The Lafayette Escadrille takes its first official combat flight today, over the Vosges front. James McConnell has published a combined memoir and collection of letters; his memoir suggests he was up with the first flight, while his letters imply otherwise. Anyway, whenever he did eventually go up:
Never having flown over this region before, I was afraid of losing myself. Therefore, as it is easier to keep other airplanes in sight when one is above them, I began climbing as rapidly as possible, meaning to trail along in the wake of my companions. Unless one has had practice in flying in formation, however, it is hard to keep in contact. The air was misty and clouds were gathering. Ahead there seemed a barrier of them. Although as I looked down the ground showed plainly, in the distance everything was hazy.
Forging up above the mist, at 7,000 feet, I lost the others altogether. Even when they are not closely joined, the clouds, seen from immediately above, appear as a solid bank of white. The spaces between are indistinguishable. It is like being in an Arctic ice field.
Good job, doofus. The cloudbanks finish, he finds his mates again, and the only other interesting thing that happens on patrol is taking German anti-aircraft fire. This is the first time he’s been higher than 7,000 feet; fortunately, his ears haven’t gone “pop”.
Two balls of black smoke had suddenly appeared close to one of the machines ahead of me, and with the same disconcerting abruptness similar balls began to dot the sky above, below, and on all sides of us. We were being shot at with shrapnel. It was interesting to watch the flash of the bursting shells, and the attendant smoke puffs–black, white, or yellow, depending on the kind of shrapnel used. The roar of the motor drowned the noise of the explosions. Strangely enough, my feelings about it were wholly impersonal.
It struck me as more amusing than anything else to watch the explosions and smoke. I thought of what a lot of money we were making the Germans spend. It is not often that they hit. The day before one of our machines had a part of the tail shot away and the propeller nicked, but that’s just bum luck. Two shells went off just at my height and in a way that led me to think that the third one would get me; but it didn’t. It’s hard even for the aviator to tell how far off they are.
There’s a reason that even today, air defence units in the British artillery are called “Cloudpunchers”; it’s what they spend most of their time doing.
Battle of Kondoa
Everything appears set for yet another military debacle in Africa today, but the men of the South African Horse who are supposed to be attacking are really in no condition to do anything. Which is certainly for the best, because that attack was only ever going to result in a little mild slaughter, and very probably would have ended up in Colonel von Lettow-Vorbeck taking fresh heart and launching fresh attacks. As it is, the South Africans decline to attack, the German commander instead continues dithering, and the Battle of Kondoa, such as it is, is effectively over. More tomorrow.
Unwell naval officers
After a bad bout of sciatica and stress, Admiral Hipper, commander of the German Navy’s battlecruisers, has been on a rest cure under the care of a good doctor. Today he returns to duty, having missed all of April’s fun. But he’s not the only naval commander suffering under the constant tension of waiting for the great battle. Admiral Jellicoe has been struggling with a variety of different health problems all war. He’s had one operation to soothe badly inflamed piles. Last September he developed serious dental problems and had two teeth extracted. Who knew that not doing any fighting could take such a toll?
At the summit, the Germans still held a redoubt which an Algerian division hadn’t been able to take. This was very bothersome for us. That division held the slope adjacent to the Forêt d’Avocourt, and our division held the slope facing the sinister Mort Homme, its grayish mass looming on our right, no less desolate than Hill 304.
The trench we had just occupied was about halfway up the slope. At its entrance, on what was left of a sign, I read the words “Rascas Trench.”
In reality this wasn’t much more than a miserable boyau dug, in one night, by troops who were hanging on there and who, the next day, were pulverized by howitzer fire. There, human flesh had been shredded, torn to bits. At places where the earth was soaked with blood, swarms of flies swirled and eddied. You couldn’t really see corpses, but you knew where they were, hidden in shell holes with a layer of dirt on top of them, from the wafting smells of rotten flesh.
There was all sorts of debris everywhere: broken rifles; gutted packs from which spilled out pages of tenderly written letters and other carefully guarded souvenirs from home, and which the wind scattered; crushed canteens, shredded musette bags—all labeled 125th Regiment. I was easily able to replace the munitions, rations, and tools which I had cast off during the march up to the front.
The sight of this gloomy tableau suggested to us that the next day, once the Boches spotted our presence there, they would pound us into marmalade.
The regiment accordingly spends all night digging. “Boyaux” are literally guts, intestines, hoses, tubes, etc; hopefully you can work out why the French use this name for the trenches that connect different lines with each other, what the BEF calls a communications trench.
After saddling up we started at 2:30pm and marched 12 miles. The road was in a very bad state being mostly dried mud in ridges. Every few hundred yards we came across some dead animal. We were the rear-guard. We marched till 7:30pm [and it was] pretty rough going in the dark. Wood and water were very scarce, but we managed to get a fire going and had some coffee and bully beef. Went to bed at 9. Slept comfortably behind a pack saddle.
Just don’t go leaving your overcoat behind again, dude.
I sometimes feel quite discouraged over my prospects for getting to the front. No officers have been asked for for a long while, and there is no telling when I shall be called on. It is, of course, a necessary and important work that I am engaged in, assisting in the training of troops for the front. But when one has supervised the training of scores of troops and seen them march off gaily with the bands playing, and everybody cheering them on their way to the boat at Folkestone, it is irksome to be kept waiting indefinitely oneself. However, there is nothing to do but to wait.
My chance is bound to come sooner or later, especially if the long-postponed “big drive” (which is at present expected [unofficially] in September) ever does come off. I have at least the satisfaction of knowing that I am not remaining here of my own free will. If I had known that my commission would mean this indefinite sojourn here, I should not have been so anxious for it.
If the war ends without my getting to France (which is too horrible to think of) I shall be extremely sorry that I ever accepted a commission.
Yeah, there had to be at least one “I do so hope I’ll get to the war before it’s over!” personal account from after the end of 1914. There you go. Be careful what you wish for, Mr Adventure.
Second Lieutenant Tolkien has for the past few weeks been taking an advanced signallers’ course. He’s passed as a very slightly below average student. Usually I sneer at people who say “those who can’t, teach”; but he’s also been passed as an instructor. There’s a general shortage of good instructors around. An instructor’s ticket might just keep him at home and safely out of the Big Push and free to write many happy poems and myths. He’s also going to be getting some very good news; his friend G.B. Smith will soon be coming home from the trenches on leave.
Actions in Progress
Support the blog! Buy the book! Revised and expanded versions of 1914 and 1915 are now available!