The following extract from ‘Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home‘ tells the story of Anthony who longs to learn to fly. Here he is sent initially to France as an Observer, taking photographs of the battle below.
I have used various techniques including letters, story telling, conversation and the arrival of Harry Harper, the air correspondent of The Daily Mail, to describe the changing lives of each of the Newton family. Here I have used letters and good old fashioned descriptive story telling:
“12th November, 1914
My dear Sarah and little Timothy,
I hope that you are comfortable in your mother’s new guest house and that Timothy, you are being good for Mummy and Grandma. I have missed you these last few months and it’s been so quiet without you.
I have some exciting news for you. I have been transferred to Fort Grange and I am going to learn to fly in an aeroplane. It is a dream come true for me and I know that you will be so proud of your daddy.
I start my training tomorrow, but it may be many weeks before I get into the air. I need to learn all about aeroplanes first and as soon as I have more news for you I will write again.
Yours as ever,
The next morning, Anthony began his training in the makeshift classroom at Fort Grange. Initially he sat fighting off the irritation of irrational impatience, much like the other naive young men in the room. His experienced trainer had such a businesslike manner, but it was tinged with a down to earth sense of humour, which was in fact the best combination for a military instructor. Soon he had Anthony at his ease and had instilled in him a vitality and enthusiasm to excel.
The weeks passed quickly and Anthony passed his examinations, progressing on to the more practical part of his training: that of understanding and maintaining his aircraft. He found this more of a challenge but was surprised how quickly be began to understand the workings of the engine and to recognise irregular noises, suggesting a plausible diagnosis. The instruments inside the cockpit were still an irresistible mystery to him and he longed for the moment when he would one day take control.
The next part of his training was back in the classroom, poring over numerous maps and photographs, for initially Anthony was to be trained as an Observer, to sit behind the pilot on reconnaissance missions. So far Anthony had been at the Grange for several weeks and still he had not been up in an aeroplane but the day when he passed his last examinations was a cause for great celebration in the mess.
The following day he sat behind the pilot, nervously waiting for takeoff. The mechanic stood at the ready for the signal. As soon as contact was confirmed, the mechanic spun the propeller and the engine burst into song. It was certainly a tune familiar to Anthony’s ears by now and it filled him with anticipation in the depths of his stomach. Almost as soon as the chocks were taken away from under her wheels by the attendees, the aircraft started to taxi over the bumpy ground. The vibration of the engine in front of him was as startling as its deafening noise. The throttle was opened and they sped off across the turf. There was no time to take a breath because within seconds they had lifted into the air. He felt exhilarated and was almost distracted from his mission by the amazing sights around him. As they flew over Portsmouth Harbour he tore his gaze from the coastline. As they banked to the left, he began to note key features such as ships off the coast and sea planes readying themselves for takeoff on Haslar Beach and he was proud of himself when he sighted a ‘friendly’ submarine, just submerged below the surface of the water.
After a few more weeks of training, when he suppressed his enthusiasm to be master of the controls rather than seated as an observer in the front cockpit, he was relieved to pass all the tests and achieve a reasonable level of accuracy in target practice. He was given three days’ leave to visit family and caught the train to Woolston. It was an emotional reunion and he spent the precious few days with Sarah and Timothy, jealous of the times they shared with her family in the now overcrowded household. Keeping three rooms for Harriet’s fee paying guests left one room for Sarah and Timothy to share, and another for her sister-in-law Hannah and her child Phyllis. On the following Sunday afternoon, Ernest kindly agreed to take them to Hythe by horse and trap, borrowed from the drayman in Itchen Ferry village, where Anthony felt less claustrophobic and there they were able to spend a civilised few hours taking tea in his parent’s large garden. His mother was so proud of his single wing sign on his uniform with an ‘O’ which signified that he was now a trained Observer, although it was clear that she was unsure as to why her son was not yet a pilot.
All too soon it was time to leave for Southampton, where he would meet up with his new unit before crossing to France. Sarah was overcome as they had one last embrace before he caught the Floating Bridge and it was all she could do to hold Timothy to restrain him from running after his father. This time there was no hiding from this little man that his father was off to war and even in his young intelligent mind he had observed the tears from neighbours as men folk had not returned. Sarah held him firmly by the hand and encouraged him to wave as Anthony disappeared from view on the farthest shore of the River Itchen.
Anthony walked amongst strangers along the busy streets to the docks. He was drawn towards the Bargate where shoppers were lining the streets to cheer regiment after regiment of infantry, some who had walked all the way from Winchester and were marching proudly to the docks. He also watched some Avro 504s being loaded on to a waiting ship. He was struck by the greyness of the multitude of vessels which was a bleak contrast to the usual colourful sight of ferries and liners in the port.
It was a smooth crossing and they disembarked at Le Havre, where they faced a long journey by train to the airfield at Amiens. He settled in to his makeshift world of Nissen huts, taking time to sort out his few personal belongings with the utmost care, in order to dispel the unease he felt at being near the Western Front at last.
After a fitful night he had no time to dwell on the danger of his position as he was scheduled to make his first sortie over enemy lines that very evening. He and his pilot were encouraged to make several flights that morning in order to regain their confidence in flying, to get to know each other and also to get their bearings so that they would be more familiar with landmarks pointing back to base. It was a bitterly cold November day. The wind was blustery, making flying difficult and the rain was piercing. Despite the inhospitable weather, Anthony was relieved to be back in the air again and the two men soon became an inseparable team, treating each sortie as an adventure, though they cursed the rain as an inconvenience.
It was late one afternoon, when they were sent on their first mission to cross enemy lines and report back the up to date positions of the Hun, that it really struck Anthony psychologically, almost as hard as a real bullet might have hit him physically. At first hand he witnessed the British troops in the muddy trenches below and the close proximity of the enemy. When he realised that a strange heap of muddy rubbish littering the sodden ground beneath him was in truth the remains of bodies, left where they had fallen, he almost vomited out of the cockpit, his instructions forgotten.
It was only the short sharp orders from his pilot which brought Anthony to his senses and he resumed his important task of recording what he had seen. His training came into its own at that moment and he concentrated wholeheartedly on his task, so that when they eventually returned to base, his Commanding Officer was pleased with what he had to report.
It was only late that night, when he longed for the oblivion of sleep in order to erase the vivid pictures still flickering through his mind, that he realised how wise it had been to test his resilience as an observer initially, rather than to waste time training him as a pilot in the first instance. As the idea closed on him like the shutter on his camera, he hardened his resolve and sank into a deep dreamless sleep.”
Ancasta Guide me Swiftly Home is Diana Jackson’s second novel, set between 1910 and 1920 telling the stories of members of the Newton family as they embark on their own role on The Great War.