Also, on our way back we learned the object of the German fire in answer to our bombardment of the redoubt and the wireless station. They had shelled a cross-roads and a certain village again. As we passed through the village we noticed a new hole in the church tower, and three holes in the churchyard, which had scattered clods of earth about the pavement. A shopkeeper was engaged in repairing a window-frame that had been broken by a shell-fragment.
There is no flustering the French population. That very day I heard of an old peasant who asked a British soldier if he could not get permission for the old farmer to wear some kind of an armband which both sides would respect, so that he could cut his field of wheat between the trenches. Why not? Wasn’t it his wheat? Didn’t he need the crop?
And the Germans fire into villages and towns; for the women and children there are the women and children of the enemy. But those in the German lines belong to the ally of England. Besides, they are women and children. So British gunners avoid towns—which is, in one sense, a professional handicap.
There is another kind of gun, vagrant and free lance, which deserves a chapter by itself. It has the same bark as the eighteen-pounder field piece; the flight of the shell makes the same kind of sound. But its scream, instead of passing in a long parabola toward the German lines, goes up in the heavens toward something as large as your hand against the light blue of the summer sky—a German aeroplane.
At a height of seven or eight thousand feet the target seems almost stationary, when really it is going somewhere between fifty and ninety miles an hour. It has all the heavens to itself, and to the British it is a sinister, prying eye that wants to see if we are building any new trenches, if we are moving bodies of troops or of transport, and where our batteries are in hiding. That aviator three miles above the earth has many waiting guns at his command. A few signals from his wireless and they would let loose on the target he indicated.
If the planes might fly as low as they pleased, they would know all that was going on in an enemy’s lines. They must keep up so high that through the aviator’s glasses a man on the road is the size of a pin-head. To descend low is as certain death as to put your head over the parapet of a trench when the enemy’s trench is only a hundred yards away. There are dead lines in the air, no less than on the earth.
Archibald, the anti-aircraft gun, sets the dead line. He watches over it as a cat watches a mouse. The trick of sneaking up under cover of a noonday cloud and all the other man-bird tricks he knows. A couple of seconds after that crack a tiny puff of smoke breaks about a hundred yards behind the Taube. A soft thistledown against the blue it seems at that altitude; but it would not if it were about your ears. Then it would sound like a bit of dynamite on an anvil struck by a hammer and you would hear the whizz of scores of bullets and fragments.