Francis Meyrick

Jeremy’s War: Chapter 20 “Cracks in the gable “

Posted on March 27, 2008




Part of the problem was that they talked and thought too much. He would listen to the conversation at mealtimes sometimes, and pretend to be lost in his own thoughts.
His mind was razor sharp however, and he excelled in the quiet comment from the top of the table, interjected dryly at just the right time. It was gratifying when his remark went straight home, and brought the house down, or changed an introspective conversation into a ribald session of cheery optimism. Morale was important. It did not do for the men to dwell too long on death and killing. That way lay neuroses of guilt and remorse. No, he could stomach so much philosophy, and then he liked to swing the mood back to the Prussian fighting man’s spirit.
There was the time they all were marveling at the British resilience. The conversation had become hushed and awed. Hartman – not a bad pilot, but inclined towards sensitivity – had been banging on about the incredible way the British obligingly returned, daily, to be shot down in droves. One would think they would get the message, Hartman had said. What did they know that we did not? What if the tide changed? If the British were willing to keep attacking when they were being so obviously beaten, what would they be like when advantage returned to their side? Perhaps with a technical break through? What of these new machines, the S.E.’s?
There had been an uncomfortable stirring around the table, and the Hunter had decided it was time to intervene. Quietly. Deadly.

Hartman had, unwittingly, provided the perfect opening, with a heartfelt:
“I wish I knew WHY the British keep coming back, every day! ”
The Hunter had cleared his throat, and every head at the table had turned towards him. He, for his part, had smiled sweetly, with a comical expression of innocence, and purred softly:
“My dear leutnant… is it not better if the customers come to the shop? ”
They had all laughed, there had been much thumping of the table, a toast had been drunk, and the mood of optimism and determined panache had returned with a vengeance.
They were going to win the war. Of that there was not the slightest doubt…

* * *

Gable Cottage
Fairfolk End
March 23rd

Dear Jeremy,

I got your letter. I’m glad you wrote honestly how you felt. Better that than making pretense. I couldn’t ever imagine you reveling in somebody else burning to death.
Yours is a gentle nature. I’d much rather you write the way you feel. I never thought of you as a hero. What is a hero? Somebody who shoots and kills lots of people?

We have a hospital full here of casualties. If you could spend a week here, or even a day, you would know what I mean. Everybody is suffering. There is so much unhappiness. For what? I don’t understand. Move outside the hospital, even just a hundred yards, and suddenly every body is wildly cheerful and patriotic. “Women say YES ” posters. Send your men to get slaughtered. I wish they would all take five minutes away from their war drums, and come and visit us.
I think I have an inkling of how you feel. If you were to breath a word of how you really felt, you would be branded a coward. Or a Bolshevik. You could even be shot. If I was to breath a word of how I felt, nobody would shoot me, but I would instantly be ostracized, or verbally abused, and possibly they would get really nasty. I’ve heard stories of women speaking out and getting their hair shaved off. I don’t know. It’s a mania. Everybody is so bloodthirsty.
Write to me as often as you feel, and write what you feel. You know anything you write will go no further.

I’ve met a nice young man called Robert. He’s a law student, and he helps out in the hospital. He and I went for a boat trip recently. He likes poetry, like you.

I hope you like this scarf. I knitted it myself, and it has taken ages. I know it’s rather bright and long, but you can wear it with a tail thrown over your shoulder. It’s all the fashion here.

Write soon, and look after yourself,


* * *

This time it was Plueschow. Poor little Plueschow, the shortest man in the squadron. Going on a little too much about the bravery of the English and French fliers. The Hunter frowned as he observed, forgotten for a moment, the reaction of his men. Nods of agreement. They all thought the British and French pilots were very brave.
The mood was going introspective again. A little maudlin. The wine again. Too much wine was not good. After a hard day’s fighting, and the painful loss of a comrade, too much wine loosened the tongue beyond that which is proper fighting men’s talk. He followed the proceedings, and waited his chance.

Allmenroeder – (good boy! He could see the mischief in the man’s eye) – provided the opening. He turned to the Hunter, and asked quizzically, one eyebrow rising in betrayal of a secret inner amusement, the question to which he knew there would be a terse reply.
“Plueschow, why don’t you ask the Baron how he feels about the bravery of the English and the French pilots? ”
All heads had turned to the top of the table.
The Hunter had grinned inwardly, mentally thanking Allmenroeder.
Then he had carefully wiped any hint of amusement off his face, pretending to think hard.
“Bravery? Yes, the British are brave. But it is a bravery that has the touch of foolishness about it. ”
He had made a significant gesture, his hand (an aeroplane, with three middle fingers together, thumb and little finger outstretched) had zoomed up into the sky, rolled inverted, and crashed spectacularly onto the table cloth. There had been grins and chuckles. He had however, remained straight faced and unsmiling.
“As for the French… In a Frenchman, bravery is quite exceptional and if you do meet it, it is like a glass of lemonade and very soon goes flat. ”
They had all laughed, although not quite as heartily as the Hunter could have wished.

