Jeremy’s War: Chapter 13 "The newly dead about to fall"

Posted on March 21, 2008

Ch.13

‘THE NEWLY DEAD ABOUT TO FALL’

By the time Jeremy returned to flying duty, Digsby had been killed in a dogfight, flying wingman to Greenhall on only his second patrol. He had been at the squadron so briefly, that nobody had got to know him. He was replaced within twenty four hours by a fresh faced young man by the name of Robertson, whose square jaw and firm handshake gave everybody a good impression. In this way, the official policy of ‘no empty chairs’, meant to ensure morale was not affected more than could be helped, made it easier to forget the men who passed through. The messes were kept full; this requirement took priority over depth of training of new recruits.
Some of the old hands, like Greenhall and Owen, recognized the strategy for what it was.
"Old Mother Trenchard should come down and spend a week in a two seater taking pictures", was Owen’s disrespectful observation about the RFC’s chief of staff.
Greenhall, quiet by nature, and rendered more and more taciturn as the war went on, agreed, but said nothing. His composed, laconic exterior hid a quiet despair that nobody noticed or even suspected.

Only Jeremy, who had been in a good position to observe the goings on of squadron life, queried the composed facade of the ‘old hands’. He wondered how such tragedy and slaughter could really just roll off a duck’s back. He watched and listened, and became wiser.
His experiences, his participation in combat, his narrow escape, had brought with it a spin-off he slowly recognized. He was now closer to the others, and after a day or two of being unnaturally quiet, he had slowly opened up again. The medical officer had tactfully diagnosed ‘severe concussion’, and this explanation suited everyone well.
It was the awkward newcomers who struggled to integrate now, and, in barely a week, Jeremy had become almost a veteran.
The irony of this was not lost on him.

Jeremy learned a lot from various conversations, and he was particularly surprised at the widespread bitterness against McAllister. It was generally felt that McAllister had lost his nerve, and hid the fact behind a careful, albeit transparently hypocritical facade. He flew as little as possible, and avoided combat where ever possible. At the same time, he thought nothing of bawling out pilots who flew in the thick of things. It was obvious to Jeremy that squadron morale was low, and had been for a long time. Pinky’s death had been another severe blow. Nobody talked about it, but it was obvious to Jeremy. It was actually hard to find out how many people had been killed in the previous months. Jeremy’s inquiries were met by blank faces. Nobody knew, or cared to tell him. It wasn’t until he visited the local churchyard to attend Digsby’s funeral, that he realized quite how many RFC pilots were buried there.

It had been drizzling steadily, with a low overcast.
An infectious cold had been doing the rounds, and as the coffin was carried through the gates of the overgrown church yard, Patterson, laboring as one of the pall bearers, exploded into a fit of sneezing, and stumbled badly. The coffin wobbled dangerously, and behind him, an enraged Porky hissed: "Steady up you fool!"
Jeremy, standing amongst a motley arrangement of airmen, fitters and other personnel, observed the near disaster with bitter irony. In his mind, he applied a caption to the scene, imagining an artist painting the mishap in oil.

‘The newly dead about to fall…’

He reflected on a postscript to that.
‘owing to the nearly dead catching a cold…’
The bitterness in his heart surprised him. Was this the real Jeremy Armstrong? He looked around at the impassive faces around him. Maybe the caption for them could be:

‘The nearly dead about to fall…’

A verse from the Bible came to him. It belonged to his searching. His searching for the God he had never really found.

But truly as the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death.

The coffin approached the hungry grave. He could see the freshly dug sides, the wet clay, with tufts of grass and weeds protruding irreverently into the void. Was that where Digsby would lie, for eternity?
Jeremy counted the graves. This whole section of the cemetery had been reserved for airmen. Presumably all from his squadron. Eighteen…

Eighteen? I didn’t know there was that many. Plus the ones killed over the other side of the lines, and buried there. Plus the ones burnt or blown to smithereens. Plus the wounded, the insane, and the promoted…

The promoted. He thought of McAllister, turned his head, and looked at the man. He alone seemed to enjoy the occasion. No, that was unfair. It was more that he alone carried himself with an air of… what? Importance? Pride? Or was it all a big show? A bizarre charade?
Where the hell do you think you are? On parade?

