Featured image by Tijl Vercaemer CC BY 2.0

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Lt.Col. John McCrae MD, Canadian Expeditionary Force

April 25th is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand – a day of commemoration centred on the Allied landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula, Turkey, in 1915.

The aerial details of that specific campaign will be more than adequately covered by other publications. So instead, here is a simple and candid account of an airman’s death on the Western Front, sometime in 1915.

Bringing down an aeroplane

Yesterday, another man and I went to the trenches and spent an interesting, though rather exciting, four hours down there. It was rather a ‘lively’ afternoon with continuous machine-gun fire, a lot of rifle fire, and intermittent gunning.

'Driving away a Bosche plane.' An official  photograph taken during the battle of Menin Road Ridge at Passchendaele, September 1917. One gunner has had his ablutions interrupted by the appearance of a Taube. (National Library of Scotland digital.nls.uk/74547190)
‘Driving away a Bosche plane.’ An official photograph taken during the battle of Menin Road Ridge at Passchendaele, September 1917. One gunner has had his ablutions interrupted by the appearance of a Taube. (National Library of Scotland digital.nls.uk/74547190)

When you see in the papers, ‘A hostile aeroplane was brought down by our anti-aircraft guns’ I wonder what you think it is like? Well I will try and explain. I saw one shot down in front of me from 8,000 ft. yesterday afternoon.

It was one of the most fascinating and nauseating spectacles I have ever seen. It was with extraordinarily mixed feelings I saw the poor wretches literally hurtle to destruction – at least one anyway, as the pilot was obviously killed already.

Fallen Sketch 001Just as we came out of the communication trench into the fire trench (front line) we saw a Hun going along just on his side of the lines and parallel to them. Our ‘Archie’ was soon on to him and got his line and elevation at once – but too far behind. Then each successive shot got nearer, and we kept saying “Gad, I bet that made him sit up!” Then, “That got him! No, it didn’t!”

Then one shot burst exactly over him, half-way along the machine. We never said a word – just hoped and prayed it had him fair and square. The machine put its nose down a bit and made a half-turn with a sort of lurch – a drunken lurch – then put its nose right down vertically and began to spin round faster and faster. It did not get very fast, however, but, having got up a certain momentum, simply spun round and round and round vertically about its own axis.

Fallen Sketch 002At about 5,000 ft. something came away – possibly a wing tip, or one of the passengers. It was simply appalling. It took such ages to fall; like a wounded bird at first then, well, it was simply too fascinating and yet utterly repulsive. We hoped and prayed he would ‘flatten out’ – the technical term for pulling your nose up out of the spinning nose dive it was doing. But it simply went down and down, turning all the time, its black crosses plainly visible to the naked eye every time the top-side of the wings came round. The engine continued roaring all the time, pulling the thing down – a sure sign the pilot was killed or insensible as, if the controls had been severed (accounting for a spin), one would instinctively shut off the engine and that was not done.

Well, it was a thing to see, but I do not want to see it again.

It was the most wonderful, marvellous shooting one will ever see – only about twelve rounds and then all over. Nothing in this world could possibly save them. Each shot is a successive one, i.e., the machine has moved on as each shell bursts. So you can see the one that got him.Fallen Sketch 003

From 8,000ft. he fell just inside their own lines – about 100 yards behind them – unfortunately. We could just see a bit of white behind a hedge and some trees, through a periscope.

The men sent up a terrific cheer as the Hun fell. We had not the heart to, knowing what it all meant.

They waited for the Huns to begin to collect around, and then a battery of field guns put about 50 rounds slap into them in a couple of minutes. Bang-whiz-z-z — plonk! Bang-whizz-z-z — plonk! The shells just cleared our own heads as they came over the parapet – from our rear, of course. The trenches were only a couple of hundred yards away from each other.

After that we wandered about to Neuve-Chapelle,  a hundred or two hundred yards behind the lines.

You had to look pretty slippy for snipers: Pffssssss-tweepppp-follop (hit a tree). Pffsssss-kkfsis (a ‘ricco’) – each awakening a hollow echo among the ruins. The chateau, the church, and the brewery all look just the same – a pile of old bricks.

The graveyard adjoining the church had the roof of one of its graves blown clean off, and the lid of the coffin, too, disclosing the remains of what was once apparently a woman – yellowed and contracted like the opened mummies in the British Museum – in its torn winding sheet.

But perhaps the most pathetic sights are the improvised graveyards where dead soldiers and officers are buried – a rough wooden cross with name, date, and regiment neatly put on and, perhaps, pencilled in afterwards ‘R.I.P.’.  Particularly pathetic, and only too common where the fighting has been thick.

As good a candidate as any, based on the author's sketches – an LVG B.I unarmed reconnaissance plane. (wikipedia)

As good a candidate as any, based on the author’s sketches – an LVG B.I unarmed reconnaissance plane. (wikipedia)

This report was originally written as a letter home by an unnamed RFC officer, published in Country Life magazine, and then reprinted in Flight magazine on November 5th, 1915.

The original sketches have been re-rendered by airscape.

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