CHAPTER EIGHT - The Big Push
23rd March 1918
It is very late. The mess is empty except for a few chess players including Kettering and Ziegel trading jokes at the bar. I am sitting at a dark corner table gathering my thoughts about the last week, unnoticed by the others.
The "Big Push" finally began on March 21st. This is supposed to be the final offensive, the largest yet in this bloody war. It is intended to push our enemies all the way back to Paris, breaking their spirit before the Yanks can join the war in force.
Heidemann gathered us for a briefing before the start. I put up the maps, he gave the speech and Stachel made smart ass comments from the back of the room. Our Jasta is one of eight to be involved at the start of the push. We are to provide low-level cover for the advancing troops.
He also announced that we are to get a limited shipment of a new type of aircraft to help support the effort. The Fokker DVII is rumored to be the finest fighter aircraft in the world and would surely tip the scales in our favor. Stachel badgered Heidemann with questions. He became incensed when he heard the aircraft would go to the most experienced pilots first.
As expected things didn't go exactly as planned. The Push began all right, but mist made our assignment impossible. For three days we listened to the booming artillery and watched the weather reports. Finally today it cleared and our pilots began their three sorties a day flying low-level strafing missions over the front lines.
With that kind of assignment, I will be very busy collecting bodies and sending letters home to families.
When the weather cleared he asked me to visit Bruno in his quarters and make sure he got to the line on time. And what a painful visit that was! His bedroom was a mess and had that sick sweet smell of sweat and cognac. He was badly hung over. When I suggested I could send in a crew to clean up and air the place out, he jumped all over me.
On the flight line, Heidemann made a point of placing Stachel in his Kette and gave him specific instruction to stay by his side during the first couple sorties. Good thing he did. Ground level attacks are high risk and we lost both Dietrich and Tallmann that morning.
Heidemann appears to have special plans for Stachel, but I can't figure out what it is all about.
When they returned, Stachel was dazed and struggled to get out of his aircraft. Wili teased him a bit for his timid performance and that woke him up. He stormed off to the mechanic's tent and threatened to kill Ziegel if he didn't clean up the inside of his cockpit.
Stranger than all that was our Hauptmann's visit to see Stachel at the end of the day. He walked up to my desk and grabbed a pad of blank Combat Reports and told me he needed to visit Stachel to make sure he completed his paperwork. As he was walking out he commented, "Young Stachel needs to learn to follow orders, I told him to stay by my side today and he ignored me. I can't afford for him to get himself killed."
I don't understand why our Jastaführer is so protective of him, but I better find out soon.
My thoughts are interrupted when Stachel makes a noisy entrance into the mess and approaches Kettering and Ziegel at the bar. A drunk Stachel is a friendlier guy than a sober Stachel and boy is he friendly tonight. After a bit of small talk, he apologizes to Ziegel and manages to talk a bottle of cognac out of Kettering. He heads out the door smiling, bottle under his arm. Mission accomplished!
At 2 a.m. they close up the Officer's Mess. I am the only one left and walk back to the Aerodrome through the village alone. The artillery stopped at midnight so it is blissfully quiet, dark and deserted. As I cross the bridge the booming of the artillery starts up again. I have my camera gear with me so I take this photo. All those munitions create a man-made sunrise on the wrong horizon at the wrong time of day.
A strange ending to a strange day.