Shouted orders, and the coffin was rested on bars on top of the grave. McAllister spoke. A short piece of oratory, full of praise for Digsby’s ‘heroic contribution’ and his ‘steadfast pursuit of his duty’.
Jeremy scanned the faces of the others he could see. Empty, vacant faces. He sensed they all hated being there, and couldn’t wait to get away.

‘Heroic contribution’? The poor sod only got to fly one and a half patrols. ‘Steadfast pursuit of his duty’?
He was probably shit scared all the way.
Anyway, McAllister, what are you drivelling on about?
‘steadfast pursuit’??

An old priest came forward, and surprisingly, spoke his words in heavily accented English. He even quoted the Bible in English. His voice, heavy with emotion and sincerity, impressed Jeremy.

"I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works…"

"Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me."

Jeremy puzzled how a man, who did this sort of thing all the time, could still be moved. It contrasted sharply with McAllister’s brisk, formal, ‘King and Country’ speech.
The blessing over, the coffin was lowered into the grave with ropes. The one at the head end slipped, and the coffin contacted the ground unequally and awkwardly.
Jeremy observed it all coldly and cynically, wondering what Digsby thought of it all.
A volley of shots rang out, and soon everybody, relieved, started trooping away from the grave.
After a few minutes, only Jeremy was left. The rain started pouring down more heavily, and he realized he was getting soaked through. But somehow, he could not -yet- tear himself away. He was saying ‘goodbye’ to Digsby, a young man, in the flower of his youth, whom he had hardly known. Slowly, his eyes moved from the soaking coffin, with heavy drops spattering onto it, to the rivulets of water cascading down the sides. He studied the walls of the grave, the texture of the mud.
His eyes traveled along to the undug grass, and he found himself calculating how much room was left.
How many more RFC graves can they cram in here? Another dozen?
Will I lie here one day?

With everybody looking grim and formal? And wishing to hell they could get the business over with, and get away?
Will McAllister, that two faced swine, go through the motions for me as well?

Suddenly, he felt lonely. More lonely and sad than he had ever felt before in his life. He longed for Emmy’s company. Or to be home. This was no place to be…
Was this life?
This sad little rain soaked coffin, quickly deserted by everybody? Poor Digsby.
Poor sod.
Was he in heaven now? Hard to believe. Very hard.
It was easier to believe that he lay in that box, cold and damp, staring upwards with unseeing eyes, waiting for the worms and the maggots.
Nineteen years old…
What purpose had his death served?
It was all very well for the folk at home to cheer and shout, and wave flags, and make patriotic speeches.
They were alive, going about their business, and Digsby was dead. The cheering tradesmen, the professional classes, the rich and the wealthy, they were at this moment growing richer, and praising the heroism of the pilots in France. The pilot here lay dead.
In the same way they cheered the soldiers. How many soldiers lay dead?

He shook himself. This was the wrong way to view the war. It was the fight of Good against Evil.
The Albatros pilot, the young, blond haired kid who had been so desperate to make his kill, was he Evil?
Jeremy shut his eyes, and heard again the terrifying rattle of the guns, and saw the black shadow passing over him. He shuddered.

A voice spoke quietly by his side, and he jumped, rudely awoken from his reverie.
"Are you all right, my friend?"
It was the little French priest, carrying an umbrella. Jeremy shrugged, saying nothing, but accepted the offer of shelter. The priest had to lift the umbrella higher to accommodate Jeremy’s frame.
"He was your friend, yes?"
Jeremy pondered the question.
"No", he said evenly, "I hardly knew him. He was only with us a few days."
The priest sighed deeply.
On an impulse, Jeremy asked:
"Do you really believe in God?".

He was thinking of some of the men of the cloth he had met at home, who had always seemed anxious to discuss any subject under the sun. Except religion. And God.
The priest answered quietly:
"Yes, my son, I believe…"
"And God is good?"
"Yes, my son, God is good."
Jeremy snarled, pointing at the coffin:
"Then how do you explain that, Father!"
He was almost taken aback at the ferocity of his own speech, but not sorry he had asked the question.
The priest raised his eyes to the tall aviator beside him, and wondered what experiences this pilot had undergone. He thought for a moment, and then said, softly:
"Mon ami, can I offer you a little cognac?"

