from ‘the Sphere’ August 12, 1916
'a Zeppelin Joy-Ride'
by Sister Martin Nicholson
A Pre-War Ride on a German Airship

a Zeppelin in flight

 

I was in a train in Frankfort when I first saw a Zeppelin, and was so intensely thrilled at the sight of the monster lazily speeding across the vivid blue of an autumn sky that I nearly bobbed my head through the glass of the window, which, needless to say, was hermetically sealed.

In my excitement I prodded a German man, whose frame seemed to have undergone the same inflating system as the airship which was filling the air with the droning as of millions of millions of bees.

"Sehen Sie, mein Herr ! Ein Zeppelin !" I exclaimed in the German I had come to the country to acquire.

"Ach !" he grunted, keeping his eye hypnotically fixed on his paper, though I could feel him super-swelling with pride, and aching to crane and peer unrestrainedly as I was doing.

Thus was sown the seed, inspiring me to be right in the thick of the droning instead of under it. I returned to Heidelberg, where I was sojourning during my six months' war with the German tongue.

The second time I saw a Zeppelin, which served to force the seed into a green shoot, piercing the soil of my full intention, was when I was eating Kuchen in a Backerei. I heard the unmistakable droning, and sped into the street, with cake, of which an urchin stealthily relieved me, tightly clasped in my hand. The great machine, flying low, was going full speed to Mannheim.

With head almost severed from my neck, such was the angle I had to adopt, I watched, amid a chorus of "Wunderschon," "Kolossal," "Wundebah," from the intensely proud, and with reason, crowd collected in the street. In the back of my mind ran the thought, "Awfully fine, but quite useless, of course, for long journeys. So dependent on the weather, etc." thought I, secure in my insular remoteness.

Next day, under the guidance of Wilhelm, Prinz von Sachsen-Weimar Herzog zu Sachsen, Konigl : Preuss : Major a.l.s. der Armee, to give him his full title, cousin of the Emperor who has seen fit wantonly to set the world ablaze, I was taken to see the Mensur, or duelling.

As we passed down into the narrow Hauptstrasse, which resembled a long flower bed dotted with green, yellow, white, blue, and every other coloured bloom, so thick were the students' caps, I broached the subject of Zeppelin flights.

"Ach ! " said the Princessin, watching her two long dogs waddling contentedly home to their huge meal, "that is quite easy ; you pay úlO, and up you go."

"You forget that madame is an Englishwoman !"

Excuse after excuse was made for not allowing me to pay my 200 marks and soar. All the places were booked was one, to be quashed by the next statement that no one was being taken up just then ; the quaintest, and the one which makes me laugh now when I know of their dealings with women and children, that they objected to taking foreign ladies up in case of accident. An excuse as thin as the veil of good humour and courtesy which even then only partly covered their hate and loathing of Britain.

I persisted and worried, until one morning a stupendous person in magnificent uniform asked to see me. He and my huge stove absolutely filled my room !

The genadige Fraulein wished in a Zeppelin to travel; she must her passport, her certificate of birth, her mother's, father's, grandmother's, and grandfather's show. Needless to say I had only the passport, and it seemed that until I could positively prove that I was myself I could not move off the earth.

Followed many long days in which many people helped me in England, until with triumph and many guttural expressions I laid every certificate upon the table, and capped them all with my "family tree," and a photograph of my pet dogs.

They really thought I was rather funny, and after signing my name a hundred times I received written permission, sealed with huge blobs of sealing wax, and signed by people whose names, titles, and ranks would fill three pages if written in full, that, weather permitting, I could on a certain date soar heavenwards.

"Himmel !"

I have travelled so widely that I thought I had come to the end of thrills, but I can assure you when in the sharp, still light of a very early autumn morning, on the outskirts of Baden, where I had been whirled in the car (the super-princely chauffeur of which hardly deigned to notice the early bird out for the aerial worm), I watched the slow, sure exit of the Zeppelin from its shed, for all the world like some prehistoric mollusc casting its shell (if molluscs do undergo that process), I simply and unresistingly thrilled.

