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From Inside the Flap
Karma, The Eastern Cougar
The keen ears heard it once again. It was strange how sound travelled. Sometimes an intruder could be only a few bounds away and you didn?t hear it and at other times, like today, the noise from down in the valley was floating up to the sanctuary of the cliffs. She recognized the sound. It was Henderson’s hound Houdini. She turned and saw her two youngsters playing; pretending to be hunters like their mother. They were healthy and strong, and perfect in every way; perhaps every mother thought that of her children. A sudden pounce and one knocked the other off its feet and protests and angry growls broke the silence of the glen.
Up here she felt secure, but it never was wise to become too complacent or someone far more dangerous that Houdini, the farmer’s dog, might surprise her. She curled her lips and wished she could make Houdini disappear. Once he had nearly caught her. But her ability to hide her trail was still better than his nose in finding one. It was always the way between the animals trained to be slaves to man and those who enjoyed their own domain away from houses, villages and other structures of man.
How long had she watched from the same ledge? She lost track of time; one year merged into another, but she knew she was the reigning queen of the forest. Men were making inroads into her kingdom, but it was not the first time that she and her kind had been challenged. Her mate was a lothario and wandered into other areas that were not his but the territories of other males and females. Why males were always looking for another lady was a mystery, but he had fathered two fine children, and one would become a large male and the other would be like her, and in a few years she?d be another mighty monarch.
"Anything is Better than Mud"
Living and dying in the trenches for most was a fact of life. Fighting over a few pulverized acres of land cost both the Germans and the Allies hundreds of thousands of lives. The enemy was often just across No Man’s Land in their own trenches, within shouting distance. Were they too living with rats, and the quagmire and filth that rotted out your leather boots and inflicted foot-rot? The call to go over the top at dawn sent hundreds and thousands of men into the path of machine gun bullets and they died out in that land of mud; died for what reason?
But some soldiers saw their future, as the sound of an engine drew their attention to the skies where both allied and enemy aeroplanes flew over the combatants and looked down at the madness that occupied the world in the years of 1914-1918. To be free of the mud was worth the risk of flying those flimsy imitations of birds. To fly was a way of escaping the terrors of what each soldier faced. Bodies too far out in No Man’s Land to recover were daily reminders that life in the trenches was like living in a purgatory. Up in the skies you had a chance to be free.
The exhilaration of flying was what made it all worthwhile. He had long since learned not to dwell on the missing fliers who failed to come for morning breakfast. The life span of a flier was measured in minutes or perhaps flights, but if you thought about it, then the chance of not making it was too real.
But was flying helping to win the war? Not only was it vital to record the exact positions of the enemy trenches, it was also vital to take photographs of the gun emplacements so when the big push happened those guns could be silenced once and forever. He had learned his trade not as a fighter but as an observer taking photographs and directing artillery fire to strike at any gathering of enemy troops. Flying must have been in his blood because he flew solo after 50 minutes of instruction.
Canada had its fair share of famous fighters and Lt.-Col William Barker, VC, Raymond Collishaw and Billy Bishop were our most famous examples.
The sight of a lone allied plane taking on 60 enemy aircraft riveted those on the ground on both sides of the line as they watched spellbound at such a feat of flying. After Barker in his Sopwith Snipe put down one plane, the enemy were all around him. His plane was riddled with bullets and he was wounded several times, his left elbow shot away, but before he crashed he managed to shoot down three more of his attackers. Billy Bishop and Barker were not the only famous fliers; other countries had their own aces; the infamous Manfred von Richthofen, the German ace in his famous Flying Circus set fear into many an allied pilot. His deadly score of 80 victims showed how effective his shooting was. Yet the way he died was subject to controversy; a Canadian, Roy Brown, was given credit for shooting down the Red Knight as he was about to kill a novice pilot Wilfred May, but an Australian gunner Sgt. C. B. Popkin of the Australian army on the ground said it was his bullets that downed the German ace.
It was reported that Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s last engagement involved an attack on a Canadian (Lt Wilfred May) while von Richthofen, in turn, was under attack by Lt Roy Brown, May’s former schoolmate and current squadron mate. Seventy-one of the 863 known British Empire aces of World War I were Canadian, and of the 26 with a score of 30 or more planes shot down, 10 were Canadian, including Billy Bishop, Canada’s leading ace, with 72 victims and Raymond Collishaw, with 61.
Barker wasn?t thinking of the tally of his fellow Canadians when he was alone and sixty German planes were swirling around him trying to shoot him down; he had to do some fancy flying to avoid the machine gun fire as the enemy sought out his Sopwith Snipe and the foolish Canadian who had let himself become surrounded.
The cloth of his wings was soon ripped and shredded, and each time he avoided one adversary another was waiting to try his luck. Still the lone plane was not without ability to fight back, as like a cornered tiger, Barker used his skill and his marksmanship, so that, one after another, those who were careless for a moment paid with their lives. But the odds were too much, and as he used up his ammunition and the plane took further hits, his wounds made it next to impossible for him to continue flying; yet he did and eventually made it over the line into home territory, where he crashed.
How anyone could live after suffering attacks by dozens of his enemy was considered impossible but with skillful flying William Barker survived. For his feat of arms he received the Victoria Cross.
He was one of many who braved the tumult that was a daily event up in the skies above the trench weary soldiers on both the Allied and German sides. Some fought because they were patriots and hated the enemy; others found it was an exhilarating adventure, a chance to gamble and play a game with death. If you lived another day you grinned at yourself in a mirror that reflected an image of a stranger, someone hardly recognized. The daily battle took a toll on both the body and the mind.
Compatriots were lost each day. Raw recruits with only a few hours as fliers arrived to fill the gaps and they too disappeared over No Man’s Land. Some of the new ones knew that if they hoped to survive they had to watch the experienced fliers who had survived a month or months or even years in the maelstrom of war. On the other side, new recruits had similar worries, similar fears, and only the hardened, experienced pilots had any hope to live longer than the recruits who died usually within days of coming to the front. The recruits became victims of the enemy aces. Too inexperienced, too eager to prove themselves, they were picked off like damselflies when dragonflies were out hunting.
Some fliers survived the war. Billy Bishop and Walter Barker lived. But Barker died in a plane crash testing a Fairchild, a new plane, at Rockcliffe airport in Ottawa on a winter day in 1930.
Some of the other pilots famous in their own country found the peace difficult to handle. No longer was there the daily exhilaration and gamble at cheating death; testing one’s metal against the best the enemy had to fly up to meet you. Some pilots, although wounded and candidates for medical leave, flew whenever they could. One, the second most successful French pilot after Fonch, was Charles Nungesser, and his feats even while he was not fully recovered from numerous wounds were extraordinary. His flight crew carried him on a stretcher to his plane and when he returned the mechanics carried him back to the hospital. After breaking both legs, piercing the roof of his mouth with the joystick and dislocating his jaw, he still wanted to fly. Suffering from more wounds received in battle, including internal injuries, skull fractures, concussion, fractures of the upper and lower jaws, dislocated wrist, clavicle and ankle, cuts and bruises and loss of teeth, his determination to still fight made him a hero. He became one of the most decorated French fliers and after the war he found life less successful. He became a stunt pilot and acted in many war movies produced in Hollywood including Hell’s Angels, the Howard Hughes epic move of RAF pilots battling the Zeppelins over England. Charles Nungesser was a hero and heroes preferred to die as heroes and not as forgotten old men.
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