OVER THE GERMAN LINES
It was now past mid-winter. A foot and a half of snow covered the ground and the cold was intense, sometimes as low as fifteen degrees below zero.
The vast forest and swamps and fields through which the far-flung northern fighting line passed, lay sleeping white and desolate beneath the gray skies.
The two great armies apparently shared nature's lethargy, but they were not asleep. Always, day and night, they lay watching, waiting like two great beasts to spring at each other's throat. By day the aeroplanes winged their way through the frigid atmosphere, and by night the patrols crept out in No Man's Land seeking information concerning the enemy. Watching, waiting, not a battalion moved on the German side but what we knew it, and they were equally well informed of our maneuvers.
One cold night I was called to our aviation field to see one of our aviators who had been taken sick. I treated him for the next day or two and, by way of appreciation, he offered to take me across the lines in his machine some day if I wanted to go, although it was against orders. I told him I would certainly like to go if it wouldn't get him into any trouble; and some three weeks later I got a note from him telling me to be at his hangar at three p.m.
I found the Captain testing out a big two-seated machine in the snowy field.
"This was formerly a German plane," he explained. "We shot her down inside our lines and as she was not very much damaged, we fixed her up and are using her. She is of Albatross observation and bombing type---not very fast but big and steady.".
He adjusted a fur-lined leather helmet to my head. It covered everything but my eyes.
"It will be very cold this evening, but the air conditions are good for flying. You sit here in the observer's seat," he said, pointing to a little cock-pit in the body of the machine back of the driver's seat. He adjusted the belt to my waist, strapping me in the seat. On a metal rail around the cock-pit was mounted a light machine-gun on a universal joint. Strapped alongside my seat under the decking was a carbine, such as our cavalry use.
Fig. 10. Machine guns mounted on revolving stand for use against enemy aeroplanes. The Russians had only 15 of these weapons to a regiment, as compared with the Germans' 80.
Fig. 11. German albatross-type aeroplane shot down by the Russian anti-aircraft guns. It was repaired and used by Russian aviators. In this machine the author flew over the German lines under shell fire.
"You may have to fire the carbine, if necessary," the Captain said, as he took his seat forward, "but of course you cannot operate the machine-gun. I have a couple of bombs underneath ready for dropping."
A mechanic spun the propeller and the motor started with a roar like a dozen machine-guns. Several soldiers held on to the wings to keep her from moving. The strong blasts of air shot back by the whirling propellers struck me in the face.
The Captain nodded his head, the soldiers let go and we started down the field.
Faster and faster we went. I looked over the edge of the cock-pit and ground was dropping out from under me. Down it went, objects shrinking in size as if by magic, the wire stays humming like a top as the air whistled through them. The motor roared and we dipped and we banked on a turn, spiralling upward.
Fields and forests and peasants' houses stood out like a relief map and the horizon momentarily receded as we soared higher and higher, enlarging our scope of vision.
After some minutes of upward circling, we headed straight for the west, where the golden sun was dipping beneath the edge of the earth. I suppose that we were at least 8,000 feet in the air. Things looked pretty small. In a short time we were over the forest along the farther edge of which lay our trenches. On we flew, straight as an arrow, and presently I saw the "wall of Troy" effect where our trenches emerged in spots from the edge of the forest. Across a little open space of field, which I knew to be No Man's Land, I could see the German lines with their zigzag approach trenches.
As we passed them, I saw a yellow-brown puff of smoke in the air far below and off to the right. Several others appeared as though by magic, and then above the roar of the motor I heard a faint put-put---the explosion of German anti-aircraft shrapnel---they were shooting at us.
Roads ran straggling off through the forest and over the fields like black threads on a white cloth. A group of gray dots directly on one of these roads scattered and disappeared under the sheltering trees bordering on the road. I knew that they were German soldiers getting under cover fearing that we would spot them and drop a bomb on them. They reminded me of chickens at home, when a hawk would float over them.
More brown puffs of smoke appeared, some fairly close and others far away, as the Germans increased their fire on us.
I was not alarmed---those little brown puffs looked so harmless---and the fact that I could hear their explosion only faintly made them appear less dangerous than they otherwise would have done.
Soon, however, the Germans began to get the range better and then the Captain, dipped and I was looking down over his head straight toward the earth for a second or so. I felt as if we were falling: my stomach seemed rising into my chest. Then we assumed the horizontal again.