The great grey thing which now, away from its shed, seemed more like some enormous fish quivering in the sunlight. It positively seemed to breathe as it moved gently to and fro on the morning air. The Prince, who had not the slightest desire to unloosen his hold of all that was of earth earthy, came up to me as I stood, the only woman amongst this crowd of Germans, and whispered warnings in my ear.

"Don't examine the thing too closely, and whatever you do don't speak to any of the crew or question any of the officers. They don't want to take you as you are English, and are really only doing it at my request."

"Do you think they will tip me out ?" I asked in fun, little thinking how perfectly capable they were of doing such a thing, as has been shown by their recent behaviour.

"Himmel! No ! They are gentlemen, and will treat you with the courtesy due to a lady ; but walk round the thing with me, it is most interesting."

It was. We had walked round (at a safe distance) the 485 ft. length of the swaying ship, my guide being as befogged as myself over the various bits of metal, and fabric, jutting out from all parts of the machine, and were disconsolately gazing at what I afterwards learned to be the keel, when a positively cherubic — midshipman, shall I call him ? — came up, and after galvanising himself to the correct salute, begged to be allowed to explain things.

I vulgarly nudged the prince in glee, and away we went.

"This is of the rigid type," explained the CM. in perfect English. "We who have been in London call it the 'four wheeler,' for it has four propellers, and it can take so many passengers and luggage. She is 485 of your feet — ach ! not yours, genadige Fraulein," glancing at mine, shod for the occasion in the latest from Audets, "ach, wie kleinen Fussen ! — 59 high — 46 at greatest diameter, 72 greatest width, over 6,000 attainable height in flying — 48 miles an hour speed — 540 h.p."

Then my CM. guided me round. At the time I thought it was awfully nice of him, but now I believe he was told to do it so that I could spread the report of the might and marvel of the Zeppelin when I got home.

Right under the ship is the keel, covered in some sort of fabric, bulging out halfway to make a big cabin for the ordinary crew — those who have to do with the engines are, of course, in the engine cabin. There is a passage which communicates from the central cabin to the two others; one can imagine the officers trotting backwards and forwards.

As my CM. said, the Hansa has four propellers, hung on steel tubes away from the sides of the hull, driven by engines' in the front and rear cars. I believe I ought to talk about nose and bow — anyway, all kinds of rudders and elevators at the rear were pointed out; tail planes is the correct term. I was gleefully told that an enemy would have a hard job to hit, let alone bring down, an airship as the speed with which they can rise or sink and turn was marvellous owing to these rudders and elevators ; and that the gas being contained in fifteen or twenty different ballonets inside the whole thing, if one or two were pierced the rest could keep the ship afloat, as they do not use inflammable gas. I will put a big ? after this in consequence of our recent successes against Zeppelins.

Suddenly somebody shouted in stentorian tones the equivalent of " All aboard ' at the moment the commander came up to express his delight in the honour of taking me as passenger. A very strongly-built, rather short man in dark blue uniform and much gold lace was the commander, Graf von W-----.

Oh, very pleased he was, with a steely glint in his small eye, and very honoured to take me above the clouds, with a steely snap to his tight mouth.

And I wonder if I should have gone up so complacently, the only woman passenger that morning, if I had known, as of course he knew, that we were on the very eve of war.

The commander saluted and begged to be excused, my cherubic pilot took me under his unfledged little wing, gallantly carrying my fur-lined motor coat, which nearly crushed him with its weight, led me to some telescopic steps up which (and how thankful I was for my perfect shoes) I scrambled more or less easily to a faint whisper, " Ach ! du Hebe Gott ! wie schonen Fiissen," to be lifted bodily over the edge by one of the crew, and planted gently inside one of those (perhaps) which have so flippantly been careering unchecked over my country in the last few days.

There was no noise, no flurry, just a faint thud, thud (for the Zeppelin motor is not silent), a strong vibration, a mighty "hoch" from the landing crew and others merely standing on terra firma, and we moved lazily forward a few yards, tilted ever so slightly, repeating the manoeuvre until literally "high and dry" we were sailing serenely over Baden on our way to Mannheim, Frankfort, and up the Rhine.

