IN June we were suddenly ordered to entrain. No one knew where we were going, but we had an idea and we were not over much surprised when our Commander told us that we were going to Russia. We had traveled through the whole of Germany with our perambulating hotel which consisted of dining and sleeping cars, and arrived at last at Kovel. There we remained in our railway cars. There are many advantages in dwelling in a train. One is always ready to travel on and need not change one's quarters.
In the heat of the Russian summer a sleeping car is the most horrible instrument of martyrdom imaginable. Therefore, I agreed with some friends of mine, Gerstenberg and Scheele, to take quarters in the forest near by. We erected a tent and lived like gypsies. We had a lovely time.
In Russia our battle squadron did a great deal of bomb throwing. Our occupation consisted of annoying the Russians. We dropped our eggs on their finest railway establishments. One day our whole squadron went out to bomb a very important railway station. The place was called Manjewicze and was situated about twenty miles behind the Front. That was not very far. The Russians had planned an attack and the station was absolutely crammed with colossal trains. Trains stood close to one another. Miles of rails were covered with them. One could easily see that from above. There was an object for bombing that was worth while.
One can become enthusiastic over anything. For a time I was delighted with bomb throwing. It gave me a tremendous pleasure to bomb those fellows from above. Frequently I took part in two expeditions on a single day. On the day mentioned our object was Manjewicze. Everything was ready. The aeroplanes were ready to start. Every pilot tried his motor, for it is a painful thing to be forced to land against one's will on the wrong side of the Front line, especially in Russia. The Russians hated the flyers. If they caught a flying man they would certainly kill him. That is the only risk one ran in Russia for the Russians had no aviators, or practically none. If a Russian flying man turned up he was sure to have bad luck and would be shot down. The anti-aircraft guns used by Russia were sometimes quite good, but they were too few in number. Compared with flying in the West, flying in the East is absolutely a holiday.
The aeroplanes rolled heavily to the starting point. They carried bombs to the very limit of their capacity. Sometimes I dragged three hundred pounds of bombs with a normal C-machine. Besides, I had with me a very heavy observer who apparently had not suffered in any way from the food scarcity. I had also with me a couple of machine guns. I was never able to make proper use of them in Russia. It is a pity that my collection of trophies contains not a single Russian.
Flying with a heavy machine which is carrying a great dead weight is no fun, especially during the mid-day summer heat in Russia. The barges sway in a very disagreeable manner. Of course, heavily laden though they are, they do not fall down. The 150 h. p. motors prevent it. At the same time it is no pleasant sensation to carry such a large quantity of explosives and benzine.
At last we get into a quiet atmosphere. Now comes the enjoyment of bombing. It is splendid to be able to fly in a straight line and to have a definite object and definite orders. After having thrown one's bombs one has the feeling that he has achieved something, while frequently, after searching for an enemy to give battle to, one comes home with a sense of failure at not having brought a hostile machine to the ground. Then a man is apt to say to himself, "You have acted stupidly."
It gave me a good deal of pleasure to throw bombs. After a while my observer learned how to fly perpendicularly over the objects to be bombed and to make use of the right moment for laying his egg with the assistance of his aiming telescope.
The run to Manjewicze is very pleasant and I have made it repeatedly. We passed over gigantic forests which were probably inhabited by elks and lynxes. But the villages looked miserable. The only substantial village in the whole neighborhood was Manjewicze. It was surrounded by innumerable tents, and countless barracks had been run up near the railway station. We could not make out the Red Cross.
Another flying squadron had visited the place before us. That could be told by the smoking houses and barracks. They had not done badly. The exit of the station had obviously been blocked by a lucky hit. The engine was still steaming. The engine driver had probably dived into a shelter. On the other side of the station an engine was just coming out. Of course I felt tempted to hit it. We flew towards the engine and dropped a bomb a few hundred yards in front of it. We had the desired result. The engine stopped. We turned and continued throwing bomb after bomb on the station, carefully taking aim through our aiming telescope. We had plenty of time for nobody interfered with us. It is true that an enemy aerodrome was in the neighborhood but there was no trace of hostile pilots. A few anti-aircraft guns were busy, but they shot not in our direction but in another one. We reserved a bomb hoping to make particularly good use of it on our way home.
