-berths, with ever-ready nurses eager to wait upon every whim.
A sling-armed Canadian was one of the party of four in our compartment. Great was his joy when a conjuring trick of coincidence revealed that the jolly sister who came to ask what we would like to drink proved to be not only a Canadian, but actually from his own little township in Manitoba. While they discussed mutual friends the rest of us felt highly disappointed that we also were not from the township. As evidence that they both were of the right stuff, neither of them platitudinised: "It's a small world, isn't it?"
The smooth-running train sped northward from the Somme battlefield, and we betted on each man's chances of being sent to Blighty. Before settling down to sleep, we likewise had a sweepstake on the Base of destination, for not until arrival were we told whether it was Rouen, Boulogne, or Etaples. I drew Boulogne and won, as we discovered on being awoken at early dawn by a nurse, who arrived with tea, a cheery "Morning, boys," and bread-and-butter thin as ever was poised between your slim fingers.
The wounded and shell-shocked New Zealander had pegged out during the journey. May the gods rest his troubled spirit!
From Boulogne station a fleet of ambulance cars distributed the train's freight of casualties among the various general hospitals. At three of the starry morning I found myself inside a large one-time hotel on the sea front, being introduced to a bed by a deft-handed nurse of unusual beauty.
The Blighty hopes of our party were realised or disappointed at midday, when the surgeon-in-charge came to decide which of the new arrivals were to be forwarded across Channel, and which were to be patched up in France. The world stands still the moment before the Ram Corps major, his examination concluded, delivers the blessed verdict: "Get him off by this afternoon's boat, sister." Or an unwelcome reassurance: "We'll soon get you right here."
For my part I had not the least expectation of Blighty until the surgeon showed signs of prolonged dissatisfaction with the swollen knee. Like the doctor at Gezaincourt, he pinched, punched, and pressed it, asked for its history, and finally pronounced: "I'm afraid it'll have to be rested for about six weeks." Then, after a pause: "Sorry we haven't room to keep you here for so long. You'll be fixed up on the other side." Hastily I remarked that I should be sorry indeed to take up valuable space at a Base hospital. The major's departure from the ward was the signal for a demonstration by the Blighty squad. Pillows and congratulations were thrown about, war-dances were performed on game legs, the sister was bombarded with inquiries about the next boat.
All places on the afternoon boat having been booked, we were obliged to wait until the morning. What a day! The last of a long period amid the myriad ennuies of active service, the herald of a long spell amid the pleasant things of England. Impatience for the morrow was kept bottled with difficulty; every now and then the cork flew out, resulting in a wild rag among those able to run, walk, or hop. When the 'Times' was delivered, it seemed quite a minor matter that the Gazette should notify me that I had been presented with another pip.
After dinner some one remarked that "she" would soon come on duty, and there was an air of conscious expectancy among the veterans of the ward. "She," the V.A.D. girl who had received us when we were deposited at the hospital in the small hours of the morning, was—and is—an efficient nurse, a good comrade, a beautiful woman, and the friend of every casualty lucky enough to have been in her charge. For a wounded officer staled by the brutalities of trench life there could be no better mental tonic than the ministrations and charm of Our Lady of X Ward. I cannot guess the number and variety of proposals made to her by patients of a week's or a month's standing, but both must be large. She is also the possessor of this admirable and remarkable record. For two years she has been nursing—really nursing—in France, and yet, though she belongs to a well-known family, her photograph has never appeared in the illustrated papers that boom war-work patriots. On this particular evening, in the intervals of handing round medicines and cheerfulness, our comrade the night nurse made toffee for us over a gas-burner, a grey-haired colonel and a baby subaltern taking turns to stir the saucepan.
The next change of scene was to the quays of Boulogne. Ambulance cars from the several hospitals lined up before a ship side-marked by giant Red Crosses. The stretcher casualties were carried up the gangway, down the stairs, and into the boat's wards below. The remainder were made comfortable on deck. Distribution of life-saving contraptions, business with medical cards, gleeful hoots from the funnel, chug-chug from the paddles, and hey for Blighty! across a smooth lake of a sea. Yarns of attack and bombardment were interrupted by the pleasurable discovery that Dover's cliffs were still white.
We seemed an unkempt crowd indeed by contrast with dwellers on this side of the Channel. The ragged raiment of men pipped during a Somme advance did not harmonise with plush first-class compartments of the Chatham and Dover railway. Every uniform in our carriage, except mine and another, was muddied and bloodied, so that I felt almost ashamed of the comparative cleanliness allowed by life in an R.F.C. camp, miles behind the lines. The subaltern opposite, however, was immaculate as the fashion-plate of a Sackville Street tailor. Yet, we thought, he must have seen some tough times, for he knew all about each phase of the Somme operations. Beaumont Hamel? He explained exactly how the Blankshires and Dashshires, behind a dense barrage, converged up the high ground fronting the stronghold. Stuff Redoubt? He gave us a complete account of its capture, loss, and recapture. But this seasoned warrior quietened after the visit of an official who listed us with particulars of wounds, units, and service. His service overseas? Five months in the Claims Department at Amiens. Wound or sickness? Scabies.
Charing Cross, gateway of the beloved city! The solid old clock looked down benignly as if to say: "I am the first landmark of your own London to greet you. Pass along through that archway and greet the others."
But we could not pass along. The medical watchdogs and mesdemoiselles the ambulance-drivers saw to that. We were detailed to cars and forwarded to the various destinations, some to the provinces by way of another station, some to suburban hospitals, some to London proper. I was one of the lucky last-named and soon found myself settled in Westminster. Here the injured knee was again pinched, punched, and pressed, after which the ward surgeon told me I should probably stay in bed for a month. For exercise I shall be permitted to walk along the passage each morning to the department where they dispense massage and ionisation.
Meanwhile, it is midday and flying weather. Over there a formation of A flight, Umpty Squadron, will perhaps be droning back from a hundred-mile reconnaissance. V., my mad friend and sane pilot and flight-commander, leads it; and in my place, alas! Charlie-the-good-guide is making notes from the observer's cockpit. The Tripehound and others of the jolly company man the rear buses, which number four or five, according to whether the wicked bandit Missing has kidnapped some member of the family. And here loaf I, uncertain whether I am glad or sorry to be out of it. The devil of it is that, unlike most of my bed-neighbours, I feel enormously fit and am anxious to shake hands with life and London. Time hangs heavy and long, so bring all you can in the way of the latest books, the latest scandals, and your latest enthusiasms among the modern poets. Above all, bring yourself.
LONDON, November, 1916
THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, NEW YORK
- Transcriber's Note: Typographical errors corrected in the text: Page 87 phosphorus changed to phosphorous Page 137 unnecsary changed to unnecessary Page 159 Klaxton changed to Klaxon Page 226 Immelman changed to Immelsmann Page 249 missfire changed to misfire -