Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 17

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Fighting the Flying Circus by Eddie Rickenbacker
Chapter 17
Chapter 17 - A Perplexing Bank of Fog

THE heavy firing that was now so apparent to me had awakened Major Atkinson in his bed at headquarters, which was in a building adjoining us. He had immediately called us up to order us to take a patrol over the lines at the first break of day and ascertain what this unusual demonstration could mean. I looked at my watch. It was then just five minutes past three. In another hour it would be light enough to leave the field.

Running over to Lieutenant Meissner's billet, I roused him out and then went on to waken the three or four pilots in his flight. In ten minutes all five of us were in the kitchen stirring up the cooks to faster efforts in the heating of coffee and toast. I had already telephoned the hangars and ordered all our machines out on the field in full readiness.

At a quarter to four we were in our machines and were leaving the field. Two other pilots had joined us. It was just beginning to grow light enough to make out the tails of our machines ahead of us.

I directed Lieutenant Meissner to have three of his pilots fly at an altitude of 5,000 feet, and for him to take the other two pilots in his formation and fly below them at 1,500 feet above ground. I, myself, was to keep as close above the contour of the ground as possible and see what the Germans were doing in their first and second line trenches.

With all details of our mission fully understood, we set off and made directly for the north, where the heaviest shooting seemed to be going on. As we neared the lines I could see the constant flashing of the German guns in the darkness. The greatest activity appeared to be just half-way between Pont-à-Mousson and St. Mihiel. Here in the vicinity of Seicheprey the country lies comparatively flat between the mountains which border the Moselle on the one hand and the Meuse on the other. I knew this locality well and could fly at only a hundred feet from the ground without fear of striking against some mountain side in the darkness.

The Huns were doing most of the firing. This was plainly evident from the continuous flashes. The noise of the exploding shells was deadened by the roaring of my aeroplane motor. As I neared the center of all this excitement I sheered off to the north and flew down low enough over the German trenches to permit the tornado of German shells to pass well over my head. Along this course I followed the entire length of the trenches, back and forth, back and forth, until I was convinced that there were no massed bodies of enemy troops waiting for the barrage to cease before they poured forth over the top.

The more I studied the situation the more puzzled I became. I saw the German shells bursting close behind our lines. From the nature of the bursts I knew they were high-explosive shells. This was the usual preliminary to a sudden rush over the top, yet there were no German troops there waiting for the moment of attack.

The whole vicinity of the German front was covered with a dense fog. The intermittent gun-flashes showed but dimly through this mist. Off to the east and the west, where the Meuse and Moselle rivers might be supposed to emit a fog of this sort, the landscape was clear. It was all very puzzling to me.

On each of my excursions back and forth over the German trenches I piqued down from my low level and fired long bursts into their lines with my two machine-guns. I could see my flaming tracer bullets cutting through the night and burying themselves within the enemy's trenches. It was still too dark to distinguish the ground at any distance from the trenches, but I was positive that if any considerable number of men were there they were well under cover.

At last I ran out of ammunition. I decided to fly home, make a report of what I had seen and replenish with fuel and cartridges.

I telephoned my report to Major Atkinson while the mechanics were looking after my 'bus, and in ten minutes I was back again for the region of Seicheprey. By this time the first streaks of dawn were lighting up the ground. While still a great distance away I again noticed the strange clinging bank of fog which began at the German line and covered a space about three miles east and west and half a mile deep. On the American side of the lines the ground was entirely free from this mist.

As I again approached the German trenches I saw more activity there. I dived upon them, letting go long bursts from my guns. Instantly they disappeared from view. It was a very enjoyable game I had as long as any heads remained in view, but after one or two dashes along this front I could find no more targets. The Huns had retired to their underground dugouts.

Many a German fled in terror before my approach that morning. I found myself chuckling with delight over the consternation I single-handed was spreading throughout that German camp. Coming down immediately over the trenches, I would observe a group of soldiers standing outside a dugout, all leveling their rifles at me. With a sudden swerve I would bring them before my sights, and long before they could all cram themselves within the opening I would have a hundred bullets inside their group and would be beyond their reach. I could imagine the terror and helplessness my single presence inspired among the slow moving troops below. I was having the time of my life.

