Percy F. (Percy Francis) Westerman.

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ammunition in plenty. A neatly-punched hole just above the
sighting-aperture told its own tale. An anti-tank bullet had passed
through the armour, and had hit the machine-gunner fairly in the
centre of his forehead.

The tank was now lurching forward. Machine-gun bullets were splaying
against its nose and sides. Fragments of nickel were forcing their
way through the joints in the metallic beast's armour, and a sliver,
cutting Derek in the cheek, gave him warning that he was not properly
equipped for the task.

Discarding his triplex glass goggles he donned a "tin hat" and steel
visor that were lying on the floor. They had been the property of the
dead machine-gunner, and had he been wearing them it is just possible
that the anti-tank bullet that had laid him out might have glanced
from the convex surface of the steel helmet.

By this time the tank had skirted the edge of the crater and was
bearing down upon a nest of Hun machine-guns. Even as it passed what
appeared to be a pile of rubble an anti-tank gun was fired at a range
of less than forty yards.

Derek felt the windage of the missile as it passed completely through
the armoured sides. Fragments of copper and steel rattled against his

Bending over the sights of his machine-gun, Derek prepared to deluge
the concealed Huns under a hail of nickel, but before he could open
fire the tank made a half-turn almost in its own length and went
straight for the snipers' lair.

The Huns saw it coming and promptly bolted. They had but two choices:
one was to hold their ground and risk being pulverized under the
banded wheels of the tank; the other to risk being shot down in the
open. Bending low they ran. Few covered more than twenty yards, for
the British machine-gunners were taking a heavy toll. Enfiladed by
other tanks, the anti-tank gunners were completely wiped out with
less compunction than if they had been rabbits in a warren.

Then, swinging back into line, the tank in which Derek had "signed
on" as an unofficial member of the crew pressed forward towards
another belt of almost intact wire, against which hundreds of
demoralized Boches were held up in their precipitate retreat.

On breasting the ridge the armada was greeted by a heavy fire at
short range. Several tanks came to an abrupt halt, burning fiercely
from end to end. Others, regardless of a heavy fire, held resolutely
on their course, methodically flattening out obstacles and crushing
Boche machine-gunners out of existence.

Suddenly an anti-tank bullet passed through the forepart of the tank
on which Derek was busily engaged with his machine-gun. The steel
core passed through the head of the pilot, glanced from a metal
girder, and penetrated the chest of the Commander. Not content with
this, the deadly missile pulverized the magneto and disappeared
through the floor of the tank.

Promptly the huge land-fort came to a standstill. To all appearances
its term of life was approaching its end. Flames began to issue from
one of the carburettors. In another moment the tank would have become
a raging inferno but for the action of one of the drivers. Grasping a
"pyrene" extinguisher, he directed the oxygen-destroying chemical
upon the flames. Almost immediately the fire was quenched, but the
noxious fumes from the extinguisher made the interior untenable. Even
those of the men who wore gas-masks found that these were no
protection from the choking fumes, for owing to the showers of
metallic splinters in the interior of the tank not a mask remained

"Out of it, lads!" spluttered the second in command, a subaltern of
the Tank Corps. His voice trailed off into a queer little squeal of
pained surprise, for a bullet, passing through a rent in the tank's
side, shattered his left arm at the wrist.

Quickly, yet in an orderly manner, the evacuation was carried out.
The wounded men were assisted to a place of doubtful shelter afforded
by an abandoned trench, while Derek and the eight unscathed members
of the crew followed to await developments.

Even as Derek crouched in the shallow trench, the greater part of
which had been flattened out by tanks crossing the obstruction, he
noticed an officer in the uniform of a major of the Tank Corps
running along the irregular parados.

"Back, back, all of you!" he shouted. "Pass the word along. Signal to
the Tank-Commanders. We're held up, and the ground is heavily mined.



Whistles blew shrilly amid the roar of battle. Several of the
Tank-Commanders, hearing and understanding the import of the order,
brought their ponderous craft to a standstill. Others began to wheel
in order to give a wide berth to the highly-dangerous locality. Fifty
yards ahead, and separated from them only by three almost flattened
trenches, was an objective which, if gained, would be the master-key
to this phase of the important operations, and yet with success in
sight the nerve-racking attempt bid fair to end in failure.

