'Viewing a Battle from a Balloon'
by Irwin S. Cobb
from his book - 'Paths of Glory' 1915


Up in the Air in a Wicker Basket

a watercolor by Ernst Vollbehr
a German observation balloon in France, 1915


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.


guarding a partially deflated balloon


It was mid-afternoon; and all day, since early breakfast, we had been working our way in automobiles toward this destination. Already my brain chambered more impressions, all jumbled together in a mass, than I could possibly hope to get sorted out and graded up and classified in a month of trying. Yet, in a way, the day had been disappointing; for, as I may have set forth before, the nearer we came to the actual fighting, the closer in touch we got with the battle itself, the less we seemed to see of it.

I take it this is true of nearly all battles fought under modern military principles. Ten miles in the rear, or even twenty miles, is really a better place to be if you are seeking to fix in your mind a reasonably full picture of the scope and effect and consequences of the hideous thing called war. Back there you see the new troops going in, girding themselves for the grapple as they go; you see the re-enforcements coming up; you see the supplies hurrying forward, and the spare guns and the extra equipment, and all the rest of it; you see, and can, after a dim fashion, grasp mentally, the thrusting, onward movement of this highly scientific and most unromantic industry which half the world began practicing in the fall of 1914.

Finally, you see the finished fabrics of the trade coming back; and by that I mean the dribbling streams of the wounded and, in the fields and woods through which you pass, the dead, lying in windrows where they fell. At the front you see only, for the main part, men engaged in the most tedious, the most exacting, and seemingly the most futile form of day labor — toiling in filth and foulness and a desperate driven haste, on a job that many of them will never live to see finished — if it is ever finished; working under taskmasters who spare them not — neither do they spare themselves; putting through a dreary contract, whereof the chief reward is weariness and the common coinage of payment is death outright or death lingering. That is a battle in these days; that is war.

So twistiwise was our route, and so rapidly did we pursue it after we left the place where we took lunch, that I confess I lost all sense of direction. It seemed to me our general course was eastward; I discovered afterward it was southwesterly. At any rate we eventually found ourselves in a road that wound between high grassy banks along a great natural terrace just below the level of the plateau in front of Laon. We saw a few farmhouses, all desolated by shellfire and all deserted, and a succession of empty fields and patches of woodland. None of the natives were in sight. Through fear of prying hostile eyes, the Germans had seen fit to clear them out of this immediate vicinity. Anyhow, a majority of them doubtlessly ran away when fighting first started here, three weeks earlier; the Germans had got rid of those who remained. Likewise of troops there were very few to be seen. We did meet one squad of Red Cross men, marching afoot through the dust. They were all fully armed, as is the way with the German field-hospital helpers; and, for all I know to the contrary, that may be the way with the field-hospital helpers of the Allies too.

Though I have often seen it, the Cross on the sleeve-band of a man who bears a revolver in his belt, or a rifle on his arm, has always struck me as a most incongruous thing. The noncommissioned officer in charge of the squad — chief orderly I suppose you might call him — held by leashes four Red Cross dogs.

In Belgium, back in August, I had seen so-called dog batteries. Going into Louvain on the day the Belgian Army, or what was left of it, fell back into Brussels, I passed a valley where many dogs were hitched to small machine guns; and I could not help wondering what would happen to the artillery formation, and what to the discipline of the pack, if a rabbit should choose that moment for darting across the battle front.

These, however, were the first dogs I had found engaged in hospital-corps employment. They were big, wolfish-looking hounds, shaggy and sharp-nosed; and each of the four wore a collar of bells on his neck, and a cloth harness on his shoulders, with the red Maltese cross displayed on its top and sides. Their business was to go to the place where fighting had taken place and search out the fallen.

At this business they were reputed to be highly efficient. The Germans had found them especially useful; for the German field uniform, which has the merit of merging into the natural background at a short distance, becomes, through that very protective coloration, a disadvantage when its wearer drops wounded and unconscious on the open field. In a poor light the litter bearers might search within a few rods of him and never see him; but where the faulty eyesight fails the nose of the dog sniffs the human taint in the air, and the dog makes the work of rescue thorough and complete. At least we were told so.

