DENDERBECK, 1915

Book II of the World War One Series
Fiction: war/adventure/historical romance


 

The war that everyone thought would be over by Christmas 1914 is dragging on into its second bloody year. Germany, eager to break its enemies’ will, is converting all its Zeppelins to bombers and sending them over English cities. One raid targets a factory worker and her friends, and she vows revenge. Meanwhile, two idealistic pilot-surveyors in the American west decide to ignore their President's neutral stand. Soon, they too are personally involved with the Zeppelins.

In Flanders, in a place called Denderbeck, they all get their opportunity to fight back.

 

1915 Great War Facts

1915 was the first full year of World War I. The first Zeppelin raid on England took place in January. More than 50 bombing raids on the UK followed. The civilian casualties made the Zeppelins an object of hatred, widely dubbed “baby-killers.”

Ypres was a strategic town in the part of Western Belgium still called Flanders, and it had endured the First Battle of Ypres, during which the Germans narrowly failed to take it on their way to the sea,  the previous autumn.  The Second Battle of Ypres took place in the spring, the first time poison gas was used on a large scale. Losses are estimated at 69,000 Allied troops against 35,000 German, the difference due to the use of gas.

Meanwhile, the Dardanelles Campaign was taking place on the Gallipoli peninsula, and lasted from April to the following January. The British and French wanted to secure a sea route to Russia, and launched a naval campaign to force a passage through the Dardanelles. After the naval operation, an amphibious landing attempted to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. For the Allies it was an abject failure, with 252,000 casualties and losses, becoming one of the greatest Ottoman victories of the war.  

Sample chapter: © David Andrew Westwood 2013, all rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission from the author.

12. Clayton.

After breakfast the trainees gather outside the mess. Small patches of sunlight race each other across the turf. Rain clouds bunch in the distance. The aerodrome’s windsock stays mainly horizontal, only occasionally nodding for brief moments toward the ground.

The major Clayton and Emmett met on arrival at the training center now strides up, claps his hands as if with a class of disruptive children, and looks down his long nose at them. “Good morning, gentlemen. I am your commanding officer. My name is Major Hilary Tyndall…”

“Since when are fellas named Hilary?” Emmett whispers.

“Today you will be experiencing what it is like to fly each of these aeroplanes.” He waves a long arm to include a couple of freshly-painted Nieuport 10s, long Avro 504s, and a brand-new Bristol Scout. But by far the most numerous are strange contraptions with an uncovered fuselage, making them look incomplete, and a long central skid sticking out the front. They look like the original Wright Flyer. “Each has its own limitations, its own little peccadillos, and it is important that you feel confident flying different kinds of machines. At the front, supplies are spasmodic and varied. You will never know exactly what you will be asked to fly, nor how long each of your machines will hold up under battle conditions.”

“You scout pilots — you’ll be in the ‘Rumptys,’ the Maurice Farman ‘Longhorns,’ for now. These are our training aeroplanes, and they’re a little tricky to control. Top speed of ninety-five miles an hour, a stalling speed of thirty-five. My advice is to stay low so you won’t have far to fall. And for God’s sake watch out for the telegraph wires. You pilot-observer teams will fly the Avro 504 two-seater. And remember — the observer is in charge.”

Emmett tries to contain his mirth but fails. “Hear that, Clay? You’ll be working under me. My chauffeur.” “

So why does that matter to you, Emmett? You’re a socialist, remember? We’re all equals. No bosses.”

“Quiet!” Tyndall snaps. “Familiarize yourself with your machine’s controls. Take it up, move away from the field at least a mile so if you come down you don’t come down on me, and experiment. Push yourself, push your aeroplane, but not too much, eh? We have a few weeks before those of you who are fit to do so will be sent off to the front. Meanwhile, let’s all try to stay alive, shall we? Jolly good. Get dressed.”

