Authors: William Avery Bishop
It was the mud, I think, that made me take to flying. I had fully expected that going into battle would mean for me the saddle of a galloping charger, instead of the snug little cockpit of a modern aeroplane. The mud, on a certain day in July, 1915, changed my whole career in the war.
We were in England. I had gone over as an officer of the Missisauga Horse of Toronto in a Cavalry Unit of the Second Canadian Division. It had rained for days in torrents, and there was still a drizzle coming down as I set out for a tour of the horse lines.
Ordinary mud is bad enough, when you have to make your home in it, but the particular brand of mud that infests a cavalry camp has a meanness all its own. Everything was dank, and slimy, and boggy. I had succeeded in getting myself mired to the knees when suddenly, from somewhere out of the storm, appeared a trim little aeroplane.
It landed hesitatingly in a nearby field as if scorning to brush its wings against so sordid a landscape; then away again up into the clean grey mists.
How long I stood there gazing into the distance I do not know, but when I turned to slog my way back through the mud my mind was made up. I knew there was only one place to be on such a dayâup above the clouds and in the summer sunshine. I was going into the battle that way. I was going to meet the enemy in the air.
I had never given much thought to being a soldier, even after my parents had sent me to the Royal Military College at Kingston, when I was seventeen years of age. I will say for my parents that they had not thought much of me as a professional soldier either. But they did think, for some reason or other, that a little of the discipline at the Royal Military College would do me a lot of goodâand I suppose it did.
In any event, those three years at the R.M.C. stood me in good stead when the rush came in Canada; when everywhere, everybody was doing his best to get taken on in some capacity in order to get to the front quickly.
We Canadians will never forget the thrill of those first days of the war, and then the terrible waiting before most of us could get to the other side. Our great fear was that the fighting would all be over before we could give a hand in it. How little we knew then of the glory that was to be Canada's in the story of the Western Front: of the sacrifices that were to reach to nearly every fireside in the Dominion.
For many months my bit seemed to consist of training, more training, delays and more delays. But at last we got over. We crossed in an old-time cattle boat. Oh, what a trip! Fifteen days to reach England! We had seven hundred horses on board, and seven hundred seasick horses are not the most congenial steamer company.
We were very proud to be in England. We felt we were really in the war zone, and soon would be in the fighting. But it is a great mistake to think that when you sail from America you are going to burst right up to the front and go over the top at daybreak in the morning. The way to the war is long. There was more work and more training for us in England. At first we were sent to a very sandy camp near Folkestone and from there to a very muddy camp somewhere else in the British Isles.
It was to this camp that the aeroplane came that stormy day in July. A week later my plans were in motion. I met a friend in the Royal Flying Corps and confided to him my ambition to fly. He assured me it would be easy to arrange a transfer, and instructed me as to what I should do. If I wanted to get to the front quickly I would have to go as an observer, meaning that when I flew over the German lines I would be the “passenger” in a two-seated plane and would do just what my title indicatedâobserve.
If one has a stomach for flying, it doesn't take long to become a fairly competent observer. There are observer schools where they teach you just what to observe and what not to observe. This is not a joke. If an observer lets his gaze wander to too many non-essentials he cannot do the real observing that is expected of him.
A few more days of cavalry mud and I was convinced that to be an observer in the air was better far than commanding a division on the ground. So I applied for my transfer, got it, and went to observing school. I loved those first few flights in an old training “bus.” I don't think she could make more than fifty miles an hour, and as for climbing, she struggled and shook and gasped like a freight train going up a mountain grade. But it was thrilling enough for me in those days, despite the fact that I soon began to envy the pilot who had all the fun of running the machine and could make it do a few lame and decrepit stunts.
After a few months I was graduated as an observer and was awarded my first insignia of the Flying Corpsâan O., with one outstretched wing attached to it, to be worn on the left breast of the tunic. I was rather proud of that one wing, but more determined than ever to win the double wings of a full-fledged pilot, and some day have a machine of my own.