* * *

She had tried really hard to enjoy the afternoon, but, reluctantly, she had to admit to herself that she was bored and restless. Poor Robert had tried so hard. So very hard! There was something quite touching in his attempts to humor her. It wasn’t his fault. He had rowed her up and down the river, told funny stories, and recited poetry.
Her thoughts kept going to Jeremy. Was he all right?
Why was she not sitting here with him? Robert was a nice man, but his very harmlessness made her long for the dangerous smoldering intensity of Jeremy Armstrong. She was uncomfortable with that intensity, yet oddly fascinated by it. He desired her, of that she was certain, in that peculiarly instinctive feminine way.
Yet, he respected her, and would never hurt her.

What was the strange attraction of Jeremy’s intensity?
She thought of all the long late night conversations she had enjoyed with Jeremy. His face floated in front of her.
She longed to be with him. In the back ground, Robert’s voice, reciting Wordsworth, faded away to a distant meaningless flow of words.
She sighed, and Robert looked at her quickly.
She started, realizing that her composure had been slipping, and slammed down the shutters on her soul.
“Sorry, Robert, could you repeat that last stanza? I must have dozed off… ”

* * *

Unseen drafts flickered the candles, and caused shadows to dance and dart across the walls.
Allmenroeder listened absently to the after dinner table talk. The newcomers eyes were lapping it all up, and the old hands never tired of repeating the tale. It was, admittedly, an astonishing saga. However, the constant recounting of it… What would the Baron say?
It was as well he was not there. He would not approve.
Allmenroeder sipped his wine thoughtfully. Somewhere, conscience stirred. He wondered if it was his duty to interfere in the conversation, the way the Baron had, that memorable evening, on the 17th September 1916.

They had all… been touched by it.
It had been so uncanny, so ghostly. One moment, they had been flying along in tight formation, seven of them. Passing a cloud bank. He remembered the moment with photographic accuracy. The sun had been bathing the cumulus in that sort of dazzling light that hurt the eyes. He had been staring at it, wondering idly if they had been passing too close. But no, it was too thick and dense a cloud. No allied machine would be hiding in there.
When the enemy machine had suddenly, startlingly, erupted forth, the effect had been that of a wolf launching itself from an unthought of hiding place into the midst of the sheep. Everybody had scattered in all directions, and several near collisions, hasty corrections, and muttered invocations to the Almighty – not to mention curses to Hell – had followed in the next petrifying seconds. The enemy machine had pounced right into the middle of the Jasta…
He himself had found himself hanging on his propeller (courtesy of a frantic heave over the top of the charging enemy), trying to look in six different directions at the same time. Where were the enemy’s comrades? For that it was a massed ambush, he had not doubted. He had seen none. Only the one lone BE 2C. He had redoubled his efforts, aswith all his colleagues. Where, oh where, were the other English?
The sky was empty. What was going on?
What extraordinary battle plan was the British two seater
carrying out? They had all managed to compose themselves, and whirled around after the enemy. Seven aircraft chasing one British two seater. Who had flown on in a straight line! Incredible!
One by one they had all lined up behind the BE 2C, and fired until their guns ran out of ammunition. The enemy had simply ignored them! They had made no effort to alter course, or fire back. The pilot had continued to stare, dead ahead. The observer, sitting back comfortably, had simply stared at them, quite unmoved by the rain of lead whistling around his ears.
Had he been out of ammunition?

Allmenroeder twiddled his wine glass. The astonished gasps of the newcomers greeted every pregnant pause left by Plueschow, who was reveling in his role of story teller.
He was helped, no doubt, Allmenroeder reflected, by the dark night, and the wind howling outside. A foul night. Ideal for story telling.
For some reason, he thought of Goethe’s ‘Faust’.
The invocation. The mysteriously approaching ‘shadows’.
What forces had Faust unwittingly called up by his ceaseless probing of the purposes of Man?
Some things were best left alone, Allmenroeder decided.
He wished Plueschow would shut up. It had been altogether too unnerving. That crazy observer! Just staring. When it had been Allmenroeder’s turn, he had lined up not more than six yards from the enemy’s rudder. He had noticed the faint smile on the observer’s face. They all had said the same, afterwards. The damn idiot had just sat there, smiling.

