Fighting the Flying Circus/Chapter 20
THE German advance, beginning late in June, had resulted in forcing a deep salient in the lines between Soissons and Rheims. These two cities lie on an east-and-west line, both are situated on the Vesle River, and but twenty-odd miles separate them. Rheims, to the east, had withstood the assaults of the Hun, but Soissons and the important highways and railroads centering there were now held by the Germans.
Straight south from Soissons the trenches now ran —south for twenty miles, until the banks of the Marne River were reached; then they curved northwards and east, the belligerents facing each other from opposite sides of the river almost to Epernay—a city almost directly south of Rheims.
Thus the salient which now most threatened Paris and the region south of the Marne was approximately twenty miles deep and twenty miles wide. It included Château-Thierry which lay on the north bank of the Marne. Our aerodrome at Touquin lay south another twenty miles from Château-Thierry. In that position we were then south even of the city of Paris itself.
With full knowledge of the increasing strength of the American army in France, and having decided to stake all upon one last effort before the arrival of our troops in their entirety, the Hun commanders had then even stripped the able-bodied men from their munition factories throughout Germany, in order to secure a victory at the front before it became too late. The loss of these factory workers spelled an ultimate failure in the supply of munitions of war necessary to a long campaign. If this last desperate thrust failed, the Boches must admit themselves defeated.
The subsequent breakdown of the German Army was the natural climax to this desperate strategy. This last drive for Paris and Amiens must be the last. Every ounce of energy was therefore expended. Every division and every squadron of aviators that could be spared from other sections of the front were hurriedly concentrated upon these two districts—that of Château-Thierry and the St. Quentin-to-Amiens district.
When the orders came to 94 Squadron to shift from Toul to this new Château-Thierry sector the German fighting squadrons had already left the vicinity of Verdun-St. Mihiel-Pont-à-Mousson. Only the regular photographing and observing machines were still abroad there for our entertainment. Arrived at our new quarters, we found a very different situation. Our entertainment here promised to be fast and furious enough to suit the most ambitious airman.
It was quickly discovered by our own Intelligence Officers that the best of the German fighting squadrons were now patrolling our skies. Captured prisoners, the markings on the planes we shot down, the photographs and observations of our airmen and other sources which are employed to gain this information— all told the same story. On the aerodrome at Coincy, a large field just north of Château-Thierry, was located the distinguished Richthofen Squadron, then commanded by Captain Reinhardt. Its machines were distinguishable by their scarlet noses and by the extraordinary skilfulness of their pilots. It was now included in Jagstaffel No. 1, which comprised four Flights of seven machines each.
Jagstaffel No. 2 was a scarcely inferior aggregation of German aces under command of Captain Loerser, himself a victor over forty-two aerial antagonists. The aeroplanes of his squadron were also Fokkers. Instead of the scarlet markings on nose and wings, No. 2 Jagstaffel had the belly of each fusilage painted a bright yellow. These machines occupied the same field with the Richthofen Circus.
The third famous fighting squadron of the Germans, Jagstaffel No. 3, was at that time under command of Captain Bettenge, an air fighter celebrated in Hunland not only for his twenty-five victories but for his great success as a trainer of adroit air-fighters. This squadron occupied an aerodrome back of St. Quentin. While usually engaged with British antagonists further north, this squadron frequently made its appearance opposite us during the hottest days of fighting in our sector.
Thus it became evident to us that we American aviators were at last to meet the very choicest personnel of the enemy air forces. Not only would these experienced pilots be mounted upon superior machines, but they had been trained to fly in such close formation that they need fear no attack until they themselves were ready to accept combat. And they had consolidated here in such numbers that every time we crossed the lines we found the sky full of them. 94 Squadron at that time had 17 pilots and 24 aeroplanes available. Squadrons No. 95, No. 27 and No. 145 had approximately the same number each. No other American fighting squadrons were then assisting us in the defense of this sector.