* * *

They were sitting in the priest’s study, gazing out the window at the lashing rain. A good brandy was pleasantly warming Jeremy, and he reflected on what the priest had told him. He realized he had never quite met anybody like this man. The kind eyes were sincere, and Jeremy envied the man his faith. It was the real thing all right. This man felt he had a personal relationship with Christ, and he was utterly at peace with his convictions. What was more, he welcomed Jeremy’s suspicious inquiries, seemed completely unoffended by his skepticism, and obviously was willing to go on discussing Jeremy’s doubts forever. He contrasted so much with some of the folk at home…
Who retreated behind slogans, quotes, platitudes; who seemed to Jeremy to fear his questioning. To fear it, because it forced them to face their own doubts?

The priest threw out all sorts of ideas, and asked questions to which he did not always supply the answers. Did Jeremy believe in the concept of ‘free choice’?
Yes.
Without free choice, was the value of the chosen belief as great?
Errr… no.
For there to be free choice, might there perhaps have to be doubt?
Yes, perhaps…
The priest smiled. Doubt? A necessary thing? A good thing?
Jeremy brooded about it.
The priest produced a Bible, and proceeded to show Jeremy various passages.

Seek, and you shall find.

…if thou seek him with all thy heart.

Those that seek me early shall find me.

Twenty verses later, Jeremy laughed. The Bible seemed full of exhortations to ‘seek’. He said so, and the old priest chuckled delightedly.
"Mais oui! You see! You must seek, all the time, seek!"
Jeremy thought, and shook his head slowly.
"I have been seeking for years. I have not found. I cannot believe. It is too… far fetched a thing."
He sighed, and the priest regarded him with sympathy.
"Mon brave! It is good. You seek for years, that means you care. You question deeply, that is good. It is merveilleux that you question…"
He clapped his hands excitedly. Jeremy smiled, but looked puzzled.
"I thought the idea was to have faith, not to doubt", he commented ruefully. But the priest laughed again, waving his finger in mock anger.
"Seek, and you shall find! Knock, and it shall be opened unto you! If you don’t seek, you will never find. If you have doubts, it means you are seeking. Eh bien! That is good! The young people of today… so many do not seek! If only they would seek…"
Jeremy grinned, and took his leave from his kind host.
They stood in the door, and the priest made him a present of the Bible they had been studying. Jeremy smiled his thanks, and wondered if he would ever read it.
He turned to go, and cast a farewell look at Digsby’s grave.
A thought crossed his mind, and he remarked wryly to the priest: "If this war carries on like this, I will probably develop my hate rather than my faith…"
The priest shrugged. "That is war, my friend. But you know… great hate and great love…"
Jeremy wondered what was coming.
"…they are, how you say, sometimes…"
The priest waved his hands.
"…petals on the same flower…"

* * *

10,000 feet…
Cold. Blue sky above. Lots of cloud about. Cumulus. Towers of it.
The burst of anti-aircraft fire was far enough away that he hardly took any notice. He had already grown blase about archie. If it got you, there was little you could do about it. If you saw the flashes, it meant they had missed. It was strange how quickly indifference and fatalism crept in. He ignored this particular string of flashes, until his brain assimilated the fact that the explosion had flashed a white burning core. German archie exploded in a ragged, black, vicious little crack. Oddly enough, it left a pungent smell as well.
The different type of ammunition used by each side had its occasional benefits for sleepy pilots.
His own side was trying to warn them…

He scanned the sky, puzzled how the men on the ground had spotted what he, Owen and Baines had missed.
There was a lot of cloud around. Typical ambush country. He glanced at Owen, and saw his head too craning around, searching everywhere. Where was the Hun?
They approached a large cumulus tower. The sun beat resplendent white on the outside, yet within, as Jeremy bitterly reflected, lay a strange, white, clammy world. Apart from the disorientation he had experienced, Owen had warned him of other dangers. Violent up and down drafts, turbulence, rain, even snow. It seemed odd that such a harmless looking, pretty picture could hide such horrors for the aviator.
Owen suddenly went into a steep climb, and Jeremy followed. Checking their position, he realized they had penetrated deeply behind enemy lines. They passed through 11000, 12000 feet.
Owen kept looking southwards. It was only as they passed through 14000 feet that Jeremy spotted movement in the sun. Somebody had been hiding! Jeremy realized Owen had been trying to lead them around and up to the enemy. His admiration for his section leader increased even further. How many aircraft were up there? He noticed it was getting harder to breath, and his engine was losing all its oomph. Were they going to fight at this altitude?

