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Chapter XXI. Tea with the Air-Fighters

Later: Roland Garros, the French aviator, has just driven off a German Taube. They both circled low over the town for some time. Then the German machine started east with Garros in pursuit. They have gone out of sight.

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War is not all grey and grim and hideous. It has its lighter moments. The more terrible a situation the more keen is human nature to forget it for a time. Men play between shells in the trenches. London, suffering keenly, flocks to a comedy or a farce as a relief from strain. Wounded men, past their first agony, chaff each other in the hospitals. There are long hours behind the lines when people have tea and try to forget for a little while what is happening just ahead.

Some seven miles behind the trenches, in that vague "Somewhere in France," the British Army had established a naval air-station, where one of its dirigible airships was kept. In good weather the airship went out on reconnoissance. It was not a large airship, as such things go, and was formerly a training ship. Now it was housed in an extemporised hangar that was once a carwheel works, and made its ascent from a plain surrounded by barbed wire.

The airship men were extremely hospitable, and I made several visits to the station. On the day of which I am about to write I was taken for an exhaustive tour of the premises, beginning with the hangar and ending with tea. Not that it really ended with tea. Tea was rather a beginning, leading to all sorts of unexpected and surprising things.

The airship was out when I arrived, and a group of young officers was watching it, a dot on the horizon near the front. They gave me the glasses, and I saw it plainly--a long, yellowish, slowly moving object that turned as I looked and headed back for the station.

The group watched the sky carefully. A German aeroplane could wreck the airship easily. But although there were planes in sight none was of the familiar German lines.

It came on. Now one could see the car below. A little closer and three dots were the men in it. On the sandy plain which is the landing field were waiting the men whose work it is to warp the great balloon into its hangar. The wind had come up and made landing difficult. It was necessary to make two complete revolutions over the field before coming down. Then the blunt yellow nose dipped abruptly. The men below caught the ropes, the engine was cut off, and His Majesty's airship, in shape and colour not unlike a great pig, was safely at home again and being led to the stable.

"Do you want to know the bravest man in all the world?" one of the young officers said. "Because here he is. The funny thing about it is he doesn't know he is brave."

That is how I met Colonel M----, who is England's greatest airship man and who is in charge of the naval air station.

"If you had come a little sooner," he said, "you could have gone out with us."

I was grateful but unenthusiastic. I had seen the officers watching the sky for German planes. I had a keen idea that a German aviator overhead, armed with a Belgian block or a bomb or a dart, could have ripped that yellow envelope open from stem to stern, and robbed American literature of one of its shining lights. Besides, even in times of peace I am afraid to look out of a third-story window.

We made a tour of the station, which had been a great factory before the war began, beginning with the hangar in which the balloon was now safely housed.

Entrance to the station is by means of a bridge over a canal. The bridge is guarded by sentries and the password of the day is necessary to gain admission. East and west along the canal are canal boats that have been painted grey and have guns mounted on them. Side by side with these gunboats are the ordinary canal boats of the region, serving as homes for that part of the populace which remains, with women knitting on the decks or hanging out lines of washing overhead.

The endless traffic of a main highroad behind the lines passes the station day and night. Chauffeurs drop in to borrow petrol or to repair their cars; visiting officers from other stations come to watch the airship perform. For England has been slow to believe in the airships, pinning her aeronautical faith to heavier-than-air machines. She has considered the great expense for building and upkeep of each of these dirigible balloons--as much as that of fifty aeroplanes--the necessity of providing hangars for them, and their vulnerability to attack, as overbalancing the advantages of long range, silence as they drift with the wind with engines cut off, and ability to hover over a given spot and thus launch aerial bombs more carefully.

There is a friendly rivalry between the two branches of the air service, and so far in this war the credit apparently goes to the aeroplanes. However, until the war is over, and Germany definitely states what part her Zeppelins have had in both sea and land attacks, it will be impossible to make any fair comparison.

The officers at the naval air station had their headquarters in the administration building of the factory, a long brick building facing the road. Here in a long room with western windows they rested and relaxed, lined and talked between their adventurous excursions to the lines.

Day by day these men went out, some in the airship for a reconnoissance, others to man observation balloons. Day by day it was uncertain who would come back.

But they were very cheerful. Officers with an hour to spare came up from the gunboats in the canal to smoke a pipe by the fire. Once in so often a woman came, stopping halfway her frozen journey to a soup kitchen or a railroad station, where she looked after wounded soldiers, to sit in the long room and thaw out; visiting officers from other parts of the front dropped in for a meal, sure of a welcome and a warm fire. As compared with the trenches, or even with the gunboats on the canal, the station represented cheer, warmth; even, after the working daylight hours, society.