Thrice we made the magic circle whilst, like bees out of a hive, people ran out of their doors or flung up a window to wave a handkerchief, while the intense droning of the engines made the drums of one's ears crack, though strangely one's ordinary voice, slightly accentuated, was quite sufficient for carrying on a conversation.

We were not going particularly fast or at a very great height, so I was hanging over the side in a state of thrill when suddenly I heard in English the question, "Hot or cold, miss ? "I shot round to find one of the crew balancing a tray of beer and sausage sandwiches on one shoulder, and another of steaming coffee and cakes on the other.

I profoundly hoped that we should not tilt at that particular moment, and chose coffee, finding a resting place on a little seat that pulled out telescopically from the side.

"Where were you in London ?" I inquired casually.

"A waiter at the Cecil, miss," was the mumbled reply, as his sharp eyes shot round on the look-out for listeners.

There were six passengers, including myself, and we were all eating and chatting when, "Mannheim," shouted a voice, and we all rushed for the side. We seemed hardly to have reseated ourselves when "Frankfort" was announced. Over Hamburg we sped, with its beautiful trees and little white specks of hotels, fountains, and bandstands, then away up the Rhine.

"The Lorelei ! "

My cherubic midshipman had come along down the passage to inquire after my welfare and was standing at my elbow. He pointed out a flat-iron-shaped black blodge just under us and asked me if I was enjoying myself.

I did not enthuse ; I said I thought we were going fearfully slowly, and very low — in fact, I rather laughed, with intent.

A rich red diffused his youthful cheek as I continued : —

"I thought we were going above those," pointing to one or two big, fat clouds which were loafing about doing nothing.

"We might go through them as well," he replied, as he saluted with hauteur, as the novelists say, and walked towards the Zeppelins nose.

Suddenly there were exclamations and a great grabbing of caps. I went to the other side and looked over, and nearly lost my head. Evidently my C.M. had reported discontent among the passengers, and we were going full speed ahead in consequence. Then blankness. Out had gone the sun, the sky, even the other end of the ship.

We were right in the middle of the loafing cloud. It was an uncanny feeling, seeing nothing and knowing there was nothing but a thin layer of something between one and the hard bosom of Mother Earth. Then, flash ! The sun was shining, the blue sky radiating, and behind lay the cloud, slightly dishevelled.

After that came a rush for every bit of cover and covering to be had. We were going up — up — up. With my muff well over my face I looked down; beneath us were thick layers of swirling cotton wool, and my C.M. by my side.

"Through, and above, as you desired, genadige Fraulein ; we are very thorough in Germany."

We came down after the little heavenward jaunt, and lazily passed over the beautiful castle ruins on each side of the river. Over the one rebuilt by Prince Henry of Prussia, the huge memorial to something which I forget, and then twice round Coblentz. We were low enough to see the people gather in the streets, on the boat bridge, and around the huge statue of William I., to watch our passage.

More hot drinks, and sandwiches, and cakes, more towns, villages, then up to Andernach, on to Cologne — I little thinking that the next time I should see that city would be when with other nurses we passed through a hostile mob, surrounded by an escort with fixed bayonets to keep us safe — until with a lovely sweep we turned homeward.

We did it at top speed, until exhilarated beyond thought we were all laughing and talking.

The landing, if that is what it is called, was wonderful. Three times round Baden we circled triumphantly, then out to the big ground where stood the shed. Dead slow we circled, coming down bit by bit, then with a lovely slow glide came to earth, or as near as we could get, the landing crew with mighty "hochs" hastening to bind the monster to terra firma.

I was conducted to earth by my cherubic midshipman. I, who in a few short months was to find myself in the throes of war, not only nursing our own splendid men, but also the enemy. But at the moment my good-byes and thanks were very enthusiastic.

The next day a huge basket, Zeppelin-shaped, of red roses was delivered at my door, and on a card under the double-headed bird of prey was written in German hieroglyphics : "To be laid in homage at the lady's tiny feet."

 

two war-time paintings of Zeppelins in action

 

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