In a very short time I was in France and ready for my first trip over the enemy lines. As I look back upon it now my life as an observer seems very tame. The work of the reconnaissance and artillery machines, as well as the photography and bombing planes, is very important. It goes on day and night, in good weather and bad, but all the times I was observing I wanted to be fighting. Whenever I would see one of the small, swift single-seater machines, which were just coming into vogue then for fighting purposes, my resolves to become a fighting pilot would grow stronger and stronger.
But far be it from me to detract one iota from the work of the observers. They take enormous risks and seldom get any of the glory. The men in the Corps recognise and appreciate the quality of their work, but the public at large rarely hears of them. The feats of the fighting planes form the spectacular and fascinating side of flying, but in a sense the daily drudgery of the bombers, the photographers and the observers is of even greater value to the fighting men of the ground.
It is no child's play to circle above a German battery observing for half an hour or more, with your machine tossing about in air tortured by exploding shells and black shrapnel puffballs coming nearer and nearer to you like the ever-extending finger tips of some giant hand of death. But it is just a part of the never ceasing war. In the air service this work is never done. Everywhere along the line the big guns wait daily for the wireless touch of aeroplanes to set them booming at targets carefully selected from a previous day of observation. Big shells cannot be wasted. The human effort involved in creating them and placing them beside the well-screened guns at the front is far too great for that.
Every shell must be watched. It is a startling thing, but true. When we possess the high ground and the ridges, it is not always necessary for the aeroplanes or the balloons to do the observing; the artillery observing officer can go forward on the ground and from a convenient tree-top, a bit of trench or a sheltering shell-hole see exactly what his guns are doing.
Every day there are hundreds of photographs to be taken so that the British map-makers can trace each detail of the German trench positions and can check up on any changes in the enemy zone. Information is to be gained at all times by all manner of reconnaissancesâsome of them carrying you fifty to sixty miles in the enemy country. Then, there is the fighting patrol work which goes on at all hours. The patrol is not on our side of the line. It is far over the German lines to keep the enemy machines from coming too close even to their own front trenches. Of course they do slip over occasionally, but more than often have to pay for their temerity.
The British infantrymanâMr. Tommy Atkinsâtakes it as a personal insult to have a Hun machine flying over him. It shouldn't be done, he says, and he grouses about it for weeks. How different with the German infantryman. Our planes are on top of them most of the time. The Huns used to write wrathful letters home about it. Sometimes our infantry has captured these letters before they were posted and they used to amuse us when we would get them in the daily army reports. I remember one particularly peevish old Boche who wrote last May:
“The air activity where we are is very great. The English will soon be taking the very caps off our heads.”
It is great fun to fly very low along the German trenches and give them a burst of machinegun bullets as a greeting in the morning, or a good-night salute in the evening. They don't like it a bit. But we love it; we love to see the Kaiser's proud Prussians running for cover like so many rats.
Whatever your mission, whether it be to direct artillery fire, to photograph, to bomb an ammunition dump or supply train, or just to look old Fritz over and see in a general way what he is up to, your first journey into Hunland is a memorable event in your life. I may say here in passing, that in the Flying Corps a German is seldom anything but a Hun, and the territory back of his lines is seldom anything but Hunland. Our general orders tell us to designate a Hun plane as an “enemy aircraft” in our reports, or “E. A.” for short, but nevertheless we always think of both the machine and the pilot as a Hun, and they will ever be.
If it is artillery work you are on, you have learned to send down signals to your battery by means of a wireless buzzer, and you are equipped with intricate zone maps that enable you to pick out all manner of fixed objects in the enemy's domain. You can locate his dugouts, his dumps, his lines of communication, his battery positions, his shelters behind the trees, and in a general way keep tabs on his “ways that are dark, and tricks that are vain.”
