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Tunnels

Sept 01, 1917


Berg’s plan to destroy the supply dump warehouse was simple but elegant. However, the thought of going underground and navigating ancient sewer tunnels was rather unnerving. Again I had to swallow the natural fear of the unknown and cling to my wits and courage.

I spent a little more time in prayer than usual that morning. 

After midnight, Berg led me to a small grove of trees on the outskirts of town, where we could see a supply shack. A single sentry posted at the front door sat on a chair reading a magazine. 

Carrying our unlit lanterns, we slipped around the back of the shack unseen. Our canvass packs each contained a canteen, a small pick ax with the handles cut short, a crowbar, a small lantern, and six sticks of dynamite, plunder Berg had absconded with from Ypres. Berg also carried a small compass and a very long piece of string with two wooden pegs tied to each end. 

This wasn’t Berg’s first visit to the shack. He’d come the night before, in the wee hours, and dug and entrance to a short shaft, which he then concealed by covering it with a canvass and a layer of dirt. The deep darkness was broken by a soft moonlight,  the only thing that helped us to see at all. Berg removed the canvass, nodded at me with a grin and slid feet first into the hole.

My heart pounded as he disappeared. 

After a moment, his fingers emerged from the top. He crooked one, beckoning me to follow.

I took a deep breath then wriggled into the shaft feet first. It was about two and a half meters deep, and with Berg’s guidance my feet soon found hard ground. It was the blackest black I have ever experienced.

 Berg took my hand as we groped the walls, carefully working our way in the pitch dark. Once we were far enough away from the entrance, Berg used a match to light his oil lantern then handed me the matches so I could light mine. 

My eyes quickly adjusted. We were in a cavern about two meters high. The ceiling, floor and walls were roughly stoned and mortared, and covered in cobwebs and dirt. 

I stifled a shriek as a small rat scurried down the tunnel frightened by the lantern. 

A short way down the passage we came upon a crudely built stepladder, four pieces of short, rough timber, and a spade. 

“I made the ladder and stole the lumber from pieces the Germans had thrown under the shack,” Berg said.  

“Very good,” I said. I spit out dirt, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand, then adjusted my head scarf. 

Berg handed me one of the pegs with the attached string. “The string is exactly one hundred metres long,” he said. “There are one thousand metres in a kilometre and we have one and a half kilometres to travel in an easterly direction.” 

I blew air out of my mouth and nodded. 

Berg picked up the stepladder, hung his lamp on the the ladder, then started walking straight ahead, unravelling his string as he went. Soon I could barely make out his lantern so far ahead of me. 

I stood there holding my lantern, and tried to calm my breath. Soon I felt a sharp tug on the string.

“I am ready, Mademoiselle!” 

I followed the string to where he was standing waiting for me. It was easier than I thought, as the passage was unobstructed and dry. I kept an  eye out for rats even as my gaze followed the ceiling, half expecting it to cave in at any moment. 

Claude consulted his compass to make sure we were taking the right route. An hour later we stood under a spot where traces of much newer, dried mortar had fallen through the various cracks in the ancient ceiling. 

“The floor of the supply dump is most certainly dirt," Berg said. "As I suspected, when the Germans encountered some old stone and mortar in the floor, they assumed it was a type of long-buried medieval structure and just re-mortared the spot to keep it from failing.” 

“So that’s where the rough timber comes in,” I said.

“Exactly. We must take some measurements. Later I will cut the timber to size then, using the technique that miners have used for hundreds of years, we will shore up the surrounding ceiling and then dig through with the pickaxes.” 

He looked at me and cocked his head. “It will be hard work. Are you still with me?”

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