Jeremy’s War: Chapter 32 “A plea for mercy “

Posted on November 9, 2008


For the next week, the ‘Master Plan’ was continually postponed. The weather -ironically- was too clear. Baxter wanted a certain amount of cloud around, to afford concealment for the main body of thirty odd aircraft.
‘A’ Flight flew several times, and Jeremy divided his operational time between intensive flying, carrying out simulated attacks when the enemy failed to show up, and long ground briefings. His three wingmen were improving steadily, and even Dodgy Dek had managed his first victory.

A squalid affair, Jeremy thought. The victim was a haplessly blundering Rumpler two seater, who appeared to have got quite lost. ‘A’ flight had sneaked up carefully, staying well up in the sun. Jeremy had suspected a trap, and had held off two thousand feet higher, keeping Mac with him. With well rehearsed hand signals, he had motioned Dek and Tiny down to attack the Rumpler. The two had taken it in turns to attack the slow German, and it had been Dek’s burst which had killed or disabled the unfortunate observer. Realizing his success, he had stayed on the enemy’s tail, emptying all his ammunition into the defenseless Rumpler. It had taken surprisingly long, but eventually Fate had smiled – cruelly – on one bullet, which had penetrated the fuel tank. Deadly liquid had sploshed straight over the left magneto. The resultant conflagration had been spectacular, and even from Jeremy’s vantage point, it had seemed that the outlines of the aircraft were almost lost in a continuous sheet of flame, with pitch black smoke billowing away from it.
Why do they always burn?
Jeremy had shuddered, and mentally hoped for a quick death for the poor pilot. In many ways it was an unremarkable, classic kill. Sneaking up on a careless or preoccupied enemy, keeping an extremely good look out everywhere, move in fast, hit hard, and get out fast. It would have been filed away quickly with other best forgotten memories, but for two extraordinary sequels.

The first corollary had been on the ground, afterward.
Dek had been quite beside himself with exultation. He had leaped out of his cockpit, and danced around the aircraft, shouting: “I got one! I got one! I bagged my first Hun! ” Then he had waltzed off to the mess, leaving a bemused Jeremy half in, and half out of his cockpit.
He had tried to figure it out. Was this the real Dek Moriarty? What had happened to the serious, thoughtful chap, who didn’t smile a lot? The man was delirious. Ecstatic.
Tiny seemed quite amused about it, and sportingly refrained from either staking a half claim, or making any mention of his part in the proceedings.
A couple of hours later, Jeremy had absently walked into the mess, and accidentally flopped down in a chair that Dek had just – temporarily – vacated. Jeremy’s eye had dropped to a large writing pad, and a half written letter. He had read the first sentence before he realized what he was doing. His immediate initial reaction then had been to jump up, and move to another seat. Something had drawn his gaze back to the letter. Guiltily, but unable to help himself, he had devoured the rest.

Dear Helen!

I got my first Hun today…! At last!
I ROASTED the little bugger! What a lovely sight!
We were out as usual, and Armstrong must have spotted this Rumpler from a long way off. We went sneaking around, twisting and turning the whole formation in the sun, whilst we slowly snook up on the little rat.
Armstrong sent me and Tiny down to attack, whilst he and Mac stayed on guard upstairs.
I got the observer right in the face. He suddenly let go of his gun, and clasped both hands to his ugly Kraut mush. Great! I knew I had them then. I could get quite close, and raked the whole machine with gunfire. The pilot kept looking around at me, and trying to swerve away, but the SE5 is easily more maneuverable, and I followed him no problem. At one stage he was waving a white cloth or rag, and started to fly dead straight. He kept looking at me, as if he was pleading. Maybe he thought he could surrender. Stupid bastard. I wasn’t having any of that, and I kept firing. By flying straight, he only made it easier for me. I must have got the petrol tank next, because suddenly there was a really amazing explosion, and you’ve never seen such a fire. The whole aeroplane was absolutely enveloped in flame, and I had to side slip smartly. Still, I followed him down, and got a grandstand view of the pilot beating at the flames with his hands.
No more sausages for that boy! I can’t wait to get my next one…