Presently our automobile rounded a bend in the road, and the observation balloon, which until that moment we had been unable to glimpse, by reason of an intervening formation of ridges, revealed itself before us. The suddenness of its appearance was startling. We did not see it until we were within a hundred yards of it. At once we realized how perfect an abiding place this was for a thing which offered so fine and looming a target.

Moreover, the balloon was most effectively guarded against attack at close range. We became aware of that fact when we dismounted from the automobile and were clambering up the steep bank alongside. Soldiers materialized from everywhere, like dusty specters, but fell back, saluting, when they saw that officers accompanied us. On advice we had already thrown away our lighted cigars; but two noncommissioned officers felt it to be their bounden duty to warn us against striking matches in that neighborhood. You dare not take chances with a woven bag that is packed with many hundred cubic feet of gas.


an observation balloon - photo by Ernst Vollbehr

At the moment of our arrival the balloon was drawn down so near the earth that its distorted bottommost extremity dipped and twisted slackly within fifty or sixty feet of the grass.

The upper end, reaching much farther into the air, underwent convulsive writhings and contortions as an intermittent breeze came over the sheltering treetops and buffeted it in puffs. Almost beneath the balloon six big draft horses stood, hitched in pairs to a stout wagon frame on which a huge wooden drum was mounted.

Round this drum a wire cable was coiled, and a length of the cable stretched like a snake across the field to where it ended in a swivel, made fast to the bottom of the riding car. It was not, strictly speaking, a riding car. It was a straight-up-and-down basket of tough, light wicker, no larger and very little deeper than an ordinarily fair-sized hamper for soiled linen. Indeed, that was what it reminded one of — a clothesbasket.

Grouped about the team and the wagon were soldiers to the number of perhaps a third of a company. Half a dozen of them stood about the basket holding it steady — or trying to. Heavy sandbags hung pendent-wise about the upper rim of the basket, looking very much like so many canvased hams; but, even with these drags on it and in spite of the grips of the men on the guy ropes of its rigging, it bumped and bounded uneasily to the continual rocking of the gas bag above it. Every moment or two it would lift itself a foot or so and tilt and jerk, and then come back again with a thump that made it shiver.

Of furnishings the interior of the car contained nothing except a telephone, fixed against one side of it; a pair of field glasses, swung in a sort of harness; and a strip of tough canvas, looped across halfway down in it. The operator, when wearied by standing, might sit astride this canvas saddle, with his legs cramped under him, while he spied out the land with his eyes, which would then be just above the top of his wicker nest, and while he spoke over the telephone.

The wires of the telephone escaped through a hole under his feet and ran to a concealed station at the far side of the field which in turn communicated with the main exchange at headquarters three miles away; which in its turn radiated other wires to all quarters of the battle front. Now the wires were neatly coiled on the ground beside the basket. A sergeant stood over them to prevent any careless foot from stepping on the precious strands. He guarded them as jealously as a hen guards her brood.

The magazine containing retorts of specially prepared gas, for recharging the envelope when evaporation and leakage had reduced the volume below the lifting and floating point, was nowhere in sight. It must have been somewhere near by, but we saw no signs of it. Nor did our guides for the day offer to show us its whereabouts. However, knowing what I do of the German system of doing things, I will venture the assertion that it was snugly hidden and stoutly protected.

These details I had time to take in, when there came across the field to join us a tall young officer with a three weeks' growth of stubby black beard on his face. A genial and captivating gentleman was Lieutenant Brinkner und Meiningen, and I enjoyed my meeting with him; and often since that day in my thoughts I have wished him well. However, I doubt whether he will be living by the time these lines see publication.

It is an exciting life a balloon operator in the German Army lives, but it is not, as a rule, a long one. Lieutenant Meiningen was successor to a man who was burned to death in mid-air a week before; and on the day before a French airman had dropped a bomb from the clouds that missed this same balloon by a margin of less than a hundred yards — close marksmanship, considering that the airman in question was seven or eight thousand feet aloft, and moving at the rate of a mile or so a minute when he made his cast.