By dropping several thousand feet we got under the German shrapnel which now burst harmlessly above us as we turned and flew directly north paralleling the German lines.
Below I saw a group of gray squares, the thatched roofs of peasant huts, from which the snow had melted. When we were directly over the village, the Captain pointed down with his hand over the side, indicating that I should watch closely, and then reached down and manipulated something near his feet.
I looked over the side and saw a dark object flash down under the machine for an instant and then disappear as the machine lurched slightly. A great white mushroom-shaped cloud rolled up from the center of the village. The Captain had dropped one of his bombs, suspecting, as I learned later, that the staff of a German division was located in one of the larger houses of this village. As we moved on I looked back and saw smoke pouring up from the village, indicating that a house was on fire.
The sun was now below the horizon and the earth under us was growing dusky and objects indistinct. We headed east toward our lines, the golden afterglow at our backs.
We were some miles back of the German lines at a height of about 10,000 feet, I should judge, when the motor suddenly stopped. The wind whistled just the same through the cordage but the monotonous roar of the motor was gone.
The Captain leaned forward, hastily working on something on the dashboard in front of us. The nose of the machine was turned slightly toward the ground. I did not realize our danger until the Captain shouted: "We are in for it now---motor dead---don't know whether I can plane back to our lines---or not!"
In the gathering gloom below, I saw several red flashes stab upward: then I heard a screech and several distinct explosions above us and to the right. With the motor dead, it was easy to hear the coughing report of the German shrapnel. The earth seemed gradually to float up as we glided swiftly down and forward toward the lines.
Could we make it?
There was no wind to help us. The Captain devoted all his attention to the machine. Again and again he tried to start the motor, but she remained silent. He was getting all the forward movement he could with a minimum waste in altitude, peering intently through the gloom for a glimpse of the trenches.
I pictured myself a prisoner in Germany or hanging by a rib to the top of a pine-tree, for fields suitable for landing were few and far between.
Ahead the' forest was broken by a gap. Perhaps, I thought, it was No Man's Land.
We were whirling down perilously close to the tops of the pines and I knew that machine-guns and rifle bullets could easily reach us as we crossed the lines. Fortunately the motor was quiet as we rushed along, so that we flew silently and would not be so apt to attract attention.
There was a loud explosion below and the machine lurched drunkenly-the Captain had dropped the remaining bomb in the first part of the German lines because it was too dangerous to carry, as we did not know what sort of landing we would make.
We were now crossing the open space. I could see the German trenches below quite, distinctly, and a slight crackling sound like fire in dry grass came up to me as they sniped at us with rifles and machine-guns.
Beyond the open space of No Man's Land stretched the black wall of our forest barring the way. We headed for it and then veered sharply to the left, and I saw the Captain's objective---there was a tiny clearing beyond a gap in the forest where the trees were not so tall.
We got over our lines and headed for this clearing. If we could just scrape over the scrubpines, we could make a landing. With great skill and judgment, the Captain elevated her nose, perilously lessening her momentum, for if we slowed down too much we would have a lateral or tail dive and be dashed to pieces. He dipped again and I could almost touch the tops of the pines as we shot over them. Then he raised her nose, we skimmed a spiked top, and were clear of the trees.
We glided down into the center of that little clearing, bouncing along over the uneven ground and finally stopped. We both sat still a moment. The Captain crossed himself and I knew he was murmuring a little prayer of thanks.
A soldier came running out of the forest, his rifle held ready to fire, because in the dark he could not tell whether we were friend or foe.
"All right, Galoopchick!" sang out the Captain. "Don't shoot: we are Russians!"
When the soldier came up we found that we had landed in the territory back of the lines held by the 5th regiment of our corps---about two miles north of our dressing station and half a mile back of the first line trenches.
The report the Captain made out at our dressing station, at which he stopped for a moment or two, revealed to me what training and practice in aerial observation can accomplish. I have set down nearly everything I saw while above the German lines, and my eyes are far better than the average, but the Captain reported the location of two new German batteries; the reoccupation of a dug-out village by a new regiment of German troops in reserve; the fact that the Germans were using a certain field for the drilling of troops in reserve; and that field kitchens were brought up at dusk on a road which could be easily reached by our artillery.
No wonder the air has played such an important part in this war!
Chapter Twelve: Through a shower of shells.