One particular battery of 77's lay a mile back of the lines and seemed to be having a particularly jolly party. Their flashes almost doubled the other batteries in rapidity. I determined to fly over and pay them a visit, since none of the infantrymen seemed to care to stick up their heads in the trenches. Accordingly I turned a bit to the rear and came in upon the battery from behind and at about one hundred feet above the ground.

As I neared them I saw six or eight three-inch guns standing side by side in a little clearing, the line of gunners all rushing swiftly to and fro, picking up and passing forward the fifteen-pound shells. The guns were firing at the rate of almost one shot each second. A continuous flash could be seen from this little battery, so rapidly did the gunners work. In a twinkling after my first shot the whole battery became silent.

Pointing my nose directly at the end of the line, I pressed my triggers and raked the whole line before straightening out my aeroplane. Then with a quick bank I came about and repeated the performance. Before I had started back every man had fled for shelter and not a gun was firing. I circled about again and again, chasing the scattered groups of gunners to their respective dugouts and firing short bursts at their heels as they fled. It was the most amusing little party I had ever attended. I couldn't help wondering what kind of reception I would get if a sudden panne dropped me within their clutches.

One more dash at the next battery and my ammunition was again exhausted. I returned to the aerodrome, where I found that Lieutenant Meissner and his pilots had returned without anything new to report. At seven-thirty we all reassembled for breakfast. We were still discussing the extraordinary episode of the morning and had none of us arrived at any reasonable explanation for the enemy artillery activity when a visitor was announced for breakfast. He came in and introduced himself as Frank Taylor, representing the United Press Association. We welcomed him heartily and began plying him with questions as to the latest news.

He told us he was out of touch with events lately himself for he had been up all night with the American Gas Organization, who had just been experimenting with their first gas attack on the German trenches north of Seicheprey! Then we all shouted! The whole circus became as clear as daylight to us.

The attack had not been announced generally and Major Atkinson himself was in ignorance as to its hour for demonstration. The Germans, awakened by the fumes at three o'clock this morning, had very naturally imagined that it would precede a sudden attack by our troops. Consequently they ordered out all their available artillery to shell the advanced positions of the Americans, thinking they would destroy our masses of troops in waiting.

The fact was that none of our troops were there, but were soundly sleeping in their beds until the terrible uproar of the German guns compelled them to stay awake. The whole gas attack was but an experiment by our forces, and so far as I have learned was the first time gas was used in war by our American troops.

This cleared up the whole mystery for the Toul aerodrome and we made a particularly merry breakfast over it. Personally I would have refused a great deal in exchange for the morning's experience, for I had felt the gratification of knowing I was putting to flight some hundreds of the enemy soldiers while enjoying the choicest hour of hunting I had ever experienced.

Mr. Taylor invited me to accompany him to Baccarat, a small metropolis of that region of France, lying between Lunéville and Dijon. As we passed Lunéville and proceeded eastward I again noticed the unusual tranquillity of this sector of the war zone. The British Independent Air Force had its hangars of large Handley-Page Bombing Machines along this road. These huge aeroplanes carried bombs of high explosive weighing 1650 pounds each. Nightly these squadrons flew over to the Rhine cities and laid their eggs in and about these railroad centers and factory localities. To my amazement I discovered that this British aerodrome was but twelve miles behind the lines. The German Rumplers came overhead every morning and photographed the field, but no attempts were made to destroy the Handley-Page machines by either shelling from the lines or by aeroplane raids. The Germans are a funny people!

As Mr. Taylor and I were scudding along over these smooth roads through the forests of the Vosges we noticed a family of wild boars rooting in the edge of a field. We backed up the car and I asked Mr. Taylor to be good enough to wait for me a minute while I went over and picked up one of the little pigs for a mascot for our squadron. He very kindly complied. I did not notice the expression on his face until I returned a few minutes later.