Without desiring to make any reflection upon the French airmen who were stationed near us in this sector, it is necessary to show that the state of French morale was at that time notoriously bad. Indeed it would have been strange after four years of severe warfare to have found that personnel in France had not suffered enormously, as in the other fighting countries. After the loss of the eager volunteer for aviation, it became necessary to press into that service men who much preferred the infantry, cavalry or artillery. As was to be expected, the resultant air force of France did not measure up to its former prestige.
Consequently the few American squadrons who were suddenly plunged into the thick of this ferocious conflict at Château-Thierry found that they were overwhelmingly outnumbered, poorly supported and lamentably equipped, both in machines and experience.
When therefore I later learned that the Intelligence Office of the enemy Air Force had complimented the American pilots by saying that "they fought more like Indians than soldiers," and that "they upset all our training by dashing in single-handed against our formations"—I felt a great glow of pride and confidence in the bravery our boys exhibited throughout that trying campaign.
The losses in our group during the four weeks we occupied this sector at Château-Thierry amounted to 36 pilots, who were either captured or killed. Among the latter class was Quentin Roosevelt, who fell in flames on July 14th, 1918. Our victories during this same period were 38, two more than the number we had lost!
Quentin Roosevelt's death was a sad blow to the whole group. As President Roosevelt's son he had rather a difficult task to fit himself in with the democratic style of living which is necessary in the intimate life of an aviation camp. Every one who met him for the first time expected him to have the airs and superciliousness of a spoiled boy. This notion was quickly lost after the first glimpse one had of Quentin. Gay, hearty and absolutely square in everything he said or did, Quentin Roosevelt was one of the most popular fellows in the group. We loved him purely for his own natural self.
He was reckless to such a degree that his commanding officers had to caution him repeatedly about the senselessness of his lack of caution. His bravery was so notorious that we all knew he would either achieve some great spectacular success or be killed in the attempt. Even the pilots in his own Flight would beg him to conserve himself and wait for a fair opportunity for a victory. But Quentin would merely laugh away all serious advice. His very next flight over enemy lines would involve him in a fresh predicament from which pure luck on more than a few occasions extricated him.
A few days before his death Quentin Roosevelt went over the lines with his formation, and they came home without him. Later he arrived and laughingly announced that he had shot down his first Hun machine. Upon being questioned about the combat, he admitted that he had been lost after striking off by himself to investigate a large formation of enemy machines, which he had discovered in the distance. Resolving to be prudent in the matter, he reversed his direction after discovering they numbered over twenty to his one. He flew about alone for a while, then discovering, as he supposed, his own formation ahead of him he overtook them, dropped in behind and waited patiently for something to turn up.
It came about fifteen minutes later.
His formation continued almost straight ahead during all this time, he following quietly along in the last position. Quentin had no idea where they were headed and didn't care. He had violated his duty once by leaving them and now he intended blindly to follow the leader. Meditating thus, he failed to notice that the leader had dipped a signal and had begun to virage to the left. Quentin awoke just in time to see the aeroplane ahead of him suddenly stick his nose up and begin a virage. Then to his horror he discovered that he had been following an enemy patrol all the time! Every machine ahead of him wore a huge black maltese cross on its wings and tail! They were as unconscious of his identity as he had been of theirs.
Quentin fired one long burst as he in turn completed the virage and rejoined the formation. The aeroplane immediately preceding him dropped at once and within a second or two burst into flames. Quentin put down his nose and streaked it for home before the astonished Huns had time to notice what had happened. He was not even pursued!
It was this style of Indian warfare that had moved the German Intelligence Office to state that their training was indeed hopeless against the Americans' recklessness. German formation flying was admirable until an American joined it and maneuvered in concert with it for fifteen minutes before shooting it up! One can imagine the disgust of the methodical Boches as they digested this latest trick of the Yank!
