Baird, Gavin Gibson

Letter
Date:
December 13, 1929
To:
Angereau
From:
Gavin Gibson Baird
December 13, 1929.

Dear Angereau,
During the summer of 1918 there was quite a lot of Flu. in France, and I had it and was in hospital for three or four days. Apparently it had been working on me for some time but I had been flying every night just the same but eventually came back one night and as I got out of my machine I felt that something was radically wrong with me. I went over to the medical hut and the Sergeant took my temperature, which was around 104, and he said that my bed was the proper place for me, not up in the air. I went to bed and the Doctor came around to see me in the morning and ordered me to the hospital. You have no doubt seen from the papers about the McAlpine party having been lost on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. I had met Colonel McAlpine, the man in charge of this expedition, through my brother Jack, in London, and the second time I met him was in France, while I was in hospital. I was awakened the second or third night while there by the orderlies carrying in a man on a stretcher, and he was groaning so terribly that I felt sure that he would have "gone West"- as we used to say, by morning. The nurse who was looking after me was a girl from Eastern Canada, and when she came around in the morning I asked her if the man they had brought in during the night had died. She started to laugh and said that he wasn't any worse than I was with the Flu. This was the man who was in charge of the Dominion Explorers' machines in the north, and who was lost for practically two months, but was eventually found.

Before I left hospital there were several other boys from our squadron there. Some of them were quite sick; others just with a temperature. The Doctors did not diagnose our cases as influenza, but as "P.U.O." and when I saw the Doctor put these letters on my history sheet I asked him what in the world they meant. He said, "Pains of unknown origin". I think that was just about as good a diagnosis as they could have made.

The different Flying Corps' had field days which were quite a treat to us, especially if the cavalry were taking part. A very interesting sport to watch is that of "tent pegging". I don not know whether you have ever seen this done, but only an expert rider and one who had keen eyesight and a sense of distance, can hope to compete in the game. Pegs are driven in the ground at different intervals and the men competing did so on horseback, in turn. The rider of the horse is equipped with a long lance and must perform his stunt at a full gallop and as he came up the line of pegs with his lance, he stabs peg after peg and the peg, of course, comes out of the ground sticking to his lance. This is thrown off, and his lance brought down again in time to pick up the next peg. All the time his horse isn't losing one second of time. Baseball games used to be very much appreciated, particularly by the Canadian boys in the squadron, and of course you had to get in a section where some of the Canadian divisions were stationed. You would not expect to see an English Regiment indulging in a game of baseball, although you might see them playing cricket. The same with the Australians- they played cricket and not baseball. We die not attempt to play hard ball baseball in our squadron for the reason that there were so many English boys who had never played ball and could not be expected to be proficient at it. However, we used to play soft ball and our Major, who was a Welshman, was a particularly fine pitcher. He was a good cricket bowler and seemed to be adapted to throwing an underhand ball as is required in the soft ball game. We used to have ball games with other squadrons too, and used to arrange for games, flying to the other aerodrome. We would leave before lunch; get there and have lunch and then have our ball game in the afternoon. Then after the ball game was over we all used to get in the air and do our stunts over periodically and have tea with us in the afternoon. Ernie Morrow, a boy who I trained with in Canada, was a Flight Commander in a Bristol Fighter in the air. They were very fast and were equipped with a 275 horse power Rolls Royce motor, and had two Vickers machine guns firing through the propeller, and one Lewis gun behind, in charge of the observer. With a real good pilot and an observer who was a good shot, the Bristol Fighter did not have to take second place to any machine flying in France. Ernie Morrow was flying one of these machines and was a first-class pilot. Hew was decorated by the King at Buckingham Palace for a scrap which proved to be lis last one. He was not killed, however, but he was shot down from 17,000 feet in flames but managed, by skilful flying, to land his machine in No Man's Land. Fortunately for him, his observer was not hurt but managed to pull him clear of the wreckage into a shell hole. They were subsequently brought into the Canadian lines by a couple of Canadian boys who crawled out to get them. The details of this scrap, which Ernie told to me in London afterwards, went something like this.

