January 15, 1917
(From Murder in Belgravia)
The meeting in Maubeuge at an old farmhouse outside of a French village near the front took place in the early evening. The location, although behind enemy lines, was discreet and often used for covert discussions. A fresh, thick blanket of snow had fallen throughout the day, and the other operatives had problems negotiating the roads out to the farm. Because of this, the meeting was delayed until ten p.m. Captain Smithwick and I rode together, driving a rundown Fiat; we nearly went off the road twice.
Once gathered, Captain Smithwick and the others leaned over a large map spread out on a wooden table. He ran his fingers along a rail line starting from the German town of Aachen all the way west to Mons.
In French, he began, “According to our intelligence, the rail line from Mons to Liège is one of the main supply routes to this area of the front.”
Two of our colleagues, men, stood around the table and stared at the point where Captain Smithwick pointed. Light from the dancing flames in the fireplace flickered on their faces.
“Operatives here and here have reported seeing more activity with troop movements.” Captain Smithwick tapped his fingers on two small villages along the route. “An attack just west of Mons would be the most effective.”
Claude, a tall Frenchman in his late twenties, wore a black shirt and wool cap. Leaning forward, he tapped on the map. “Here, just in the place where the forest is the thickest.”
In his early twenties, the other Frenchman, who had introduced himself as “Pantin,” scratched his bearded chin. “The grade is steep, and the corner is sharp,” he said. “The train might travel faster down that hill. Perhaps we can cause a few cars to topple when they leave the track.”
“Have the explosives arrived yet?” Captain Smithwick asked
“Yes, we got them yesterday,” Claude answered. “Our men are ready to go with them.”
“Well, if we can get enough operatives here and here.” Captain Smithwick tapped again on the map. “We should be able to not only do some real damage to the rail line but also inflict some pain to the Bosche.”
“And fade into the night before they know what hit them,” Pantin said with a chuckle.
“Isn’t there a German garrison near there?” I asked. All three men watched me as I drew closer to the map. “There, at Jemappes.”
“Yes, but that should be not of any concern,” Captain Smithwick replied. “The raid will be carried out in the middle of the night, under cover of darkness. If the team is fast enough—”
I couldn’t shake my concern. “Do we have information on when the garrison sends out their patrols?”
“So far, we have seen no patrols in the specific area,” Captain Smithwick said, with a note of irritation in his voice. “At least, not of any significance. Isn’t that right, Claude?”
The Frenchman took a deep breath before answering, “No. We have seen no patrols from the garrison.”
“How long have you been watching them?” I asked. I looked at Claude but felt Captain Smithwick glaring at me.
Claude answered, “For about three days, Mademoiselle.”
I blew air out of my cheeks and stepped back from the map. “Usually, the Germans are pretty predictable, but still, that’s only about two kilometres from—”
“I think it’s pretty safe to say the area will be clear at that time.”
Even though I was there to contribute to the planning and offer my ideas, the captain brushed me off.
It wasn’t until we were halfway back to the village when Captain Smithwick finally spoke up in the car, voicing his trepidation. “There are no ideal circumstances. War is always a gamble.” He tapped the steering wheel with his thumbs, his eyes steady on the road, “Everyone knows that.”
He was the captain, the leader of my small network, and others that I wasn’t privy to, so I had to trust his judgement. Still, I thought they could wait a little longer until more intelligence could be gathered to carry out the attack.