At this critical juncture Derek, to the surprise of the crew of the
abandoned tank, suddenly sprang upon the parados. In a couple of
strides he overtook the Major, and, throwing his arms round the
latter's neck and planting one knee in the small of his back, bore
him backwards to the earth. Then, not content with this comparatively
mild form of attack, Derek pinioned the officer's wrists by means of
the lanyard of his whistle. He was dragging his captive into the
trench when a Tank-Commander intervened.

"What on earth are you doing?" he demanded.

"It's all right," replied Derek reassuringly. "The fellow's a Boche.
I know him. Get the tanks to carry on."

Fortunately the officer grasped the situation and had the retirement
order annulled. The mammoth machines resumed their forward progress,
blazing away with their quick-firers and machine-guns, until Derek
found himself well in the rear in the company of a handful of men and
Count Hertz von Peilfell.

It was a freak of fortune on the battle-field that had played into
Lieutenant Daventry's hand. The Count, having succeeded in escaping
from the Le Tenetoir aerodrome, had passed through many adventures
before he regained the German lines. Then, in a desperate bid to
regain prestige, he had volunteered again to act as a spy. Knowing
that there were many changes in the personnel of the Tank Corps, he
determined to assume the rôle and uniform of a major, and await an
opportunity to thwart the victorious advance of the ponderous

Succeeding the tanks came swarms of infantry, of whom, but for the
assistance of the mobile armoured forts, the Boche machine-gunners
would have taken heavy toll. As it was they were able to consolidate
the position already taken with but slight losses in proportion to
the numbers engaged. There were engineers, busily engaged in laying
telephone wires, while numerous stretcher-bearers and ambulance-men
were strenuously working to remove the wounded from the
stubbornly-contested field. Meantime Fritz was shelling the lost
ground to the best of his ability, the guns taking impartial toll of
khaki and field-grey. Having no further use for cannon-fodder that
had fallen into the hands of the victorious Allies, the Boche
artillerymen seemed to show not the slightest compunction at
slaughtering their comrades.

A stretcher-party halted within a few yards of Derek's prisoner. The
Corporal in charge pushed back his steel helmet and mopped his face.

"Set to, chums!" he exclaimed. "Here's another of 'em."

The bearers had been hard at work for five hours and under shell-fire
the whole time. The straps of their equipment were cutting into their
shoulders; their boots were galling their feet owing to the incessant
pull of the tenacious mud. Men of low category, and deemed unfit to
handle a rifle, they were sharing the hardships and dangers of their
comrades in the firing-line, without being able to experience the
thrill of "going over the top" shoulder to shoulder behind a line of
glittering bayonets. Yet their work was of a noble and enduring
nature, often performed under highly-dangerous conditions, without an
opportunity of striking a blow in self-defence.

"Stretcher here!" exclaimed Derek. "Get this man back. I'll come with

The Corporal betrayed no outward sign of surprise at finding a
supposed British major insensible and with his hands lashed behind
his back. At Derek's suggestion the lanyard was unlashed and Von
Peilfell's hands bound to his sides. Then, lifted on a stretcher, the
spy was carried off.

It was a hazardous, uninspiring journey. The heat of the advance
over, the grim aftermath of battle lay revealed in all its stark,
hideous brutality. It was yet early morning. Mist still hung over the
marshy ground. As far as the eye could reach the soil was cut up with
the distinctive tractor-marks of the tanks. Barbed wire, crushed
deeply into the earth wherever a tank had passed, was still in
evidence, snake-like coils clinging tenaciously to posts still rising
slantwise from the stiff clay. And sometimes half buried, sometimes
still held up by the horrible barbs were khaki and field-grey
uniforms still covering what were but a few short hours ago human
beings capable of reasoning. Derelict tanks, some still glowing red
and emitting clouds of smoke, dotted the landscape, cheek by jowl
with crashed aeroplanes. Shell-craters, old and new, abounded, while
already light railways were being laid with a rapidity that is hardly
conceivable. The while there were constant streams of motor traffic
to and fro; heavy guns being brought up to prepare for a fresh
advance. Everywhere there were abundant indications that this was
"some" advance and that the ground gained was to be held.

