Authors: Derek Robinson
Also by Derek Robinson
ROTTEN WITH HONOUR
THE ELDORADO NETWORK
PIECE OF CAKE
ARTILLERY OF LIES
A GOOD CLEAN FIGHT
DAMNED GOOD SHOW
RED RAG BLUES
First published by The Harvill Press in 1999
This edition published in Great Britain in 2011 by
Quercus Editions Limited
21 Bloomsbury Square
London WC1A 2NS
Copyright Â© Derek Robinson, 1999, 2005, 2011
The moral right of Derek Robinson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
ISBN (Ebook) 978 0 85738 849 0
This book is a work or fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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To Q and Joan
Tremors not felt by persons
It had snowed in the night, and from five thousand feet the Western Front looked almost pretty. The tens of thousands of shell craters made a plain of white dimples. The trenches, so often just brown zigzags that blurred into the mud, were as crisp as black stitching on linen. “Makes a nice change,” Captain Lynch said aloud. It was January 1917.
He often talked to himself; it helped him stay alert during long patrols. He was leading B-Flight of Hornet Squadron, six Sopwith Pups in a loose diamond formation. With men guarding his flanks and his tail, he could afford the luxury of taking a long look at the ground. Everything was clean. Even the ruins had the decency to be snowcapped. “Jolly Christmassy,” Lynch said. “Well done. Stand the men at ease, sergeant major.” There were no men to be seen, of course. Fifty thousand British infantry were hidden in this stretch. A man could spend a year in the trenches and never see his enemy. Then there might be an attack, and he would go over the top, and still he might never see his enemy. “Fritz would see him, though,” Lynch said. “Fritz couldn't miss him, could he?”
He turned the flight away from the German Lines, just as the first blots of anti-aircraft fire appeared, and he kept climbing and turning, or sometimes not, until the Archie lost interest. By then the Pups were at eleven thousand feet. He led them east, still climbing, and levelled out at fourteen thousand. The glare of the winter sun bleached the sky.
Not hot, he thought. If he opened his mouth at this height the blast of air would freeze his teeth. He looked at each of the Pups in turn, making sure the pilots were searching the sky. Cold and monotony were great killers.
Nothing happened for forty minutes. Then a tiny patch of specks
appeared, in the northeast, far away. Lynch felt the familiar rush of excitement.
They turned out to be four Fokker single-seaters, painted a swirling purple and green. They came up and took a good look at the Pups but they declined to fight. When Lynch got within a quarter of a mile of them, they turned away. At full throttle, the Pups gained very little and were being led deeper into German airspace. Lynch stopped the chase and turned north. The Fokkers turned and flew parallel with him. Were they decoys? He held up his hand to blot out the sun, and searched for an ambush hiding in the glare. Nothing. It was all rather pointless. The enemy formation was untidy. New boys, he decided. Someone's teaching them lesson one: Don't get killed. Very sensible. He wheeled the Pups around and headed back to the Lines.
By now a pair of German observation balloons were up. A little shelling was taking place down there, Lynch could see small flowerings of explosion spoiling the snow, and an occasional dot of flame as a gun took a pot at the enemy battery. It was probably just a bit of long-range sniping to keep the gunners in practice. Perhaps it would kill a few men, perhaps not. Boys played with their toys and sometimes it ended in tears. That was nothing to do with Hornet Squadron. But Lynch was bored.
He steered his flight towards the action. He was still so high that the balloons looked no bigger than peas on a plate, but he knew that somebody down there was watching his Pups through binoculars. At the right moment, when the angle would be steep but not vertical, he tipped them into a dive. Halfway down, with the wires screaming like gulls, he pulled out. The balloons were on the ground. The Archie had anticipated his move and now there were dirty blotches all around. It took him five minutes of twisting and climbing to get his flight clear of the filth.
There was still half an hour to kill. He flew south. He hadn't visited this stretch of the Front for a long time. It might be worth seeing. Maybe the Russian Army had broken through and was giving the Hun what-ho from the rear. That would make a nice change.
But nothing had changed. The lines of trenches still wandered away into the misty distance. Specks could be seen in the sky, but none was interested in joining combat with six Pups. Then Lynch saw another German balloon. Immediately he turned away from it and flew east.
He led the flight three miles into Hunland and signalled to his deputy leader to take command of two machines and go home. That left Lynch with the other two Pups. They began a long dive, curling westward.
A mile short of the balloon they were hedge-hopping, racing across fields, dipping so low that propeller-wash blew snow off the grass. Once they even jumped some troops at rest, too startled to find their rifles. Even so, the balloon was being hauled down fast. Lynch climbed at it and opened fire and saw his bullets make a puckering slash in the tight fabric, and he tipped the Pup on its side to sheer away from dangling ropes. Streaks of tracer, red and yellow, searched for him as heavy machine guns opened up. He imitated the jack rabbit: dodged and bucked and swerved, and crossed the Lines with holes in his wings but his skin intact. The other Pups survived too: the gunners' aim had been divided by three. Behind them, the balloon was burning like a Viking sacrifice.
