Authors: Griff Hosker
Published by Sword Books Ltd 2014
Griff Hosker First Edition
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A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
'Jack fell as he'd have wished,' the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read.
'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.
Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He'd told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he'd been so brave, her glorious boy.
He thought how 'Jack', cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he'd tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.
May 1915 England
The chugging, steaming, steel leviathan which took me south seemed appropriate somehow.
It was like a metaphor for the war. We were a metal machine and we were cutting a swathe through the green and pleasant land which was England. The steel rails cut an ugly scar through the land and reminded me of the ugly scars we had left in France and Belgium. The difference was that there they had a green and pleasant land no longer. They had a muddy morass criss-crossed by barbed wire and littered with unburied bodies. The war had destroyed the land. And soon I would be returning to the war that could not be won. At leat I did not think that it could be won. We were still in the same parts of Belgium and France that we had been ten months ago when I had been a young cavalryman eager to go to war. I had become more of a realist in those ten months.
I had grown up in the country on the estate of Lord Burscough. My mother and father still worked and lived on the state as did my younger brother and one of my sisters. Machines were few and far between especially in the stables where I had worked. How ironic that I now flew one of the new
fangled aeroplanes over the fields of France. I had grown up with my feet on the ground but now my head was in the air.
My war had started in the cavalry but the slaughter of men and horses had persuaded me that I could not bear to see such fine animals killed for no good reason and so I had joined the Royal Flying Corps. For some reason I found that not only was it easy, I was quite good at it. I had started life as a gunner in an F.E.2 and soon become a pilot. I was now Flight Lieutenant Bill Harsker with a
handful of downed German aeroplanes to my name.
I thought back to the leave I had just enjoyed. We had been sent home from France following the Second battle of Ypres when some of the flying crews had suffered from the effect of
the German gas. I had been pleased to come home to the bosom of my family. That they were delighted to see me was never in question but this time, as opposed to my first leave before Christmas 1914, was different. It was not my family who had changed but everyone else.
Most families knew someone who had died or had been wounded and the euphoria of September 1914 when we were going to show the
Hun who was boss had evaporated leaving an empty and hollow atmosphere all around. When I went to the pub with my dad I still received the smiles and the banter but they were less sincere. It was as though I was to blame for somehow being whole. Even Dad noticed it and he was less than happy. I told him to let it go. The last thing I wanted, while I was at the front, was for Dad and his friends to be at loggerheads. The war would last too long for that.
I had flown over the battlefields and I knew that this wa
r would not be over soon. The poor infantry were fighting over a few hundred yards of mud and wire. It was a brutal and ugly war. New weapons like the machine gun meant that casualties were no longer in the tens or twenties, not even the hundreds as they had in the Crimean War but in their thousands. I knew that I was lucky to be a pilot. If anything happened to me it would be final; a crashing aeroplane left no survivors. That was preferable to the living death I had seen on the boat and the train coming home from France. The men with no legs, half a face or some hidden wound which wracked them with pain, was the norm in this new, modern war. And then there were the ones whose blank dead faces told of demons and horrors hidden behind the mask they had adopted. They were the ones who terrified me the most.
I thought back to those days when I had had to tell my comrades’ widowed mother that both her sons had been killed. I saw the devastation on her face when she anticipated the
terrifying and lonely prospect of a life without husband, sons, and grandchildren. It was the very definition of infinity. It would seem to last forever no matter how short the actual duration. It had made me tell my family that I cared for them. It was not a family trait but I did not want to go to meet my maker without telling all of my family how important they were to me.
I shook myself out of my morbid and depressing thoughts.
I took out and read, again, the orders which had come a week ago. Rather than returning to France I had been summoned to an airfield in Kent where my squadron was now based. They had been withdrawn, temporarily, from the front. I was relieved that I would not be in France for a while. Although I did not enjoy the war I did enjoy the camaraderie of the squadron. My two best friends, Ted and Gordy, had helped me settle into the squadron and shown me how to become a pilot. We had all saved each other, before now, when things went awry. My gunner and mechanic, Sergeant Sharp, was also more of a friend than a subordinate. We were a team in the sky. Air combat did that for you. Up in the sky you had to rely upon others as well as yourself. They became almost part of you. You had to think as one person. Charlie Sharp was my gunner and he sat less than four feet in front of me. We flew at the enemy with fabric and wood protecting us. If we did not think and act as one then the likelihood would be that we would die.
I knew that I was lucky in
my commanding officer and my superiors. I had seen poor officers before; especially when I had been in the cavalry. My first troop commander had been a disaster and men had died because of his incompetence. He had been protected because he came from the officer class and the public school system. They were not all like that but the ones that were made me nervous. They were more of a liability than the enemy. Colonel Pemberton Smythe and Major Brack might be from the upper classes but they were down to earth officers. They understood flying and they understood war. Life with anything less would have been intolerable.
