Wind keened like a banshee around the biplane. The dawn air numbed cramped limbs, smoke and sweat half-blinding both pilot and passenger. Sitting in the crow’s nest designated for observers and bombers, Isambard Kerne, Officer of the Royal Flying Corps, lifted smeared goggles and wiped them with a cotton handkerchief, tracing with fingerless leather gloves the monogram his wife had embroidered on the corner. For a moment dark eyes lingered on the initials. From the edges of his flying helmet, his clipped black hair was showing grey – like flecks of cloud in the fleeing night. He thought of Maud back home, brushing her teeth, boiling an egg, or taking Nubi for a walk on the Downs.
Reality rattled around him, breaking his reverie. Eyes cleared, he checked the box-camera fitted into the floor of the passenger cabin. And then he tested the telegraph attached to the outer fuselage, sending a message to the radio operator:
Approaching frontline…Visibility good…Merlin out, Kerne tapped in Morse code.
All was ready for the surveillance shots they had orders to take – Intelligenceneeded enemy positions and numbers. The gun batteries would use the information to place their shells. He tried not to think about the consequences. ‘Just follow orders and keep your head down’ they all said. That’s all he could do. He wasn’t a soldier by nature, but he had to enlist – before he was called up. It was the honourable thing to do, his brother Archibald, veteran of the Boer War, had insisted. He would have never let him live it down otherwise. It was his turn to do his duty for King and Country. Dulce et decorum est pro patria de moria and all that John Bull. Archibald had survived. Surely Isambard would too – the Kerne luck had to hold.
This is not the way for a forty-four year old to go about life, Kerne reflected. His peacetime occupation, as a railway surveyor, was a far more sedentary affair, except for the odd wrangle with awkward landowners. It gave him time to pursue his main interest – his research into ancient alignments. Yet his lifetime study and obsession with pre-history had been overwhelmed by the present.
They’d soon be at the target zone. The spotter plane spluttered along at barely seventy miles an hour but it felt too fast for him. Kerne produced a silver hip flask from the breast pocket of his fleece-lined flying overalls. His gloved fingers brushed the GWR engraving on the side – a gift from his work colleagues. He debated about offering some to the pilot – then thought better of it. Harry ‘Mad Duck’ Malleard was probably still reeling from last night’s session. And the G and T he always had before take-off. Kerne took a shot of brandy, feeling the slow fire burn through him, taking away the chill and steadying his shaking hands. Slipping it back into his breast pocket, he set to work.
Peering through the view-finder, Kerne surveyed the flat world below – trying to focus, ascertain the depth of field, the correct exposure. Features emerged from the morning mist, but no discernible landmarks. Not like dear old England, he pondered – every hill and vale distinct. Yet surely to a Belgian even such a monotonous landscape must have character, evoke strong memories, associations, nostalgia – like Logres did for him.
Dawn cast its pallor of the unfamiliar world beneath, the lights of farms snuffed out. ‘All over Europe…’ murmured Kerne, remembering the broadcast, ‘We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’.
The daylight was as cold and stark as a surgeon’s lamp, revealing the vulnerable flesh of the land. The virgin fields of Belgium spread out below – roads, ditches, hedges, brakes of poplars, lines intersecting, vanishing, like the cables between the wings. The BE-2 buzzed slowly overhead, its thin membrane catching the morning sun like a dragonfly in a pool of light. It was mid-August – the crops were high, but would go unharvested. Every available man was at the Front. The women would eventually take over the farmwork, but for now the ears of wheat stood tall and silent, catspawed in the warming breeze, poppies swaying.
The biplane passed over the broken bridges of the Mons-Conde canal – recent handiwork of Royal Fusiliers saboteurs. The map of Europe was being rewritten.
They were passing over Mons itself. Kerne recognised the slap heaps of the mining town. He checked the Ordnance Survey chart attached to the side of the cabin in its glass case. Tapping Malleard on the shoulder, he pointed downwards. This was their spot for today – ‘a bit of photography and back for lunch at the base’, as Malleard had said. Tickety bloody boo.
Malleard gave the thumbs up and grinned – his Viking eyes gleaming with berserker fanaticism. He took the plane down couple of hundred feet, with a sickening lurch.
He’s loving this, thought Kerne. It’s all a game to him, like a bloody pheasant shoot.
At first he though they were cattle. Then glints of rifles, insignias and pale faces showed them to be rows of mounted officers stood waiting in the twilight fields, like redundant chess-pieces.