Jeremy had been appalled. Almost sick.
The sheer bloodthirstiness amazed him. Is that what it was all about? Is that why he trained his flight so carefully, so that they could achieve – and enjoy – results like that? Had the German been trying to surrender? Had that been a plea for mercy? It had happened before.
Christ almighty! What a war!
Dek had come bouncing excitedly back in, and Jeremy had evacuated the chair, torn between different and conflicting emotions. Guilt. Anger. Bewilderment.
He tried, as so often, to analyze his emotions.
Why feel guilty?
The guilt was odd. He had seen as bad, or worse things himself. But somehow the picture of the poor pleading pilot was burned into his mind all the sharper for NOT having seen it. The fire raged in his mind, which was worse than seeing it in real life.
Should he have spotted it, and taken over? Impossible. He had been flying two thousand feet higher.
Why feel angry?
That was easier. Bloody Dek! He would talk to that guy later. After the evening patrol, he would clobber that feelingless moron, and get to the bottom of this.
Struggling to keep a neutral expression, Jeremy was aware nonetheless that he felt an emotion which was near to hate, as he studied his fellow airman from across the room, through narrowed eyelids.

I could wring your greasy little neck! Have you got zero imagination!? Or worse, have you got nil compassion? What kind of human being are you? God, what a world! Has it come to this? We revel in another bastard trying to beat out the flames with his hands? We think it’s bloody FUNNY? My God…

A different thought struck him.

Is it me? Am I missing the point? Is Dek, from another point of view, the ideal soldier? The perfect killing machine… Maybe he should be congratulated, and promoted on account of militarily useful emotional insensitivity. Maybe the RFC and the Queen would be better off with many more Dodgy Deks, and fewer Jeremy Armstrongs?

He thought back to his questions at Sainte-Breuve-sur Pont, and the raised eyebrows and quizzical looks rose up again in his mind, with an intensity that had not lessened with the passage of time. What was it that they had said? Was he a Bolshevik? Whose side was he on? He remembered his hurt at their rejection, as they all busied themselves intently in their papers and magazines, coughing theatrically and humming – idiots! – Rule Britannia!, as if to state a point.
Why feel bewildered?
Soddin’ war! The whole, stupid, bloody, pointless friggin’ mess!

He had gone for a walk, anger being the dominant emotion.
A fury that expressed itself in each heavy footstep that thudded down with military precision. He held his shoulders back, and marched – left,right,left – to God knows where.
Left, right, left.
Nothing made sense anymore. But he was a soldier, and he could still march.
Left, right, left.
There was comfort in the military walk. Maybe he could switch his mind off. Deaden his feelings.
Left, right, left.
Here comes the soldier! Make way!
Despair, loneliness, and bewilderment skipped delightedly along behind.

The second corollary had come that same evening.
They had been on escort duty, protecting the usual lumbering artillery spotter, along with ‘C’ Flight, when they had been attacked by a large mixed force of Albatri, Fokker Triplanes, and, oddly, two examples of the Pfalz biplane. ‘C’ Flight had lost a machine immediately, but ‘A’ Flight’s well rehearsed instructions had worked out well. Jeremy had dispatched Tiny – flanked by Dek – to attack two enemy machines, whilst he himself – protected by Mac – had attacked a blue Albatros with a green tail. He had promptly hit the cabane struts, severing at least two with withering fire. The machine had lurched sickeningly, before losing its top wing. Jeremy had peeled off then, and turned to rejoin Tiny and Dek. He was just in time to see Tiny score cleanly, by shooting a Fokker Triplane pilot through the head. The machine reared up, stalled, and kicked over viciously into a spin. It could have been a sham, designed to escape, but Jeremy doubted it. Tiny, flushed and pleased with himself, knew for sure.
The battle plan called for mutual support, with no man fighting on his own. As far as Jeremy was concerned, two was the minimum number. It was his own theory, and many flight leaders would have disapproved.
Somebody raked his machine with fire, and he skidded violently sideways. His head pivoted in all directions, and within the space of several frantic seconds, he snatched glimpses of Mac firing at an unseen opponent, Tiny firing at another Triplane, and Dek… Dek had been peeling away from Tiny, and diving recklessly after a retreating Pfalz. Jeremy had registered the departure from the often hammered out strategy, but before he could have done anything about it, more bullets had ripped through his lower starboard wing.
It had been a brave deflection shot, remarkable for its accuracy, and Jeremy had hauled himself around in a screamingly steep turn. His engine had run a bit rough, and coughed, and he had lost a few seconds worrying about that. When he next had looked, an all blue shape had been streaking down after Dek, who had already opened fire -from too great a range- on the Pfalz. Jeremy had rolled over hard, and dived after the blue shape, but he had stood no chance. He didn’t even need to look closely at the attacker. He knew it was all blue, with not a trace of green…
A quick look around had shown his tail all clear, with Mac faithfully shadowing his leader. When next he looked… the burst of fire from the Blue Albatros could not have lasted longer than five seconds, but its effect had been deadly. Dek’s machine had gone into a steep dive, and Jeremy had immediately suspected the worst. He had fired a burst from an absurd range, purely in hope. The Blue Albatros had followed Dek down, firing in short, well aimed bursts.
Then, as the dive became impossible, he had pulled out, studying Jeremy over his shoulder. More aircraft from both sides had arrived, and Jeremy, low on fuel and out of ammunition, had dived for home. Mac had followed, and before they had got home, a vigilant Tiny had also rejoined the formation.

