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Code!

June 14, 1916 

Yesterday I was summoned to a farm on the outskirts of a village just inside the border of Belgium near Passchendeale. Members of the French and Belgium spy network had stolen a German wireless set and struggled with its operation. Since I had some experience with operating a wireless and a basic knowledge of morse code, I was asked to help. 

It was set up in one of the upper rooms of the house with the antenna cleverly disguised and placed on the roof. When I arrived, I knocked with the prearranged rhythm, and the door was opened by an older man wearing a cap and farmer’s overalls.

“Mademoiselle La Fleur, do come in.” He closed the door behind me. “I’m Martin.” Motioning to a rather bookish looking young man with thick wire framed spectacles and short blond hair, he said, “That’s Cleo,” and with a nod at the brunette, said, “Marianne.”

Since first names had been given, and I presumed not their real names, I said, “You must call me Antonette.” 

After staring a me, their gazes moved to a wireless device on the table. 

“Please,” Cleo said as vacated his chair. “You can help? None of us have ever seen anything like this before, and I haven’t the foggiest idea how to adjust it. I managed to turn it on, but… “

“My cousin in Ypres stole this from a house that the Germans had occupied,” Marianne offered. 

The wireless was encased in a wooden carrying case and had German markings on it, but it was more or less the same as the ones I had trained on. It wasn’t long before I was able to pick up a morse code signal. 

“I’m hearing something,” I said. “Please, I need something to write on.” Martin quickly left and came back a moment later with a pencil and some paper as I continued to listen.

Est-ce que quelqu'un parle?” Martin asked if someone was talking. “Is it in German?”

Silence, s'il vous plaît.” I held up a hand and kept writing until I recognized that the pattern of morse codes had repeated a few times. 

“This is morse telegraphy. Unfortunately this device does not pick up voice communications.” I looked down at the series of dots and dashes. ”It’s also likely done in some kind of cipher.” I started matching the morse code to letters and writing it down. In a few minutes I had written down three lines of letters that seemed to make no sense in German or any other language that I knew.

“I’m afraid, without the code keys, it’s  impossible to know what the message read.” 

“Wait!” Cleo said. “Wasn’t there a German code book discovered a few days ago?” 

“I haven’t heard about that,” I said in surprise. That would indeed be a significant find. 

Oui, oui,” Marianne said excitedly. “I think it’s in a nearby village with other resistance members. They were trying to figure it out.”

“How far is that?” I asked. 

“Ten minutes by motorcar.”

We raced to the tiny village and quickly entered a small restaurant where Marianne asked for the owner. In his office, with the door locked, the surprised man handed us the small, unmarked notebook which contained a series of handwritten letter patterns and designations written in German.

“We are sure this is some kind of code book,” the man said as I looked through it. “T wo nights ago, it had fallen out of the pocket of a German officer. They came after I found it, but of course I told them I had not seen it.”  

I sat down at his desk, took out my notes started trying to decipher the message. It took only a few minutes to find the right designations. I slowly wrote the letters in proper order in a notebook.

“Kommandant Kemmel to receive first shipment of phosgene shells on evening of June 14 at St. Eloi. Shells to be fired at dawn the next morning.”

What is phosgene?” The cafe owner asked. 

I leaned back and blew out a long breath. “Poisonous gas.”

“How far to the nearest point on the front?” I asked with some urgency. “I’ve got to get word of this to the commander there. He can radio the troops at St Eloi.”

“It’s an hour by motorcar,” Cleo said. “I will drive you.”

I thanked God for the machine that had been loaned to me two days ago, for without it the day would have ended quite differently. We were able to find the French commander at the front and relay the message to him. 

“This will save hundreds of lives,” he said as he handed the message to his radio operator. The commander was a gaunt, tired looking man with a large moustache and deep set eyes. “I cannot thank you enough. The troops at St. Elois will be now be wearing their gas masks when those shells explode.” He shook his head solemnly. “We knew the Bosche were going to use gas at some point, but we didn’t know when or where.”

I was very relieved to have averted what would certainly have been a great loss of life.

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