He had been detailed to take four machines-his own making five-and go on an early morning patrol, looking for trouble. He was attacked at about 18,000 feet by a whole squadron of Hun machines. Right off the bat Ernie sent one down in flames and immediately after than he was shot through the arm. This happened to be the arm that he piloted his machine with, but he kept on scrapping, using his other arm to fly with. He got another machine and sent it down, and shortly after that was shot through the knee- the bullet completely shattering the bone. He managed to keep flying, however, not withstanding the fact that he only had one leg with which to control the rudder. In our machines, however, they had a clip on the rudder so that you could both puck and pull with the one foot. He told me that he hardly felt these bullets, although that seems hard to believe, doesn't it? However, his other machines were dong their part, but the climax came when his machine was set on re. Luckily a Bristol Fighter will stay together in the air even when dived at up to 300 miles an hour, and as Ernie realized that he was on fire, that is what he did. He went into an almost vertical dive with full engine on, with the result that he lost a considerable height in his first dive, and before the flames really got serious. At the time they started to come over his head in the cockpit, of course, he had to bring the machine out of the dive and pull her into a ‘stall'. A machine will not slide backwards very far, but he held her there with his engine so that he flames were not blowing past him. Then he went into another dive and repeated this performance until he eventually crashed in No Man's Land. His leg, of course, had to be amputated but they managed to save his arm, and while he was burned, he was not disfigured. A few years ago, when I was in Toronto at the Annual Exhibition there, I had the good fortune to run into him again.
About the time that we were down in France five or six months some of the boys were beginning to show the effects of the strain. Our own Flight Commander, Captain Harrison, began to get nervous about flying and this is first evidenced by their inability to land their machine. They pilot that gets in a condition like this usually first begins to make bad landings, sometimes crashing the machine, but more often having to come down and go up several times before he can make a safe landing. Captain Harrison had been decorated since he came out with the Squadron, partly on account of his previous war experience, but he was eventually sent home to England to recover. I was placed in charge of the Flight, and had charge of it for several weeks until a new Flight Commander was appointed. I had hopes of getting a Captaincy myself at this time, but as we had several fellows in the Squadron who had been out to France previously they, of course, got the preference on account of their seniority.

As the cooler weather of the fall set in, we began to get our quarters fixed up for the winter. However, much to our disgust, we were told one day that we had to move from our very comfortable quarters at Sans le Pernes. We were moved to Camblain l'Abbe, immediately behind Vimy Ridge. This was an old aerodrome and one that had been used quite extensively by British Flying Squadrons. It wasn't a very cheerful place. There had been so many casualties in this immediate vicinity that the little white crosses were too numerous and met the eye on too many occasions. You have possibly heard of Mount St. Eloi, which was just in the vicinity of our aerodrome. Mount St. Eloi figured in the war of 1870 and there were still the ruins of an old church which the Germans had practically demolished about fifty years ago and which they occasionally shelled even in 1917 and 1918. Fortunately we were not located at Camblain l'Abbe very long. We were getting down now to the point in the war where the Allies were pushing the German line back. The Hindenburg line had been broken, and the Canadians on our immediate front had broken through the Drocourt line. These were supposed to be impregnable. We moved from Camblain l'Abbe to an aerodrome that the Germans had been using up till a few weeks before, which was about six miles west of Valenciennes. Here we went into the last phase of the war which, as you know, was terminated on November 11th. The Canadians had captured the large city of Cambrai, and one of the most thrilling sights that I have ever seen was from the air on the night the Canadians captured that city. There were large fires burning at different points in the city, which had been set by the Germans. It was being shelled both by German batteries and by British batteries, and it was altogether a very hot spot for those fellows who were on the ground. The night after the Canadians captured Cambrai the Major came to me and wanted to know if I didn't think there would be a good chance of getting a real piano in Cambrai. I said I thought there might be a chance of getting one and that if he would give me a car with a couple of men, and another Canadian, that I would guarantee the piano. Remember that Cambrai had been occupied by the Germans since the beginning of the war, or for four years. We got the car all right and about 1.30 in the morning arrived at the outskirts of the city. Our car resembled an ambulance and we were fortunate enough to get in with other ambulances. However, we were all held up for about two hours by large artillery passing by. We, of course, had to go to the side of the road and these enormous guns, most of which were being pulled by tractors, passed by. The noise was simply terrific and it seemed as though there was so much traffic on the road that we would never be able to get through. These large guns were being rushed up further so that they could be set up again and the German lines of communication, etc., bombarded. Coming out of the city, and using the other side of the road, were German prisoners by the thousands. They would come up to you and say "Kamarad, cigarette". Sometimes, if we felt like it, we would give them one, and other times we wouldn't. However, we eventually got into the city and got our piano and got back to our aeredrome about daybreak.

I have mentioned the aerodrome behind Valenciennes, which adjoined a small town called Erre. There were many coal mines in this immediate vicinity and all the machinery and the mine had been demolished by the Germans. It was a very simple matter to do considerable damage to a coal mine, or any other mine, by dropping a bomb down they shaft. Not only were the shafts demolished, but also the superstructure. The front line was quite close to us at this point, as the Germans were holding part of the City of Valenciennes and the Canadians were trying to get them out of it. The Canadian Army suffered quite heavily at this point from machine gunners stationed to act as a rear guard. They would intrench themselves in spots that were very difficult to shell and as the infantry made the advance they would be met by a sweeping machine gun fire.

Sincerely yours,
Gavin

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