David and Maria were greeted by Colonel Picot, who led them to his office and showed them to seats. "Ottawa has agreed with our recommendations to send you to England for commissioning training. They've also agreed you be transferred from the Infantry to one of the new Pioneer Battalions which are being formed."
Maria tilted her head. "What's a pioneer battalion?"
Picot smiled at her. "A battalion is an Army formation of a thousand men and their officers. Pioneers perform engineering and construction tasks to support the fighting troops. Specialists among them turn their skills to the destruction of enemy fortifications and logistic systems."
"Like blowing up railways?"
"Yes, that and other disruptive things were our thinking when we composed the recommendations. Two battalions are being assembled in Canada at the moment."
Picot rose from his chair and crossed to his desk to pick up a page. "The War Office in London has sent a list of the next OTC intakes. There's one at Aberdeen which begins on Friday, which we can still get you onto, but we thought it too much of a rush. We've recommended the one at Oxford beginning next Wednesday, but we've yet to receive their reply."
David nodded. "A week." He looked at Maria, then back at Picot. "How will I travel there, Sir?"
"By train to Lausanne, then Dijon and Paris. It's standard to overnight in Paris before continuing by morning train to Boulogne to catch the ferry across the Channel to Folkestone. You'll be issued a travel warrant for the tickets and for the hotel once we've had your course placement confirmed."
Picot laid the sheet of paper on his desk and sat again. "The Swiss identity you mentioned in your letter. How is it supported?"
"I've the birth certificate of Maria's dead brother, Jacob David Meier. We were born within weeks of each other, and there's no way to dispute its legitimacy." He nodded toward Maria. "Her grandfather was a colonel in the Swiss Army, and he's still well connected. He told us the Swiss are introducing a photographic passport later this year, and he will submit an application for mine once the process begins."
"And your fluency in French and German?"
"My mother is from Toulouse, and I was raised speaking both French and English. I did extensive mountaineering with Conrad Kain, an Austrian who had been brought in to offer guiding services to the new Alpine Club of Canada. Four full summers climbing with him refined his English and taught me German. My accent still has a touch of Austrian in it, but Maria has been helping me adjust it to the Schaffhausen dialect."
"You've not told us about your mountaineering background. That adds another dimension to your usefulness. Where have you climbed?"
"Mostly in the Selkirks, Purcells, Bugaboos and the Rockies, five years of exploring new areas and ascending previously unclimbed mountains."
Picot looked up at the sound of the knock and the click of the door latch. "The cable from the War Office, Sir."
He read it, then looked up. "Confirmed for Oxford, commencing 23 June. That's a week tomorrow. They've sent the details and the expense coding. I'll have the pertinent parts transcribed for you."
"What of my kit, Sir? I left it all back in Belgium."
Picot laughed. "It would have been impossible for you to do otherwise. You'll be requiring a completely new kit, anyway. New uniforms, everything." He glanced at David's clothes. "Have you found something appropriate to wear this evening?"
"Yes, Sir. I've a new lounge suit and Maria has found a gown."
"Splendid. My wife and I will be among those attending. We'll discuss other details there. I'll take you now to the administrative clerk and get him started on your travel arrangements. You'll need to leave early Monday at the latest."
"Would it be possible to have the travel arranged from our home in Schaffhausen, Sir? I'd like to spend a few days there, and I'm thinking it will be much less expensive than my remaining here in the hotel at Government expense."
"Yes, certainly. Come, let's get the clerk started on this." He glanced at Maria then back at David. "We must also have your records changed to reflect your marriage, amend your next of kin and give details for paying the separation allowance. I'll have that started."
"Separation allowance, Sir?"
"An amount paid to your wife to help her maintain your home while you're away. It's the standard procedure."
"We don't need that. Let it go to those who can better use it."
"It would be difficult and complicated to change procedure, and it will be much easier if you administer how the allowance is used." Picot led them to the clerk and explained what was required, then he bade them farewell. "Until this evening."
David and Maria sat with the clerk as he sorted through train schedules, working backwards from Oxford to arrange a practicable itinerary. "Last year this was much simpler with the through trains of CIWL, but the war has changed all of that. Now we must juggle all the separate rail routes."
"Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits. You may have heard of such trains at the Orient Express and the Blue Train. Until last August, they had one called the Oberland Express, which ran from Interlaken through here to the Channel ferry at Calais. One overnight train the entire trip. Now we need at least four trains to get to the Channel, and that's with an overnight in a Paris hotel. It looks like you'll need six trains to the Channel."
David nodded. "The war has disrupted so much. Even here in neutral Switzerland."
"Many think it's only beginning. There's increasing talk of it getting far worse. At least now we've stopped their advances, and the Front has stabilised."
"We need to push them back." David looked at the schedules spread across the clerk's desk. "We'll leave you with the travel puzzle. Will you have it ready by tomorrow?"
"I should be able to complete this within the hour, and the Thomas Cook is only a short distance away. I'll have your vouchers and tickets by the end of the day."
"We have other things to do this afternoon. Could you give them to Colonel Picot? We're seeing him this evening."
"Yes, certainly. I admire you for heading back, Sir. It would be so easy for you to stay here."
David nodded. "Yes, it would be."
YOU ARE READING
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...