It was the Lieutenant who said he had authority to take one of our number up with him, and it was I who chanced to be nearest to the balloon when he extended the invitation. Some one — a friend — removed from between my teeth the unlighted cigar I held there, for fear I might forget and try to light it; and somebody else — a stranger to me — suggested that perhaps I was too heavy for a passenger.

By that time, however, a kindly corporal had boosted me up over the rim of the basket and helped me to squeeze through the thick netting of guy lines; and there I was, standing inside that overgrown clotheshamper, which came up breast high on me — and Brinkner und Meiningen was swinging himself nimbly in beside me. That basket was meant to hold but one man. It made a wondrously snug fit for two; the both of us being full-sized adults at that. We stood back to back; and to address the other each must needs speak over his shoulder. The canvas saddle was between us, dangling against the calves of our legs; and the telephone was in front of the lieutenant, where he could reach the transmitter with his lips by stooping a little.

The soldiers began unhooking the sandbags; the sergeant who guarded the telephone wire took up a strand of it and held it loosely in his hands, ready to pay it out. Under me I felt the basket heave gently. Looking up I saw that the balloon was no longer a crooked sausage. She had become a big, soft, yellow summer squash, with an attenuated neck. The flaccid abdomen flinched in and puffed out, and the snout wabbled to and fro.

The lieutenant began telling me things in badly broken but painstaking English — such things, for example, as that the baglike protuberance just above our heads, at the bottom end of the envelope, contained air, which, being heavier than gas, served as a balance to hold her head up in the wind and keep her from folding in on herself; also, that it was his duty to remain aloft, at the end of his tether, as long as he could, meantime studying the effect of the German shell-fire on the enemy's position and telephoning down instructions for the better aiming of the guns — a job wherein the aeroplane scouts ably reenforced him, since they could range at will, whereas his position was comparatively fixed and stationary.

Also I remember his saying, with a tinge of polite regret in his tone, that he was sorry I had not put on a uniform overcoat with shoulder straps on it, before boarding the car; because, as he took pains to explain, in the event of our cable parting and of our drifting over the Allies' lines and then descending, he might possibly escape, but I should most likely be shot on the spot as a spy before I had a chance to explain. "However," he added consolingly, "those are possibilities most remote. The rope is not likely to break; and if it did we both should probably be dead before we ever reached the earth."

That last statement sank deep into my consciousness; but I fear I did not hearken so attentively as I ought to the continuation of the lieutenant's conversation, because, right in the middle of his remarks, something had begun to happen.


getting ready to go aloft - photo by Ernst Vollbehr

An officer had stepped up alongside to tell me that very shortly I should undoubtedly be quite seasick — or, rather, skysick — because of the pitching about of the basket when the balloon reached the end of the cable; and I was trying to listen to him with one ear and to my prospective traveling companion with the other when I suddenly realized that the officer's face was no longer on a level with mine. It was several feet below mine. No; it was not — it was several yards below mine. Now he was looking up toward us, shouting out his words, with his hands funneled about his mouth for a speaking trumpet. And at every word he uttered he shrank into himself, growing shorter and shorter.

It was not that we seemed to be moving. We seemed to be standing perfectly still, without any motion of any sort except a tiny teetering motion of the hamper-basket, while the earth and what was on it fell rapidly away from beneath us. At once all sense of perspective became distorted.

When on the roof of a tall building this distortion had never seemed to me so great. I imagine this is because the building remains stationary and a balloon moves. Almost directly below us was one of our party, wearing a soft hat with a flattish brim. It appeared to me that almost instantly his shoulders and body and legs vanished. Nothing remained of him but his hat, which looked exactly like a thumb tack driven into a slightly tilted drawing board, the tilted drawing board being the field. The field seemed sloped now, instead of flat.

Across the sunken road was another field. Its owner, I presume, had started to turn it up for fall planting, when the armies came along and chased him away; so there remained a wide plowed strip, and on each side of it a narrower strip of unplowed earth. Even as I peered downward at it, this field was transformed into a width of brown corduroy trimmed with green velvet.

