Jeremy’s War: Chapter 21 "The Chase"

Posted on March 27, 2008

Ch.21

THE CHASE

Dawn came slowly, and found Jeremy sitting on a fallen tree trunk, barely alive. He was utterly exhausted. He had tripped and fallen many times, and he was quite unsure of the direction in which he had traveled. The ground mist had thinned out a bit during the night, enabling him to plot a rough course from the stars. He had recognized the Plow, Orion, and the Polar Star. But towards dawn, the ground mist had formed again, aided by a very slight breeze. He had lost sight of the stars, and, fearful lest he freeze to death, he had stumbled on blindly.
Now he could go no further. He was almost resigned to his fate. Surely nothing else could go wrong.
Surely…

He had reached the edge of a large clearing. It seemed about half a mile wide. He wondered if he had reached the edge of the forest. Perhaps he would be coming to the lines soon. He wondered about turning himself in to the first German sentry. He was hardly in any shape to try crossing back to his own side.
It was while these sombre thoughts trickled like old syrup through his numbed brain, that a rifle shot suddenly rang out. It was surprisingly loud. He jumped to his feet, wondering if it had been aimed at him. Looking around, his heart sank as he observed a row of soldiers, spread out in a line, advancing up the clearing towards him. He swore, produced his pistol, and fired a quick shot in their general direction. With that he turned and fled back into the wood.
He cursed himself for sitting in such an exposed position. Now he would soon have half the German army after him. He ran as best he could, but it was a pitiful stumble. He could no longer feel his feet, and he seemed to be permanently out of breath. His chest hurt, and his lungs seemed on the point of being cut to ribbons by the piercing cold air.
How long he stumbled along for, he didn’t know. Occasionally he heard shouts behind him, but they seemed to grow weaker and further away. After what seemed an eternity of fighting pain, he sank to his knees, and cast around him for a hiding place. But no sooner had the comforting thought crossed his mind to rest up for a while, than he was forced to dismiss it. Only a blind fool could fail to follow his tracks through the frost and snow. Tears came to his eyes again, and he forced himself to his feet. By keeping as much as he could under the trees, and by sticking to hard ground, he dragged himself onwards, striving to leave as little trail as possible. Once he thought he heard dogs baying in the distance. That terrified him. But the sound seemed to fade as quickly as it had come.

It seemed he had made good his escape. He eased up a bit, and congratulated himself. As long as he kept going steadily, he would be fine. This mood of satisfaction made a pleasant change from the miserable depression he had suffered during the night, and an almost juvenile sense of ‘mischief carried out successfully’ settled upon him.
It was therefore a great shock when he rounded a tree, and crashed with a painful grunt straight into a rifle toting soldier coming the other way. Jeremy’s world turned turtle for the second time in twenty four hours, and he landed painfully on the back of his head. Stars erupted everywhere. Struggling to a sitting position, he hauled his revolver out, but, before he could take aim, a figure dived on top of him, pinning his gun arm. A spasm jerked the trigger, and the percussion made his head ring even louder. The bullet whistled harmlessly up through the branches, but Jeremy was now struggling like fury. Men were shouting nearby now, and he lashed out with his free fist at the man on top of him. A satisfying crunch followed by a little cry of pain indicated at least partial success, and a well judged kick in the groin finished Jeremy’s assailant off. Jeremy struggled up, but was hardly on his feet when two more figures hurled themselves on top of him. This time there was no escape. He found himself flat on his back, with all his breath crushed out of him, looking down the barrel of a deadly looking revolver. At the same time a furious face, six inches from his, spat out an unmistakable warning.
Very unmistakable. A parade ground voice bellowed:
"You even THINK of batting an eyelid and I’ll blow your bloody head ‘orf!"

* * *

In his office, Major McAllister sat staring thoughtfully out of the window.
So Armstrong was down. Probably dead.
Did the loss hurt him? Or was he glad? He tried to analyze his feelings. Was he past caring? Had he lost the ability to care?
Would he ever care about anybody again?
He rested his head on his arms. To his surprise he found himself crying. he shook himself, fearful lest somebody would come in.
Why in hell was he crying, anyway?
For Armstrong? Or himself? Hell…
He had to be hard. Shrug things off. Give up caring about anything except himself. With practice, maybe things would not hurt so much anymore, and then he could enjoy life by simply looking after number one.Y es, he had to be hard. That was it. Hard.
He had made the choice. Only one thing mattered:
His career, his ambitions.
Sod everything else…

He wiped away all traces of tears, and walked over to the mirror. Carefully he inspected his uniform.
Then he adjusted his face to impassivity, and his heart to indifference.