Lieutenant Quentin Roosevelt met his death during an unusually severe dog-fight in the air. He left the aerodrome with his formation of five planes and proceeded across the lines east of Château-Thierry. The sky was thick with enemy formations as usual. Both our own and the enemy's aeroplanes were largely engaged at that time in strafing trenches and the main highways upon which columns of troops were continually advancing to occupy the lines. One did not have to seek far to find a fight.
Within ten minutes after crossing the trenches the little formation from 95 Squadron took on a Fokker formation of seven machines. They were both at a low altitude and evidently both were intent upon discovering a favorable ground target covered with marching men. The five Americans accepted the Hun challenge for a combat and dropped all other business for the time being.
During the rapid circling about, in which both groups were endeavoring to break up the formation of the antagonist, Quentin discovered the approach of another flight of red-nosed Fokkers, coining from above and behind. He withdrew by himself and flew ahead to meet the newcomers, climbing as he flew. The others were utterly unconscious of his departure, since Quentin flew in the last rear position on one of the wings.
It was a cloudy day and the aeroplanes were up near to and occasionally lost in the obscurity of the clouds. Suddenly Lieutenant Buford, the leader of Quentin's formation, saw a Nieuport falling through the clouds from above him. It was out of control as it swept by him. Without realizing whose machine it was, Buford knew that an enemy force was above him. He already had more than his hands full in the present company. Signalling his pilots to follow him, he broke off the contest and re-crossed the lines. Then he discovered the absence of Quentin Roosevelt!
That same night a wireless message came from the Germans saying that Quentin had been shot down by Sergeant Thom of the Richthofen Circus. Thom at that time had a record of twenty-four planes to his credit. The additional information was received that Quentin had been buried with military honors. No honors, however, could have compensated our group for the loss of that boy. The news was flashed throughout the world that Quentin Roosevelt was dead! Occasional press reports came to us that some imaginative reporter had stated that perhaps he was not in reality killed, but was merely a prisoner; thereby selling several more papers while unnecessarily distressing a bereaved family with utterly false hopes.
A story came to my attention later which deserves a drastic reply. New York newspapers gave wide publicity to a statement made by a certain non-combatant named Hungerford who claimed to have been employed on the Château-Thierry sector of the front at this time. He not only attempted to describe the fight in which Quentin Roosevelt lost his life, but even intimated that had Quentin's comrades not fled, thereby leaving Quentin alone against desperate odds, the whole German formation might have been destroyed. He stated that he saw the fight and that Quentin before his sad death actually shot down two of the enemy planes.
This whole story is absolute piffle. Nobody saw Quentin's last fight except the Huns who shot him down. The fight itself occurred ten miles back of the German lines over Fère-en-Tarden. Quentin did not shoot down two enemy planes nor did his comrades desert him in time of trouble. It will be very unhealthful for Mr. Hungerford to meet the members of 95 Squadron upon their return to New York. A more gallant lot of boys never came to France, as this non combatant gentleman will discover when he meets them.
During all this time I had been practically out of the fighting at the front. I had made but two flights over the lines at Château-Thierry, one on my old Nieuport and the second on my Spad. On neither expedition did I meet an enemy aeroplane, nor was I anxious to do so until I had quite mastered the tricks and wiles of my new Spad.
On July 10th I became suddenly aware of a sharp pain in my right ear. It grew worse and I decided to have the Squadron doctor look me over. He sent me to Paris by the next train to have the ear-drum lanced. An abscess had formed which might prove dangerous. Thus I was again forced to fret and turn upon a hospital bed for several days while my Squadron was going through with the most severe trials in its short experience. Doug Campbell was away, leaving Jimmy Meissner, Reed Chambers, Alan Winslow and Thorn Taylor the principal stars of our organization. I used to lie in my bed and wonder how many of these old comrades would greet me when I returned to my aerodrome!
On July 15th, while lying half asleep on my bed in the hospital, I was suddenly startled by a tremendous explosion outside my windows. The nurses soon came by with frightened expressions on their faces. I asked one what it was.
"It was one of the long-distance shells the Boches are again firing into Paris!" she said. "They began that when they were about to start their great offensive of March 21st. For some time they have not been shooting into Paris. Now that it begins again it is certain that they are commencing another drive !"
