Spiral cloud mountains build in the sky, towering to 20,000 feet, I’d guess. Below, is the town of Douai, where we know Bloody Richtofen’s Jasta 11 calls home this month.
The golden disk to the west is setting and the Albatros scout planes rise to meet us. This is going to be a ripping scrap, I can tell. And then we are in a whirlwind of brown machines and red machines, red-white-blue cockades and black Iron Crosses all flashing by so fast that sometimes you can hardly keep your bearings. Like so many of these recent fights, everyone gets scattered across the sky. But I can’t look out for everyone when I have to do my other job, kill Germans and come home to Flora.
A red aeroplane with a yellow nose and tail whips past Cecil Lewis, and I take chase. I will get to 50 victories. I will get to 50. I must get to 50. He twists and dives and heads into the clouds and I know he can’t shake me. My attention is solely on his tail. I recognize the flash of the setting sun on his goggles as he glances fearfully over his shoulder at me, as I’ve seen that look hundreds of times before. I know it as sure as I know the booming of my own heartbeat in times like this.
I fire burst after burst into him, a drum of bullets from the Lewis on the top wing and 60 or 70 rounds from the Vickers gun in front of me.
I see him drop below me and I know he’s done. I see it all so plainly. The craziness and blood lust that overtakes me at such times ebbs away. And I think of my Flora, my Bobs again.
Then I break through the clouds, seeing from my altimeter that we’ve dove to only 200 feet. But the clouds are in the wrong place.
“Flora,” I cough, “why are the clouds below me and the church steeple above me?”
“Rest, Albert, lay back and rest.”
I fight the urge to rest, I have to get back to the squadron, get back to England, get back to Bobbsy. The glowing disk in front of me fades away. It’s not the disk of the sun, or my identity badge, it’s my spinning propeller. It stops and then I only see its top, hanging vertically like that stalactite church steeple in front of me.
And then that great noise.
“What’s going on, Bobs? Can I come home to you now? General Trenchard promised me I could come home now.”
“Yes, Albert, you can come home. You don’t have to hurry, though. We’re waiting.”
I see her face above me again, so beautiful, so young. Even now when I see her I can barely catch my breath. Yet her eyes are so very sad as I lay my head back in her lap. I feel raindrops on my face.
“Don’t cry Bobs,” I say.
Fifteen year old Cecille Deloffre had lived amid the sounds of war for a quarter of her life. She’d learned to sleep to the thunder of the big guns as if they were a summer rainstorm. She ignored the buzzing drone of the aeroplanes as they flew west-to-east and east-to-west each day, often punctuating their passage with the very unmilitary staccato drumbeat of their machine guns.
Cecille had seen some of these machines fall from the sky, glowing and tumbling like a cigarette tossed by one of those German soldiers hidden in the steeple of the nearby church in the village of Annoeulin.
This evening during dinner she had heard the fight above her home, sounding so much like someone had struck a hornet nest and the swarms spreading across the sky.
Then Cecille heard the sound of what could have been two aeroplanes directly above. Her mother crossed herself and tried dragging Cecille from the table to the root cellar beneath the kitchen floor.
She broke from her mother’s grasp and ran into the small fenced yard in front of their farmhouse just as one machine spit a tongue of fire back from its yellow shark-like nose, engine sputtering, gliding to a crash landing on the other side of the village.
She heard another aeroplane’s engine sputter and stop, just as it whooshed, upside-down, from the low storm clouds not 300 metres up the road. Its pilot wore no helmet and she could see his eyes but not his face in the growing dark.
Then the aeroplane just fell, like a an old leather-bound book dropped from a table.
Cecille stood frozen for a second to see if this machine would catch fire. But it only lay crushed on its side like a coffee-colored bird knocked from the sky by a kestrel. The pilot’s head move and she ran toward the aeroplane, unsure why, with her mother screaming after her.
As she came up to the crash site, the young man within the broken machine released his buckle and fell from the cockpit with a thud, a moan, and a faint rasping wheeze.
Cecille reached for the boy and pulled him a few metres away from his machine. She rested his head in her lap and he slowly opened his eyes, looking up at her with such longing that she couldn’t keep from crying.
“Don’t cry Bobs, Bobs, Bosshh…” she heard him barely whisper. Then stillness.
From behind them came the pounding sound of the jackbooted German soldiers from the steeple. They jabbered with delight, so sure they shot down a British flyer. But they hadn’t. Cecille noticed the boy had no wounds on his body.
Her eyes red with tears, Cecille looked down at the boy again and saw but a small bruise beneath his eye where his goggles had been. In her lap, the face of 20 year-old Capt. Albert Ball, MC, DSO, VC lay in silent repose. The sooty stain on it was variegated in white by the tracks of tears, like the half-smiling black marble bust of a saint. They were his tears and that of a beautiful young girl he briefly saw and was sure was the one he loved.
Cecille looked up at the surrounding soldiers and spat out, “Il est mort, Boche. C’est fini.”
But Albert couldn’t hear her. He had just won his 50th victory and he was flying home.
I guess this story shows when even a “hero” dies in war, he dies alone just like any other soldier. And who cries for him?
– Joseph Hesch (A Think for Words)