CHAPTER XII

THE WAR IN THE AIR

From the time we first caught sight of our guns shelling the German airplanes there was rarely a day that we did not see many of them, scouting, bombarding or fighting. At first, as mentioned elsewhere, they flew very low; within easy range of machine-gun fire, but soon began to climb to higher altitudes until, at the time of my departure, most of their work was done from a height of about twelve thousand feet.

There was one of our planes, piloted by a major. I never heard his name but he was known all up and down the line as “The Mad Major.” He was a pioneer in all the marvelous evolutions which now form an important part of the airman’s training. Side slips, spinning dives, tail slides; all were alike to him. He would go over the enemy lines and circle about, directing the fire of a battery, scorning to notice the fire of the “Archies,” (flyers’ name for anti-aircraft guns) and when that job was finished, would come home in a series of somersaults, loops and spins which made one dizzy to watch. He was a great joker and frequently, when the shell-bursts were unusually thick around him, would come tumbling down from the sky like a shot pigeon, only to recover at a height of several hundred feet and shoot off in a bee line for the air dome. I’ve no doubt that the enemy often thought they had “got him,” but at last reports he was still there.

I watched the planes for months without seeing one hit and had about concluded that, to make an Irish bull, the only safe place on earth was up in the air, when, one morning, hearing the now familiar “put-put-put” of machine guns up above, we looked up to see one of our large observing biplanes engaged with a very small but fast enemy plane. The boche had all the best of it and soon our plane was seen to slip and stagger and begin to descend. The little “wasp” came swooping down after it, firing all the while until, when a few hundred feet from the ground, our machine turned its nose straight downward and crashed to earth, well behind our lines, both occupants being instantly killed, or perhaps they had already been killed by the bullets. The German thereupon turned and was soon back over his own territory. That same afternoon, another of our machines was shot down, apparently by the same man, just opposite our position, inside the German lines.

Shortly after this, when back in reserve, we watched another fight directly over our heads. This was a pitiful tragedy. One of England’s best and most famous flyers, Captain Saunders, had been over the German lines and had engaged and brought down an enemy and then, having exhausted his ammunition, started back “home” for more, but encountered a fast-flying boche who immediately attacked him. Being unable to return the fire, he tried every trick known to the birdman to escape but without avail. He came lower and lower in his evolutions and finally settled into a wide and sweeping spiral. The boche did not come very low as several machine guns and “Archies” opened on him. The other plane came slowly down in its perfect spiral course and, noticing that the engine was not running, we thought the aviator was intending to make a landing in a large open field toward which he was descending, but when the spiral continued until the tip of one wing touched the ground and crumpled up we knew there was something wrong and ran to the spot, not more than one hundred yards from where we were standing. We got the Captain out and found that he had been shot in the head but was still conscious. He died within a short time.

Other of our aviators who had witnessed his first fight furnished the beginning of the story and we could see that in the second engagement he never fired a shot, and every one of his magazines was empty. I examined them myself.

The large, sausage-shaped observation balloons sometimes afford a little diversion. When we were at Dranoutre one of them used to hang over our billeting place. One day an enterprising Hun came flying across and endeavored to attack it but was driven off by two of our planes.

Again, one of our balloons broke away in a strong wind and started toward Germany. Both the occupants of the basket made safe parachute descents with all their instruments and papers, but the balloon sailed swiftly away. Then the Germans opened on it with every gun in that sector. I feel sure that they fired at least two thousand shots at it. The air around was so filled with the smoke of shell-bursts that it was sometimes difficult to discern the balloon itself. It was late in the evening and the last we saw of the “sausage” it was still traveling eastward, apparently unhit. The joke of the whole thing is that the balloon was never hit and, the wind veering during the night, it returned and came down inside our lines within a few miles of its starting place.

On two occasions Zeppelins came over our lines, evidently returning from raids across the Channel. One time it was night and we could only hear, but not see the air-ship. The other time, during the St. Eloi fight, I saw one, just at daybreak. It was in plain sight but well over the German lines and headed east. No attempt was made to do any bombing of our positions by the Zeppelins although we occasionally received visits from bombing airplanes. The night before I left France, the last time, they dropped several bombs on the village of Ecoviers where I was staying. The only result was the killing of two civilians, the wounding of several others and the wrecking of one of the few whole houses in the town which had often been a victim of shells. Not a soldier was injured.

You have, no doubt, read of cases where bombs have been dropped on or near hospitals, ambulances and so on, and possibly you think that this was intentional on the part of the boche. If so you flatter him. This bomb dropping is, at best, very uncertain business and it would be well-nigh impossible for the most expert flyer to aim at and hit any single building. The fact is that, in nearly every town and city behind the lines, hospitals, ammunition stores and billets are located in close proximity to one another, with probably a railway running near by, so that any attempt to bomb the really important “military” points will necessarily jeopardize the homes of non-combatants–including hospitals. Even the Zeppelins, which are much more stable than an airplane, have never been able to place their bombs with any degree of accuracy.

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