* * *

Jeremy, reeling with shock, refrained from batting an eyelid. To be on the safe side, he decided not to breath for a moment either. Slowly and carefully his captor stood up, but the burning eyes and the ugly looking Webley never relaxed their concentration. Jeremy found himself surrounded by three other soldiers with rifles, as well as the infantry captain with the Webley. Every weapon was pointed at him, and he felt compelled to utter some kind of explanation.
"I say… I’m frightfully sorry… I thought… I thought you were Germans!"
His brain reeled with amazement, as he tried to come to terms with this turn of events.
The captain, a man in his mid thirties, satisfied that no spy could possibly emit such an unmistakable English public schoolboy accent, slowly relaxed, and replaced his Webley in its holster. He said nothing, and Jeremy felt obliged to explain further.
"I had an engine failure yesterday evening, and crashed in the forest."
The captain regarded him sardonically. "I know", he said curtly.
Jeremy suddenly sat upright. "I’m being chased by a whole platoon of Germans! They’re not far behind me!"
He pointed to the direction from where he had come.
But the captain seemed unruffled. "Tell me, young man, have you ever seen a German soldier?" Jeremy stared stupidly.
The captain continued, quietly, casually.
"Have you ever seen a BRITISH soldier?"
Jeremy started to speak, stammered, fell silent. He looked at the faces of the soldiers. They looked mean and hard, especially the man with the cut lip and rapidly reddening eye. There was a pause, and voices indicated the arrival of more men. The captain produced a pipe, and started to fill it slowly. He cleared his throat.
"Because if you HAD ever seen a British soldier, you might have known the color of his uniform!"
His voice had ended harshly.
Jeremy was aghast. Jerking his thumb back in the general direction of the clearing where the recent encounter had taken place, Jeremy protested:
"But… but… they FIRED at me!"
His voice was shaking.
The captain remained unruffled.
"No we didn’t", he said, lighting his pipe.
"We fired a shot in the air to attract your attention". He puffed out smoke contentedly.
"We’ve been up all night looking for you, and we’re tired walking. I had hoped you would head towards us. Instead of which…"
Another cloud of smoke punctuated the captain’s tale. "Instead of which you took a pot shot at us. Then you legged it, and we’ve been chasing you ever since. Jolly unsporting, you know…"
He sucked his pipe, and raised his eyebrows questioningly.
He seemed to be regaining his good humor.
Still sitting on the frozen ground, Jeremy felt uncomfortably like a complete fool.

It transpired that he had crashed two miles on the right side of the lines. This astonishing fact greatly amazed him. He could only guess that in the gloom he had missed the criss cross of trenches in the snow. Struggling to his feet, he brushed himself down, and started to mutter apologies. But a dismissive wave of the pipe stopped him.
"Save you breath for later, lieutenant. You’ll need it."
With that he had turned, and set off at a brisk walking pace. Jeremy and the soldiers had followed. Little had been said. Left alone with his thoughts, Jeremy had quietly cursed the whole affair.
If only... he could have saved himself a night in the freezing cold, if he’d known where he was.
How… could he have missed crossing the bloody lines?

After what seemed like a ten mile hike, they finally arrived at a small road, which looked neglected and in need of repair. Three trucks were parked up, and a cook was handing around mugs of steaming hot tea. Jeremy gratefully received one, and tried to retire to a quiet corner. In this he was singularly unsuccessful, and he found himself quickly surrounded by a hord of curious Tommies. From their conversation and questions, Jeremy quickly gathered that he in fact had been the reason for the three trucks turning out, with a full complement of search parties.
"Quite a flap", was the opinion of one soldier.
A crusty old sergeant made a comment about aviators getting lost on the ground, and Jeremy gathered the impression that the humor of the Tommies was increasing in leaps and bounds now they had completed their mission, and were able to get at some grub again. Even the fact that shots had been fired in anger by a pilot against his own side seemed to become funnier in the telling. As other search parties returned, summoned by a green flare, each new arrival was told the story with greater and greater merriment, until in the end even Jeremy found himself joining in with the laughter. By now the tiredness of utter exhaustion was making his head rock back and forth as he kept being about to go asleep. It was therefore with a feeling of utter relief that he at last climbed into a truck for the journey back. They set off, rattling and jolting, but Jeremy slid mercifully away.

He was awoken all too soon to continue his journey by car. The captain said good-bye, eying him thoughtfully.
He made some remark which sounded half apologetic about ‘having to put it all in his report’, but Jeremy was hardly listening.
He recognized his new driver as one of the squadron fitters, who was full of curiosity to hear of Jeremy’s adventures. Jeremy however was past telling stories, and disappointed his chauffeur by making himself as comfortable in the back as he could, and promptly dropping into a snoring half sleep.
He had to be shaken very firmly by the shoulder when they arrived back home, and as he stood outside the car, his only thoughts were to get into bed as quickly as possible. He had started to stagger in that direction, when sergeant Brinklow stepped up, saluting smartly.
"Welcome back, Sir, and Major McAllister would like to see you right away in his office".
Jeremy groaned loudly, turned in his new direction, and dragged himself in the required direction.
He was wholly oblivious of the curious stares that followed him.

