Arise, night is at hand
I want to believe that nocturnal living is stylish, dashing, rebellious, countercultural. Even if it’s untrue, I want to believe
I imagine a man standing in a field.
The man is barely a man. Nineteen years old and recently certified as a pilot.
He has stepped into the theatre of war.
There is no way for me to know what he thinks about this. Is he terrified? Excited? Anxious to see action? Wishing he were somewhere else? He wrote no letters that I know of, and spoke only briefly about his experience in later life.
He is surrounded by airplanes laden with bombs. Some take off, others land, still others sit idle while mechanics work on them. Their movements are constant. Operations happen 24 hours a day.
Nobody here calls them airplanes. They are referred to simply as machines.
One man smokes a cigarette. Others around him dangle pipes from their mouths.
Some read The Times that arrived from London two or three days ago. Some eat sweets from their mothers that were sent a week ago.
Shadows are long, light is dim. The sun is low in the sky.
The men stare at the machines and think about what they will face in the coming hours. Or they try not to think about it.
Sent to a night-flying squadron as a 19-year-old, he had just barely earned his wings and had no combat experience whatsoever.
Earlier in the war, this bit of farmland in Xaffévillers was turned into an aerodrome.
The men have been sent here by the RAF. They belong to 215 and other squadrons.
The description of these men in the Daily Mail is sickly sweet. It is propagandistic and leaves me feeling embarrassed that they were portrayed this way. “Shells mingle their red twinkling with the clear stars which burn in the velvet o’ the night. The night bombers are happy.”
About 25 kilometres away, other men, many other men, are smoking, eating, shitting, shooting and dying.
If the moon it out tonight, they will be visible, along with the trenches they inhabit, from the machines that soar above them.
If it’s really dark, there may be little to see down below other than flashes of light.
The sun will dip below the horizon just before 8 o’clock.
There will be many violent deaths before the sun appears again.
They were told to wear dark goggles while flying in the day, to simulate the experience of night flying
The motto of 215 Squadron is Surgit nox adest, which can be translated as “Arise, night is at hand.”
All its operations happened after dark, as was the case with some other squadrons.
I am seduced by thoughts of this nocturnal life.
To live nocturnally is to live extremely. Humans were not meant for this.
To do it we must reject nature and embrace a world we don’t really belong in.
I should be asleep, says the man up all night. But I have a job to do that can only be done this way.
I want to believe that nocturnal living is stylish, dashing, rebellious, countercultural. Even if it’s untrue, I want to believe.
Of all the people on earth in 1918, hardly anyone had been in an airplane. Of the thousands who had, the vast majority did it in the war. And of them, the number who flew at night was even smaller.
The man who becomes a night pilot is crazy, right? Flying an airplane at all in this era is extremely dangerous. Early in the war, more men died in training crashes than in combat.
How did John Buckland Richardson (JBR), my great-grandfather, become a night pilot? He was chosen for it as he finished his training at the School of Military Aeronautics, along with many other men.
Were they chosen because they were exceptionally good pilots? Maybe. Some Air Force leaders said that only best could fly at night because it was so difficult. On the other hand, by 1918, night flying was happening around the clock and the demand for pilots was far higher than the supply.
JBR was sent to a night-flying squadron as a 19-year-old who had just barely earned his wings and had no combat experience whatsoever.
Besides, training in night flying wasn’t exactly sophisticated. Men were “certified” after taking a machine into the darkness a half a dozen times. Or, they were told to fly in the day wearing dark goggles to simulate the experience.
At least by this time they could see their instruments. In 1916, electric lights were installed in cockpits, and the instruments themselves glowed in the dark.
If they were lucky the moon was out. But they also had to fly in complete darkness too. Navigation using landmarks was often not possible. Buildings and street lights would be dimmed or put out entirely in order to guard against enemy attack at night.
As long as the pilot could find his way back to the aerodrome, at least he’d be able to see where to land. Runways were marked out with flares placed in lines. They were made of asbestos packed into a wire cage. The cage was soaked in paraffin and set on fire. The light from them could be seen from a long way.
I picture the Xaffévillers aerodrome like this, even though there are no photos I can find of it from 1918. Smoke hanging in the air as darkness sets in ahead of a long night. Men gathering at their airplanes, checking the guns, the bombs and the ammunition on board. They had a list of things they needed to have with them in the cockpit: revolvers, spare goggles, roll of tools, a water bottle with boiled water in it, a small portable stove, biscuits, soup mix, cold meat, and chocolate.
Other nights when it was raining hard and unsuitable for flying, the men gathered in the Mess. I picture smoke hanging in the air there as well, from the braziers keeping the place warm and from the cigars and pipes. There’d be no shortage of liquor, and it would be loud as men sang along to the music playing on a phonograph or the accompaniment of the piano.
This is the world I step into, where JBR and so many other men found themselves. Some would not live long past this moment. For others, they would soon experience things that would set the tone for the rest of their lives, JBR included.
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