Petite bleu to pilote—a young American’s flight into war
The author of this book, Dana Winslow, was a young American in Paris as France recruited men to fight the invading German forces of the Kaiser at the outbreak of the First World War. Feeling strongly for the plight and cause of the French, he immediately went to Les Invalides and there enlisted in the French Flying Corps as a trainee pilot. This vital first hand account is an essential source work of the period which reveals the training of the earliest French military aviators of the great conflict on the Western Front and it follows Winslow on his ‘rite of passage’ from inexperienced civilian, to lowly and little regarded aeronautical student (petit bleu) through his first perilous days in the combat zone to his time as an experienced and much prized pilote in the hostile skies over the trenches of the front lines. As may be expected, Winslow takes us to his war of dogfights, mid-air collisions, artillery spotting and reconnaissance in vivid—if humbly recounted—detail. Winslow’s book is especially valuable as an insight into the variety of aircraft employed by the French during his time with them and he provides useful details as to their construction, abilities, applications and flying characteristics such—as those of the peculiar ‘cut down’ Bleriot that was ‘the Penguin.’ He also gives an interesting view of the business of military flying in wartime, which he distinguishes as entirely separate from piloting, as he describes it, as a mere ‘conductor.’ Accounts of battling in the air during the Great War are not common, so this volume is, of course, a welcome addition to their limited number and will be of interest to everyone interested in the subject.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Unfavourable weather conditions kept us inactive for several days, but as soon as the skies cleared our escadrille immediately went to work again. For some reason my own machine was delayed “en route,” and did not arrive for a week. This was time I could ill afford to lose, so the “chef pilote” took me as a passenger in his biplane to familiarize me with the ground in our sector.
We started late one afternoon. The atmosphere was extraordinarily clear. Every detail in the landscape stood out boldly, and as we rose the dozens of camps in the immediate vicinity spread out below us like models set in a painted scenery. The valleys, the tents, the guns, the troops, all were visible to the naked eye. On all sides were aviation-camps, which were easily distinguished from the others—there must have been at least twenty of them within a radius of five miles.<br>
As soon as we reached a height of three thousand feet my pilot headed the machine toward the lines. At our feet lay the terrain of the “Verdun sector.” From the forest of the Argonne on our left to the plains of the Woëvre on our right stretched one of the bloodiest battle-fields of history. At regular intervals along the front the French captive balloons—there were eighteen in sight at this moment—swung lazily in the breeze. They looked for all the world like the “saucisses” they are named after. Day and night they are kept aloft, maintaining ceaseless vigil over the movements of the enemy.<br>
Passing the balloons, we could see the various important points of the defence at closer range. The city of Verdun nestled close to the banks of the Meuse, which wound like a silver band through that now desolate land. Far off to the right were the forts of Vaux and Douaumont. A trifle nearer was Fleury. To the left, in the distance, I could make out the “Mort-Homme” and Hill 304, while directly before us lay Cumières and Chattancourt. The entire Verdun sector was spread out like a relief-map.<br>
The German attacks upon the French position on the Mort-Homme were still in progress. I had never before seen a battle, and to see such an important conflict from “the gallery” seemed most strange. It looked more like a pan of boiling water, with the steam hanging in a pall over it, than anything else I can think of. In fact, a yellow mist rose to a great height and almost obscured the view. Tiny flashes showed where the guns were concealed, but to us the battle was a silent one. The noise of our motor drowned the whistling of the shells and the roar of the bombardment. I could not help thinking how much some of those poor fellows below us would appreciate a little of this silence.<br>
We could plainly see the network of the trenches, broken and half-obliterated in the mud. In some places they were so close together that it was difficult to make out where the French lines ended and the German earthworks began. The ground was speckled with “pock-marks’’ caused by shell explosions, and altogether it was a weird scene of desolation. All signs of nature which had once beautified this region had vanished. The forests and the green fields had disappeared. Ruined villages lay like piles of disused stone among the circular “entonnoirs,” or shell-holes. In colour it was all a dirty brown.<br>
On every side of us were the French artillery biplanes. They were hovering over the German lines like gulls, continually wirelessing back the ranges to their batteries. High above us circled the little Nieuports on guard, to protect us and to prevent the Fokkers and aviatiks from crossing over our lines. Everywhere were little white puffs, which seemed to follow the machines about. I watched them, strangely fascinated and amused, until my pilot informed me that these were caused by exploding shrapnel from the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns. Then I noticed with uneasiness that the same puffs were also following us. My interest in the little white puffs from that moment assumed quite another character. I listened for the sharp crack of their explosions, but all I could hear was a dull “whung.” The thought that very few machines are really brought down by shrapnel was a bit reassuring, but I must admit that when the enemy is sending them on all sides of you, you do not feel like giving much credence to what others may have told you.