For a rudder we carried a long, flapping clothesline arrangement, like the tail of a kite, to the lower end of which were threaded seven yellow-silk devices suggesting inverted sunshades without handles. These things must have been spaced on the tail at equal distances apart, but as they rose from the earth and followed after us, whipping in the wind, the uppermost one became a big umbrella turned inside out; the second was half of a pumpkin; the third was a yellow soup plate; the fourth was a poppy bloom; and the remaining three were just amber beads of diminishing sizes.

Probably it took longer, but if you asked me I should say that not more than two or three minutes had passed before the earth stopped slipping away and we fetched up with a profound and disconcerting jerk. The balloon had reached the tip of her hitch line.



She rocked and twisted and bent half double in the pangs of a fearful tummy-ache, and at every paroxysm the car lurched in sympathy, only to be brought up short by the pull of the taut cable; so that we two, wedged in together as we were, nevertheless jostled each other violently. I am a poor sailor, both by instinct and training. By rights and by precedents I should have been violently ill on the instant; but I did not have time to be ill.

My fellow traveler all this while was pointing out this thing and that to me — showing how the telephone operated; how his field glasses poised just before his eyes, being swung and balanced on a delicately adjusted suspended pivot; telling me how on a perfectly clear day — this October day was slightly hazy — we could see the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Cathedral at Rheims; gyrating his hands to explain the manner in which the horses, trotting away from us as we climbed upward, had given to the drum on the wagon a reverse motion, so that the cable was payed out evenly and regularly. But I am afraid I did not listen closely. My eyes were so busy that my ears loafed on the job.

For once in my life — and doubtlessly only once — I saw now understandingly a battle front.

It was spread before me — lines and dots and dashes on a big green and brown and yellow map. Why, the whole thing was as plain as a chart. I had a reserved seat for the biggest show on earth.

To be sure it was a gallery seat, for the terrace from which we started stood fully five hundred feet above the bottom of the valley, and we had ascended approximately seven hundred feet above that, giving us an altitude of, say, twelve hundred feet in all above the level of the river; but a gallery seat suited me. It suited me perfectly. The great plateau, stretching from the high hill behind us, to the river in front of us, portrayed itself, when viewed from aloft, as a shallow bowl, alternately grooved by small depressions and corrugated by small ridges. Here and there were thin woodlands, looking exactly like scrubby clothesbrushes. The fields were checkered squares and oblongs, and a ruined village in the distance seemed a jumbled handful of children's gray and red blocks.

The German batteries appeared now to be directly beneath us — some of them, though in reality I imagine the nearest one must have been nearly a mile away on a bee line. They formed an irregular horseshoe, with the open end of it toward us. There was a gap in the horseshoe where the calk should have been. The German trenches, for the most part, lay inside the encircling lines of batteries. In shape they rather suggested a U turned upside down; yet it was hard to ascribe to them any real shape, since they zigzagged so crazily. I could tell, though, there was sanity in this seeming madness, for nearly every trench was joined at an acute angle with its neighbor; so that a man, or a body of men, starting at the rear, out of danger, might move to the very front of the fighting zone and all the time be well sheltered. So far as I could make out there were but few breaks in the sequence of communications. One of these breaks was almost directly in front of me as I stood facing the south.

The batteries of the Allies and their infantry trenches, being so much farther away, were less plainly visible. I could discern their location without being able to grasp their general arrangement. Between the nearer infantry trenches of the two opposing forces were tiny dots in the ground, each defined by an infinitesimal hillock of yellow earth heaped before it — observation pits these, where certain picked men, who do not expect to live very long anyway, hide themselves away to keep tally on the effect of the shells, which go singing past just over their heads to fall among the enemy, who may be only a few hundred feet or a few hundred yards away from the observers.

It was an excessively busy afternoon among the guns. They spoke continually — now this battery going, now that; now two or three or a dozen together — and the sound of them came up to us in claps and roars like summer thunder. Sometimes, when a battery close by let go, I could watch the thin, shreddy trail of fine smoke that marked the arched flight of a shrapnel bomb, almost from the very mouth of the gun clear to where it burst out into a fluffy white powder puff inside the enemy's position.