* * *

He sat and waited on a hard wooden seat outside Major McAllister’s office for what seemed a long time. He could just hear what seemed to be a long telephone conversation going on. Occasionally he could hear McAllister saying "Yes", and "I see". But he was resigned. He wasn’t sure if he cared about anything in the whole world anymore.
As with his previous set to with Major McAllister, he comforted himself with the knowledge that it would soon be over, and then he could go to bed. He resolved to say as little as possible, and with any luck McAllister would let him go off soon.
It was just a formality, he told himself. Just paperwork.

When he was shown in, he tried to carry himself erect. He saluted, and stood to attention. He was dog tired, and expected to be shown a seat. Instead however, McAllister ignored him studiously, and continued to write.
Jeremy felt irritation rising in him. He was being treated with studied contempt, and he sensed lots and lots of trouble in the air.
At length McAllister put his pen down wearily, and looked up at Jeremy. He leaned back in his chair, and slowly placed his finger tips together. He appeared to contemplate the man standing stiffly to attention before him for a very long time. Jeremy, with mounting fury, stared strictly over McAllister’s head at a space on the wall.
It started gently, but Jeremy knew better.
"So, the wanderer hath returned…"
Jeremy said nothing.
"A trifle muddy and dirty, but remarkably in one piece…"
Jeremy gritted his teeth. He sensed a regret in McAllister’s voice. It sounded as if it would have suited the bastard well if Jeremy had never returned.
"Luckily everybody else is in one piece as well…", McAllister continued. There was a pause. Then his voice suddenly sounded much harsher.
"Which is quite amazing considering there is this idiot RFC officer running around taking potshots at his own side!"
Jeremy tried to stay calm, but he was aware his breath was coming more quickly.
"Sir, I can explain."
But McAllister’s look of disgust only intensified.
"You can explain, can you, lieutenant Armstrong? Well now, that changes everything. That means I can contact captain Merville of the 7th Warwickshires and tell him that, no, we don’t harbor complete goofballs here at Sainte-Breuve-sur-Pont, and, yes, it’s perfectly normal for pilots to burn their aircraft when they feel like it, and, so what, if they feel like some target practice and they shoot at the army, try and kill a captain, physically assault and injure a private, well… it’s all part of the service, is it, Lieutenant?"
The sneer was all too evident.
Jeremy fought down an urge to punch the face in front of him as hard as he could.
"Sir…", he started, then thought better of it.
He shut up. Better be quiet and get it over with, he thought.
But McAllister was a long way from being finished yet.
He indicated a piece of paper on his desk.
"I have here a report written by a pilot from seventy six squadron. I gather he saw you go down?"
Jeremy nodded. McAllister continued.
"He seemed reluctant to go into detail, and I had to have him leaned upon from above before I got this report from him. It makes interesting reading. Would you like to hear it?" It was not a sincere invitation. Jeremy knew it was going to be read out regardless of what he said.
McAllister continued after a slight pause, fingering the document.
"…I was returning from a routine patrol with two other squadron aircraft, when I observed a lone SE5a flying very low above the lines. After a while it became evident that the aircraft was in difficulty, as no sensible pilot would remain that low in such an exposed position for very long…"
McAllister looked up, his eyes hard.
"Do you hear that, Armstrong? He says no sensible pilot…"
Jeremy felt his cheeks flush.
McAllister continued.
"I signaled the other two aircraft to continue home, and I dived to intercept. Because of superior height and speed, I managed to draw close, but was unable to attract the attention of the pilot…"
McAllister looked up, distaste in his eyes. Jeremy felt an artery beating unnaturally in his throat. McAllister remained silent, as if in thought, before he droned on.
"…The pilot appeared to have an engine failure, but was flying erratically. He saw me eventually…"
McAllister lingered on the word.
"…and I was able to communicate to him that I was aware of his predicament. He seemed to aim for a site which would have been unsuitable for a forced landing in any event. However, he obviously misjudged his glide, and maneouvered out of range. He then appeared to panic, and crashed quite unnecessarily into a wooded hill. I noticed no signs of fire, and returned to organize a search party. Upon landing back, I was informed that a search was already under way, the aircraft having been observed by a British anti aircraft battery, as well as troops in transit on the main road nearby. I contacted Major McAllister at Sainte-Breuve-sur-Pont who requested a written report…"
McAllister looked up, and tapped the report to add effect to his words.
"So, my friend, can you explain WHY your valuable aircraft apparently burst into flames five hours later? WHY did you believe yourself on the German side of the lines when in fact you had already crossed over to our side?"
Jeremy swallowed, trying to marshal his thoughts.
"Sir, I… I was cold. I lit a small fire to keep warm, and somehow a spark must have ignited the fuel. She went up quite unexpectedly. As for the mix-up with the ground troops, they… I…"
He tried hard to figure out how he had managed to cross the lines without knowing it.
"I guess the engine must have quit before I got to the lines. Then I was so busy looking for the cause, and looking for a flat field, that I was not really looking for trenches. With all this snow on the ground, they’re a lot harder to see."
He felt like adding a comment to the effect that if McAllister would do more flying instead of hogging his office, that he would know for himself how the snow and frost changed the landscape.
McAllister pretended to listen earnestly, but Jeremy knew he was merely psyching him out. He watched in disgust as the Major pulled out a cigarette, inserted it in a long ivory cigarette holder, and lazily struck a match.
Jeremy would have enjoyed a cigarette, and in his exhausted and bedraggled state, he felt his temper rising all the time.
Something told him to shut it, but something else thought:
"Aw, what the hell…"
"And as regards the value of the aircraft, Sir, by the time I had landed and finished with it…"
He left it at that, a wholly irrational, mischievous, mental chuckle cheering him up rapidly.
The squadron leader turned slowly red. When he spoke again, it was all very soft. Dangerously soft.
"Do you know what I think, Armstrong? I think you flunked it. I think you decided to give yourself up to the Huns because you couldn’t stand a little bit of cold, and that you lit the aircraft to guide them in. Then, when you realized that the approaching troops were British, you panicked. You realized you’d be up to your scrawny little neck in it for destroying a valuable aircraft, and so you faked that whole ridiculous little incident of shooting at the patrol and running away. I think you’re in big trouble, my friend. There are three charges for me to consider:
firstly, recklessly endangering and then losing a perfectly good aircraft. Secondly, endangering the lives of fellow British soldiers, and thirdly, rank cowardice…"