When we had stopped in Crewe
Station a well dressed man in his thirties entered the carriage clutching a newspaper. His well fed features and his clothes told me that this was someone who neither used his hands nor went to war. He spied my uniform and proceeded to tell me how to defeat the damned Boche. He spat the word out as though he had had personal dealings with them. It was newspaper talk. He just saw the brown and did not recognise the branch of my service. To him I was just another soldier. I nodded seriously at all his suggestions. I had learned that arguing just upset the civilians. It was the same with the men in the pub in the village. They would never understand the realities of modern war. Their views came from the rags and tabloids. It came from journalists writing reports from Fleet Street and War office briefings. I could see that all had potential as writers of novels. They had the ability to take the truth and twist it into a completely new shape.
“The trouble is we need our soldiers to be more resolute. I know that, when we attack, we lose men but we keep retreating and losing more. If our chaps just persevered a little longer then the Boche would break.” He was being very serious and I suppressed a smile at the use of the word ‘we’.
He had no idea of what it was like to face machine guns; lines and lines of deadly machine guns. Guns which were set to a precise height and would mow men down much as a farmer would harvest wheat. In comparison we had it easy in the air. We had, normally, one machine gun being fired at us from an unstable aeroplane which was moving quickly through the air. We also had a little protection from our own guns and an engine. An infantry man had nowhere to hide. The Germans knew where they would be going and the machine gun had been ranged to rake and harvest a precise piece of land. The poor Tommy had to trudge through that blood soaked piece of earth to get at the machine gun. And before he could do that he had to clamber over barbed wire and finally fight, hand to hand to evict the German soldiers. It was a brutal and soul destroying way to fight.
The man held up the paper
waving it before me, almost in triumph. “Look at this. The damned Germans have started attacking civilians. They have sunk the Lusitania! They are not human! They are savages! They are not content with killing nurses and bayoneting babies in Belgium, now they attack unarmed passengers ships carrying civilians. That is why you chaps have to finish this sooner rather than later!”
It was on the tip of my tongue to ask him what he did and why he was not in uniform but it was better not to ask. The answer would only upset me. I allowed myself to believe that he was doing something useful; perhaps he was a doctor.
“Yes sir, we will try.”
He smiled as though his words had converted another soldier from a quaking coward to a fearless warrior. He shook his paper resolutely as though it was his defence against the Germans. “Good! Jolly good! The British Tommy will show these Hun that they are braver men
and that God is on our side!”
I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep.
I did not think that God was on anyone’s side. I had seen little evidence of the hand of God on the battlefield. As I sat in the peaceful dark of my mind I wondered why the squadron had been moved to England. I knew that we had suffered casualties during the last attack but I also knew that our squadron had been one of the more successful ones. Then I remembered when Major Burscough had been promoted. He had had to return to England to begin training men in the new Bristol fighter. Perhaps that was our fate. I involuntarily frowned. The Bristol was a single seater scout. I was not certain I would like to go to war in such an aeroplane. I was used to having Charlie Sharp as my gunner. The Gunbus was a steady, stable platform. It had its limitations; there was a nasty blind spot just below the rear of the aeroplane. The Germans could exploit that. Otherwise the aircraft was as good an aeroplane as we had. I was a conservative pilot. Change was not always good.
I was disappointed that Gordy had not joined my train at Crewe. I suppose that there were so many trains heading to London that the odds on us being on the same one was remote. Gordy and Ted had been the flight sergeants who had helped me through those first weeks when I had joined the Corps. Gordy and I had become pilots and lieutenants. Ted could have done so but he appeared happy to remain a gunner for the moment. Perhaps having young officers in charge of his aeroplane would change his opinion.
When I changed trains at London, I had to make my way from Euston to Victoria. I could have taken the underground which the locals seemed to enjoy but the thought of disappearing down a rabbit hole did not appeal to a country boy like me and I stepped out to walk across London. After the long train journey it was good to stretch my legs.
The first thing I noticed was the huge crowds
which filled the streets. They were like a river of humanity. Liverpool and Manchester were like villages compared with this metropolis. The second thing I spotted was the huge number of uniforms. It was not only men sporting uniforms from the army and the navy but there seemed to be many women too. Perhaps this was the future. Mother would have been shocked. In her world you worked until you married and then it was your duty to bring up children. She would never understand women being involved in the war. I had also read of women in the large cities being used to make munitions. Mum would be shocked at the very idea.
When I reached Victoria I was delighted to see Gordy smoking a cigarette and reading a newspaper as he waited for our train. His smile told me that he was pleased to see me too.
“Bill! Good leave?”