Meierhof, Switzerland — Tuesday 18 May 1915
Jacob and Maddie were waiting in their courtyard at Meierhof when Maria steered the lorry through the gateway, stopped and switched the engine off. Jacob walked to Rachel's door and assisted her down from the cab. "With that noise, you can't sneak up on anyone." He hugged her, then extended his hand to shake David's.
They stood beside the lorry greeting and chatting until Maddie said, "Why are we all standing around out here. We've tea and biscuits inside. Come, let me put the kettle on, and Jacob, you help David with his luggage."
David held out his small rucksack and chuckled. "I have nothing but this, a single change of clothes."
Jacob guffawed. "You should teach Maddie how to pack for travelling."
Maddie stuck her tongue out at Jacob, then looked at David. "Come. Let me put the kettle on and show you your rooms."
They sat in the parlour sipping tea while David told the story of his adventures after being trapped behind enemy lines. He diverted questions about the conditions in the Belgian trenches by saying only that they were unbelievably horrid. "The newspaper accounts I've read paint a far different picture from what I've experienced. It seems they've been told to soften the impact to prevent shocking people at home and scaring away additional volunteers."
David looked at Jacob. "I'm curious to learn how Switzerland maintains its neutrality with the German and the Austria empires on its borders. Aren't you fearful of invasion?"
"We've an excellent system that's evolved over the centuries. Every able-bodied man is issued a rifle when he turns seventeen, and he keeps it at home, is issued ammunition and is encouraged to practice with targets. We're renowned for our marksmanship."
"But formal training? What about that?"
"At age twenty, all undergo a ten-week initial training and then every year, they return for two to three weeks of refresher training, plus some exercises. This continues until age forty-eight when compulsory service ends."
"So everyone is short-term, no permanent army."
"Oh, there's a small corps of permanent officers, about two hundred and fifty, mainly as instructors. Plus, there's a maintenance team to keep equipment working and fortifications in proper order. If needed, we can quickly muster a force of half a million part-time soldiers."
"So the militia does regular training and exercises?"
"Yes, exactly. I spent many years in the militia. First as a private, then eventually as an officer. We've a system here that differs from other countries. All officers must first spend time as privates, so they understand the consequences of their orders."
David nodded. "That would be a vast improvement upon our system. I cannot believe the harebrained decisions some officers make, particularly the pompous British buffoons. A few days in the trenches and a charge across no-man's-land into the enemy fire would soon change their thinking."
"Our system works well, and there's a fine rapport among all ranks. A strong camaraderie. The tradition goes back centuries." Jacob took a sip of tea, then stroked his beard. "By the fifteenth century, Swiss mercenaries were the most sought-after and feared troops in Europe. Our last aggressive act was an invasion of France in the weeks of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. We've been neutral ever since."
"Neutral, but with a force ready to defend if necessary."
"Yes, this is now the third time we've mobilised since 1815, each time to be prepared for possible invasion. Once in the 1850s when the Prussians threatened, again in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, and now with this craziness. We've been increasingly standing down the troops the past few months as the fighting remains to the north, well beyond our borders."
"What about the Germans crossing Switzerland as their path to invade the southeast of France?"
"The route they would have to take is too difficult, besides our reputation is too intimidating." Jacob laughed. "I heard a great story last year at a reunion in Schaffhausen." He laughed again. "During joint military exercises in 1912, a German officer asked a Swiss officer, You can muster only half a million men; what will you do if we invade with an army of a million? The Swiss officer replied, Shoot twice, then go home. That's our reputation."
David nodded as he chuckled. "I love that attitude. Confidence." He glanced around. "Let's talk about something other than military and war... That estate for sale on the road from Trasadingen. What do you know of it?"
"The Frisch place, Sonnenhang. What a beautiful setting that is. It's a pity neither of the children wants to continue with it. Greta says they're too tied up with their lives in Zürich." He shook his head. "I'm saddened to see it declining."
"Declining?" Maria asked.
"Yes, Franz was ill for a long while, and he passed away over the winter. Greta's been trying to keep it running while looking for a purchaser. It's difficult with so many moving to the cities now." He looked at Maria, then David. "Why do you ask?"
"Tante Bethia is looking at re-establishing here; leaving Erzingen and setting up her metzgerei and winery in Switzerland." Maria tilted her head. "How well do you know Frau Frith?"
"We've been close friends for many years. Our children and theirs played with each other when they were young. Sonnenhang is just the other side of the ridge from here." He motioned an arm toward the wall. "No more than five hundred metres on the switchbacks over the top."
"No, that's not the place we're talking of." Maria shook her head. "The one we saw is more like five kilometres from here, not far from Trasadingen."
"Same place." Jacob smiled. "The lanes and the road take nearly five kilometres to wind around the ridges, but the track over the top is far shorter, about half a kilometre with its twists. We could walk over and visit with her — we haven't in a few weeks."
Maddie looked up. "It's almost noon, so we should wait until after lunch; otherwise, she'll demand she feed us and not take no for an answer."
I've inserted this map to show the unusual bulge of the Swiss canton of Schaffhausen across to the north side of the Rhine River and how it is almost surrounded by Germany. The map also shows many of the places that have been mentioned to this point in the story.
(Click on the map to enlarge it.)
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In the early months of the First World War, a young Canadian soldier uses quick thinking and ingenuity to evade capture after being wounded fighting in Flanders. While escaping through Germany to the Swiss border, he becomes intimately entwined with...