It was too much for Jeremy. He had listened in rising astonishment, but now the dam burst. He exploded into a cold temper:
"If you think all that, then good luck to you. That is the biggest load of old cock I’ve ever heard. Yes, I made a mistake which side of the lines I was on. It’s easily done. Which you would know if you flew some more combat patrols as opposed to fighting the war from behind your desk. I was also being fired at by enemy ack-ack. I had my hands full trying to find a site suitable for a forced landing. The whole place is wooded. As for the forced landing. Yes, I misjudged it. But I didn’t just then crash any old how. I did the best I could in the circumstances. As for deliberately setting fire to the aircraft so the Huns would come and pick me up, and firing deliberately on our own troops…"
He controlled the fury within with a super human effort.
"I categorically deny that allegation."
He tried to breath steadily. "Sir", he added as an afterthought.
McAllister eyed him steadily. There was triumph in his voice as he continued:
"And fourthly, I could add a charge of rank insubordination to a superior officer."
Jeremy stared woodenly at the wall.
McAllister was enjoying himself.
"And as for the ack-ack, Armstrong, artillery can shoot across the lines, you know".
Inwardly, Jeremy cursed. On that point of course, McAllister was right. It also explained of course why the ack-ack had died off during his last two thousand feet. He had been out of range below the horizon. At the time however, with a high workload, he had simply not twigged onto that fact. It was infuriating. And that self righteous ponce from seventy six squadron… Who was he to make judgments on other people’s flying? ‘Flying erratically’, ‘seemed to panic’, ‘crashed quite unnecessarily’… the words stung deeply.
Still, he had to keep the cool. Anything he said would only make matters worse. McAllister would twist everything anyhow.
The Major was speaking, but Jeremy was hardly listening. His thoughts were bitter, and far away. It was with a shock that he heard the words: "…meanwhile, you are grounded whilst we decide whether or not the RFC should continue to avail itself of your services…"
His head was on the chopping block! He risked being packed off home in disgrace!

He left the office in quiet, weary disgust.
He needed sleep desperately. But anger had now lit his mind with a bitter fire, and he sat on his bunk for a long time. Eventually he rose, and went to wash his face.
The face that regarded him from the mirror was hard to recognize. Caked in dried blood, mud and filth, with two shiny black eyes, it stared emptily at him.
He sighed. He was in disgrace – again.
Whatever about the cost to the Germans of Jeremy’s War, i.e. two Hun machines destroyed, his own side had now also lost two, plus two cracked up.
What a miserable life.

He washed carefully and painfully, and then lowered himself gently onto the bed. Not for the first time of his life, he lay there with bitter thoughts. Dog tired, but unable to sleep, whilst his mind played the same scenes over and over again, without seemingly finding any answers…

F.M.
(c)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 27, 2008, 4:28 pm


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