The debrief on the ground had been short and bitter. Nobody had seen Dek actually hit the ground. ‘C’ Flight had lost two machines, with a returning pilot hit in the abdomen. He was in agony, and his legs were soaked in blood.
A bad day.
Hope lingered for a while, but faded with a report from an observer post of an SE5 seen going down in the correct location.
Dodgy Dek was dead. The fact that it was his own bloody fault was no consolation.
To Jeremy fell the task of clearing up the man’s personal effects. The first thing he saw, open on the dead pilot’s dressing table, was the writing pad. He checked, and his lip curled. Dek Moriarty hadn’t even finished his triumphant letter…

* * *

To Genevieve, to be going out with a flier was not only exciting. It was something to be proud of. She wrote long volumes to her absent Parisian friends.
Jeremy was a hero. He shot down Germans.
The thought perturbed her not in the slightest.
She saw things black-and-white. The Germans were the enemy. They were bad. To kill them was good.
It was as simple as that.

If somebody had suggested to her that she wore Jeremy like a badge, like a trophy, she would have been dumbfounded. If that same person had asked her if she could love the man behind the success, she would have reacted angrily. The fact was that she did not distinguish between the two: the man, and the image.
To her, they were one and the same. Inseparable.
Jeremy was kind and gentle. Weak? Never! Insecure? Not at all. Jeremy was a tough soldier, an airman, who was good at killing Germans. Like Charles Nungesser.

* * *

Heidi’s father was declining in strength.
She watched it with horror and fear. She was so far removed emotionally from her mother, that the idea of losing her father to Death was more than she could bear.
He was losing his grip on reality a little, and slowly slipping into senility. He would ramble for hours, often making no sense at all.
Then, suddenly, he would talk, in the most lucid and stimulated manner, of his childhood. Of his father, whom he had loved.
At other times, he would talk about the war, and talk of the stupidity of politicians, and the lack of loving in ordinary people. He would grip Heidi by the arm, and address her urgently, as if what he had to say was of the utmost import to the whole world.
“Love, Heidi. It all does boil down to Love. The Bible is right, you know, it’s right. It all makes sense. All of us are challenged to love. All of us make choices between Good and Evil, every day. God, Heidi, I can see it so clearly now…

His fevered eyes would become over excited, and she would try and sooth him. Mostly, he would acquiesce.
At other times, he would lie there, chuckling quietly.
“Heidi “, he would say, “I love you more than I can ever say. You will find God too. He is always near you… ”
Then he would reach out, and grab for her hand. She would feel her heart breaking, as the tired old man clutched feebly at her.
“Never give up on Love, Heidi…
He would cough, a pathetic old man’s cough. Racking, eyes closed, with spittle running down his chin.
But then the eyes would flash open. Bright. Excited.
“Heidi, I’ll be waiting for you. Hans is there as well.
We’ll be waiting for you… ”