Clayton looks up at his friend and soon-to-be flying partner. “Sure you want to do this, Em? You’re not a flyer.”

Emmett’s mouth sets in a grim line for a second, then splits apart in a grin that reveals one crooked tooth. “I’m sure, Clay. I been takin’ my machine gun classes, my photography, my morse, my navigatin’, and now I’m ready to go up.”

“No shame in backing out now, y’know.”

Emmett frowns. “Bullshit, Clay, ’course there is. And I ain’t. I didn’t come all this way to sit an’ watch in the bleachers.”

“All right, then.”

They amble over to the dressing hut. It is cold, the fresh wind from the Atlantic whipping away any vestiges of the warm beds they have so recently left, but the experienced pilots — and they are all deemed experienced now — know that this cold is nothing compared to that of thin upper air.

Inside, a corporal has been assigned to help. “First,” he tells them, “the silk underwear.”

Experienced though they may be, the new pilots are still callow enough to be embarrassed at stripping naked in front of one another. The English boys seem to be a little more comfortable with this, perhaps because of football and rugby teams’ changing rooms and private school dormitories, but the Americans are self-conscious.

“Over that, the woolen. Now this string vest and silk undershirt. Rightio — now the army shirt.” They pull on the long-sleeved khaki wool blouse.

Emmett is already beginning to perspire from the exertion.

“Slow down, sirs, slow down. If you sweat now, it’ll stay in your clothes and freeze, and I guarantee you won’t like that. Ready? Next, the two pullovers.”

“Damn, Clay — where we goin’? The North Pole?”

The room seems to shrink as movements become limited from the bundling of limbs.

“Then this suit.” They struggle into one-piece padded overalls and fumble with the buttons.“Before you do them up all the way, take some newspapers from this pile and stuff them inside.”

Emmett shakes his big head in wonder. “What am I, some kinda hobo?”

“No talking, please, sirs. Now the boots.”

The pilots fumble in the pile of fleece-lined thigh boots, trying to find a matched pair that fits.

“Good. And the silk gloves, then these gauntlets over the top.”

Emmett sniffs the leather suspiciously. “What these made from, corp?”

“Muskrat. Now you have to sign for it all.”

Clumsily, they clutch pencils and scribble their signatures on the forms marked “FS20” on the small table in the corner.

The corporal hands Emmett a long undyed silk scarf. “Here, wind this around your neck and tuck it in.”

Now they have to deal with the evil-smelling tub by the door, and the private in charge of smearing its contents over the pilots’ and observers’ faces.

“God in heaven,” Clayton says in horror, “what’s this?”

“Whale oil, sir,” the private explains.

Another private hands them a silk skullcap. Emmett sniffs the fabric.

“I’d sure like to meet the gal who gave up her stockings for these.”

The man helps them on with a woolen balaclava helmet, oval holes for the eyes, nostrils and mouth, and then over that a rank leather face mask.

“I hate to ask, but what is—?”

“Dog skin, sir. From China, they tell me.”

Then it is time for the goggles, fur-lined sponge rubber with green-tinted lenses. After this they waddle like teddy bears over to the CO’s hut for a briefing.

“Met office says storm over Ireland moving our way,” Major Tyndall tells them, “but clearish here until late afternoon. I popped up to check a few minutes ago and they seem to be right. There may be a few rain squalls, and watch the crosswinds when landing, but you’ll have most of the day to practice. Remember to spread out. You scout pilots stay under five thousand, you two-seater chappies stay above.”

Now Clayton and Emmett shuffle back out to the field and approach their dull brown biplane, its broad wings separated by what look like pairs of baseball bats, its fabric sides painted with the blue, white and red roundel of the Royal Flying Corps.

“Sheeit,” Emmett says, “they painted us with a target.”

“Watch your big feet getting in, Em. Stay away from the wings.”

Emmett begins to fold his long legs into the rear cockpit. “Just take it easy, OK, Clay? I already lost my sister.”

