Baird, Gavin Gibson

Letter
Date:
December 6, 1929
To:
Angereau
From:
Gavin Gibson Baird
December 6, 1929

Dear Angereau,
When our squadron came out from England we had brought a very good gramophone with us. Unfortunately when we were shelled out of Auchel our gramophone was put out of kilter. We had been trying to get a piano, but in this particular section of France it was difficult to buy anything like that new unless one went back to the larger cities near the coast. Some of us were in the village one day and commenced a conversation with an old French lady, and she said that she had a piano in her home in Arras and that we could have it for 125 francs. In ordinary times it takes five francs to make a dollar, so that you can figure out how much she thought the piano was worth. Another Canadian boy and myself, with a couple of men, went to Arras and eventually found the street where her house was. We had to go to the Commandant of the City, who was a French Army Officer; explain the situation to him, and exhibit the order that we had procured from the old woman. After a lot of red tape a French soldier was instructed to accompany us to the old house and we eventually got in and got the piano out, but as we were bringing the piano out an old French woman came out of one of the basements in a house nearby and started to revile us in French. There were not very many people living in Arras. As a matter of fact, very few, and all the houses-and some of them very beautiful homes, too-were empty as the city was under almost constant shell fire. As we were getting the piano out, shells were landing thick and fast in the City, although very fortunately none had, up till then, landed on the same street that we were on which, by the way, was called 25th of July Street. We thought this most peculiar, and asked a French soldier why the extraordinary name, and he told us that it was to commemorate some happening in French history which took place on that particular day. The old lady all the time was continuing her vituperation, but just as she reached the height of her frenzy a shell dropped nearby and I never saw an old woman move quicker in my life. She took a headlong dive down the outside cellarway and that was the last we heard of her.
We started to go out of the city, and it wasn't an easy thing to get out on account of the streets being barricaded with barbed wire. These entanglements were designed for the purpose of impeding a German advance through the city if they should happen to break through the trenches in front. After we came to Dead Man's Corner- which was a point where the main streets converged, which was considerably shelled-we took the wrong road and everything was going merrily until I happened to see a large sign alongside of the road, saying that no traffic of any kind should move past that point in daylight. However, I thought it might have been an old sign, until we started to come across men and dug-outs, and upon their seeing us they expressed their disgust of us in no uncertain terms and stated that if we didn't get out of there in a hurry that we would have the Germans shelling the immediate vicinity, and they weren't particularly anxious to have any more of it just at the moment anyway. We got the car turned around and got back to the aerodrome with our piano. It proved to be a washout, and it wouldn't retain its tune for more than 48 consecutive hours, but fortunately we had a mechanic in the squadron who had been a piano tuner, and he used to keep it in fairly good shape for us.
Just about this time I was anticipating getting my first leave to England. As soon as one leave was over we were eagerly looking forward to the next one, and as this was my first leave, of course I was anxious to get away. I remember I was supposed to go on a Thursday night by my orders didn't come through. As a matter of fact they didn't come through until Saturday, and I left on Sunday morning. On Saturday night I was not flying, anticipating getting away about daybreak by car to the coasts, and I was out on the aerodrome looking after the lights and seeing that the boys got off and on again without any mishap. An officer was always on the aerodrome at night when the machines were taking off and when they were landing. Before any of our machines got back a darkness we did not worry very much, but he must have had an idea that our aerodrome was in the vicinity somewhere because he dropped a large flare which was similar to the ones that we used. Our flares were called Michelin flares, and were held in a tin tube about five inches in diameter and about 24 inches long. When you pulled the release from the machine you simply released the bottom so that the flare slid through. The flare itself was made of magnesium and as it slid through the holder it became lighted in the same manner as you light a match by drawing it over a rough surface. As soon as it left the machine it was, of course, lighted, and after it was clear a large Japanese silk parasol opened up and held the flare suspended. I cannot remember the exact candle power of these flares, but they were several thousand and made the ground visible for a distance of approximately a mile and a half or two miles. One could see almost everything that was on the ground if one wasn't too high, and of course, after you dropped your flare you had to manoeuvre your position so that you were not looking at the flare, but rather had the flare hid by the wing of your machine and looking directly at the ground below. One of these flares was dropped almost over our aerodrome and as I was standing in the centre of the aerodrome near where the boys would land, it seemed as though I were right in the rays of a searchlight. I felt sure that he could see me, although possibly he could not, and I expected a bomb to drop at my heels any minute. My first thought was to get the mechanics that were with me off the aerodrome, and I yelled at them to beat it and beat it myself, going as hard as I could for the line of trenches behind the hangars. Just about as the time I was crossing a small ditch to reach these trenches, a bomb exploded behind the hangars and I thought I was done for. I threw myself on my face, and unfortunately landed in about two inches of water in this ditch. However, that was the only bomb he dropped, so possibly he did not locate the aerodrome after all. He stuck around for about twenty minutes and dropped several other flares but no more bombs. In the meantime, our machines were coming home and they were frantically signaling to the ground so that the three lights that I have already mentioned to you, could be lighted and they enabled to land. Unfortunately I could not do anything to help them and before long there were about a dozen machines milling around the aerodrome and wondering what was up and why they were not being permitted to land. However, eventually they all got in safely and we had no more trouble that night.

The next day I went on leave, and spent part of it in England and part of it in Scotland.

After I got back from my leave in Aug, we had quite a few casualties and two consecutive nights lost machines across the line. We also had some bad crashes on the aerodrome. These, possibly were the result of bad flying, but in any event, several of the boys were killed and some badly hurt. Since I had been out to France I had been trying to locate a chum of mine with whom I used to go to school in Toronto. As a matter of fact, he and I started school on the same day. His name was Earl Heron. Your mother will possibly remember him. I was down in the village near the aerodrome one day and we happened to be in a little Estaminet, or Café, and I asked the girl if she knew Lieutenant Heron. She said, "Oui, Monsieur, but not Lieutenant any longer-Captain now". I said, "That is fine. Do you know where he is". She answered that he came in very frequently and that the first time he came in she would tell him that I had been inquiring and that I was at the aerodrome. It was only a few days after that when Earl came up to see us, and frequently thereafter he used to visit at the aerodrome and possibly have tea in the afternoon, or something like that.

We had been doing so much flying about this time, and the shows lasted so long that one frequently became very sleepy and, believe it or not, there were times when I have actually gone asleep flying home. I remember one night in particular. Everything was going fine and I suppose there was less hate than usual, and the trop had been a little more monotonous than usual. However, I went sound asleep and I woke up with a start and threw my machine into a vertical bank and swung around in a circle. My observer wondered what in the world had happened, but as I came out of the doze I had seen his gun-he was, of course, in front of me-and in the start of awakening and so on I had taken it for some tree or other obstacle and made a frantic effort to avoid it when I was possibly 3000 feet in the air with nothing in front of me at all. My observer laughed very heartily about it when I told him about the whole thing, and said he didn't know whether he wanted to fly with me anymore or not if I was going to develop the bait of sleeping in the air.

Yours sincerely,
Gavin

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