It was an uneventful ascent. The balloon slowed when it reached three thousand feet, climbing the last eight hundred in a more leisurely fashion. The two men in the wicker basket peered down at the battle-field. Without maps they could not have made sense of it. Most of the defining marks of the landscape had been scraped away. A few buildings stood twisted and broken. For the most part the only things still identifiable were features of land such as the Passchendaele Ridge to the east. And also, of course, the long snaking gashes in the earth which marked the unbroken line of trenches.
The two men worked quickly, noting down any movement of the German troops, counting the blasts from their artillery and pin-pointing areas which looked promising for their own guns to target. They worked methodically, almost automatically. The activity was a godsend. It helped them hide the knowledge that they were tethered a mile above the earth and that German aircraft would be sent to try to destroy them.
They combined their notes and telephoned them back to the command post. They had produced the vital information for the day; for the rest of their time in the balloon they needed only to watch for any signs of a sudden attack.
Dick Harris stared out across the sky. Now that the first bustle of observation was over he became engulfed by his imagination. He visualised himself naked, held up upon a pole like a hermit in the desert, like a reluctant Christ upon the cross, a butterfly skewered by a pin. Senselessly degraded, senselessly endangered.
He shook his head to rid himself of such images, pulled out his watch. ‘Ninety minutes,’ he said. ‘That’s the essentials done.’
‘Very good, sir,’ said Sadler. He said it with feeling. Harris was known as the fastest observer in the squadron and that was why Sadler always manoeuvred to work alongside him. The less time they spent in the air the better he liked it. They were supposed to stay aloft for a minimum of four hours but for the last few months the company commander had turned a blind eye if they came back fifteen or twenty minutes early. Both men were aware that a new commander was going to take over today and that he might have different ideas.
They fell silent. The air was bitter cold and clear as glass. They could hear the ponderous murmur of the guns far below. They were subdued by the height but not extinguished.
Sadler unhooked his body harness from the parachute bag hanging from the balloon. He bent and retrieved his vacuum flask, then re-hooked himself to the chute.
Harris watched him with some amusement.
‘I wish you would hook yourself to a chute, sir,’ Sadler said.
‘They’re a death trap,’ Harris replied.
Sadler sighed, unscrewed the flask and proffered the cup.
Harris shook his head. Sadler passed him a hip-flask. He gulped a mouthful of brandy. Typical of Sadler to come so well prepared. He gazed upon the older man, wondering as usual how the gulf of class and rank could still cling between men who the war made closer than brothers.
Sadler stared around. He took another sip at his tea, quietly, as if fearful that too loud a noise would awaken a terrible danger. He wiped his mouth and pondered why he was here. He knew why, of course. Because he had crawled over no-man’s land at the Somme and brought Lieutenant Harris back to safety. When Harris had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps he had requested that Sadler come with him. He smiled as he remembered how grateful he had been; how both had once believed it would be a cushy number.
‘I sometimes think I can hear my heart hammering,’ Sadler said.
Harris turned towards him. He was troubled by Sadler’s words but was not able to mask his reaction in time. ‘You’re not the only one,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry. As long as Fritz can’t hear it.’
The huge observation balloon above his head turned slowly in the freshening wind. It contained thirty thousand cubic feet of hydrogen, a fire-storm in wait.
‘Adrift’ is now available as the third story in my collection of stories about the First World War, ‘For King and Country.’