‘Allenby’s cavalry,’ shouted Malleard over his shoulder. ‘Waiting for the Boxing Day hunt by the looks of things. Tally Ho!’
They passed lines of British troops, digging in with dogged solemnity. Noticing the biplane, they waved, or saluted with two-fingers, that ancient insult of the British archer. They wouldn’t do that to General Smith-Dorrien, Kerne thought, the General who was leading the 70,000 strong infantry corps of the British Expeditionary Force east and west of Mons on a fifteen mile front. The living lines of soldiers stretched like ants on the African plains – no difference between the Allies from the air, or the enemy, thought Kerne.
And, suddenly, they were over the German lines.
The biplane sliced through shrouds of smoke. The pounding started, audible even through the din of the engine. Howitzers punctured the sky. Explosions flamed all around them like burning eyes. The aircraft shuddered and groaned. Kerne held on tight to the delicate camera equipment – prayed that it would survive, that they would survive.
Below, a rent in the clouds revealed a new hell – a quagmire of tangled carnage. Amid shattered trunks and twisted limbs, the whistle and boom of shells, strikes that vomited mud like geysers, old craters filled with muddy water and bodies, the death rattle of machine-guns carried like Morse-code. Kerne’s head buzzed. He blinked and looked again. How had the flat fields of Mons been turned into such a Hades so soon? The battle had only just begun. Yet already it looked like it had been raging for years.
The arclight flickered around them – licking the edges of the wings. Between the shreds of smoke the scene below alternated between a late summer of burgeoning wheat and the wasteland of winter, like the flickerbook of a train window. Was he seeing things? Certainly, seeing the land from the air was a disorientating perspective. Kerne had spent his adult life measuring solid earth. Aerial surveillance was a new science and they were the guinea pigs. Yet he’d rather be in the sky then down there any day. Kerne spotted a soldier crucified in a skein of wire – half his face missing. Hard to tell if he was British or German. There but for the grace of God, he muttered to himself.
He clicked the shutter release. I’m like the Recording Angel, witnessing history, brooded Kerne. Or an Angel of Death. Kerne was all too aware that his Intelligence-gathering would result in fatalities. As he went to reload, a shell burst directly below a wing, making the biplane buck. Cursing, Kerne fumbled with the icy photographic plate. In slow motion he watched it shatter. Frozen shards showered the cabin.
In front, an explosion ripped a tear in the smoke and mist, revealing a vast horde of German soldiers.
‘Christ, there must be twice as many Huns!’ Malleard shouted back. ‘Kluck’s got us outmanned! We haven’t got a snowball’s chance!’
Frantically, Kerne started tapping out a warning message. His hand couldn’t stop shaking. He tried to concentrate, as the bombardment increased.
Light flashed off the biplane’s wings. Then the air seemed to peel away like flayed skin.
Malleard was screaming at him. ‘Eyes to the front! , !’
The enemy fire coalesced before them into an otherworldly vision. In the flak Kerne thought he saw flashes of archers, a knight shining, raising his sword…The arclight flickered around them. Time dilated…Kerne felt detached from his body, from the events. In a pattern-recognising part of his brain not frozen by fear he observed distantly: ‘An avenging angel with out-stretched wings, holding spears…’ He breathed a prayer to the sky, yet the heavens seemed empty. Then it struck him: ‘Like the long man!’ he shouted into the void, the wind stealing his words.
‘Hell’s teeth! It’s Saint George himself!’ oathed the pilot.
Inspired by the vision, Malleard gunned the engine and swooped down.
Christ! He’s going for a bombing run, thought Kerne. Just drop them over the side – the hundred pound of bombs they carried in – no problem. Except he might get his head blown off.
‘Cry God for Ha–aagckkk!’ Malleard’s battle-cry was cut short by a bullet in the throat from below. Gurgling blood, he let go of the controls to clutch his spurting neck. The BE-2 plummeted. Cables thrummed, snapped, as the flimsy machine nose-dived.
Pitched forward, Kerne fell towards Malleard. He reached over to grab the pilot and thrust his handkerchief against the wound. The wind sprayed blood over him, smearing his goggles with a red mist. Malleard’s hands flailed about – the controls moved by themselves.
Then Kerne remembered: no parachute – to stop them from bailing out.
The biplane tumbled drunkenly across the blasted charnel house of No Man’s Land, straight into the cloud of fire.
Extract from Windsmith by Kevan Manwaring, Awen 2006
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2009
Not to be reproduced in any format without author's permission