I’ll soon wipe that smile off your face, my fine British friend!

He had raked the machine ahead with bullets, watching with satisfaction as the fabric rippled as the bullets entered the wings and fuselage. Splinters flew off the struts, and he could have sworn he hit the observer. If he missed, the miss was a near one. He had run out of bullets, and, taking a last look, he had peeled away, making room for the next of his colleagues to attack the enemy.
He had watched as the BE2C disappeared into another towering cloud bank. Unhurriedly, almost serenely.
They had seen it no more.
That night every man had told the same story. The observer had smiled faintly, serenely unafraid of them. The pilot had sailed on, as if impervious to their bullets.
Incredible. Most of them had brought down machines in flames with less than half the bullets. This aircraft had survived the combined onslaught of seven machines. Not a bullet was left between all of them. It had all been to no avail. The BE2C had shrugged it all off. What did it mean? Was it an omen? It was uncomfortable, to say the least. They had drunk more wine, and debated the enigma all over again. All swore that they could not have missed. All remembered having seen bits fly of the enemy machine. All commented on the peculiar smile of the observer. The man had either been an imbecile, or very brave indeed.

Then the phone had rung. The message had come through.
A BE2C -it had to be the same one!- had been observed to make a perfect landing in a field, thirty miles behind the German lines. It had been a gentle, smooth landing, with barely a bump. One such as a novice would have dreamed of, and a veteran would have been secretly proud of. The mark of a master airman…
When the German soldiers, excited, had rushed over to capture the Englishmen, they had been struck by the calm of the two occupants. Both had simply stared into the distance, with complete equanimity.
Quite dead…
The machine had not a drop of petrol on board. Each occupant was riddled with bullets. So many, that the examining doctor gave up counting. He reported ‘more than fifty bullet wounds in each man’, and thought that this remark covered all eventualities nicely.
Further inquiries revealed that the two seater had been riddled by a squadron from another Jasta, some minutes before it had so dramatically ambushed Jasta 11.
The men, presumably, had been killed in the first attack.
Jasta Eleven had expended the entire flight’s ammunition in shooting at two corpses. Who, in silent peace of Death, had mocked the attempts of the living to score over the Dead. With a final farewell, the two British airmen had proved the impotence of the living.
Their machine, once more, had flown on, and executed a perfect landing, all by itself, despite the combined attempts of two squadrons…

Allmenroeder sighed, and filled his glass. Plueschow had trailed to a dramatic end, leaving the newcomers wrestling with the awful mystery of death.
Allmenroeder studied their faces quietly, and decided something had to be done. He cleared his throat, and
began softly:
“Plueschow, my friend, you forget what happened after… ”
Plueschow looked across, raising his eyebrows questioningly.
“The toast, my friend. ”
Allmenroeder had raised his voice.
“You forgot the Baron’s toast. ”
The newcomers stared at him. Allmenroeder, addressing them, continued the story:
“The night of 17 September 1916, we were all sitting here, and the Baron… ” He nodded at the empty chair at the head of the table, and thought of the Baron in Berlin, visiting the Great and the Royal.
“…the Baron realized that we were getting despondent.
He hammered on the table… ”
Allmenroeder imitated the action, raising his voice. ”
…and called for a toast! ”
He raised his glass.
“A glorious death! Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood and the last drop of petrol! – to the last beat of the heart and the last kick of the motor; a death for a knight – a toast for his fellows, friend and foe. ”
Allmenroeder, quoting his leader, felt a burning sensation rise up within him, and his look challenged anybody to disagree with those famous words. Nobody did.
All drank, deeply, approvingly. At least outwardly.
The Baron was right. Onwards for the fatherland!

Afterwards, Allmenroeder almost marveled at his own words. He had quoted the Baron word for word, without ever having consciously realized he had remembered the Baron’s saying.
What an impact this man made on them all!
Aloof, proud, always aristocratic. Some would say arrogant. The man never unwound, always insisted on protocol. And yet… Allmenroeder knew he would follow this mighty leader anywhere.
Even unto Death…
He drank deeply from the wine. It might yet come to that.
Well, he would just have to face it when it came.

Outside, the wind howled and moaned. In the corner of a distant German hangar stood, forlorn and lonely, a bullet saturated BE2C, its crew long since buried.
The wind whipped up dust and dead leaves, and deposited it all irreverently over the proud squadron insignia…


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