September 30, 1917
I’ve been stationed in Lommel for the last two days, tasked with smuggling spies from Belgium into The Netherlands. One of the leaders of the group is a young man who goes by the handle of Armand. Unmarried and with no living family, he makes the perfect operative, giving him little to lose. I considered him particularly brave. Armand risks execution for his secret activities, and yet has no hope of blending in with the rest of the local Belgiums. After all, there are not many men in the area of Lommel who are only four feet tall!
The man’s stature belies the fact that he surely must have the heart of a lion.
Yesterday morning, I met with Armand and one other operative in a loft room over a restaurant in the town square. The two men stood over a hand drawn map spread out on the table, Armand being assisted by a stool.
“Right under their noses is sometimes the best place to hide,” Armand said in French as I stood at the window. I stared down at a group of German soldiers eating breakfast on the street patio. It felt strange to be planning operations within a stone’s throw from the enemy.
Jean, another one of the operatives, chuckled. “Ha, ha! Hiding in plain sight!” A jovial man in his early fifties, Jean put one in mind of a thin, more roughly dressed version of Father Christmas with his long grey beard and merry eyes. He put a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder. “That’s easy for you, eh Armand?”
I raised my eyebrows at such a brash comment.
“Very funny Sinterklaus,” Armand said, but I could see from the grin on his face that he took it in jest and was not offended. Clearly, these two have developed a close bond to allow for such back and forth teasing.
“What time are they due to arrive at the meeting point?” Armand asked.
“Just after dusk.” Jean tapped the map with a jagged finger nail. “We will meet them here, just beyond this field in an old farmhouse. They have been staying at a convent in a nearby village. The sisters will deliver them to the checkpoint if all goes well.”
“They escaped from a prisoner of war camp near Aachen,” Armand said for my benefit. “We have been told that one is British, a captured pilot, and the other a German deserter who was actually a guard at the camp,” Armand said to me, “Neither speak French, but the German does understand English quite well.” He locked his gaze onto me. “Which is why you have been asked to join us mademoiselle. We’ve been told you are fluent with the language.”
I nodded. “I learned it from an American Aunt when I was a little girl. She visited us quite often.” Of course it was a lie, but as always, my true identity must be kept hidden, even from these operatives.
“Very good, then. Here is the diagram of where those wretched explosives are.” Armand handed me a rolled up paper which I opened and spread out on top of the larger map. “It was drawn by a local operative who saw them bury the explosives as he hid in the trees nearby, only a week ago.”
“Buried explosives?” I said, “You mean like anti-tank mines?”
“Yes, those sows have figured out a way to improvise an artillery shell,” Jean said. “They’ve outfitted it with a pressure sensing plate that triggers a firing pin.”
“With a keen eye, one might be able to see the disturbed ground where it was buried,” Armand added, “but it will be harder to do in the grassy areas.”
“This this is why we chose this particular night,” Jean explained. “It is to be a clear sky and a full moon. The use of torches would be too dangerous.”
“You see where they are mostly concentrated in these parts of the forest,” Armand pointed a stubby finger over the map, then caught my eye. “Because you speak English, mademoiselle, you should be the one to describe the diagrams to them.”
“Of course,” I replied.
“The Bosche have not put in any sentries in the forest.” Armand glanced at me and then back at Jean. “This is a more remote part of the border and they have decided that the mines will do the job of eliminating anyone who tries to cross.”
“What savagery,” Jean muttered.
“I would also suggest that you commit it to memory as best as you can in case something happens,” Armand said grimly.
His words turned out to be prophetic.
We separated after that, and I went back to my quarters to study the diagram. One hour before dusk I set out in a borrowed motorcar to the agreed upon checkpoint to meet the others. However, just as I was leaving town I spotted a new check point recently set up by the Bosche, with a line-up of automobiles and horse carriages. My pulse quickened as I turned onto one of the last side streets, parked the motorcar and took out my field binoculars.
Quietly, I left the motorcar and hid behind some bushes where I could get a clear view of the checkpoint up ahead. The line moved slowly for a reason: the Germans were searching every person and every vehicle, and they were being very thorough.
My heart jumped into my throat. I hoped that both Armand and Jean had made it across. The chances were good since they wouldn’t have been carrying anything incriminating.
It was I who was in danger.
Walking back to the motorcar, I slipped into the driver's seat and removed the map from my satchel, studying the map carefully for one last time. Dear Lord, keep my mind sharp now, I prayed. I stroke a match against the flint on the box, filling the motorcar with the sharp scent of sulfur. I set the paper on fire and watched it disintegrate into ashes in the ditch.
I would have to lead the two endangered men across the minefield myself.
An hour later, just as the sun had slipped behind the far mountain range, I pulled the machine up to the farmhouse and parked in the rear next to another motorcar that had been driven by Jean and Armand.
Inside I found my Belgian friends sitting across the table from the bedraggled looking escapees. Both wore worn-out civilian clothes that were either stolen or gifted to them along the way. One kept shifting his gaze to Armand as if he couldn’t believe he was being helped by a dwarf.
“Are you Mademoiselle Antoinette?” the German man said in a thickly accented English.
“Yes, I am.” I spoke in English with a French accent, something that I had trained to do.
“Please call me Klaus,” the German said.
The British pilot rose to shake my hand. “I’m Captain William Fenning. Thank you for being willing to help us. I think these good chaps are trying to tell us you have some kind of a map or something?”
“Yes I do…or did rather.” I turned to Armand and Jean. “Il y avait un poste de contrôle allemand. J'ai dû brûler la carte.”
Jean threw a pencil onto the table and ran both his hands through his thick grey hair. “Mon Dieu!”
“What did you say?” Klaus asked. “Mademoiselle. What is wrong?”
“The Bosche set up a checkpoint just north of town. I had to burn the drawing.”
“Blasted!” Captain Fenning said, sitting back down dejectedly.
I said in French to Armand and Jean, “I will have to lead them across myself.”
“No, I will go!” Armand said. “I have memorized the map. I know where the minefields are.”
“But I spent a few hours looking at it—“ a slight exaggeration to make a point, but I continued, “and I speak English. I will draw it out again now, and more details will come to me once I am on the path. It will be better if I am leading.”
After a moment of silence, Armand said, “I have to go with you anyway in any case. I am known by the operatives on the Dutch side. They wanted me because of my size. They can see from a great distance, and even in the dark that it is I who leads the prisoners and that it is not a trap of some kind. That is what was agreed upon by all the operatives involved.”
“But…” I could not think of anything to counter his argument.
Armand was emphatic. “I am the one they will be expecting, mademoiselle.”
I nodded reluctantly and then turned to the two escaped soldiers. “We’ll wait another hour and then go. In the meantime, I will try to redraw the map.”
All four men in the room stared at me as if they were looking at a ghost. I prayed that my corporeal self would still be attached to my spirit by the end of this night.