Wednesday, May 28, 2014

From Bloody Battlefields to the Azure Mediterranean

View from the Hotel du Cap, already a luxury hotel in WW1 -  photo © Melanie Wills

Beginning in March of 1917, Canadian troops were allowed to take their leaves in Paris or on the Riviera, rather than just Britain. The soldiers' money went further in France, where there was also good food and wine to be had cheaply - 1 franc a bottle. There was no discrimination between ranks in Paris, whereas in the British sector of France and Belgium as well as in the UK there were hotels and cafes for officers only.

The Canadians were better paid than most. Stretcher-bearers of the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance related that some hotel clerks in Paris were surprised that simple soldiers could afford rooms with baths.

During the latter part of the war, nurses were allowed to take their leaves on the Riviera. This appealed particularly to the Colonials who had no family in Britain, especially as hotels in London were notoriously expensive. Newfoundland VAD, Fanny Cluett, wrote excitedly to her family about her idyllic days in Cannes. (Your Daughter Fanny: The War Letters of Frances Cluett, VAD) She also mentioned that the Canadian VADs had “no end of money; they are paid extraordinarily well”. Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada.

The cove at Cousin Bea's villa - photo © Gabriele Wills
Some of my characters enjoy a reprieve from war in Cap d’Antibes in The Summer Before the Storm and Elusive Dawn. Of course I had to go there and see what made it special, and was delighted to discover this enticing cove, which was the perfect location for Cousin Beatrice’s villa.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Women Pilots

There were women aviators before and during the Great War. A few taught fighter pilots, while a very few Russian women and one Belgian reputedly flew in combat missions.

Katherine Stinson with her Curtiss aeroplane before the war
From 1915-1917 the American Stinson sisters - Katherine and Marjorie - trained over 100 Canadian pilots, preparing to join the Royal Flying Corps, at their family’s Texas flying school.

A French aviatrix and nurse disguised herself and flew combat missions for several weeks before being discovered. A young British woman "of good family" also disguised herself as a French pilot but was soon sent back to England. Tantalizing grist for the fiction mill!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Chivalry in the Clouds

In the Great War there was an odd camaraderie and chivalry among aviators from both sides. Britain’s top Ace, Billy Bishop, mentions his officers' mess wining and dining a downed German pilot before reluctantly handing him over to the army.

When a pilot from either side went down behind enemy lines, the "enemy" would drop a note to inform his comrades whether he had been killed in a crash or taken prisoner. When a renowned pilot died, he was given a full military funeral, and his erstwhile adversaries would drop a wreath and note of condolence over his airfield.

Funeral of The Red Baron
Manfred von Richthofen, Germany’s top Ace, better known as the Red Baron, was shot down over the Allied lines in April, 1918. Above is a photo of his funeral, conducted by an Australian squadron.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Forgotten Hero

Alan Arnett McLeod - aged 18 on the left and 19 on the right

The heroism of young Canadians in the Great War is no better illustrated than by the incredible story of Alan Arnett McLeod, one of Canada’s three Victoria Cross aviators. (The others were Billy Bishop and William Barker, discussed in the previous post.) The photo above shows him at 18 on the left, and a year later on the right, after the battle for which he received his VC.

Painting of McLeod's VC air battle by Merv Corning
He and his observer-gunner, Lt. Hammond, were on a bombing mission when they were attacked by eight faster and more agile German fighters. Both men were wounded but managed to shoot down three of the triplanes. When their plane’s fuel tank was hit and caught fire, Alan stepped out onto the bottom wing and side-slipped the plane to keep the flames away from Hammond, who was still shooting at the enemy. They crashed in no-man’s-land, where their own bombs started to explode. Although wounded again, Alan managed to roll Hammond to a shell hole while under fire. Both had six wounds and burns, and lay there until nightfall, when help could finally reach them. They managed to survive a three-mile stretcher trip to a forward aide station where their wounds were hastily attended before they were shipped to hospitals.

Alan hovered between life and death for months, but then recovered and was sent home to Canada. Tragically, the Spanish flu was rampaging through the country, and weakened by his ordeal, Alan contracted it, dying just days before the Armistice. He was 19.