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En l’air! (In the Air)

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En l’air! (In the Air)
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Author(s): Bert Hall
Date Published: 2011/09
Page Count: 152
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-726-5
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-0-85706-725-8

Legionnaire and Fighter Pilot

American soldier of fortune Bert Hall enlisted in the French Foreign Legion—Deuxieme Regiment Étranger—which was on its way to the front from Morocco, signing on for the duration of hostilities just two days after the Great War broke out in 1914. He served in the legion infantry, one of several welcome replacements from the United States of America who filled the gaps in the Legion’s ranks created by the 1,800 German legionnaires who remained in North Africa so they would not oppose their fellow countrymen. The regiment was 4,000 strong and most of its number were killed during the first 18 months of the conflict. Hall fought in the trenches until the end of the first year of the war and the transferred to the air service where he was trained as pilot. After a period of reconnaissance flying, his first taste of action came in 1915 during the allied offensive around Champagne. Hall was well known as one of the renowned cadre of American pilots who formed the core in the legendary Lafayette Escadrille—the fighter squadron with the Indian head insignia. He experienced the air war of the Western Front in full measure before a transfer in late 1916 to the Eastern theatre to assist the Russians and Rumanians with their own war in the air. There he took part in the bombing of Sophia and found himself caught up in the Russian revolution. Hall tells his story compellingly and it is full of first hand account reportage. This book, written in 1918 before the end of hostilities, was not his only foray into authorship but it is particularly immediate since wartime events were still unfolding at the time of its original publication and he expected to return to action.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.

It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at Verdun, and we were immediately installed in our new quarters at Bar le Duc. The escadrille was put into action at once, and I can’t say that our first sortie was anything excellent. We all went grouped, under Captain Thenault, and I flew next to him, about fifty yards to his right. He had told us not to attack until he gave the signal. Then we were to dive on the Germans. We had passed over three of their machines already, and we continued on into their lines. Just over Etain, some twelve miles inside the German lines, we saw six or more Boches.<br>
The captain started to dive, and I also went down rapidly and picked out a German, thinking my comrades were all there. But Captain Thenault had only come down a short distance and pulled up. He signalled to me that the others were not following. So there I was, left alone with Huns, not a very pleasant situation I assure you, I used up my ammunition quickly, as I only had 131 shells, and that didn’t last long with a gun shooting 650 per minute. I did all the stunts that I could think of and finally went down as though I was hit. The Germans, thinking I was going to land, left me for a minute. Then I turned and off I went. With the slight start that I had I managed to escape. We commenced the fight at 12,000 feet and finished at 1,800 feet. I arrived O.K. after one of the closest shaves I ever had.<br>
On the same afternoon I brought down a German at Malancourt, near Verdun. In this encounter we fought at 15,000 feet. I killed the Boche pilot and the whole outfit fell; nothing was left of machine or men. In this fighting around Verdun every trip meant a fight, and a good stiff one. There were a great many German planes, while the French had only a few good fighting machines.<br>
I encountered Captain Boelke daily. He had a Fokker fighter which was painted black with white crosses. The rest of the German machines were white with black crosses. Sometimes Boelke and I would do stunts for one another. I found that it was impossible to attack him, so I kept out of his range. A good pilot can always defend himself in a single combat affair. Boelke’s pet prey were the old slow Reglage type of machine, those that could not protect themselves.<br>
I had another interesting encounter with a Boche on May 18th. I followed him from over the forest of the Argonne as far as Nogent-sur-Seine, but I never could arrive at his height somehow. He was always higher than my machine would go. At last I was forced to land on account of running out of gasoline. The German went on, and dropped bombs on Epernay. He was at least 17,000 feet up. Our machines at that time would only climb to about 15,000 feet. That was also my first experience of having grenades thrown at me. When one is lower than the enemy machine they drop these grenades on one. The explosion is regulated by a time fuse; some of them came very close to me, but none were successful in hitting me.<br>
On June 2nd, fourteen planes came over and bombarded Bar le Duc. I was alone at the field at the time, just starting out on patrol. I happened to look up; some Boche were just over my head. As soon as I could get my machine ready, I left the ground and was followed shortly afterwards by Victor Chapman and several other boys. We attacked the Boche and brought down one. Victor and I followed them and I assure you we made it very uncomfortable for them. They did a great deal of havoc, however. Seventy people were killed and two hundred wounded. Bombs fell within three feet of our hangars. On June 16th, the same thing occurred again, but we stopped them in time, and only a few people were wounded. On June 23rd, there were many combats, for the Germans kept up their furious activity in the air as well as on the ground.<br>
It was here that we lost one of our best and bravest men, Victor Chapman. The combat occurred just to the north of Fort Douaumont. Victor was engaged with six or seven German machines and he hadn’t a chance. He fought to the last inch and fell, dying, inside the German lines. Just where, I don’t know. But some day I hope to find his grave and pay my respects to one of the bravest of the brave.<br>
A little later, along in July according to the record in my official Aviation Corps book, I brought down my second Boche plane. This happened over Fort de Vaux. It wasn’t really much of a fight, for I don’t think that he saw me until it was too late. On July 27th, I had another one down to three hundred feet, but he escaped as I ran out of ammunition.