Mile after mile Derek trudged with his captive. He was determined
that on this occasion the airman-spy should not escape. Von Peilfell
was too dangerous a man to be allowed to get away a second time.

Several times Derek glanced at the man on the stretcher. Von Peilfell
was lying on his right side, his face almost hidden against the
canvas. His manacled hands were resting on the edge of the stretcher.
His features, or rather that portion of them visible, were sallow and
wore a bored, apathetic expression. He seemed quite unconcerned at
his position, not even showing the faintest trepidation when shells
burst within a hundred yards of him or bullets kicked up little
cascades of mud almost at the feet of the stretcher-bearers.

"Guess he knows the game's up this time," thought Derek. "Poor devil!
Pity he hadn't been brought down in fair fight."

Then, recollecting that he had previously given expression to similar
sentiments, Daventry found himself wondering whether Von Peilfell was
under the special protection of fate, and whether he would again
cheat the firing-squad.

Just then another stretcher, moving on a converging route, came level
with Derek's party. On it was a man still wearing an airman's
flying-coat. One hand encased in a leather fur-lined gauntlet trailed
limply. Blood was welling from an unseen wound and staining the white
fur. A blanket had been thrown over the wounded man's lower limbs.
His flying-helmet had been removed and was serving as a pillow. He
was smoking a cigarette and apparently taking a lively interest in
the journey to the dressing-station.

"Hallo, Daventry!" shouted the wounded airman. "Don't you know me?"

Derek, astonished at hearing his name, looked intently at the man on
the stretcher.

"Hanged if I do," he replied.

"Ungrateful old bean!" chortled the other. "What on earth are you
doing with a tin hat? Doubly ungrateful, considering I taught you all
you know about a 'bus."

"You're not Rippondene?" enquired Derek incredulously.

"What's left of me," was the nonchalant reply. "I think I'm right in
supposing that I'm half a leg short, although I can swear that I can
feel the missing toes tingling like billy-ho. There's one thing to be
thankful for: that leg was a source of trouble since I crashed at
Armentières in March, '15. It won't worry me again, and with a cork
leg I'll be able to wangle a rudder-bar. Hope the war isn't over by
the time I'm pushed out of hospital."

Rippondene, now a Flight-Commander, had had many adventures since
relinquishing the post of instructor at Torringham. In spite of
certain physical disabilities he had gained well-earned promotion,
and was "down" for participation in the elaborately-perfected scheme
for bombing Berlin. Then, owing to exigencies on the Western Front,
he had been ordered to France, and had performed excellent work in
the operations during the great German offensive and the greater
German retreat.


"Bit of sheer hard luck," he replied, in answer to Derek's question
as to how he came to be hit. "Had a chance of a lifetime. Caught a
whole Boche battalion out in the open and started machine-gunning the
bounders. Put the wind up them properly; they scooted like hares.
Used up all my ammunition and, like Oliver Twist, came back for more.
I got more - of a different sort. A bullet through the arm - that
didn't worry me very much - and then a regular crump. Thought the old
'bus was blown to bits. Felt like it anyhow. But she wasn't, so I
managed to pancake just behind some tanks and here I am. Who's the
old bird?"

"The old bird," repeated Derek, "is a pal of yours."

"Don't know him," replied Rippondene, raising his head and looking
across to the other stretcher. "Haven't had much to do with fellows
in the Tank Corps, and so I'll swear I haven't met him. Bet you a
sovereign on it."

"Don't throw good money away," protested Daventry. "This is Count von

"Rot!" ejaculated the Flight-Commander.

"Fact," declared Derek; "and I'll explain why he's in this rig."

"Another time, old thing," said Rippondene feebly. "I'm feeling jolly
rummy. I'm - - "

"He's fainted, sir," announced the Corporal in charge of the party.
"We'll soon fix him up all right when we get to the dressing-station.
And, sir - - "

"Yes; what is it?"

"It looks as if there's something wrong with this Hun, sir."

The stretcher-party halted. The Corporal turned Von Peilfell's head
and placed a finger upon one of his wide-open eyes. Not a muscle on
the Hun airman's face quivered.

"He's gone west, sir," said the Corporal. "'Tain't much good carrying
a corpse. There's plenty of living who want bearing off."

