Lost in Limbo
Shrapnel ripped through the fabric of both wings but luckily, the spars that held them apart withstood the blast. One of the ailerons on the upper wing had been torn away leaving wires flapping madly along the trailing edge but luckily, the pilot still had some control of his failing aircraft.
George Slingsby craned his neck and peered over the edge of his open cockpit searching desperately for a place to land. Oil was beginning to spew from his engine and suddenly it didn’t sound quite right.
A fierce battle was raging hundreds of feet below but he had no idea which side was his own, he had completely lost his bearings and the pockmarked ground yielded few clues. He could try flying low over one side, see if his British aircraft drew enemy fire, but it was too late for that. Suddenly his engine seized with a shudder that sealed his fate.
George fought desperately at the controls and managed to hold his aircraft true, but the battlefield was hardly an ideal place to land. His aircraft slewed sideways and lost speed, George had no choice he would have to bring his stricken machine down.
The landing was heavy and George was thrown from the cockpit and as he lay breathlessly in the mud a deathly silence settled around him. He thought that he might have lost his hearing, the noise when flying could be deafening at times, but then he heard voices. A lull in the fighting was in progress and troops were beginning to stir from their trenches, so cautiously he raised his head. Removing his flying goggles so he could see more clearly he was shocked to find lost equipment and unexploded shells half buried in a sea of mud that stretched for as far as he could see. The wreckage of his aircraft lay smouldering close by and it saddened him to see it in such a state. Broken spars, fabric and bits of engine lay strewn about and it was hard to believe that just moments before this magnificent machine was flying high up in the sky.
The troops in the trenches had watched as George attacked the enemy balloon high above their positions. All morning shells had rained down on them guided by the observer who had a perfect view of the battlefield. This act of bravery had come at a price. Everyone knew of the dangers of flying too close to a balloon filled with hydrogen gas, especially if you were firing bullets at it. The troops on the ground were too far away to be of any help, all they could do was watch as George made his attacking runs. Luckily, the observer parachuted to safety, but when the balloon eventually exploded, the little aircraft was lost in a cloud of fire and smoke.
George slipped and struggled over the rough ground hoping to find his countrymen. The voices he’d heard earlier had gone and now the silence was beginning alarm him. His whole body was tingling and he didn’t quite feel himself, perhaps it was the affects of shock, he had already encountered a number of battlefield horrors in just a few minutes.
Fighting in the air was fraught with danger, but it was a clean almost clinical way to conduct a battle, it was without the filth and suffering endured by the men on the ground. Suddenly George stumbled into a hole full of foul tasting water and something brushed against his legs. Crying out in terror, he managed to pull himself clear and laying face down he attempted to shake off his fear and revulsion. Scrambling away on all fours, he crossed an area of wire where scraps of ripped clothing hung like washing fluttering in the breeze then as he stopped for breath, he could hear voices again. He was certain they were friendly but before he could move, a shell exploded nearby. A whistle sounded followed by a battle cry then men appeared all around him as they pulled themselves up from their trenches. With bayonets fixed they charged and caught up in the mad rush, George dragged himself along with them. Bullets ripped through their ranks bringing men down and in his panic he managed to latch onto a small group who miraculously made it to safety. Throwing themselves into a hollow in the ground, they worked their way towards the wreckage of his aircraft where they took cover before another machine gun sounded not far away.
“That was close,” George said as he dug in beside the smashed fuselage.
Two men were crawling up towards the cockpit, but they ignored him as they went by.
“I could do with a fag Joe,” one of them said.
“Could do with something stronger,” Joe chuckled.
“I’ve got a hip flask full of cognac if you would care for some,” George said reaching into his pocket but Joe ignored him completely.
“Please yourself,” George moaned as he took a sip himself.
Crawling towards the cockpit, George wanted to get a clearer view of the area ahead. He now had a better idea of the damage that his aircraft had suffered. On impact, the engine had buried itself into the ground reducing the cockpit area to ragged scrap. One wing had sheared off completely and trailing wires that had once operated the ailerons and rudder were now hanging and useless. George thought it a sad sight indeed and as he peered into the remains of the cockpit, he was surprised to find a body. Reaching forward with shaking fingers he took hold of the goggles that covered the dead man’s eyes then pulling them aside he recognised his own face.