Chapter Seventy

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Saturday, 19 February 1916

Through the entire week, the skies over northern France had remained cloaked in low overcast and rain, precluding any flying. Friday's report from the French Attaché showed fog still filled the valley of the Meuse. At the knock on his office door, David looked up from his musings. "Come in, Charles."

"Yesterday's Le Figaro has arrived, Sir."

"Thank you. Is Wilfred still at it?"

Charles laughed as he placed the newspaper on the desk. "Like a child with a puzzle book. And with Herr Krüger sitting there poring through his books, he daren't wander." He tilted his head. "Krüger's very intense in his research; devouring books and scribbling notes like I've never seen. What have you put him to?"

"A project I worked on for a few months at Oxford last year. It has to do with the Army's pre-commissioning training."

"To prevent recurrences? How did Windhead make it through that?"

"I think his family used money instead."

"But, purchasing commissions was stopped in the eighteen eighties."

"Money in the certain hands can cause eyes to overlook things."

Charles nodded. "It's still there, isn't it?"

"Yes, but once we've won this war, Tommy will come home with a different view of reality." David pointed to the paper. "We have work to do to make that happen."

Once Charles had left, David scanned the paper, finding again very little activity on the Western Front. He focused on the front-page report about the Russian capture of Erzeroum and the opinion piece beside it, then he continued through the paper, searching for mentions of weather and any indication of the end of the prolonged rain.

He was nearly finished when the Ambassador knocked and entered. "What news, David?"

"Still no weather for flying, Sir. Pageot was told this morning their aerodromes within range are clouded in. The valley around Verdun is still wrapped in fog, and it's quiet all along the Front. They can't fly, and the Germans daren't waste artillery without being able to call shot." David turned the map toward Evelyn and arranged the page beneath it.

"I copied the position of the Front from Pageot's map this morning, but without the sheet to the south of Verdun, I drew the line on a blank page to show the extent of the salient

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"I copied the position of the Front from Pageot's map this morning, but without the sheet to the south of Verdun, I drew the line on a blank page to show the extent of the salient. You can see from this how Fritz is positioned on three sides of Verdun, enabling a call of shots for both bearing and range. My guess is they're waiting for visibility to improve before they begin shelling."

"That looks like a precarious position for the French."

David pointed to the encircling forts, counting as he did, "...thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. I may have missed one, but between the German trenches and Verdun is a circle of forts. It will be a long battle."

Evelyn shook his head. "Playing baccarat with innocent lives as bets." He blew out a breath. "What other news?"

"It appears the preparation of the people continues. There's a front-page opinion piece in Le Figaro about the Russian capture of Erzeroum this week. The city was referred to as the crossroads of Anatolia, its strategic importance compared to that of Verdun."

"Another placed piece. Fritz must be relishing this. Watching France..." He paused at the knock on the door.

David beckoned Wilkins in, then he scanned the telegram as soon as he had been handed it. "Thank you, Sergeant."

"We can stay after hours if you need, Sir."

"No need for that. This seems well in hand. No reply required."

After the sergeant had left, David handed the wire to Evelyn to read; METZ 2 DEL 17. BANK 18. HW. He chuckled. "I can see why Wilkins would be concerned with the cryptic text. Second third delivered and paid for. I'm sure Wilsdorf is pleased with your advice."


Monday, 21 February 1916

David looked up from his desk at the knock. "Come in."

"Sir, a letter from the French Embassy." The woman strode across the office and handed him the envelope.

"Thank you." He opened it as the clerk left, and after a cursory read, he gathered his papers into a folder and headed to the Ambassador's office, knocked and entered. "They've begun, Sir."

"Verdun?"

"Yes, Sir. At 0715 with an artillery barrage so massive and rapid it sounds like a steady buzz." He held up the letter. "Pageot writes here he's seen reports of five shots per second and higher."

"Per second?"

"Yes, Sir." David glanced at the letter. "Without let up for over three hours when he wrote this. And it's coming from all around the salient, so the total number would be multiples of five per second."

"How long can the French hold out against this?"

"Long enough, we hope. They sent three flights of bombers to Oppau and Pirmasens at first light this morning. The skies are completely clear after the passing of the cold front last evening, so they should easily locate their targets."

Evelyn looked at the clock on the wall. "They should be back from that by now. It's more than four hours."

"Yes, Sir. Their endurance is three and a half. I'll let you know as soon as I hear."

The Ambassador nodded to the folder. "What else have you?"

David chuckled. "Another cryptic note from Hans Wilsdorf. The Army has confirmed the last third of the order will also be delivered to Metz. Looks as if they intend remaining based there for the next while."

"I hope Hans is paying you a proper commission on your sales."

"More than sufficient to cover expenses for the operation thus far, Sir."

"Good. I wouldn't want you to fall short. Keep the remainder under your hat for further expenses. It would be too much bother to administer."

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