Memoirs & Diaries - The Casualty

Members of the British Royal Flying Corps It happened over Ypres.

I was a member of a Royal Air Force unit, nineteen years of age.  The infantryman was one in a tiny circle of pals, each circle but one wavelet in a huge sea.  His was a hard life - mud and blood and losing chums, and ever conscious of being but a cog in a mighty and soulless machine.

We, on the other hand, were neither wavelets nor cogs.  We were it.  Our squadron was, like a battleship, a unit in itself, and every individual was important.

We were a small family of officers living in decent huts, partaking of decent meals, sleeping in clean pyjamas, and generally living in comfort for eighteen hours of the twenty-four.  In the remaining six we might plunge into the welter of war in which the infantryman lived, but we did our particular job in a clean atmosphere in a clean way, and when we killed or were killed it was done in that same inevitable and highly respectable manner.

The infantryman looked up from his rat hole and said, with his hair on end, that he wouldn't have our risky job for anything, while we looked down on his muddy wastes and said, "Poor devils!" (or words to that effect), and flew home to a hot dinner served on a clean tablecloth while he cut his fingers opening bully-beef tins.

The family were, of course, occasionally bereaved, and we talked rather awkwardly at dinner and avoided each other's eyes, and were relieved when, at the end of the meal, the O.C. briefly called us to silent remembrance.  But coffee, smokes, and piano quickly saved us from overmuch thought.

When these bereavements became frequent, we had to receive others into the family, and every few days there would arrive a number of strangers looking very self-conscious and humble, as well they might before us hardened warriors of two or three months' experience!

Only a few hours after their arrival each one was instructed to report to a senior pilot, and the process of initiation began.  The observers had revision of the mysteries of maps, machine guns, cameras, and many other strange things with which these poor benighted ones deal, while the pilots, to whose skill (or lack of it) the former entrust their lives, were told to memorise the map of the sector until they knew it better than anything else on earth, and then were taken to "have a look at the War".

I was a senior pilot of about ten weeks' standing, and to me there was detailed a new pilot, a youngster of about twenty-one (two years older than I!!) and, after a serious conversation on what London looked like when he left and what "shows" were running at the time, we agreed to go and have a peep at the front line.

2Lt William Rhodes-Moorhouse, first RFC VCMy machine stood waiting; we put a couple of bombs in "for luck", and in a few minutes were heading eastward towards that horror of mud and waterlogged trenches.

We soon caught sight of the flooded area which had been the Yser Canal, and then of that dark blotch called Ypres and, being now about 10,000 feet up, I beckoned my "pupil" to lean over from his seat behind me, and, shutting off the engine and falling into a glide, I pointed out to him the various beauty spots of the district, Ypres, Poperinghe, the Menin Road, etc., yelling the names at the top of my voice, lest the fierce wind should snatch them out of hearing.  He nodded, glancing at his map, and I saw with joy that he was keen.

For some little time we flew up and down the line (but keeping on our own side of it!), waved our hands to some kite-balloon folk who occupied lofty positions in a row behind Ypres, while at the same time I took the opportunity to indicate the cables mooring the balloons, for it is not wise to collide with them.

Then came the second stage of the initiation - to go over the line and receive a baptism of fire from "Archie", the enemy anti-aircraft batteries.

There is an art in this game.  On a cloudy day one can hop in and out of the clouds, greatly to the annoyance of some Archie commander who, just when he has got range and direction and is about to let fly, finds that his bird has disappeared into a cloud.  He fills that cloud with H.E., but his quarry emerges from another near by with a gesture of derision which the gunners below may imagine, though cannot see.

On a sunny day, Archie is up early, for he knows that aircraft will be silhouetted against a blue sky.  Then the experienced pilot hops in and out of the sun, there being no clouds, while the Archie commander rubs his smarting eye and uses strong words.

Today favoured the latter game, which we played with zest for some little time.  Then, having carefully spotted the A.A. position, we got it carefully on our bomb sights, and sent our greetings in the form of the two bombs we had brought.

I was about to swing round and head for home and tea when I espied a spot on the horizon towards the south-east.  It might be an enemy raider coming to pounce on our helpless balloons, or it might be one of our own.  Anyway, we would see, and, pointing out my intention to my companion, we speeded off in pursuit.

We were in luck! From far off the shape of the aircraft showed its alien origin, and we began to prepare for chasing him home again.

RAF carrier pigeon with leg tube attachedFirst I pressed the trigger of my forward gun, which loyally answered with a rapid "Ta-ta-ta-ta", a noise which my companion told me afterwards, nearly made him jump overboard with fright.  I had forgotten him and he had forgotten my front gun!

Then quickly I beckoned him, quietened down the engine and shouted a series of instructions and, as the engine roared out again, I heard a few rounds fired from his rear gun and knew that all was well.

The next minute we had come to grips with the enemy, a wicked looking single-seater, much lighter and faster than us, and with every advantage except that his one gun fired only forwards, while, in addition to my similar gun, my companion had one on a swivel mounting which revolved easily and allowed him to fire in almost every direction.

Our plan of campaign, therefore, was that I should manoeuvre the machine so as to keep the enemy in a position where he would be a good target for the rear gunner, who could give all his attention to firing.

We circled round each other looking for an opening.  Then I suddenly reversed my direction, bringing the other alongside us, and within easy range where he would be simply raked from stem to stern, while his fixed forward gun pointed harmlessly away from us.  I waited to hear my companion's gun as he took advantage of the position, but not a sound came, and the next fraction of a second I was swinging round for dear life with the "Zip-zip!" of bullets round my ears.

The second's delay had given the other the chance he wanted, for he was now under our tail out of reach of both of our guns and it was some seconds more before I could shake him off.

However, I got him once more in a good position, waited for the sound of gun-fire, but again silence, and again I dived desperately out of a stream of bullets.

"Fire, you fool!" I yelled, though not a word could reach him, and I dare not turn round, while all the time the darting little wasp, who seemed aware of my plight, came buzzing behind and resisted all my efforts to avoid him.

RAF Squadron #1 at Ypres, July 1918There was only one thing left to do.  I must try to fight him off with my forward gun, and I turned to do so, when, wonder of wonders, I saw him fall into a steep dive and make for home, having seen a triangle of our machines appearing out of the blue.

And now for an explanation from this idiot behind!  I spun round angrily, but words were impossible.  He was sitting there strapped as usual to his seat, but with his face a mass of blood, while his gun hung uselessly from its mounting!

After a rapid spin to earth and a landing at the first favourable spot, he told me what had occurred.

We had not been hit by Archie's shrapnel.  I had seen him quite fit after that.  The disaster had befallen him before we engaged in the air duel.

It was that silence after the first gun-test which should have told its tale.  He had decided to test the gun-mount also, but, being accustomed to the poorly kept machines home, had expected to find it equally difficult to move.  He had not thought that here on active service, where the space between life and death is measured in hundredth parts of a second, each mounting is kept thoroughly oiled, and will spin round at a touch.

Consequently he had seized the mounting, pulled it round quickly, and the heavy gun, resenting such rough treatment, had revolved on its easy bearings, and had smitten him violently over the head, knocking him out completely.

Well might I have waited for the sound of his gun.  He had not even been aware of the fight!

Rev. John H. W. Haswell enlisted as a private in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in 1916, became corporal, and in 1917 commissioned in Royal Flying Corps as second lieutenant.  Promoted lieutenant in May 1918, and proceeded to France.  Served there until 1919 (May) with the Royal Air Force.  Became missionary in West Africa (Primitive Methodist).

First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.

Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.

"Wipers" was the British nickname for the Belgian town Ypres.

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