Suddenly we noticed an enemy flying machine starting from its hangar. The question was whether it would attack us. I did not believe in an attack. It was more likely that the flying man was seeking security in the air, for when bombing machines are about, the air is the safest place.
We went home by roundabout ways and looked for camps. It was particularly amusing to pepper the gentlemen down below with machine guns. Half savage tribes from Asia are even more startled when fired at from above than are cultured Englishmen. It is particularly interesting to shoot at hostile cavalry. An aerial attack upsets them completely. Suddenly the lot of them rush away in all directions of the compass. I should not like to be the Commander of a Squadron of Cossacks which has been fired at with machine guns from aeroplanes.
By and by we could recognize the German lines. We had to dispose of our last bomb and we resolved to make a present of it to a Russian observation balloon, to the only observation balloon they possessed. We could quite comfortably descend to within a few hundred yards of the ground in order to attack it. At first the Russians began to haul it in very rapidly. When the bomb had been dropped the hauling stopped. I did not believe that I had hit it. I rather imagined that the Russians had left their chief in the air and had run away. At last we reached our front and our trenches and were surprised to find when we got home that we had been shot at from below. At least one of the planes had a hole in it.
Another time and in the same neighborhood we were ordered to meet an attack of the Russians who intended to cross the river Stokhod. We came to the danger spot laden with bombs and carrying a large number of cartridges for our machine guns. On arrival at the Stokhod, we were surprised to see that hostile cavalry was already crossing. They were passing over a single bridge. Immediately it was clear to us that one might do a tremendous lot of harm to the enemy by hitting the bridge.
Dense masses of men were crossing. We went as low as possible and could clearly see the hostile cavalry crossing by way of the bridge with great rapidity. The first bomb fell near the bridge. The second and third followed immediately. They created a tremendous disorder. The bridge had not been hit. Nevertheless traffic across it had completely ceased. Men and animals were rushing away in all directions. We had thrown only three bombs but the success had been excellent. Besides, a whole squadron of aeroplanes was following us. Lastly, we could do other things. My observer fired energetically into the crowd down below with his machine gun and we enjoyed it tremendously. Of course, I cannot say what real success we had. The Russians have not told us. Still I imagined that I alone had caused the Russian attack to fail. Perhaps the official account of the Russian War Office will give me details after the war.
THE August sun was almost unbearably hot on the sandy flying ground at Kovel. While we were chatting among ourselves one of my comrades said: "To-day the great Boelcke arrives on a visit to us, or rather to his brother!" In the evening the great man came to hand. He was vastly admired by all and he told us many interesting things about his journey to Turkey. He was just returning from Turkey and was on the way to Headquarters. He imagined that he would go to the Somme to continue his work. He was to organize a fighting squadron. He was empowered to select from the flying corps those men who seemed to him particularly qualified for his purpose.
I did not dare to ask him to be taken on. I did not feel bored by the fighting in Russia. On the contrary, we made extensive and interesting flights. We bombed the Russians at their stations. Still, the idea of fighting again on the Western Front attracted me. There is nothing finer for a young cavalry officer than the chase of the air. The next morning Boelcke was to leave us. Quite early somebody knocked at my door and before me stood the great man with the Ordre pour le Merite. I knew him, as I have previously mentioned, but still I had never imagined that he came to look me up in order to ask me to become his pupil. I almost fell upon his neck when he inquired whether I cared to go with him to the Somme. Three days later I sat in the railway train and traveled through the whole of Germany straight away to the new field of my activity. At last my greatest wish was fulfilled. From now onwards began the finest time of my life. At that time I did not dare to hope that I should be as successful as I have been. When I left my quarters in the East a good friend of mine called out after me: "See that you do not come back without the Ordre pour le Merite."