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December 1917 Air War - Ring Out the Old, Ring In the New

eddie rickenbacker ernst udet eugene bullard frederick libby raoul lufbery red baron wwi

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more

Tired and Sick

December 1917 - The winter seems to be almost an intermission in the air war. The dogfighting era of aviation is ending, and the American part of the war hasn't yet really started. Arthur Gould Lee, who calls himself a young flyer of no fame, is by this time a veteran of the RFC and about to be sent away from the front. He is told that his recent physical problems, such as abdominal pain severe enough to mistake for appendicitis, are a sign that his body knows, even if he doesn't, that he's had enough and is cracking up. Like his extremely famous opponent Manfred von Richthofen, Lee sounds worn out.

I don't get the same thrill out of flying, even on Camels, as I used to do. I don't go contour-chasing for fun. I don't sit up high and get that godlike feeling either! And as for trench-strafing, so far from being hawks diving on our prey, we feel more like pheasants driven to the butts!

Clipped Wings

Another veteran of the war, Eugene Bullard, the black pilot from Georgia who has been in France since the war started and fighting in the trenches since he was old enough, is ready to join his incoming countrymen.

Those who can remember the winter of 1916-1917  and the first three months of 1918 know that France survived two of the coldest winters on record. Quite a few soldiers in the trenches suffered frozen feet and often, especially among the French colonial troops, their feet had to be removed in order to save their lives.
The severe winter allowed pilots the opportunity to get a twenty-four hour pass to Paris very often.

But the time off led to Bullard's wings being clipped. A few weeks ago something happened of which there are two versions, neither very creditable to officers considering themselves superior to Corporal Bullard. It seems Bullard was mistreated by an officer because of being black, and was pulled away from the front for either quarreling with or attacking an officer, a situation which would not have derailed the career of another wild-living war hero. Whatever the reason, Bullard's air combat days are over as of November 11th 1917, exactly a year before the fighting is over.

Colorado cowboy ace Frederick Libby is also finished with combat and not by his own choice. He is touring America, raising support for the war, but also discovering that his body is falling apart.

The Yanks Are Coming

Others have not yet begun to fight. Racecar driver and mechanic Eddie Rickenbacker is at Issoudun, helping with the many Ivy League pilot wannabes who had expected better equipment, better training, and better treatment than being ordered around by a grade-school dropout. Rickenbacker's initiation into combat by Lafayette Escadrille legend Raoul Lufbery is yet to come.

Doing My Duty

Ernst Udet, who will become Germany's highest-scoring ace to survive the war, is quartered with Belgians, as squadron commander of Jasta 37. He has scored less than a third of the record he will eventually compile, and his invitation to join Richthofen's Flying Circus is yet to come. Udet describes the air war in winter:

As the winter deepens, air traffic slows down. There is much rain and snow. Even on dry days the heavy clouds drift so low that no takeoffs are ordered. We sit around in our rooms. I am quartered in the country house of a lace manufacturer. Sometimes, when I sit at the window, I see the home workers bringing up their wares. They are bent, ragged shapes, stamping through the snow. 
The son of the house has entered the [Belgian] Royal Flying Corps on the other side. But the people don't make me ill at ease over it. "He does his duty, I do mine," is their point of view, reasonable and clear.

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