The day for your trip over happens to be one of wondrous sunshine and the clearest possible visibility. At every aerodrome behind the long British war-line the aeroplanes are out of their hangars, and are being tested with such a babel of noisy explosions that in moving about with a companion you have to fairly shout to make yourself heard. With your pilot you climb into the waiting two-seater. It has been groomed for the day and fussed over with as much care as a mother might bestow upon her only offspring starting for Sunday school.
“Contact, sir?” questions a mechanic standing at the propeller.
“Contact,” repeats the pilot.
There is a click of the electric ignition switch, the propeller is given a sharp swing over, and the engine starts with a roar. Once or twice there is a cough, but pretty soon she is “hitting” just right on every one of her multiple cylinders. It is all the mechanics can do to hold her back. Then the pilot throttles down to a very quiet little purr and signals to the attendants to draw away the chocks from under the wheels. Slowly you move forward under your own “steam” and “taxi” across the field rather bumpily, to head her into the wind. This accomplished, the throttle is opened wide, you rush forward with increasing speed, you feel the tail of the machine leave the ground, and then you go leaping into space.
You climb in great wide circles above the aerodrome, rig up the wireless, send a few test signals, get back the correct responses, and arrange your maps, while the pilot, with one eye on his instruments and the other on familiar landmarks, sets sail for the German lines, gaining height all the while. On the way to the lines you pass over your battery and send wireless word that you are ready to “carry on.” It is to be a day of “counter-battery” work, which means that some of our batteries are going to “do in” some of the Hun batteries. The modern guns of war are very temperamental and restless. They get tired of firing at infantry trenches and roads and things, and more often go to shooting at each other. In this you help them all you can.
And now you come to make the acquaintance of “Archie,” who will pursue you through all your flying days at the front. “Archie” is a presumptuous person and takes the liberty of speaking first.
“Woof! Woof!” he barks out. Thenâ“Hiss-s-s. Bang! Bang!” Two flashes of crimson fire, and two swirling patches of black smoke jump out of the air a hundred yards or so in front of you.
The experienced pilot swerves a little, neatly avoids the next volley which breaks far to your right. “Archie” keeps barking at you for quite a while and you seem to be leaving a perfect trail of diffusing black smoke balls in your wake. The pilot looks back at you and grins. He wonders if you have the “wind up”âarmy talk for being scared to death. It isn't any disgrace to get the “wind up” at the war, and there are few of us who can truthfully say we haven't had a queerish sort of feeling every now and then.
“Archie,” of course, is an anti-aircraft cannon. How the airmen first happened to name him “Archibald” I do not know; it was when we got to know him better, and fear him less, that we began to call him “Archie.” With “Archie” it is the old story of familiarity breeding contempt, but of late the German “Archie” family has multiplied to such an extent as to almost make it dangerous to go visiting across the Hun lines. The German shrapnel shells are nearly always mixed with high-explosives. They are very noisy, but most of the time your engine is making such clatter that the explosive efforts to wing you in flight go entirely unnoticed.
Leaving the border-guarding “Archies” far behind, you fly on until you pick up the four mounds that indicate the German battery position. You fly rather low to get a good look at it. The Huns generally know what your coming means and they prepare to take cover. You return a little way toward your own lines and signal to your battery to fire. In a moment you see the flash of a big gun. Then nothing seems to happen for an eternity. As a matter of fact twenty to thirty seconds elapse and then fifty yards beyond the German battery you see a spurt of grey-black earth spring from the ground. You signal a correction of the range. The next shot goes fifty yards short. In artillery language you have “bracketed” your target. You again signal a correction, giving a range just in between the first two shots. The next shell that goes over explodes in a gunpit.
“Good shooting,” you signal to the battery, “carry on.” This particular battery is silenced for good and all. “Archie” tries for you again as you return across the lines, but his range finding is very bad today. You salute your battery as you sail over, then land a few minutes later at the aerodrome well satisfied with your three hours' work.