Chapter Seventy-Four

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Bern, Switzerland — Monday, 6 March 1916

Mid-afternoon on Monday, David and Rick sat with the Ambassador in his office, sharing what they had learned from their visit with Colonel Pageot. "None of the bombers has been able to locate their targets, Sir." David washed his face with his hands, then continued. "The major difficulty is in identifying features and relating them to the map and photos after they've descended through the clouds."

"They don't know how far off track the wind has pushed them during their hour and a half flight," Rick added. "They're thinking again of flying in clear weather so they can plot their routes from start to finish."

"But they'd be shot out of the air as before."

"There's now a better chance not," David said. "The French have moved squadrons of their Nieuport chase aircraft into the area, and with their machine gun now synchronised with the propeller, their success against the Fokkers has grown. The thought is to use them as protective escorts."

"And Verdun? What's happening there?"

"Last week's snow has nearly melted, but it has turned the ground into an even muddier muck. The Germans have been stuck at their positions since the twenty-sixth." Rick smiled. "And they're still unable to move their artillery forward."

David pointed to the map. "Their gains of the first five days are weak; the positions being now within range of the repositioned French guns to the west of the Meuse. Reports show heavy casualties, but instead of withdrawing, they're replacing the dead and wounded with fresh troops as the French continue to rain artillery on them."

"And, the French casualties?"

"Much diminished after the initial assault, Sir." David ran his finger across the map. "Fritz appears to be having difficulty supplying their advance position with much more than fresh bodies for slaughter." He blew out a deep breath.

Rick continued the briefing. "The French have used this grace time to bring reserves forward, along with over twenty tonnes of ammunition. They've repositioned their guns, and they're now in an overall better situation than at the beginning of the assault."

Evelyn nodded. "Now if only they can find a way to drop bombs on Oppau and Pirmasens. We need to cripple the German ability to produce munitions. Is there any way to approach the sites on foot?"

David shook his head. "Not with all the soldiers guarding. They know the value of the sites, and with the increased range of new bombers, they realise their vulnerability. I would think they are building new facilities farther away from the Front, and well beyond the range of bombers. It's folly to think they'll depend on only Oppau and Pirmasens."

Tuesday, 14 March 1916

Tuesday afternoon, as David rode back toward the residence with the Ambassador, he briefed him on the latest intelligence from the French Military Attaché. "In essence, the Germans have expended thousands of lives to win a few yards, a hilltop and a small copse during the two weeks since their initial gains. They're stuck, but they're too proud to back down."

"I received a cable from London this afternoon reporting an estimated ninety thousand casualties so far; fifty thousand Germans and forty thousand French." Evelyn shook his head. "And Prince Wilhelm is most likely sitting comfortably, far behind the lines with his generals assuring him the situation is well in hand."

"And it is well in hand if his plan is as we had predicted — to bleed the French to death." David clenched his jaws. "The horrible reality of this is that he can more easily afford to expend lives than he can ammunition."

"There seems no other justification for an assault on Verdun than what I suggested a month ago. He wants to prove he's better than Attila the Hun. Be damned the lives it costs."

"The nobility have been playing variations of this game for centuries. Their subjects are nothing but expendable pawns."

They retreated into their thoughts for the remainder of the ride, the silence broken only by the click of Jacques opening the car door. As they crossed the foyer, Evelyn said, "We'll think of more upbeat topics at dinner."

Upstairs in the suite, Maria startled when she awoke to David's kiss. "I must have dozed off." She rubbed her eyes. "You're back early."

He kissed her again, then chuckled. "No, you've dozed longer than you think. All the late nights poring over your books are catching up with you."

She shook her head as she rubbed her belly. "It's more likely my body adjusting to this again. I remember being tired the first time."

"Isn't it too early yet to know?"

"I'm a week and a half past due." She sat up, then clapped her hand to her mouth before reclining into the cushions again. "And the waves of nausea have begun."

David knelt and stroked Maria's belly as he gazed into her eyes. "Thank you, God. If there is a god somewhere in this chaos, thank you." He wrapped his arms around her and trembled.

Friday, 17 March 1916

On Friday morning, David drove Maria to the university for her first lecture of the day. They stood for a long while in a silent embrace just inside the entrance of the medical school, then he watched her last wave before she disappeared along the crowded hall.

He returned to the car to thread through the Bern traffic again, and once he was on the quieter road heading down the Aar Valley, he let his mind wander. The most amazing woman I've ever met. Pregnant again, and I'm leaving her. He shook his head and concentrated on the series of sharp curves in the road.

A while later, once he was out onto the broad flats beside Lake Bienne, he allowed his mind to wander again. What if I hadn't enlisted? What would I be doing? Finishing university in Vancouver this spring. Then what? Accepting the boring comfort? Sitting in the office cyphering? Listening to my parents argue?

He laughed to himself. Or venturing off track to write my own destiny. So, here I am in Europe, sitting in the eye of the storm while the world descends into the increasing chaos of the bickering nobility.

He glanced at his watch and smiled as he passed the junction of the road to Bienne. Juggling four identities as events sweep me along. The next seven weeks, Maria is my sister, and I'm a winemaker's son.

I'll miss her.


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