Armed with my walking stick I made a detour, so as to come upon the enemy and surprise them from their rear. My plans were to make a sudden attack and divert one of the youngsters from the formation, then close in upon him and complete the capture. My tactics were unusually successful and I bore down upon my prize and was just stooping over to pick him up when I heard a rush from the rear.

I hesitated for the fraction of a second. Old Mother Boar was about ten yards abaft my stern and was piquing upon me at some sixty miles per hour. Further delay upon my part would have been a mistake. I performed a renversement, put on the sauce and zoomed for the roadway at sixty-one miles per hour. Amid the enthusiastic cheers of Mr. Taylor, I successfully escaped the charge of the enraged enemy by putting myself through two or three virages en route to the car. The beast rushed by me, snorting fire from both forward guns and covering me with a shower of dirt from her hoofs.

I finally made a leap for the running-board of the car, minus my walking stick and a good deal of breath.

"What's the trouble, Rick?" inquired Taylor, enthusiastically. "Did you come back to tell me something?"

"Yes," I panted. "I looked them over and decided they were too young to be torn from their mother. Let's go on."

"But you forgot your stick," retorted Taylor. "I'll wait for you while you go back and get it."

"Oh, never mind the stick," I answered. " It didn't belong to me anyway."

A few weeks later I had an opportunity to see how the French sportsmen proceed in their wild boar hunts. The Mayor of a little French village invited several of us to come over one Sunday morning and take part in the hunt.

By nine o'clock there were fully a hundred persons gathered together in the little plaza facing the village church. About twenty carried guns; the balance were duly sworn in by the Mayor to act as beaters-up. It was a very impressive ceremony and the whole village stood by to witness the scene.

After walking a mile or two through the woods we were halted. The Mayor addressed us and gave explicit orders for further proceedings.

There was one old boar in these woods, he informed us, who had now three dum-dum bullets inside his anatomy. He was a very tough and very dangerous customer. The Mayor strongly advised us to first pick out a convenient tree and take our positions in its immediate vicinity. If the boar came along we could take a shot at him, or not, just as we individually happened to view the situation. Personally he advised us to climb the tree and let some other fellow do the shooting.

The beaters-up, who were all standing at attention, thereupon saluted and disappeared within the forest. We lighted our pipes and measured the distance to the adjacent overhanging limbs. For an hour nothing happened to relieve the monotony. Some one made the brilliant suggestion that we take our cartridges out of our rifles and make dum-dum bullets out of them. This we all did, thereby regaining something of our former jaunty composure.

At last we heard hoots and yells from the forest. The party of beaters-up were advancing towards us, beating the saplings with their sticks and uttering strange cries. I took a last glance at my tree overhead and then crouched down to have a look between the tree trunks at the approaching enemy. It was a strange sight.

There, not fifty feet in front of me, I saw a motley gathering of animals of all descriptions. Red foxes, black foxes, wildcats, two or three innocent-eyed deer, a number of partridges and grouse and quite a flock of wild boars stood stock-still, gazing back at me. Not fifty feet in their rear came the village boys, hooting and yelling to let us know where not to shoot. They were bringing us our game along ahead of them like a flock of barnyard fowls!

It seemed quite impossible to fire in that direction without inflicting casualties among the beaters-up. I therefore continued staring at the animals, until they tired of posing for me and turned their procession en masse towards the south.

One of the Frenchmen shot a fox that Sunday morning and we all returned to the village tavern for a glass of wine, highly delighted with the successful day's sport. The Mayor especially congratulated us upon our fortunate escape from the savage wild boar.

Upon my suggesting to His Honor that his beaters-up had occupied a somewhat dangerous position at the crucial moment for firing, he shook his head sorrowfully and replied:

"Yes, it is too true! They are unfortunately wounded at times." Then clearing up his countenance, with a gleam of pride he added:

"But they are good boys. They have accustomed themselves to the danger and they do not shrink."

And thus is the great national sport of the Vosges carried on. Upon the occasional victory over the toothsome wild boar of the forest a triumphant procession follows behind the champion, who strides gallantly through the village street with his trophy hanging head down over his back. If the village is not too densely populated every inhabitant within it dines upon a delicious meat that night.