August 30, 1917
My fellow operatives, Jean and Armand, stared at the map that I had pencil drawn on letter sized piece of paper.
“There is an electrified fence, on the other end of the forest,” Jean said finally, locking his gaze with mine. “But I am told the dutch will have neutralized it by the time you get there. They will also have an escape hatch.”
When I had studied the original map, I’d recognized a pattern in the placement of the mines. The Bosche had laid the minefield deep in the forest. The explosives were placed in a pattern of what looked to be about ten meters apart, in some sections, then about forty meters apart in others. Then, about halfway through the minefield they had switched the staggered pattern. The entire minefield was square in shape and continued for about five hundred meters north and south and five hundred meters east and west. The forest itself ended near two German checkpoints closed to a small village that flanked the forest.
The arrow drawn on the map indicated a safe route through this and made note of certain landmarks with which to navigate, just like a sailor would with his sextant staring at the stars.
Armand and I, leading Captain Fenning and Klaus, set off north through the forest under the light of a shining moon. Armand carried a battery torch to signal the Dutch operatives once we neared the other edge of the forest, but he would keep it turned off until then, so we had to rely solely on our night vision and my memory of the map.
“We’ll have to travel through the thickest parts of the forest,” I said as we approached the tree-line. ”This area directly in front is free of mines for about two kilometres. After that point, we’ll be getting close to the minefield and we should speak only when necessary and only in whispers.” The Intelligence report said the Germans had no sentries placed near the minefields, presumably the German checkpoints are close enough to hear any explosions, but, still… one can’t be too careful.
“After we clear the bombs, there’s another two kilometers to go to reach no man’s land. After that, the border.”
Surprisingly, the light of the moon was enough to keep us on the path and we progressed without too much difficulty. I was followed by Klaus, then Armand, with the British pilot taking up the rear. At first no one spoke. I for one, was pondering my own immortality and how long would it take after I was blown to pieces for Daniel to hear about my demise.
Klaus was the first to break the silence, his thick German accent had an odd effect on me. I wasn’t used to aiding someone who sounded like that. I’m sure the others were thinking the same thing.
“Can you translate for me, Mademoiselle?” he said, his voice just about a loud whisper.
“Of course. What do you want to say and to whom?”
Klaus waved a hand towards his back. “Please address this fellow behind me.”
I told Armand that Klaus had something to say to him, then translated.
“You are a very brave man to do this, sir,” Klaus said. “You have my respect. Do you have a family?”
Armand shot me a look of annoyance, and a thought for a moment that he would refuse to answer personal questions, but then he said, “I do not. My brother, who is not small like me, was captured and killed by the Bosche several months ago.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” Klaus said sincerely. “I lost my only brother at Verdun.”
Armand glanced at the German but didn’t sympathize.
Klaus continued, “My parents died when I was young. I never married. That is why I can leave Germany. I have no one.”
“And that is why you helped the British pilot?” Armand said. “You wanted to leave Germany?”
“I love my country,” Klaus returned, “but I hate this war and what is has done to both my people and yours.”
“A German who doesn’t want to take over Belgium,” Armand said with a note of bitterness. “That’s new.”
“I’m not the only one, believe me,” Klaus said, “I have to admit, at first I was consumed by the fires of national fervor and was glad to join the struggle. But this quickly gave way to revulsion once I saw the savage nature of this conflict. Ach ja, I was young and stupid.”
Captain Fenning piped up from the rear, “I for one am glad you finally came to your senses. I have a wife and a young son. You risked your life for me. And if it wasn’t for you I would still be….”
I held up my hand to indicate we should stop for a moment and then put a finger to my lips.
“We must now proceed with extreme caution and silence.”
As we stared ahead into the night, Klaus whispered, his blond hair almost iridescent in the bright moonlight. “Let me go first mademoiselle. You can tell me where to step.”
I stared back at him in surprise. “I think it will better if I go first,” I said softly. ” It will be quieter and faster if I don’t have to give you directions. I know the reports are that no German sentries are nearby, but we don’t know that for sure.”
I took the lead, and before I could change my mind, whispered, “Step where I step.”
After every step I paused to scan the ground before me before taking the next one. After every ten steps I looked around to try to get my bearings from my memory of the landmarks on the map.
After proceeding in a very slow, halting way for what felt like hours, I stopped when I noticed a small indentation in the dirt in front of me. It looked like the earth had been recently disturbed, though it was hard to tell for sure. I turned and pointed at the spot and made a show of stepping over it. If I hadn’t seen it, I surely would have stepped on it.
This event occurred several times, and each time my heart pounded in my throat as I slowly stepped across. I wasn’t exactly sure where the minefield stopped but when a tall, electrified wire fence just visible through the dense forest, came into view, I knew we had passed the end of the minefield.
I breathed a small prayer and then looked at my watch. The journey had taken more than three hours.
We kept silent as we quickened our pace towards the fence. When we reached it, Armand turned his torch on and off intermittently in a long and short pattern of morse code. Another light in the distance return a similar pattern.
As we waited in silence, two men, both dressed in dark clothing, cautiously approached.
“The power has been shut off and the hole in the wire has been cut just here,” one of them whispered in French as he crouched down and untied a few pieces of wire holding up a flap of mesh that had been cut to form a small hole just big enough to crawl through.
We wriggled our way through and with scraped knees and scratched palms, finally reached the other side. The dutchmen had thought to bring water, handing each of us a canteen. I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was until a drop of cold water hit my tongue. I gulped it back, as did my companions.
Once our thirst was quenched, the taller man said, “Welcome to Holland!”
He reached our his hand to Armand and shook it. “You must be the brave little man we have been told about. I am Nico and this is Pieter.” The man’s gaze swept across all of us and then landed on me. “Whom have you brought to us?”
“This is Mademoiselle LaFleur,”Armand said, lifting his chin towards me. “We originally asked her to help because she speaks English, our common language, but in the end, she saved our lives by leading us through the minefield after memorizing a map.”
The dutchmen stared at me with admiration.
“The other two are the escapees from Aachen prison camp. Captain. Fenning is the British pilot you have no doubt been told about and the other…” He paused for a moment and looked intently at our German companion. “This is Klaus.”
No one spoke for a moment. The awkwardness of having a German soldier in the mix was palpable.
“He’s a good man,” Armand said gruffly.
“If you say so,” Nico said. “Please follow me. I’m certain you will appreciate a bit of food and a good night’s sleep.”
I couldn’t agree more.