There were several buildings. Outside near the bridge was the wireless building, where an operator sat all the time with his receivers over his ears. Not far from the main group was the great hangar of the airship, and to that we went first. The hangar had been a machine shop with a travelling crane. It had been partially cleared but the crane still towered at one end. High above it, reached by a ladder, was a door.

The young captain of the airship pointed up to it.

"My apartments!" he said.

"Do you mean to say that you sleep here?" I asked. For the building was bitterly cold; one end had been knocked out to admit the airship, and the wall had been replaced by great curtains of sailcloth to keep out the wind.

"Of course," he replied. "I am always within call. There are sentries also to guard the ship. It would be very easy to put it out of commission."

The construction of the great balloon was explained to me carefully. It was made of layer after layer of gold-beater's skin and contained two ballonets--a small ship compared to the Zeppelins, and non-rigid in type.

Underneath the great cigar-shaped bag hangs an aluminum car which carries a crew of three men. The pilot sits in front at a wheel that resembles the driving wheel of an automobile. Just behind him is the observer, who also controls the wireless. The engineer is the third man.

The wireless puzzled me. "Do you mean that when you go out on scouting expeditions you can communicate with the station here?" I asked.

"It is quite possible. But when the airship goes out a wireless van accompanies it, following along the roads. Messages are picked up by the van and by a telephone connection sent to the various batteries."

It may be well to mention again the airship chart system by which the entire region is numbered and lettered in small squares. Black lines drawn across the detail map of the neighbourhood divide it into lettered squares, A, B, C, and so forth, and these lettered squares are again subdivided into four small squares, 1, 2, 3, 4. Thus the direction B 4, or N 2, is a very specific one in directing the fire of a battery.

"Did you accomplish much to-day?" I inquired.

"Not as much as usual. There is a ground haze," replied Colonel M----, who had been the observer in that day's flight. "Down here it is not so noticeable, but from above it obscures everything."

He explained the difficulties of the airship builder, the expense and tendency to "pinholes" of gold-beaters' skin, the curious fact that chemists had so far failed to discover a gasproof varnish.

"But of course," he said, "those things will come. The airship is the machine of the future. Its stability, its power to carry great weights, point to that. The difference between an airship and an aeroplane is the difference between a battleship and a submarine. Each has its own field of usefulness."

All round lay great cylinders of pure hydrogen, used for inflating the balloon. Smoking in the hangar was forbidden. The incessant wind rattled the great canvas curtains and whistled round the rusting crane. From the shop next door came the hammering of machines, for the French Government has put the mill to work again.

We left the hangar and walked past the machine shop. Halfway along one of its sides a tall lieutenant pointed to a small hole in the land, leading under the building.

"The French government has sent here," he said, "the men who are unfit for service in the army. Day by day, as German aeroplanes are seen overhead, the alarm is raised in the shop. The men are panic-stricken. If there are a dozen alarms they do the same thing. They rush out like frightened rabbits, throw themselves flat on the sand, and wriggle through that hole into a cave that they have dug underneath. It is hysterically funny; they all try to get in at the same time."

I had hoped to see the thing happen myself. But when, late that afternoon, a German aeroplane actually flew over the station, the works had closed down for the day and the men were gone. It was disappointing.

Between the machine shop and the administration building is a tall water tower. On top of this are two observers who watch the sky day and night. An anti-aircraft gun is mounted there and may be swung to command any portion of the sky. This precaution is necessary, for the station has been the object of frequent attacks. The airship itself has furnished a tempting mark to numerous German airmen. Its best speed is forty miles an hour, so they are able to circle about it and attack it from various directions. As it has only two ballonets, a single shot, properly placed, could do it great damage. The Zeppelin, with its eighteen great gasbags, can suffer almost any amount of attack and still remain in the air.

"Would you like to see the trenches?" said one of the officers, smiling.

"Trenches? Seven miles behind the line?"

"Trenches certainly. If the German drive breaks through it will come along this road."

"But I thought you lived in the administration building?"

"Some of us must hold the trenches," he said solemnly. "What are six or seven miles to the German Army? You should see the letters of sympathy we get from home!"