Suddenly, Owen fired his guns. Baines followed suit, and Jeremy knew they were warming their barrels. He did likewise, and strained his eyes, marveling how Owen could penetrate the blinding glare.
Then he spotted them: four biplanes, two thousand feet higher. Aware that they had been spotted, they obviously no longer worried about hiding against the sun.
They also seemed to be climbing. Jeremy wondered why.
As the altimeter wound its way past eighteen thousand feet, Jeremy marveled how much higher they were going.
He now recognized their opponents as Fokkers. What benefit could they possibly have in wanting to fight at such an altitude? He peered over the side of the cockpit, and butterflies stirred in his stomach. It was an awful long way down.
It was now becoming more difficult to hold formation.
His engine seemed to splutter as he jockeyed the throttle to stay close to Owen. His pulse was racing with excitement at the impending action, but for some reason he was feeling very tired.
Twenty thousand feet. He’d never been that high before.
But the enemy seemed only a thousand foot higher now.
They were circling slowly, and at times he could see them in good detail. Fokker D.V’s again…
Then, abruptly, they charged. With the benefit of height, they could dive, pick up speed, and dictate the opening round. Down they came, and Owen turned the formation to face the onslaught. Jeremy braced himself, and puzzled over his emotions. He actually felt oddly cheerful.
Almost euphoric in fact…
Tiny pinpricks of light started to dance around the noses of the diving aircraft, and mentally Jeremy picked his likely opponent. Seconds later, the Fokkers had swept past, and Jeremy was trying to turn as fast as he could.
To his surprise, his SE5 responded sluggishly, and then wallowed sickeningly. His altimeter unwound absurdly quickly, and by the time he had completed the turn, he had lost five hundred feet. Before he had time to really take stock, a Fokker dived at him, guns blazing, and he swung into another turn.
It was odd, fighting… in such a lofty place.
The ground seemed uncannily far away, and the idea of fighting so high up seemed ludicrous. Turning round and round with his adversary, Jeremy again noticed the altimeter unwinding at an extraordinary rate, but he had little time to ponder the reasons. Annoyingly, he realized there was no chance of him winning height relative to his opponent, and he was in fact losing the initiative.
Turning, turning, turning. The German was now at least a hundred feet higher in the turn. Jeremy decided to wait and see. A quick glance at the altimeter startled him: the twelve thousand feet mark had just slipped by. He looked back up, and gasped in surprise. The German had rolled inverted with a strangely abrupt whiplash manoeuvre, and was firing accurately at Jeremy. In fact, bullets were crashing through the woodwork with disconcerting accuracy. Jeremy’s brain stalled for a second, until, driven by desperation, he dived under the German, who promptly tried to latch onto Jeremy’s tail. Jeremy however hit the vertical, remembering to smash on full throttle. It took the German by surprise, and he tried to out climb Jeremy.
Jeremy reached the top of his vertical climb, kicked on full rudder, and then snapped the throttle shut. His nose whipped over quickly to point downwards, and he had time to realize he had a chance to attach himself to the German’s tail. His opponent panicked, and tried to dive away. Seconds later, Jeremy opened fire…

* * *

Owen had surprised himself with a lucky shot. A short burst at the leading Fokker had produced dramatic results. Hit in the lower spine, the pilot was rapidly losing consciousness. He dropped into a spin, and Owen turned his attention to the others. Baines was engaged in a turning battle, and that left two.
Closing on one of the remaining machines, Owen knew within seconds that he was dealing with a novice. The panicky reaction, and the sheepishly shallow turn, gave him away. For an old hand like Owen, it was the work of seconds to work himself around onto the beginner’s tail. He checked quickly for other aircraft -nothing about-, and then rapidly closed on his victim. He could see the terror stricken young face looking around at him, and noted for some reason that the youth was wearing a brown leather flying helmet and brown goggles.
Opening fire from point blank range, Owen felt no emotion as he watched his bullets inflict carnage. The youth’s goggles went spinning through the air, and amazingly passed between Owen’s upper and lower port wings. Owen continued firing, and knew the end had come when he saw the pilot’s head whip forwards, jerking spasmodically. The Fokker went into a screamingly steep dive, and Owen could no longer follow. He checked behind him, noted another SE5 now above him in a turning fight, and decided to pull out of his headlong dive. He took a last look at his foe, and was not surprised to see the upper wing detach and flutter away.
It was time to take stock. He was at seven thousand feet. Nobody near him. An SE5 was chasing another Fokker down over to his left. Looked good. Probably Baines. Where was Armstrong? He caught his breath as he saw three aircraft in a chain. A German, followed by an SE5, followed by another German.
Typical daisy chain!
It had to be Armstrong.
Fool! You’re about to get yourself killed!
Owen headed frantically for the scene, knowing he would never get there in time.

