CHAPTER I CAPTURE
For over three months No. 3 Squadron had been occupied daily in ranging the heavy guns which night after night crept into their allotted positions in front of Albert. On July 1st 1916 the Somme offensive opened with gas and smoke and a bombardment of unprecedented severity. To the pilots and observers in an artillery squadron the beginning of this battle brought a certain relief, for we were rather tired of flying up and down, being shot at continually by fairly accurate and remarkably well hidden anti-aircraft batteries, while we registered endless guns on uninteresting points. On the German side of the trenches, before the battle, the country seemed almost peaceful and deserted. Anti-aircraft shells arrived and burst in large numbers, coming apparently from nowhere, for it was almost rare to see a flash on the German side; if one did, it was probably a dummy flash; and of movement, except for a few trains in the distance, there was none. Only an expert observer would know that the thin straight line was a light railway; that the white lines were paths made by the ration parties and reliefs following the dead ground when they came up at night; that the almost invisible line was a sunken pipe line for bringing water to the trenches, and that the shading which crept and thickened along the German reserve trenches showed that the German working parties were active at night if invisible in the day time. For the shading spelt barbed wire.
Only about half a dozen times during those three months did I have the luck to catch a German battery firing. When that happened one ceased the ranging work and called up something really heavy, for preference a nine-inch howitzer battery, which pulverised the Hun.
When the battle had started the counter-battery work became our main task. It was wonderfully exciting and interesting. Nothing can give a more solid feeling of satisfaction than when, after seeing the shells from the battery you are directing fall closer and closer to the target, you finally see a great explosion in a German gun-pit, and with a clear conscience can signal "O.K." During the battle we were much less worried by the anti-aircraft than we had been before. For some had been knocked out, some had retreated, and some had run out of ammunition, and in any case there were so many British planes to shoot at that they could not give to any one their undivided attention.
Up to July 16th, and possibly later, for I was captured on that day, German aeroplanes were remarkably scarce, and never interfered with us at our work. If one wished to find a German plane, it was necessary to go ten miles over the German lines, and alone. Even under these conditions the Germans avoided a fight if they could.
Shortly after the beginning of the battle, Long, my observer, and I were given a special job. We went up only at the direct orders of our Brigadier and did a continuous series of short reconnaissances as far over the lines as Bapaume and as far south as Cambrai....