Contrariwise, I could see how shells from the enemy crossed those shells in the air and curved downward to scatter their iron sprays among the Germans. In the midst of all this would come a sharp, spattering sound, as though hail in the height of the thunder shower had fallen on a tin roof; and that, I learned, meant infantry firing in a trench somewhere.

For a while I watched some German soldiers moving forward through a criss-cross of trenches; I took them to be fresh men going in to relieve other men who had seen a period of service under fire. At first they suggested moles crawling through plow furrows; then, as they progressed onward, they shrank to the smallness of gray grub-worms, advancing one behind another. My eye strayed beyond them a fair distance and fell on a row of tiny scarlet dots, like cochineal bugs, showing minutely but clearly against the green-yellow face of a ridgy field well inside the forward batteries of the French and English. At that same instant the lieutenant must have seen the crawling red line too. He pointed to it.

"Frenchmen," he said; "French infantrymen's trousers. One cannot make out their coats, but their red trousers show as they wriggle forward on their faces."

Better than ever before I realized the idiocy of sending men to fight in garments that make vivid targets of them.

My companion may have come up for pleasure, but if business obtruded itself on him he did not neglect it. He bent to his telephone and spoke briskly into it. He used German, but, after a fashion, I made out what he said. He was directing the attention of somebody to the activities of those red trousers.

I intended to see what would follow on this, but at this precise moment a sufficiently interesting occurrence came to pass at a place within much clearer eye range. The gray grub-worms had shoved ahead until they were gray ants; and now all the ants concentrated into a swarm and, leaving the trenches, began to move in a slanting direction toward a patch of woods far over to our left. Some of them, I think, got there, some of them did not. Certain puff-balls of white smoke, and one big smudge of black smoke, which last signified a bomb of high explosives, broke over them and among them, hiding all from sight for a space of seconds. Dust clouds succeeded the smoke; then the dust lifted slowly. Those ants were not to be seen. They had altogether vanished. It was as though an anteater had come forth invisibly and eaten them all up.

Marveling at this phenomenon and unable to convince myself that I had seen men destroyed, and not insects, I turned my head south again to watch the red ladybugs in the field. Lo! They were gone too! Either they had reached shelter or a painful thing had befallen them.

The telephone spoke a brisk warning. I think it made a clicking sound. I am sure it did not ring; but in any event it called attention to itself. The other man clapped his ear to the receiver and took heed to the word that came up the dangling wire, and snapped back an answer.

"I think we should return at once," he said to me over his shoulder. "Are you sufficiently wearied?"

I was not sufficiently wearied — I wasn't wearied at all — but he was the captain of the ship and I was not even paying for my passage.

The car jerked beneath our unsteady feet and heeled over, and I had the sensation of being in an elevator that has started downward suddenly, and at an angle to boot. The balloon resisted the pressure from below. It curled up its tail like a fat bumblebee trying to sting itself, and the guy ropes, to which I held with both hands, snapped in imitation of the rigging of a sailboat in a fair breeze. Plainly the balloon wished to remain where it was or go farther; but the pull of the cable was steady and hard, and the world began to rise up to meet us. Nearing the earth it struck me that we were making a remarkably speedy return. I craned my neck to get a view of what was directly beneath.

The six-horse team was advancing toward us at a brisk canter and the drum turned fast, taking up the slack of the tether; but, as though not satisfied with this rate of progress, several soldiers were running back and jumping up to haul in the rope. The sergeant who took care of the telephone was hard put to it to coil down the twin wires. He skittered about over the grass with the liveliness of a cricket.

Many soiled hands grasped the floor of our hamper and eased the jar of its contact with the earth. Those same hands had redraped the rim with sandbags, and had helped us to clamber out from between the stay ropes, when up came the young captain who spelled the lieutenant as an aerial spy. He came at a run. Between the two of them ensued a sharp interchange of short German sentences. I gathered the sense of what passed.

"I don't see it now," said, in effect, my late traveling mate, staring skyward and turning his head.

"Nor do I," answered the captain. "I thought it was yonder." He flirted a thumb backward and upward over his shoulder.

"Are you sure you saw it?"