* * *

With the tracer guiding his shots, it was actually almost easy. The German weaved and twisted, dived and turned, but Jeremy followed him easily. The seconds stretched into hours. He seemed to have fired thousands of bullets.
It was quite incredible that any airframe could be capable of withstanding such a scything, withering, red hot rain of destruction.
This is a dream. Am I really here? Is this really happening? Must be a dream. I’m not really in France after all, at eight thousand feet, cold, shivering, calmly trying to kill a man.
No, it had to be a dream. He, Jeremy Armstrong, kill a man? No. Preposterous.

But… yes, that was him. The guy, sitting there, crouched, hosing lead across the sky. Did he care?
Or was he enjoying himself?
Strange, a cracking blue sky, a beautiful world, and death. Wanton death. Planned, deliberate death.

His thumb slid away from the button…
Confused thoughts. Hesitation.
He shook himself. Gritted his teeth. And fired.
Again. And again.

Black smoke erupted from the engine bay, and a spark ignited fuel gushing from the ruptured tanks. There was a bright flash, and flames enveloped the unfortunate pilot. He screamed, and tried to get away from the dancing flower that was cruel and vicious.
The searing pain drove him crazy, and he undid his harness, and stood up in the cockpit. His arms were flailing wildly, and his head rolled uncontrollably from side to side. His machine lurched suddenly, and he fell out into the cold air, long petals of flame clinging stubbornly to his clothes, hands, and face.

Behind and above him, Jeremy watched in stunned horror.

* * *

Owen wished he could go faster. He found himself mouthing unspoken messages across the sky. "Behind you, man, for God’s sake, behind you!" The leading Fokker was going down at an ever steeper angle. The pursuing SE5a was still raking him with fire, when the second Fokker opened up. Owen could see the tracer bridge the short gap between the two aircraft. Instantly the SE5 pitched abruptly nose up. It climbed two hundred feet, before rolling inverted, and spinning off. The Fokker followed, still spitting flame. But now Owen was nearly within range, and opened up, hoping to distract the attacking Hun. It worked, and the German pilot dived away to the east.
Owen let him go, and hurtled after the SE5.
To his horror it continued to spin, down, down, down…
Passing through three thousand feet, the pilot appeared to make a half hearted recovery, and the left hand spin stopped for a second, before the nose yawed sickeningly to the right. Once again it spun, but not before Owen noted with a groan the damage to the tail. Most of the rudder and nearly all the elevators appeared to be shot away. A hideously gaping hole appeared in the fin. The aircraft was virtually uncontrollable. Even as Owen watched, helpless, a large piece of fabric and spruce whipped away, followed by smaller pieces.
One thousand feet. If the pilot didn’t control the spin quickly, it would be too late. Owen could sense him wrestling with the controls, desperation and fear making his eyes bulge in frenzied concentration.

For a brief moment the SE5 righted itself at 300 feet, and appeared to aim for a field. The approach was good, but as it passed through 50 feet, the nose dropped away, and the violence of the crash made Owen wince.
Was it survivable? Owen hoped and prayed. Then he saw a tiny wisp of smoke curl up, and groaned aloud.
A flash of movement close by caught his eye, and he wheeled around, heart pounding.
Another SE5 tore past, heading straight for the field.
It slowed down, and whipped into a vicious side slip.
Down it went, almost sideways, scrubbing off height and speed. It continued to almost ground level, and then kicked straight, hopped over the hedge, and landed heavily beside its smoking stable mate. Almost before it had stopped rolling, a figure jumped out, and ran madly.

Owen, staggered, raised his goggles, and gasped:
"Armstrong! You crazy fool!"

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 21, 2008, 11:22 am


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