“Don’t worry. I’m planning on going home again after all this. With you.”

Each wingtip is held by a young mechanic, and a third is draped over the fuselage in front of the tail, his weight needed to keep the craft from moving prematurely.

The chief mechanic stands in front of the plane, looking up at Clayton. “Ready, sir?”

“Ready.”

“Switch off, sir?”

“Switch off.”

The mechanic turns the huge propeller back and forth to a clunking sound, as the fuel is sucked into the cylinders. He judges by ear when the mixture of gasoline and air is right, and when he is satisfied he shouts, “Contact, sir?”

Clayton flicks both ignition switches and calls back, “Contact!” He pushes the fine adjustment lever all the way back and opens the throttle halfway. The mechanic, meanwhile, is giving the propeller an almighty counterclockwise heave.

The engine catches with a splutter and cloud of blue exhaust, and the blades become a blur. The flimsy plane strains forward, the hair of the mechanic on the fuselage almost torn out of his scalp as he slides off, the grass flattened for yards behind. Clayton, heart thudding, turns to Emmett, who gives the thumbs up, and then yells, “Chocks away!”

They bump across the cindered runway and then turn into the wind, westward. In just a few yards the comma-like tail is up, and after a few more the craft is airborne. Clayton remembers to compensate for the rotary engine’s tendency to roll to the right, but he forgets for a moment that rotaries are lubricated with castor oil. He is promptly reminded when his face and goggles are spattered with brown drops that taste, when they inevitably get into his mouth and nose, awful.

The earth drops away. The Avro begins to climb in a slow and stately chandelle up above the green fields. Around them other aircraft scatter in different directions.

The long upward spiral gives Clayton plenty of time to think. Think of Cassie, of home. He thinks of heaven, and if it exists whether she is there, looking down at her brother and boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend. He finds it only natural to wax philosophical when freed of the weight of the world’s sins and gravity, heading for its stained glass ceiling.

After half an hour of steady climbing, the air chilling six degrees every thousand feet, Clayton’s altimeter reads 11,000. They have ascended into a patch of clear sky, a kind of high meadow surrounded by clouds in every shade of gray and ivory, their edges filigrees of vapor that catch the fleeting sunlight.

“Hoooee!” Emmett yells behind him, as they level off and float, seemingly motionless, in the tenuous air.

“How you feeling?” Clayton asks him.

“My head feels too small. An’ my teeth hurt.”

“It’s your fillings. You’ll get used to it.”

Clayton adjusts his controls and looks around. During his accumulated hours of flying he has witnessed nothing remotely like the view now spread below him. By some strange trick of atmospheric distortion it appears they are suspended not above a sphere but a bowl, and the distant horizon seems to curve up above them in a rim.

Below is the island of Great Britain, a muted mosaic of little irregularly-shaped fields in all the greens of nature’s palette. Cities of the North and Midlands, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, are shrouded in gray chiffon scarves of smoke that trail off to the east. Fading away to the north is Scotland, its snow-capped highlands glinting bright in patches of sunlight.

Away to the west, puddles of mist fill the valleys of Wales like spilled milk. Beyond them Ireland is under a thick shadow of gloom cast by the storm that will later reach England, gray veils of rain slanting down to its surface.

Over to the east, in the North Sea and the Channel, tiny toy ships leave white chevrons of wake. And beyond them… the war. Gashed across what must be Flanders and France is a gray and gangrenous wound of pocked land, puffs of exploding artillery shells visible even from this altitude.

That is where they are heading soon, and Clayton twists in his cockpit to point it out to his observer, but Emmett has already seen. Behind their goggles their eyes meet for a second of understanding. They may be away from the battle for now, remote and as safe as a biplane can ever be, but soon they will be in it, among it. Within reach, like the poor infantry, of its tentacles of death.

