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Archibald, Onions, and Ghosts

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Last night while I was again reading through "Cavalry of the Clouds", (this time in search of references to Mossy Face Woods), I came across one of Captain Bott's letters home from the Somme in which he describes the different forms of AA. It is really quite enlightening and rather poetic, and given our recent discussions here on the topic I thought it timely to share it. Here is the excerpt:

 

 

You remark on the familiarity with which I speak of Archie, and you ask for detailed information about his character and habits. Why should I not treat him with familiarity? If a man calls on you nearly every day you are entitled to use his Christian name. And if the intimacy be such that at each visit he tries to punch your head, he becomes more a brother than a friend.

 

How, you continue, did a creature so strenuous as the anti-aircraft gun come by the flippant name of Archie? Well, once upon a time the Boche A.-A. guns were very young and had all the impetuous inaccuracy incident to youth. British airmen scarcely knew they were fired at until they saw the pretty, white puffs in the distance. One day a pilot noticed some faraway bursts, presumably meant for him. He was young enough to remember the good old days (you would doubtless call them the bad old days) when the music-halls produced hearty, if vulgar, humour, and he murmured "Archibald, certainly not!" The name clung, and as Archibald the A.-A. gun will go down to posterity. You can take it or leave it; any way, I cannot think of a better explanation for the moment.

 

Archie has since grown up and become sober, calculating, accurate, relentless, cunning, and deadly mathematical. John or Ernest would now fit him better, as being more serious, or Wilhelm, as being more frightful. For Archie is a true apostle of frightfulness. There is no greater adept at the gentle art of "putting the wind up" people.

 

Few airmen get hardened to the villainous noise of a loud wouffl wowff! at 12,000 feet, especially when it is near enough to be followed by the shriek of shell-fragments. Nothing disconcerts a man more as he tries to spy out the land, take photographs, direct artillery fire, or take aim through a bomb-sight, than to hear this noise and perhaps be lifted a hundred feet or so when a shell bursts close underneath. And one is haunted by the knowledge that, unlike the indirect fire of the more precise guns, Archie keeps his own eyes on the target and can observe all swerves and dashes for safety.

 

To anybody who has seen a machine broken up by a direct hit at some height between 8,000 and 15,000 feet, Archie becomes a prince among the demons of destruction. Direct hits are fortunately few, but hits by stray fragments are unfortunately many. Yet, though the damage on such occasions is regrettable, it is seldom overwhelming. Given a skillful pilot and a well-rigged bus, miracles can happen, though a machine stands no technical chance of staggering home. In the air uncommon escapes are common enough.

 

On several occasions, after a direct hit, a wounded British pilot has brought his craft to safety, with wings and fuselage weirdly ventilated and half the control wires helpless. Archie wounded a pilot from our aerodrome in the head and leg, and an opening the size of a duck's egg was ripped into the petrol tank facing him. The pressure went, outwards and upwards; the black ones contain high explosive, which spreads all around.

 

H.E. has a lesser radius of solid frightfulness than shrapnel, but if it does hit a machine the damage is greater. For vocal frightfulness the black beat the white hollow. If the Titans ever had an epidemic of whooping-cough, and a score of them chorused the symptoms in unison, I should imagine the noise was like the bursting of a black Archie shell.

 

Then there is the green branch of the family. This is something of a problem. One theory is that the green bursts are for ranging purposes only, another that they contain a special brand of H.E., and a third declares them to be gas shells. All three suggestions may be partly true, for there is certainly more than one brand of green Archie.

 

First cousin to Archie is the onion, otherwise the flaming rocket. It is fired in a long stream of what look like short rectangles of compressed flame at machines that have been enticed down to a height of 4000 to 6000 feet. It is most impressive as a firework display. There are also colourless phosphorous rockets that describe a wide parabola in their flight.

 

Within the past month or two we have been entertained at rare intervals by the family ghost. This fascinating and mysterious being appears very suddenly in the form of a pillar of white smoke, stretching to a height of several thousand feet. It is straight, and apparently rigid as far as the top, where it sprays round into a knob. Altogether, it suggests a giant piece of celery. It does not seem to disperse; but if you pass on and look away for a quarter of an hour, you will find on your return that it has faded away as suddenly as it came, after the manner of ghosts. Whether the pillars are intended to distribute gas is uncertain, but it is a dubious fact that on the few occasions when we have seen them they have appeared to windward of us.

 

Like babies and lunatics, Archie has his good and bad days. If low clouds are about and he can only see through the gaps he is not very troublesome. Mist also helps to keep him quiet. He breaks out badly when the sky is a cover of unbroken blue, though the sun sometimes dazzles him, so that he fires amok. From his point of view it is a perfect day when a film of cloud about 20,000 feet above him screens the sky. The high clouds forms a perfect background for anything between it and the ground, and aircraft stand out boldly, like the figures on a Greek vase. On such a day we would willingly change places with the gunners below.

 

For my part, Archie has given me a fellow-feeling for the birds of the air. I have at times tried light-heartedly to shoot partridges and even pigeons, but if ever again I fire at anything on the wing, sympathy will spoil my aim.

 

 

France, October, 1915

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Interesting that even in 1915 when this was written Archie "has since grown up and become sober, calculating, accurate, relentless, cunning, and deadly mathematical."

 

Thanks for posting Lou

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Interesting that even in 1915 when this was written Archie "has since grown up and become sober, calculating, accurate, relentless, cunning, and deadly mathematical."

 

Thanks for posting Lou

 

I wonder if he complained to the Huns that it was too accurate and too loud and could they tone it down, because it was making things far too difficult? grin.gif

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