CHAPTER XIII. TRICKS AND RUSES TO BAFFLE THE AIRMAN
The airman has not been allowed to hold his undisputed sway in military operations for long. Desperate situations demand drastic remedies and already considerable and illuminating ingenuity is being displayed to baffle and mislead the scout of the skies.
It is a somewhat curious and noteworthy fact, that the Germans were among the first to realise the scope of the airman's activities, and the significance of their relation to the conveyance of intimate information and the direction of artillery fire. Consequently, they now spare no effort to convey illusory information, in the hope that the hostile force may ultimately make a false move which may culminate in disaster.
Thus, for instance, as much endeavour is bestowed upon the fashioning of dummy trenches as upon the preparation of the actual lines of defence. And every care will be taken to indicate that the former are strongly held. The dug-outs are complete and at places are apparently cunningly masked. If the airman is flying swiftly, he is likely to fail to distinguish the dummy from the real trenches. To him the defences appear to be far more elaborate and more strongly held than is the actual case.
The advantage of this delusion is obvious when a retreat is being made. It enables the enemy to withdraw his forces deliberately and in perfect order, and to assume another and stronger position comparatively at leisure. The difficulty of detecting the dummies is emphasised, inasmuch as now, whenever the sound of an aeroplane is heard, or a glimpse thereof is obtained, the men keep well down and out of sight. Not a sign of movement is observable. For all the airman may know to the contrary, the trenches may be completely empty, whereas, as a matter of fact, they are throbbing with alert infantry, anxious for a struggle with the enemy.
This is one instance where the dirigible is superior to the aeroplane. The latter can only keep circling round and round over the suspicious position; the movement through the air interferes with close continuous observation. On the other hand, the dirigible can maintain a stationary position aloft for hours on end. Then the issue is resolved into a contest of patience, with the advantage to the airman. The soldiers in the trenches fret and fume under cover; confined concealment is irksome and is a supreme test of the nerves. Unless the soldiers are made of very stern stuff, physical endurance succumbs. Some rash act - apparently very trivial - may be committed; it suffices for the vigilant sentinel overhead. He detects the slender sign of life, forms his own conclusions, and returns to his headquarters with the intelligence that the enemy is playing "Brer Rabbit."
It has also become increasingly difficult for the airman to gather absolutely trustworthy data concerning the disposition and movement of troops. Small columns are now strung out along the highways to convey the impression that the moving troops are in far greater force than is actually the case, while the main body is under the cover offered by a friendly wood and is safe from detection. The rapidity with which thousands of men are able to disappear when the word "Airman" is passed round is astonishing. They vanish as completely and suddenly as if swallowed by the earth or dissolved into thin air. They conceal themselves under bushes,in ditches, lie prone under hedgerows, dart into houses and outbuildings - in short, take every cover which is available, no matter how slender it may seem, with baffling alacrity. The attenuated column, however, is kept moving along the highway for the express purpose of deceiving the airman.
Advancing troops also are now urged to move forward under the shelter of trees, even if the task entails marching in single or double file, to escape the prying eyes of the man above. By keeping close to the line of trunks, thus taking full advantage of the overhanging branches, and marching in such a manner as to create little dust, it is possible to escape the aerial scout.
The concealment of cavalry, however, is somewhat difficult. An animal, especially if he be unaccustomed to the noise of the aeroplane, is likely to become startled, and to give vent to a frightened and vociferous neighing which invariably provokes a hearty response from his equine comrades. The sharp ear of the airman does not fail to distinguish this sound above the music of his motor. Again, he has come to regard all copses and stretches of undergrowth with suspicion. Such may or may not harbour the enemy, but there is no risk in making an investigation. He swoops down, and when a short distance above the apparently innocent copse, circles round it two or three times. Still undecided, he finally hurls a bomb. Its detonation invariably proves effective. The horses stampede and the secret is out. Even foot soldiers must be severely trained and experienced to resist the natural inclination to break cover when such a missile is hurled into their midst.
Frequently a force, which has laboured under the impression that it is safe from detection, has revealed its presence unwittingly and upon the spur of the moment. If the men be steeled against the bomb attack, it is almost impossible to resist the inclination to take a shot when the airman, swooping down, ventures so temptingly near as to render him an enticing target almost impossible to miss. As a rule, however, the observer is on the alert for such a betrayal of a force's existence. When the bomb fails to scatter the enemy, or the men are proof against the temptation to fire a volley, a few rounds from the aeroplane's machine gun often proves effective. If the copse indeed be empty no harm is done, beyond the abortive expenditure of a few rounds of ammunition: if it be occupied, the fruits of the manoeuvre are attractive. Cunning is matched against cunning, and the struggle for supremacy in the art of craftiness is keen.