The bearers set the stretcher on the ground. Deftly the R.A.M.C. man
examined the corpse. The cause of the spy's death was soon evidenced.
While he was being carried off a chance bullet had struck him,
passing through his heart. Without a groan or a struggle, Hertz von
Peilfell's career had ended - ignominiously.

"I'll take my men back, sir, if I may," suggested the N.C.O.

"Yes, carry on," replied Derek.

Without ceremony the dead German airman was placed by the trunk of a
shattered tree, and the bearers returned to their work of succour;
while Derek, who was beginning to feel the effect of his strenuous
work, set out in the direction of the still distant air-sheds.


The Shell-crater

There were many vacant places that evening in the building that
served as a mess. Youngsters who, a few hours previously, had left
the aerodrome like modern knights of the air, were lying crushed
beyond recognition amidst the wreckage of their trusted steeds. The
price of victory was a heavy one; the toll of airmen's lives
enormous; yet the sacrifice had not been made in vain. The soil of
Flanders and Picardy, drenched with British blood, was hourly
becoming a wider and stronger barrier between the modern Hun and the
shores of Great Britain - shores that, held inviolate from the feet of
a would-be invader, had nevertheless felt the effect of German shells
and bombs.

The worst was over. Fritz was done. The stranglehold of the British
fleet had paralysed the most highly-trained military nation in the
world, and now the civilian armies of Britain, France, and the United
States were reaping the benefit, and were steadily driving the Hun
towards the Rhine. No longer was it possible - thanks to the
ever-increasing efficiency of the R.A.F. - for German machines to bomb
the capital of the British Empire, or even to make "cut-and-run"
raids upon the south-eastern ports. Outclassed and outnumbered, Fritz
was a back number on land, on the sea, and in the air.

There were constant rumours of the Huns clamouring for an armistice,
and the fear of an armistice filled the Allies with alarm. They felt
themselves in the position of a man who, having caught a burglar on
his premises, is compelled to hand the criminal over to be tried by a
notoriously lenient judge. They realized that Germany might come to
terms that would undo the result of four years' fighting. The
diplomat would upset the carefully-laid plans of the soldier;
therefore it was imperative to continue to strike hard while there
was yet time.

From the North Sea to the Swiss frontier the German line had cracked.
British and Belgian troops were in possession of Bruges; Ypres was no
longer a salient; Cambrai, the scene of a grave reverse that paved
the way for a gigantic German offensive, was in British hands; the
French had overrun the debatable Chemin des Dames and had put Rheims
beyond the range of the German heavy artillery; Big Bertha and her
sisters could no longer disturb the equanimity of the citizens of
Paris; while the Americans had flattened out the Saint Mihiel
salient, and were enveloping the fortress of Metz. After years of
trench warfare, the news seemed too good to be true.

Secret orders taken on the captured ground gave abundant evidence of
the effect of the predominating weight of the Allies. Frantic appeals
for reserves and munitions - appeals that, read between the lines,
showed a mistrust between German officers and men - orders for the
strictest conservation of shells; these and a hundred other signs
told of the crisis through which Imperial Germany was passing - a
crisis which was bound to tell against her.

Derek Daventry's period off duty was of short duration. In the
circumstances he reckoned himself lucky to have twelve hours, most of
which he spent in sleeping soundly. In those strenuous times, when
every available man and machine had to spend hours in the air with
but brief intervals of rest, it was only through sheer exhaustion
that pilots and observers were excused duty.

He was off again at five in the morning, flying in another EG
machine, almost identical with his much-regretted No. 19. The
biplanes composing the "flight" were ordered to harass the Germans
holding a series of defensive works at a distance of about five miles
farther back than the ground captured by the tanks on the previous

In the present phase of the operations the employment of tanks was
out of the question. Tanks are capable of surmounting many obstacles;
those they cannot surmount they can frequently demolish; but the
mastodons have their limits. They don't like marshy, boggy ground;
while a canal or river offers an impassable barrier unless a bridge
is available.

Eight hundred yards in front of the Huns' position ran a broad canal,
seventy-four feet in width and six feet in depth. Every swing-bridge
had been blown up and the lock-gates destroyed.

Earlier in the day British and French infantry, under cover of a
strong artillery-barrage, had succeeded in crossing the canal by
means of pontoons, and had established themselves securely on the
opposite bank; but so severe was the German machine-gun fire that the
advance was held up and the troops compelled to dig themselves in.

