CHAPTER IX. THE AIRMAN AND ARTILLERY
There is one field in which the airman has achieved distinctive triumphs. This is in the guidance of artillery fire. The modern battle depends first and foremost upon the fierce effec tiveness of big-gun assault, but to ensure this reliable direction is imperative. No force has proved so invaluable for this purpose as the man of-the-air, and consequently this is the province in which he has been exceptionally and successfully active.
It will be recalled that in the Japanese investiture of Port Arthur during the Russo-Japanese war, thousands of lives were expended upon the retention and assault of 203 Metre Hill. It was the most blood-stained spot upon the whole of the Eastern Asiatic battlefield. General Nogi threw thousands after thousands of his warriors against this rampart while the Russians defended it no less resolutely. It was captured and re-captured; in fact, the fighting round this eminence was so intense that it appeared to the outsider to be more important to both sides than even Port Arthur itself.
Yet if General Nogi had been in the possession of a single aeroplane or dirigible it is safe to assert that scarcely one hundred Japanese or Russian soldiers would have met their fate upon this hill. Its value to the Japanese lay in one sole factor. The Japanese heavy guns shelling the harbour and the fleet it contained were posted upon the further side of this eminence and the fire of these weapons was more or less haphazard. No means of directing the artillery upon the vital points were available; 203 Metre Hill interrupted the line of sight. The Japanese thereupon resolved to capture the hill, while the Russians, equally appreciative of the obstruction it offered to their enemy, as valiantly strove to hold it. Once the hill was captured and the fire of the Japanese guns could be directed, the fate of the fortress was sealed.
Similar conditions have prevailed during the present campaign, especially in the western theatre of war, where the ruggedness of the country has tended to render artillery fire ineffective and expensive unless efficiently controlled. When the German Army attacked the line of the British forces so vehemently and compelled the retreat at Mons, the devastating fire of the enemy's artillery was directed almost exclusively by their airmen, who hovered over the British lines, indicating exactly the point where gun-fire could work the maximum of havoc. The instant concentration of massed artillery fire upon the indicated positions speedily rendered one position after another untenable.
The Germans maintained the upper hand until at last the aerial forces of the British Expeditionary Army came into action. These airmen attacked the Teuton aerial craft without the slightest hesitation, and in a short while rendered cloudland absolutely unhealthy. The sequel was interesting. As if suddenly blinded, the German artillery fire immediately deteriorated. On the other hand, the British artillery, now having the benefit of aerial guidance, was able to repay the German onslaughts with interest, and speedily compelled that elaborate digging-in of the infantry lines which has now become so characteristic of the opposing forces.
So far as the British lines are concerned the men in the trenches keep a sharp look-out for hostile aeroplanes. The moment one is observed to be advancing, all the men seclude themselves and maintain their concealment. To do otherwise is to court a raking artillery outburst. The German aeroplane, detecting the tendency of the trenches describes in the air the location of the vulnerable spot and the precise disposition by flying immediately above the line. Twice the manoeuvre is repeated, the second movement evidently being in the character of a check upon the first observation, and in accordance with instructions, whereupon the Tommies, to quote their own words, "know they are in for it!" Ere the aeroplane has completed the second manoeuvre the German guns ring out.
The facility with which artillery fire can be concentrated through the medium of the aeroplane is amazing. In one instance, according to the story related to me by an officer, "a number of our men were resting in an open field immediately behind the second line of trenches, being in fact the reserves intended for the relief of the front lines during the following night. An aeroplane hove in sight. The men dropped their kits and got under cover in an adjacent wood. The aeroplane was flying at a great height and evidently laboured under the impression that the kits were men. Twice it flew over the field in the usual manner, and then the storm of shrapnel, 'Jack Johnsons' and other tokens from the Kaiser rained upon the confined space. A round four hundred shells were dropped into that field in the short period of ten minutes, and the range was so accurate that no single shell fell outside the space. Had the men not hurried to cover not one would have been left alive to tell the tale, because every square foot of the land was searched through and through. We laughed at the short-sightedness of the airman who had contributed to such a waste of valuable shot and shell, but at the same time appreciated the narrowness of our own escape."
The above instance is by no means isolated. It has happened time after time. The slightest sign of activity in a trench when a "Taube" is overhead suffices to cause the trench to be blown to fragments, and time after time the British soldiers have had to lie prone in their trenches and suffer partial burial as an alternative to being riddled by shrapnel.