Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Baggage and Boche

Alfred A Cunningham, an American marine who pioneered the use of aviation for military purposes, died 70 years ago today. A diary he kept for several weeks during the First World War provides a sometimes thrilling account of chasing and gunning the boches (Germans), as well as lively thoughts on wartime England and France. Of the English, he wrote, ‘they have the most pernicious system of carrying baggage’; and of combat he said this: ‘After a few minutes we sighted a boche 2 seater just below us. We made for him. It was the finest excitement I ever had.’

Cunningham was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1882. After serving as a volunteer in the infantry regiment during the Spanish-American War and in Cuba, he worked as an estate agent. In 1909, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, and promoted to first lieutenant two years later. Based at the Marine Barracks, Philadelphia, he developed an ongoing interest in aeronautics, which led him to be sent to the US Naval Academy, with its nearby aviation camp. Between October 1912 and July 1913, he made some 400 flights, for both training and testing purposes. In 1914, he was heavily involved in the decision to set up the Naval Aeronautical Station at Pensacola, Florida.

By 1917, Cunningham had emerged as de facto director of Marine Corps aviation. Under his direction, the Northern Bombing Group was developed which, during the last year of the First World War, undertook bombing raids with British and French planes, as well as independently of them. For his service in organising and training the first marine aviation force, Cunningham was awarded the Navy Cross. After the war, he served in various positions, eventually being promoted to lieutenant colonel, and becoming executive officer and registrar of the Marine Corps Institute (from 1929 to 1931).

Wikipedia has a short biography, and a longer one can be read at the Naval History & Heritage Command website. 

For two months towards the end of the First World War, from November 1917 to January 1918, Cunningham wrote a lively diary, full of observations about Britain and France, and about fighting the Germans. It was published by the History and Museums Division of the US Marine Corps in 1974 as Marine Flyer in France: Diary of Captain Alfred A. Cunningham (copies can be found cheaply on Abebooks).

The text of the book, though, is now freely available at The World War I Document Archive (maintained by Richard Hacken). Here are a few paragraphs from the book’s introduction by the editor, Cosmas.

‘The diary, kept in tiny, neat handwriting in a small pocket notebook, begins on 3 November 1917 with Cunningham’s sailing from New York on board the S. S. St. Paul. After a description of a rough winter passage through the North Atlantic U-boat zone, the entries record the confusion, inconveniences, and hardships of wartime London and Paris and contain repeated expressions of homesickness, along with sometimes acid comment on the French people and culture.

Beginning with the entry of 23 November, Cunningham records his visits to the French flying schools south of Paris at Tours, Avord, Pau, and Cazaux. Here he conferred with French aviators and flew in aircraft of many types. He was impressed with the skill of many of the Allied pilots he met but sometimes appalled by their recklessness and by the accident rate among the student fliers. Throughout these passages, also, Cunningham expresses straight-laced moral indignation at the fondness of many off-duty American officers for liquor and women.

After another stop in Paris, the diary then follows Cunningham to a visit to the AEF Headquarters at Chaumont on 12 December, then to the Marine billets near Bourmont and Damblain and to front-line French airbases near Soissons. In these visits, he encounters American fliers of the legendary Lafayette Escadrille. The entries for 18-22 December, the most dramatic of the diary, tell of Cunningham’s participation in combat missions with French pilots and a brief but vivid experience of trench warfare and artillery bombardment.

The final section of the diary recounts visits to British bomber fields and seaplane bases in northern France and Belgium and a tour of the RNAF and RFC aerial gunnery schools at Eastchurch and Hythe, England. The last entries leave Cunningham on board S. S. St. Louis at sea on the voyage home.’

And here are two extracts:

12 November 1917, Savoy Hotel, London
‘After another night of expecting to be torpedoed any minute we sighted the lightship off Liverpool and took a pilot aboard. Every one on the ship had a feeling of relief and we bade our good friends the destroyers good-bye and they headed for sea to convoy some other ship in. I admit that I was rather disappointed that we did not have a brush with a sub, but this seems rather foolish considering the number it would have endangered. We arrived alongside the landing float at 10:30 a.m. The tide rises 30 ft. here so the steamers land alongside a tremendous floating wharf. The immigration officer looked us over and then we were examined by the customs people. They were extremely nice and did not ask me to pay duty on all the tobacco and cigars I have. I then landed and could not find a porter so had to lug my own baggage all over the place. Took lunch at the Adelphi Hotel and had my first experience with the war food laws. I was allowed about 1/4 of a lump of sugar, no butter and very little bread. The filet mignon I had looked like a piece of tripe. Everything is fairly reasonable, however. We left the Lime Street Station for London at 2 p.m. in one of those dinky little compartments. The country looked very peaceful and attractive and we arrived at Euston Station, London at 7 p.m. They have the most pernicious system of carrying baggage. You have to get your own baggage put in the van and when we arrived in London everyone made a wild rush for the baggage van and there was a regular riot for a while. Everyone scrambling to get their trunks, etc. and when you found your luggage you had to then find a porter and when you found him you had to hunt a cab. After wearing yourself out you finally have a cab with your luggage all over it and can go to a hotel. I never saw so much tipping. Everybody who looks at you has his hands out for a tip. I finally arrived at the Savoy Hotel and Stewart, Tumey and myself have a suite together. We took dinner at Simpson’s and I am now going to bed as the last few days have worn me out.’

18 December 1917, Front of the 4th French army
‘Got up frozen stiff. The weather fairly clear. Persuaded a French pilot of a biplane fighting Spad to take me over the lines. We went up like an elevator and talk about speed! Wk were over the lines in no time and I was all eyes. The archies bursting near us worried me some and made it hard to look all the time for boches. I saw something to one side that looked like a fountain of red ink. Found it was the machine gun tracer bullets from the ground. After a few minutes we sighted a boche 2 seater just below us. We made for him. It was the finest excitement I ever had. I got my machine gun ready. Before we got to him he dived and headed for home. On 1 of our rolls I let loose a couple of strings of 6 at him but it was too far for good shooting. After following him a ways over the lines we turned to look for another. None were out so we came home. Finest trip I ever had. If the boche had not turned quite so soon, I think I might have got him. Watched pilots doing stunts in afternoon. At about 8 p.m. we were huddled around a small fire in the hut when we heard 3 boche machines fly over very low. Two of them did not locate our place and went on. We went outside and saw the other 1 flying around trying to locate the hangars so we made for the machine gun pit. He finally flew down the line and let go a couple of bombs, as he came over we opened on him but the gun jammed and no one could fix it in the dark. He made 3 trips and let go 2 bombs each trip. Then he left us. We found he had dropped them all in the woods and no machines were hurt. We went back and tried to sleep but every time a big gun would go off I thought it was another raid. I am writing this Wednesday night with my hands blue from cold. There is certainly no lack of excitement around here.’

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