Clayton feels an ache deep inside him, an emotion at once too complex and too simple to name, an emotion of the soul, independent of his carcass. Though he considers himself irreligious, he feels as if God has nudged him to claim his attention.

And God has it. What has he gotten himself into? This is no magic lantern of romanticized soldiery, no illustrated magazine article about heroism and sacrifice. Laid out there to his right is the real McCoy — mankind at its worst. At his height humans not only seem at the scale of insects, they appear to behave like them — mindless, savage. All love of man leaves him, replaced by a deep dread.

The magic of the moment shattered, Clayton pushes his stick forward.

“I’m going down a couple of thousand,” he yells. “Get the camera ready — I’ll tell you when to start.”

The Avro begins to slide down the air, the ground seeming to come up to meet it and its details becoming clearer. Down there is a doll-scaled church, there a horse-drawn barge on a canal, there the polka dots of sheep clustering in one corner of a field, and a minuscule dog corralling them.

He levels off and yells “OK,” and a glimpse over his shoulder shows Emmett concentrating on the plate camera. “Remember — don’t take your gloves off!”

After five minutes of even flying, Clayton yells again. “I have to test the limitations of the plane. I’m going to try some stalls and turns. Hold on and don’t fall out.”

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Emmett assures him. “I’m jammed in here tight as a tick in a dog’s ear.”

Clayton nudges his stick forward again for a few moments, and then pulls it back to intentionally climb at too steep an angle. The Avro shudders, hangs in the air, and the propeller stops. The plane’s heavy nose demurs to gravity, dipping abruptly. There is an awful, gut-dropping silence, except for the wind in the rigging, which begins to change from a whistle to a scream.

The green fields begin to rush toward them. Clayton knows he does not yet have enough airspeed to pull out of the dive, and he waits until they are vertical. “Aw sheeit,” he hears Emmett say, his voice cracking like an adolescent’s, as they plummet steeply. Then, the hard ground and certain death seemingly within reach, Clayton pulls back on the stick and the plane levels out. The wings creak under the strain, and stories of wings dropping off surface in his memory, but to his relief, and he presumes Emmett’s too, they stay on.

“Let’s try an Immelmann,” Clayton yells. He crawls up to five thousand, looks around to make sure they have room to maneuver, and then dips the aircraft downward at a steep angle. Then he pulls up as if beginning a loop, turns over sideways so that the right-hand wingtips are pointed down, and flips back the way they had come. It is all over in a few seconds.

“Hooee!” Emmett comments, relieved that they are no longer stalling and diving. Now it is his turn to practice his own skills. “I’m gonna test the gun now.” He clicks a drum cartridge onto his Lewis and pulls back the cocking lever. He eases it around its rail to point away to the left and yells, “Firing now!”

The biplane shudders as Emmett rips off a few dozen rounds. Clayton can see the stream of bullets as it arcs away, and wishes they had something solid to shoot at to judge the aim. He tries to imagine a German Fokker Eindecker whizzing by, and trying to aim at and hit it. How good a gunner will Em be? And how will they both react to action? Will either of them prove themselves a coward?

Clayton swings the plane around, testing its rudder, its ailerons. He only ever feels right when flying. For him, earth is the unnatural medium. He must have been a bird in a previous life. But he has a responsibility for someone else now, for his observer. In the upside-down hierarchy of the RFC Emmett may be in charge of their mission, but he is still in charge of the plane. If I can only keep us alive, he thinks, and get us home undamaged, then I will have done my duty.

Landing the Avro is tougher than a single-seater. As he descends to the airfield he sees another trainee in a Farman misjudge his landing angle, speed, and height, and pancake abruptly onto the ground. The undercarriage is driven up into the body, the wings collapse, the nose buries itself in the grass, and the propeller flies off in pieces. After this sobering display Clayton very carefully eases their plane down, pulls the nose slightly up, and drops to the grass with hardly a bump.

Emmett scrambles awkwardly out of the plane, kisses the ground, and throws up.