So he showed me the trenches. They were extremely nice trenches, dug out of the sand, it is true, but almost luxurious for all that, more like rooms than ditches, with board shelves and dishes on the shelves, egg cups and rows of shining glasses, silver spoons, neat little folded napkins, and, though the beds were on the floor, extremely tidy beds of mattresses and warm blankets. The floor was boarded over. There was a chair or two, and though I will not swear to pictures on the walls there were certainly periodicals and books. Outside the door was a sort of vestibule of boards which had been built to keep the wind out.

"You see!" said the young officer with twinkling eyes. "But of course this is war. One must put up with things!"

Nevertheless it was a real trench, egg cups and rows of shining glasses and electric light and all. It was there for a purpose. In front of it was a great barbed-wire barricade. Strategically it commanded the main road over which the German Army must pass to reach the point it has been striving for. Only seven miles away along that road it was straining even then for the onward spring movement. Any day now, and that luxurious trench may be the scene of grim and terrible fighting.

And, more than that, these men at the station were not waiting for danger to come to them. Day after day they were engaged in the most perilous business of the war.

At this station some of the queer anomalies of a volunteer army were to be found. So strongly ingrained in the heart of the British youth of good family is the love of country, that when he is unable to get his commission he goes in any capacity. I heard of a little chap, too small for the regular service, who has gone to the front as a cook! His uncle sits in the House of Lords. And here, at this naval air station, there were young noncommissioned officers who were Honourables, and who were trying their best to live it down. One such youth was in charge of the great van that is the repair shop for the airship. Others were in charge of the wireless station. One met them everywhere, clear-eyed young Englishmen ready and willing to do anything, no matter what, and proving every moment of their busy day the essential democracy of the English people.

As we went into the administration building that afternoon two things happened: The observers in the water tower reported a German aeroplane coming toward the station, and a young lieutenant, who had gone to the front in a borrowed machine, reported that he had broken the wind shield of the machine. There are plenty of German aeroplanes at that British airship station, but few wind shields. The aeroplane was ignored, but the wind shield was loudly and acrimoniously discussed.

The day was cold and had turned grey and lowering. It was pleasant after our tour of the station to go into the long living room and sit by the fire. But the fire smoked. One after another those dauntless British officers attacked it, charged with poker, almost with bayonet, and retired defeated. So they closed it up finally with a curious curved fire screen and let it alone. It was ten minutes after I began looking at the fire screen before I recognised it for what it was--the hood from an automobile!

Along one side of the wall was a piano. It had been brought back from a ruined house at the front. It was rather a poor piano and no one had any music, but some of the officers played a little by ear. The top of the piano was held up by a bandage! It was a piano of German make, and the nameplate had been wrenched off!

A long table filled the centre of the room. One end formed the press censorship bureau, for it was part of the province of the station to censor and stamp letters going out. The other end was the dining table. Over the fireplace on the mantel was a baby's shoe, a little brown shoe picked up on the street of a town that was being destroyed.

Beside it lay an odd little parachute of canvas with a weighted letter-carrier beneath. One of the officers saw me examining it and presented it to me, as it was worn and past service.

"Now and then," he explained, "it is impossible to use the wireless, for one reason or another. In that case a message can be dropped by means of the parachute."

I brought the message-carrier home with me. On its weighted canvas bag is written in ink: "Urgent! You are requested to forward this at once to the inclosed address. From His Majesty's airship ----."

The sight of the press-censor stamp reminded an English officer, who had lived in Belgium, of the way letters to and from interned Belgians have been taken over the frontier into Holland and there dispatched. Men who are willing to risk their lives for money collect these letters. At one time the price was as high as two hundred francs for each one. When enough have been gathered together to make the risk worth while the bearer starts on his journey. He must slip through the sentry lines disguised as a workman, or perhaps by crawling through the barbed wire at the barrier. For fear of capture some of these bearers, working their way through the line at night, have dragged their letters behind them, so that in case of capture they could drop the cord and be found without incriminating evidence on them. For taking letters into Belgium the process is naturally reversed. But letters are sent, not to names, but to numbers. The bearer has a list of numbers which correspond to certain addresses. Thus, even if he is taken and the letters are found on him, their intended recipients will not be implicated. I saw a letter which had been received in this way by a Belgian woman. It was addressed simply to Number Twenty-eight.

The fire was burning better behind its automobile hood. An orderly had brought in tea, white bread, butter, a pitcher of condensed cream, and an English teacake. We gathered round the tea table. War seemed a hundred miles away. Except for the blue uniforms and brass buttons of the officers who belonged to the naval air service, the orderly's khaki and the bayonet from a gun used casually at the other end of the table as a paperweight, it was an ordinary English tea.

Mary Roberts Rinehart