The young Frenchwoman was right. The very next day we heard that the long anticipated drive from Château-Thierry had begun. The heavy artillery barrage had started at midnight and the offensive upon which the Germans were founding all their hopes was now on.
It was in fact the beginning of the end of the war! Nobody then realized it, of course; but General Foch, who possessed exact information of just when and where the Huns would strike, had prepared for it by crowding in immense quantities of artillery from Château-Thierry to Rheims, from Rheims on eastward to the Argonne Forest. Just two hours in advance of the first German shell he began such a terrific barrage over the lines that the enemy forces were completely disorganized. They were never again to threaten Paris or the allied armies!
And then the Second Division of the American Army began their great drive at the top of the Château-Thierry salient at Soissons—while the French began to pinch in the line at Rheims. All that great area of twenty miles by twenty was crammed with German troops, German artillery, German supplies. It must be moved at express speed to the rear or all would be captured.
Our Squadrons at this great period did tremendous work in strafing the main highways leading to the Germans' rear. One of the pilots of 27 Squadron, "Red" Miller, of Baltimore, who was shot down and captured while on one of these highway-strafing expeditions, later described to me the extraordinary scenes he passed through while being taken to the rear under guard. It was Red Miller, in fact, who had been confronted with the complete list of names of all our squadrons by the German Intelligence Office. They questioned him immediately about his name, his squadron and many other details which they were foolish enough to think they could tempt out of him. Miller of course had an enjoyable half-hour stuffing them with the most marvelous stories that a Baltimore education could invent.
In his march to the prison camps that night, Miller was conducted up the main highway from Château-Thierry to the north. Two Boche cavalrymen rode on horseback and he trotted along on foot between them. American shells were falling thick upon this road and at every burst Miller and his conductors expected to be hurled among the dead and dying who filled the ditches.
The road was literally jammed with horses, lorries, guns and men. All were hurrying northwards. Along the sides of the roads hundreds of Boche soldiers were detailed to drag from the roadway those men, trucks, horses and guns which had been struck by American shrapnel and which lay there obstructing the traffic. Ropes were hastily attached to these obstructions and they were pulled out of the way and dumped by the roadside.
Another gang of soldiers worked side by side with these men, filling as quickly as possible the holes in the highway made by these exploding shells. Everything was hurry, noise, dust and confusion.
In a nearby hospital lay Lieutenant Norton, a dear friend and neighbor of mine from Columbus, Ohio. Norton had been wounded and had fallen within the German lines. He was taken to the nearest hospital at Fère-en-Tarden where he received good treatment until the day of the American drive. He was abandoned with all the other wounded by the fleeing Germans. When the Americans reached this hospital, three days later, Norton had died from neglect!
An amusing as well as heroic exploit of Miller's during this fearful march of his to the rear is well worth recording here.
Red was so mortified by his capture, so exhausted by his continuous trot between his two captors and so scared by the constant shelling of the road over which they were passing that he resolved to break away from his two captors and risk their bullets rather than continue indefinitely in his present plight.
It was getting dark as they passed a small piece of woods to the right. Red suddenly stopped and bent over to lace up his boots. The two horsemen shot a glance at him, then seeing he was innocently engaged, drew up their horses and waited for him. As soon as the right-hand horse had passed him Red straightened up and jumped for the nearest trees. He dashed through the brush in the darkness, scratching his face and tearing his clothes, but did not hear that a single shot had been fired at him.
He stopped and was peering about for a suitable tree in which to spend the night, hoping that by morning the country would be cleared of Huns, when an electric torch was flashed into his face! He threw up his hands and surrendered, finding that he had stumbled full into a camp of Hun artillery!
When his captors again recovered him Red fully expected to be shot for attempting to escape. Imagine his surprise when they begged him not to tell anybody about his escapade! They feared they would receive a worse punishment than he because of their carelessness in permitting him to escape!