* * *
“Brigade want to know ...” Captain Brazier, adjutant of Hornet Squadron, put on his glasses. The message was faint; it had been hammered through an old, tired typewriter ribbon. “They want to know why we haven't made our monthly return of plum jam, in pounds (a) supplied, (b) consumed and (c) remaining in store.” He looked up. “Is this more of your wickedness, Lacey?”
Brazier dipped his pen in the ink, and hesitated. “What if Brigade tell us we ordered two hundred pounds of plum jam?”
“We say the quartermaster delivered three hundred pounds of strawberry jam in error and we sent it all back.”
“That doesn't answer their question.”
“No, sir. But it gives them something different to worry about.”
three times, and shouted for the despatch rider. The man saluted, took the paper, saluted again, and marched out. “Plum jam,” Brazier said. “Why not black boot polish?”
“They're saving boot polish for next week,” Lacey said. “You can't rush a war. You're too impetuous, sir. It was always your fatal flaw, if I may say so.”
Brazier slowly relaxed. “This war has ruined soldiering. If you'd spoken to me like that in India, you'd have been doubling around the parade ground under a full pack and rifle until you were just a small pool of sweat evaporating beneath the merciless midday sun.” He felt better for having said that. “Anyway, what the deuce do you know of my fatal flaws?”
“I typed them out, sir. When you joined the squadron, the C.O. asked for a prÃ©cis of your Service record. He had no time to read the full document, rich in the clash of combat though it is.”
That amused Brazier. Lacey watched his lips shape the phrase: the clash of combat.
They were a curious couple. Sergeant Lacey was in charge of the orderly room. He had been expensively educated at Sherborne and could have had a commission if he wanted; but Lacey had studied history at school and when this war broke out he was not surprised that nothing went according to plan. He knew that sooner or later the army would take him and so he anticipated the move by learning typing and shorthand. Infantry were plentiful, but a soldier with his skills was invaluable. There had never been any danger that Lacey would go to the Front.
He had been with the squadron ever since it formed and he had developed a talent for barter and bribery that kept the squadron supplied with coal and bedsheets and toilet paper and Daddies Sauce; little luxuries that made war not only tolerable but sometimes enjoyable. He was slim and spruce, aged somewhere between twenty and thirty â a neat, thick moustache made it difficult to guess â and his uniforms were more smartly tailored than those of the officers. He made Brazier look like a bear. The adjutant didn't realise this.
Brazier was six foot four and so broad-shouldered that sometimes he had to edge through a doorway. He hadn't joined the army to peacock around in tight trousers but to fight. He had a chin like a wooden mallet, a nose like a steel wedge, and bright blue eyes, a combination that many men found alarming when they first met him. He didn't alarm Sergeant Lacey. Brazier was nearly fifty and only a captain. Lacey knew what flaw had brought him down from a major's rank and sent him out of the trenches to an R.F.C. squadron when he knew nothing of flying. During an especially bloody battle, Brazier had smelt panic and shot a couple of his men as an example to
the others. No more panic, the enemy was thrown back, the line was held. It had happened more than once. Brazier never tried to hide his actions; he believed they were correct. Others didn't. Bang went his major's crown. In certain lights, its outline was still faintly visible on his epaulettes. Brazier believed that, once you went to war, defeat was unthinkable. Otherwise why be a soldier? Brazier was a good soldier. Too good for some.
“Brooms,” he said. He was reading another message. “Brooms, bristle, stiff, latrine, men's, for the use of. Wing H.Q. say our requirements are ten and we've been issued with forty. Why?”
“Leave it to me, sir. I'll take care of it.”
“Yes. You already have, haven't you? What did you get? Lino? Fish paste? California syrup of figs?”
“Canadian bacon. The Calgary Battalion was desperately short of disinfectant, and ...” Lacey paused, and looked out of the window. “It's rather complicated,” he said. “And you have more important things to worry about than domestic trivia.”
“Right. You sort it out. But no crime; understand?”
“Crime requires a victim. I ensure that everyone benefits.”
“You'll never get rich that way, Lacey.”
“My fatal flaw, sir.” He stood as the adjutant heaved himself up and put his cap on. Suddenly the room looked much smaller. “Lunch,” Brazier said.
* * *
You could see England from the cockpit of a Sopwith Pup, on a clear day, provided the Pup was at fifteen thousand feet or more. Futile reminders like this made France all the more foreign. Hornet Squadron had been at Pepriac, which was a scruffy little village, since the spring of 1916.
In those days, the squadron flew a strange aeroplane called the FE2b. It looked like an elongated bathtub, with the gunner sitting in front of the pilot, and the engine and the propeller behind them both.
The FE2b had two advantages â it provided a fine view of the oncoming enemy, and its bullets did not have to travel through the propeller arc â but it flew like what it was, a two-man bathtub
with an engine and wings bolted to its backside. Hornet Squadron was not sorry to swap it for the Sopwith Pup.