Already thousands of sand-bags were being dropped into the canal to
form a means of getting the tanks across, but a considerable time
would necessarily elapse before the work, carried out under fire,
could be perfected; while it was evident, from the determined
resistance of the enemy, that the attackers were being held up by a
crack Prussian division.

The attacking 'planes flew well to the east of their objective, and,
turning, bore down, with the light of the rising sun well behind
them. It meant flying against the wind, but when engaged in raking a
trench, speed is not of paramount importance.

Five thousand feet above the machine-gunning biplanes hovered a
squadron of battleplanes, ready at the first appearance of a Hun to
swoop down and wipe him out of existence should he have the temerity
to attack. But not a German machine showed itself, and the huge
battleplanes had to be content with affording moral support to their
smaller sisters of the air.

The German infantry had no stomach for the swift death that
threatened from the sky. At the first appearance of the biplanes, the
field-greys promptly abandoned their fire-steps and dived into their
dug-outs. This was hardly what the British airmen expected, since it
is to little purpose to fire thousands of rounds of small-arm
ammunition into an empty trench.

Almost simultaneously three batteries of Archies opened fire, and
soon the biplanes were rocking, lurching, and side-slipping in the
air-eddies caused by the bursting shrapnel.

It was now the battleplanes' opportunity. Leaving two of their number
to wireless the news that the enemy trench was no longer held, the
remainder dived steeply at the troublesome anti-air-craft batteries.
Although one British machine was shot down completely out of control,
the remainder attained their objectives. With bombs of terrific
explosive power they wiped the Archies out of existence, and then
proceeded to drop more bombs upon the dug-outs in order to induce
Fritz to bolt from his lair.

Meanwhile the British infantry were advancing in open order with
fixed bayonets and preceded by bombers. Viewed from aloft, the
movement lacked vigour. A battle photograph, taken from an aeroplane,
is a very tame picture compared with the results obtained by daring
cinematographers, who frequently film the process of "going over the
top". The absence of sound - or rather the drowning of it by the roar
of the engine - the grotesque foreshortening of the figures, and their
relatively slow rate of progress all fail to convey any picturesque
aspect of a modern battle when observed from a machine flying high

Derek was describing a series of circles, ready to traverse the line
of trenches at an instant's notice, when he saw a sight that bore
testimony to the stubborn nature of the Prussian infantryman. It was
not without a set purpose that the German High Command had manned
this sector with picked troops. Apparently the underground works were
of a very extensive nature, and concealed not only the troops
presumably in the trench, but very stiff reserves as well. At a
signal, the Prussians issued in swarms from their subterranean
retreats. Along the parapet flashed a crackling line of fire, as
machine-guns by scores and hundreds of rifles loosed their leaden
hail upon the advancing khaki troops.

No living creature could last for long in that fire-swept zone. The
ground was dotted with dead and wounded, many of the latter still
using their rifles against their foes. Individual courage was of no
avail against the diabolical scientific devices of the Huns, who used
petrol-bomb, flame-thrower, and poison-gas with horrible effect.

Stolidly the khaki-clad infantry retired to their former positions.
Here, on the defensive, and with their backs to the broad canal, they
must wait and sit tight until heavy artillery and tanks turned the
scale of battle.

It was a chance for the airmen. Up and down, often at less than
twenty feet above the densely-packed German lines, they flew, their
machine-guns cutting broad swaths in the field-grey masses. Often
hidden in clouds of smoke, risking collision with other British
machines, the biplanes soared and swooped until red-hot guns and
empty ammunition-trays called a halt.

Derek had just fired his last round, and was preparing to climb and
fly back for more ammunition, when, like a blow from a titanic
hammer, a fragment of shell shattered the swiftly-revolving blades of
the propeller. Other pieces of flying metal severed the
aileron-controls, cut jagged rents in the doped canvas fabric, and
damaged the tail planes.

Switching off the now useless motor, which had begun to race
furiously, Derek vainly endeavoured to glide back to the other side
of the canal. The effort was beyond the power of the crippled 'bus.
It was evident that, if not exactly out of control, there was very

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Online LibraryPercy F. (Percy Francis) WestermanWinning his Wings → online text (page 8 of 16)