Viewing A Battle from a Balloon
She was anchored to earth in a good-sized field. Woods horizoned the field on three of its edges and a sunken road bounded it on the fourth. She measured, I should say at an offhand guess, seventy-five feet from tip to tip lengthwise, and she was perhaps twenty feet in diameter through her middle. She was a bright yellow in color—a varnished, oily-looking yellow—and in shape suggestive of a frankfurter.
At the end of her near the ground and on the side that was underneath —for she swung, you understand, at an angle—a swollen protuberance showed, as though an air bubble had got under the skin of the sausage during the packing and made a big blister. She drooped weakly amidships, bending and swaying this way and that; and, as we came under her and looked up, we saw that the skin of the belly kept shrinking in and wrinkling up, in the unmistakable pangs of acute cramp colic.
She had a sickly, depleted aspect elsewhere, and altogether was most flabby and unreliable looking; yet this, as I learned subsequently, was her normal appearance. Being in the business of spying she practiced deceit, with the deliberate intent of seeming to be what, emphatically, she was not. She counterfeited chronic invalidism and she performed competently.
She was an observation balloon of the pattern privily chosen by the German General Staff, before the beginning of the war, for the use of the German Signal Corps. On this particular date and occasion she operated at a point of the highest strategic importance, that point being the center of the German battle lines along the River Aisne.
She had been stationed here now for more than a week—that is to say, ever since her predecessor was destroyed in a ball of flaming fumes as a result of having a bomb flung through the flimsy cloth envelope by a coursing and accurate aviator of the enemy. No doubt she would continue to be stationed here until some such mischance befell her too.
On observation balloons, in time of war, no casualty insurance is available at any rate of premium. I believe those who ride in them are also regarded as unsuitable risks. This was highly interesting to hear and, for our journalistic purposes, very valuable to know; but, speaking personally, I may say that the thing which most nearly concerned me for the moment was this: I had just been invited to take a trip aloft in this wabbly great wienerwurst, with its painted silk cuticle and its gaseous vitals—and had, on impulse, accepted.
I was informed at the time, and have since been reinformed more than once, that I am probably the only civilian spectator who has enjoyed such a privilege during the present European war. Assuredly, to date and to the best of my knowledge and belief, I am the only civilian who has been so favored by the Germans. Well, I trust I am not hoggish. Possessing, as it does, this air of uniqueness, the distinction is worth much to me personally. I would not take anything for the experience; but I do not think I shall take it again, even if the chance should come my way, which very probably it will not.