Folkstone, England —Wednesday, 22 December 1915
After an early departure from their hotel to catch the seven forty-five train from St Pancras, David and Maria stood behind the barriers in Folkestone as the Channel ferry disgorged passengers and baggage from its first crossing of the day.
They remained silent as they watched dozens of Red Cross nurses assist the ambulatory wounded from the ship to the terminal building, their bright white apron-fronts looking like clouds flitting across the dingy sky of soiled and rumpled uniforms of the soldiers. A line of stretcher bearers inched toward the cargo door to receive their loads while a steady stream of stretchers flowed from the ship.
David hugged Maria to his side. "And this is just the first load of the day. These are the lucky ones; they've made it back. I'm told we had over forty thousand injured in October and November in the battle at Loos, and the backlog is still making its way to England."
Maria stared blankly, shaking her head. "Forty thousand? In one battle? And that's only the injured?"
"There were another twenty thousand killed, captured or missing. I was told yesterday this was the result of direct incompetence by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He was in charge of the Army and fighting the war, and last week, he was relieved of his duties. This is some of the cleaning out of the War Office that is happening with David Lloyd-George stirring the pot."
"Starting at the top seems an intelligent way to proceed. Germany should do that with the Kaiser."
Once the passengers, the injured and the baggage had been disembarked, the barrier was opened, and they moved toward the boarding ramp with the other first-class passengers. The Channel crossing to Boulogne was uneventful, and as David assisted Maria down the gangway, he pointed to the long line of ambulances on the wharf. "Another load."
Maria shook her head. "Reading about this; hearing reports and stories about the injured. Those give no feel whatsoever of the dimension of this... this carnage. What the fuck are men doing?"
She was silent for a while, then she squeezed David's arm. "I saw this yesterday — all the wounded — but it didn't register. It was simply activity on the wharves as I looked at the ship and anticipated boarding. I'd never been on anything bigger than Grandpa's sloop, and... God! I wonder how many others look at this scene and don't see it."
"I think many. They see a line of ambulances and some soldiers being walked aboard. They don't stop to think that this is every trip of the day, every day of the month, and it's been going on for what? Fifteen, sixteen months. Then there are the other Channel crossings, the ships bringing the wounded from Gallipoli, and the..." He paused as he assisted Maria up the steps and into their train carriage.
They remained silent in their thoughts as they found their compartment and settled into their seats. David reached into his satchel, pulled out their two books and handed Maria hers. "Let's distract ourselves for a while. Get our minds off the horror."
Time passed quickly, and they were both surprised when the conductor announced ten minutes to Paris. They took a taxi to Gare de Lyon, arriving with nearly two hours to spare before their train to Dijon. As they walked toward the entrance, Maria pointed up. "What splendid architecture this is. The clock tower looks like the one on the Houses of Parliament in London."
"It does, doesn't it? We'll find out its background; we've lunch vouchers for a restaurant inside." He took the small map from his pocket, examined it and then led her to le Buffet de la Gare de Lyon.
Maria stood in the entrance as if stunned. "Oh, my. What a magnificent setting." Their heads were as if on swivels as they were taken through two rooms to their table in a third.
As the young woman placed menus and cartes on the table, David asked about the building and the ornate interior.
"Au dos de la carte, il y a des informations."
He thanked her, then both he and Maria immediately turned to the backs of their cartes and read. They lifted their heads from time to time to check features. "This looks like photos and paintings I've seen of the interior of Versailles, seventeenth and eighteenth-century," David said. "But the train station was built for the Paris Exhibition in 1900."
Maria shook her head. "And this is a buffet in a train station. What a far cry from the one in Freiburg." She snickered. "I wonder if they have the hole-in-the-floor plumbing in the loo. I'm going to..."
She paused as the waitress came, and after they had each ordered the eight Franc menu, she asked, "Ou se trouves les WC?"
As soon as the waitress had left, Maria said, "I'm going to the loo."
"But didn't you just go as we entered Paris?"
"Yes, But my curiosity." She shrugged. "You know my curiosity. I must see if they have commodes or just holes. What's your thought on what's in there?"
David examined the room again, then pursed his lips. "Knowing the French, I'd say they have holes."
"Built in 1900 for an exposition to impress the world, and in a grandiose place such as this — I say commodes."
"Want to place a bet?" David laughed. "I must tell you about the odd bets in the books at Brooks's Club. But on this, if they have commodes, I'll buy you a huge box of chocolate at Tobler when we get to Bern."
"And if there are holes in the floor?"
"You'll buy a box for me."
"That seems fair." She laughed. "We share, anyway. Tell me about the odd bets."
"When you come back."
Two minutes later, Maria returned to the table shaking her head. "I cannot believe their way of thinking. But since I'm buying, I get to pick the chocolate." She tilted her head. "So, tell me about the odd bets at William's club."
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