"No, not sure," said the captain. "I called you down at the first alarm, and right after that it disappeared, I think; but I shall make sure."

He snapped an order to the soldiers and vaulted nimbly into the basket. The horses turned about and moved off and the balloon rose. As for the lieutenant, he spun round and ran toward the edge of the field, fumbling at his belt for his private field glasses as he ran. Wondering what all this bother was about — though I had a vague idea regarding its meaning — I watched the ascent.

I should say the bag had reached a height of five hundred feet when, behind me, a hundred yards or so away, a soldier shrieked out excitedly. Farther along another voice took up the outcry. From every side of the field came shouts. The field was ringed with clamor. It dawned on me that this spot was even more efficiently guarded than I had conceived it to be.

The driver of the wagon swung his lumbering team about with all the strength of his arms, and back again came the six horses, galloping now. So thickly massed were the men who snatched at the cable, and so eagerly did they grab for it, that the simile of a hot handball scrimmage flashed into my thoughts. I will venture that balloon never did a faster homing job than it did then.

Fifty men were pointing aloft now, all of them crying out as they pointed:

"Flyer! French flyer !"

I saw it. It was a monoplane. It had, I judged, just emerged from a cloudbank to the southward. It was heading directly toward our field. It was high up — so high up that I felt momentarily amazed that all those Germans could distinguish it as a French flyer rather than as an English flyer at that distance.

As I looked, and as all of us looked, the balloon basket hit the earth and was made fast; and in that same instant a cannon boomed somewhere well over to the right. Even as someone who knew sang out to us that this was the balloon cannon in the German aviation field back of the town opening up, a tiny ball of smoke appeared against the sky, seemingly quite close to the darting flyer, and blossomed out with downy, dainty white petals, like a flower.

The monoplane veered, wheeled and began to drive in a wriggling, twisting course. The balloon cannon spoke again. Four miles away, to the eastward, its fellow in another aviation camp let go, and the sound of its discharge came to us faintly but distinctly. Another smoke flower unfolded in the heavens, somewhat below the darting airship.

Both guns were in action now. Each fired at six-second intervals. All about the flitting target the smokeballs burst — above it, below it, to this side of it and to that. They polka- dotted the heavens in the area through which the Frenchman scudded. They looked like a bed of white water lilies and he like a black dragonfly skimming among the lilies. It was a pretty sight and as thrilling a one as I have ever seen.

I cannot analyze my emotions as I viewed the spectacle, let alone try to set them down on paper. Alongside of this, big-game hunting was a commonplace thing, for this was big-game hunting of a magnificent kind, new to the world — revolving cannon, with a range of from seven to eight thousand feet, trying to bring down a human being out of the very clouds.

He ran for his life. Once I thought they had him. A shell burst seemingly quite close to him, and his machine dipped far to one side and dropped through space at that angle for some hundreds of feet apparently.

A yell of exultation rose from the watching Germans, who knew that an explosion close to an aeroplane is often sufficient, through the force of air concussion alone, to crumple the flimsy wings and bring it down, even though none of the flying shrapnel from the bursting bomb actually touch the operator or the machine.

However, they whooped their joy too soon. The flyer righted, rose, darted confusingly to the right, then to the left, and then bored straight into a woolly white cloudrack and was gone. The moment it disappeared the two balloon cannon ceased firing; and I, taking stock of my own sensations, found myself quivering all over and quite hoarse.

I must have done some yelling myself; but whether I rooted for the flyer to get away safely or for the cannon to hit him, I cannot for the life of me say. I can only trust that I preserved my neutrality and rooted for both.

Subsequently I decided in my own mind that from within the Allies' lines the Frenchman saw us — meaning the lieutenant and myself — in the air, and came forth with intent to bombard us from on high; that, seeing us descend, he hid in a cloud ambush, venturing out once more, with his purpose renewed, when the balloon reascended, bearing the captain. I liked to entertain that idea, because it gave me a feeling of having shared to some degree in a big adventure.

As for the captain and the lieutenant, they advanced no theories whatever. The thing was all in the day's work to them. It had happened before. I have no doubt it has happened many times since.


a German observation balloon


to part 1

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