'Archibald the Archer'
from the book 'My First Year of the War'
by Frederick Palmer


Anti-Aircraft Fire in 1915

a color photograph from 1916 - French aniti-aircraft gun


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.

The smoking brass shell-case is out of Archibald's steel throat, and another shell- case with its charge slipped into place and started on its way before the first puff breaks. The aviator knows what is coming. He knows that one means many, once he is in range.

Archibald rushes the fighting; it is the business of the Taube to side-step. The aviator cannot hit back except through his allies, the German batteries, on the earth. They would take care of Archibald if they knew where he was. But all that the aviator can see is mottled landscape. From his side Archibald flies no goal flags. He is one of ten thousand tiny objects under the aviator's eye.

Archibald's propensities are entirely peripatetic. He is the vagabond of the army lines. Locate him and he is gone. His home is where night finds him and the day's duties take him. He is the only gun that keeps regular hours like a Christian gentleman. All the others, great and small, raucous-voiced and shrill-voiced, fire at any hour, night or day. Aeroplanes rarely go up at night; and when no aeroplanes are up, Archibald has no interest in the war. But he is alert at the first flush of dawn, on. the look-out for game with the avidity of a pointer dog ; for aviators are also up early.

Why he was named Archibald nobody knows. As his full name is Archibald the Archer, possibly it comes from some association with the idea of archery. If there were ten thousand anti-aircraft guns in the British army, every one would be known as Archibald.

When the British Expeditionary Force went to France it had none. All the British could do was to bang away at Taubes with thousands of rounds of rifle-bullets, which might fall in their own lines, and with the field guns.

It was pie in those days for the Taubes! Easy to keep out of the range of both rifles and guns and observe well! If the Germans did not know the progress of the British retreat from on high it was their own fault. Now, the business of firing at Taubes is left entirely to Archibald. When you see how hard it is for Archibald, after all his practice, to get a Taube, you understand how foolish it was for the field guns to try to get one.

Archibald, who is quite the "swaggerist" of the gun tribe, has his own private car built especially for him. Such of the cavalry's former part as the planes do not play he plays. He keeps off the enemy's scouts. Do you seek team-work, spirit of corps, and smartness in this theatre of France, where all the old glamour of war is supposed to be lacking ? You will find it in the attendants of Archibald. They have pride, elan, alertness, pepper, and all the other appetizers and condiments. They are as neat as a private yacht's crew, and as lively as an infield of a major league team. The Archibaldians are naturally bound to think rather well of themselves.

Watch them there, every man knowing his part, as they send their shells after the Taube! There is not enough waste motion among the lot to tip over the range- finder, or the telescopes, or the score board, or any of the other paraphernalia assisting the man who is looking through the sight in knowing where to aim next, as a screw answers softly to his touch.

Is the sport of war dead ? Not for Archibald! Here you see your target — which is so rare these days when British infantrymen have stormed and taken trenches without ever seeing a German — and the target is a bird, a man-bird. Puffs of smoke with bursting hearts of death are clustered around the Taube. One follows another in quick succession, for more than one Archibald is firing, before your entranced eye.

You are staring like the crowd of a county fair at a parachute act. For the next puff may get him. Who knows this better than the aviator ? He is, likely, an old hand at the game ; or, if he is not, he has all the experience of other veterans to go by. His ruse is the same as that of the escaped prisoner who runs from the fire of a guard in a zigzag course, and more than that. If a puff comes near on the right, he turns to the left; if one comes near on the left, he turns to the right; if one comes under, he rises; over, he dips. This means that the next shell fired at the same point will be wide of the target.

Looking through the sight, it seems easy to hit a plane. But here is the difficulty. It takes two seconds, say, for the shell to travel to the range of the plane. The gunner must wait for its burst before he can spot his shot. Ninety miles an hour is a mile and a half a minute. Divide that by thirty and you have about a hundred yards which the plane has travelled from the time the shell left the gun-muzzle till it burst. It becomes a matter of discounting the aviator's speed and guessing from experience which way he will turn next.

That ought to have got him — the burst was right under. No! He rises. Surely that one got him! The puff is right in front, partly hiding the Taube from view. You see the plane tremble as if struck by a violent gust of wind. Close! Within thirty or forty yards, the telescope says. But at that range the naked eye is easily deceived about distance. Probably some of the bullets have cut his plane.

But you must hit the man or the machine in a vital spot in order to bring down your bird. The explosions must be very close to count. It is amazing how much shell-fire an aeroplane can stand. Aviators are accustomed to the whizz of shell- fragments and bullets, and to have their planes punctured and ripped. Though their engines are put out of commission, and frequently though the man be wounded, they are able to volplane back to the cover of their own lines.

To make a proper story we ought to have brought down this particular bird. But it had the luck, which most planes, British or German have, to escape antiaircraft gun-fire. It had begun edging away after the first shot and soon was out of range. Archibald had served the purpose of his existence. He had sent the prying aerial eye home.

A fight between planes in the air very rarely happens, except in the imagination. Planes do not go up to fight other planes, but for observation. Their business is to see and learn and bring home their news.


an improvised German anti-aircraft gun in 1915


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