* * *

Jeremy slammed into his room, and aimed a ferocious kick at a defenseless chair. It smashed against the wall, one leg hanging at an odd angle. He ripped the pictures off the wall, and smashed them to pieces. Books and ornaments were swept off the shelves, and went flying through the room. He kicked at the walls, screaming at the top of his voice. The grotesque vase with the dirty yellow butterfly
flew through the air, and smashed into the mirror with a colossal crashing, shattering noise. Outside, two passing airmen stopped in surprise, and one started off to investigate. The other, wiser, placed a restraining hand on his colleague’s arm.
“It’s Jeremy. He lost Dek today. Better leave him to it… ”
They walked on, without looking back, pretending to the world they couldn’t hear the extraordinary cacophony.
A bystander might have thought it almost comical, the way they adopted expressions of studied innocence.

Jeremy, red faced, panting, with perspiration standing on his forehead, had been wielding his tennis racket – still in its wooden press – to remarkable effect. He was about to close on his gramophone, but common sense stayed the executioner’s hand just in time. It was too precious a possession. The club froze in mid air, and was slowly lowered. He glared at the gramophone, and then tossed the mangled remains of the racket he had once won the school final with, carelessly into a corner. He aimed a vicious kick at the remains of the bookcase. Books and magazines slithered across the floor, and some of his anger was spent. Some papers slid out of the ‘Works of William Shakespeare’ – one of Baines’ old books – and Jeremy, surprised, stooped to investigate.
The copperplate handwriting was unmistakeable. Only Baines wrote like that. Carefully, Jeremy picked the sheets up, and realized he was staring at some poetry.
His fury forgotten for the moment, he sat down on the bed, which was mercifully intact, and flicked through the poems. One caught his eye.
‘A Man Is Waiting In The Sun’. The title arrested him, and he read on curiously. So Baines had written poetry as well…


A man is waiting in the sun,
his soul is fierce and scarred;
He speaks the language of his gun,
his eyes are blue and hard.

He is a man I can’t befriend,
from whom I cannot run;
Fate knows the day the hunt will end,
somewhere in the sun.

He stopped reading, and thought bitterly of the times he had peered up into a blinding sun, eyes hurting, searching for an enemy who might – or might not – be at that very moment watching his every move. No matter how high you flew, there was always the risk that the enemy had flown even higher, and was still, despite all your efforts, grinning down viciously at you. Baines was right. It all happened up there, ‘somewhere in the sun’.

His patience adds a cutting edge,
the gaze that studies me;
way high upon a cloudy ledge
he waits revengefully.

I wish I knew the day he planned
to strike the exit blow
so many days he lay and scanned
the sunlit plains below.

I landed back amongst my own
surprised he’d let me go.
Perhaps a fading, distant drone,
betrayed my waiting foe.

Each day could write my epitaph,
if someone cared to try;
although I doubt my autograph,
would move the hard blue eye.

His careful aim is cold and clear,
no pity lingers long;
such weakness merits but a sneer,
his mouth is tight and strong.

The picture of a merciless face, aiming down the gun sight at Baines’ unprotected back, was disturbing. Jeremy had witnessed the event that Baines had foreseen. The Blue Albatros had struck again, cold, merciless, and quick.
Who was that man? His tactical thinking was superb. His ability to punish a mistake quickly and ruthlessly was second to none. It was rumored he had scored fifty victories…
Had Baines foreseen his own death? There was no great achievement in that. The chances were loaded against long term survival. No matter how hard you tried. The day’s events had proved that. The picture of Dek going down in flames, his killer on his tail, filled Jeremy’s mind, and he felt the rage rising within him again. The Blue Albatros – always! The bastard was clever. So damn clever. He never fought overwhelming odds. Never fought the strong ones. No, he always went for the weaker ones, and avoided the experienced enemy. That is why he had broken off from the duel with Jeremy…
Was it the Blue Albatros that Baines had in mind, when he wrote ‘his eyes are blue and hard’ ?
What sort of man killed so professionally, so calculatingly, so clinically, in such vast quantities? Did he feel anything? It seemed unlikely. Baines was right. The man was hard. Without feeling. His only ideology projected out of the barrel of a gun. Cruel. Cynical. Murderous. Pitiless. He had killed Baines, a man infinitely more deserving to live.
The swine deserved to die…
The sudden rush of pure hate that poisoned Jeremy’s soul made him almost choke with suppressed rage. He clenched both fists, gritted his teeth, and bent his head.
The piece of paper fluttered onto the floor.
He would kill the Blue Albatros! He would kill the bastard as sure as he would stamp on a bug. For Baines’ sake, for Dek’s sake, for everybody’s sake… he would kill the bastard. His arteries were swollen, his fists beat his head, and his mouth contorted grotesquely.
The scream of undiluted rage was heard over a wide area, and heads turned, and faces frowned, at the hysterical note that sounded in the voice that screamed, over and over again:


The renewed sound of thumping, banging and crashing only served to accentuate the unreal nature of what was going on.
Nobody laughed. The furtive looks that were exchanged, indicated only too clearly that everybody understood only too well that this rage was in homicidal earnest.
Suddenly, six pistol shots crashed out, one after the other. The sound was unmistakable. In the mess, everybody dived for cover, and those caught out in the open ran for shelter. Now what was the crazy idiot doing? Had he shot himself?
A sudden deafening sound of breaking glass drew some careful heads above the parapets. Very cautiously, they tried to identify what object had just been hurled through the window. When they recognized it, the eyes grew bigger…

Out on the path, in the midst of broken panes, furniture, books and ornaments, lay the tragic, smashed remains of a gramophone…
Kicked and stamped to pieces, and riddled with bullets.
The brave heads exchanged even more furtive glances, and ducked away quickly. Everybody knew that Jeremy Armstrong’s gramophone had been his most cherished possession…

For the next few hours, anybody passing anywhere near his room, did so on tip toe.

* * *

It was late now. Darkness had come several hours before.
Jeremy had not emerged from his room. The squadron held its breath. The guard room was aware of the shooting – no one could have missed it – but, lacking orders to investigate, they were glad to be able to wait this one out. Had they been able to see the inside of Jeremy’s room, they would have been even more worried about his sanity than they were.
The man who had caused all the commotion, was sitting unconcerned on the floor, surrounded by unrecognizable pieces of wood, crockery, and broken records. There was no longer a bed to sit on. He was calm now, and the storm had passed. His mind was back to contemplating the poem he had been reading. What was it Baines had written?

Fate knows the day the hunt will end,
somewhere in the sun.

It was true. They would fight it out, one day, in the sun. How many times had they already met? Many times.
How many times had the Blue Albatros studied Jeremy, without attacking?
He thought of the poem, and wanted to read it again.
Scrabbling around in the ruins, he sought the piece of paper. Earnestly at first, he became increasingly desperate. Where was the bloody thing? Books and other papers went flying around the room, and the spoken commentary started to increase in both volume and vocabulary. Then he found it, wedged under the remains of the wardrobe. He smoothed it out, relieved, and settled down on the floor to read it again. There was nowhere else to sit.
It was only then that he realized that he had not finished it before. There were two more stanzas.
His mind full of cold fury, and determination to kill the enemy, he devoured the remaining words.

I’ll have to meet him in the end,
relying on my gun;
Fate knows the hour we two will blend
somewhere in the sun.

I hate him not and know his sort
perhaps surprisingly,
but then again, the truth we fought?
the man I hunt – is me.

The second last stanza at first fitted in well with his bloodthirsty thoughts. The last stanza totally confused him. He read it again, several times.
Then he re-read the second last stanza, and got stuck on the choice of verb: ‘blend’.
Blend? To ‘mix together’? Funny choice.
Surely Baines didn’t mean: ‘to become one and the same’? Jeremy scratched his head. Was he missing something? Did Baines mean that he himself had become a ruthless killer, deserving of his fate? Rubbish! Surely!

It was a long time before he carefully replaced the poem in ‘The Works of William Shakespeare’.
He stayed quiet for a long time, thinking.

This time, his anger was wholly spent.

Francis Meyrick

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