July 30, 1917
With all my training in espionage and the people I have met and worked with, none come close to Magda. Around my age in her early twenties, she has pale skin and long dark hair rolled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. A Belgium citizen, she’s part of the secret resistance, daily putting her life in peril.
I work in a cafe in Le Cirio—my new post—located in one of the buildings which didn’t suffer any bomb damage when Belgium was invaded. It’s a favorite hang out for the German officers stationed nearby. My assignment is to pretend I know French only, and listen on their conversations. Magda is a frequent customer. Having lost her whole family to the Bosche, she had a fearless resolve to fight back.
When I’m not working at the cafe, I join Magda as a volunteer at the monastery which has been converted to a hospital.
“There is a German guard who lives in a hut in the woods that acts as a telephone exchange.” Magda explained, as we took a break at the monastery. She produced a cigarette and lit it before continuing.“I’ve been watching the hut for a month. The locals have nicknamed him ‘the old weather-man’ because, even though he is only in his thirties, his skin is wrinkled and his hair is thin. He always mentions the weather to anyone who passes by,” Magda added dryly, “ as if he has nothing else to talk about.” She let out a smoky breath, then continued. “He always goes inside the shack at dusk, once he’s finished smoking his pipe. I’ve listened through the window as he spoke on the telephone. The call came from the deacon.”
Unlike the local priest, the deacon had shown signs of cooperating with the Germans in exchange for earthly comforts.
Magda stared at me with her penetrating dark eyes. “I want to destroy the telephone line.”
I expected an audacious plan, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Two nights later, just before dusk I walked down a wooded and windy trail wearing a well-worn and dirty uniform of a French soldier. My head was almost completely wrapped in bandages except for one eye and one for my nostrils to breathe through, and small hole for my mouth with which I bit onto a pipe. On my neck was a large gauze and bandage masquerading as an injury that prevented me from talking. Such injuries from cruel shrapnel weren’t uncommon. The ruse was enhanced by the use of a cane and a slow gait.
Unbidden, my mind went to my husband Daniel. What would he think if he could see me now? Bravely fighting on the front lines, Daniel was unaware of my clandestine pastime. And he never would. I only cared that we both made it to the end of this horrible war, for surely it had to end sometime.
The tiny cabin was situated in a grove of trees. A wisp of smoke coming out of a small, brick chimney. Cautiously I approached the door which was painted with the official sign of the German War Department. Tapping the door with my cane, I was soon met by a rather dour looking man matching the description Magda had given me. A short and slight man, the soldier appeared too diminutive for active duty. Perhaps that was why he’d been chosen for the sedentary duty of guarding a lonely hut in the middle of the woods.
He stepped out of the shed. “From where have you come, Kamerad?” he asked in rough French. I tapped my throat and waved my hand—wrapped in bandages to conceal my gender, squinting my exposed eye as if in pain.
He chuckled. “At least they left some of your head intact.” Looking up at the sky, he added, “They tell me it might rain again tonight.”
I took my pipe out of my mouth and showed him the bowl.
“Aha, out of tobacco, I see.” The soldier reached into his pocket and produced a small bag.
I took the offered bag. Leaning my cane on my ‘injured’ leg while putting all my weight on the other, I fumbled trying to get the tobacco into the little bowl while he watched me with a quizzical expression on his face.
“Are you…” was all he managed to say before a hand came from behind him and held a cloth drenched in chloroform over his mouth and nose. The soldier didn’t make a sound as his eyes went back in his head and he fell backwards into the arms of Magda who helped him to the ground..
Straightening, Magna up removing a stray lock of hair from her face. Her cheeks were red with excitement and her eyes brilliantly wild.
Making sure no one was about, we dragged the soldier unconscious form into the hut, and tied his legs and hands with twine that Magda had brought. I tied a hair scarf I had stuffed in my pocket, around his mouth in case he woke up.
On the walls of the hut hung a few pictures on the wall of scantily clad women and news clipping of a sporting event. A small pot belly stove was used to warm the place, now with low, glowing coal. A small kitchen and a cot provided the rest of the comforts the soldier needed. The most important item, surrounded by unwashed dishes and sitting on a table, was a field telephone.
We were both staring at it when it rang.
Magda picked it up.
With perfect German, toned down to baritone, she began, “Ja? This is Officer Schmidt. Who is there?”
I couldn’t make out what the other person on the telephone line was saying, but I watched as Magda nodded to me in quick affirmation.
“Ja, the other officer has been re-assigned. I am here now,“ she said, sounding annoyed. “Do you have something new, or not?” She listened for a moment, then said, “Very good. I will pass this on to the appropriate officers.” Magda slammed the phone down on it’s cradle and looked at me.
“It’s the deacon, all right,” she said with disgust.
We grabbed the unconscious soldier by the legs and under the shoulders and with some effort managed to drag him outside and away from the shed, depositing him behind a large boulder. The effort had the effect of awakening him, and I worried he’d come around. I was in disguise, but Magda was not.
“Prop him up,” Magna said. I did as instructed, holding him upright in a seated position.
Magna kneeled in front of the soldier’s flicking eyelids. In French she said, “You’re lucky I’m not burning you alive, Kamrad, the way my father did at the hands of the Bosche!” Then she punched the poor bloke in the chin. He slumped back to the the ground.
Magna jumped to her feet. “Let’s hurry.” She collected the can of flammable, household oil she’d hidden there. When we reached the hut, I took off my disguise, and tossed the bandages, the uniform, and the cane inside. Magna had been wearing two coats, and handed me one, that was long enough to conceal the fact that I only wore undergarments underneath.
A few minutes later the shed was a raging inferno.
We raced through the forest, with only a small torch for light as the darkness grew deeper. More than once, I caught a loose twig or stone with a toe, but I manage to keep my footing. My heart pounded like a drum as I struggled for breath. We looked back only once to see the black column of smoke rising into the sky. Surely any underground lines would be destroyed along with that shack.”
“It will slow them down,” Magna said, slowing enough to light a cigarette. “At least they know we’re fighting back.”
We walked the rest of the way to town, parting before we encountered other pedestrians, returning to our own flats before the curfew horn sounded.
That night, as I lay on back and stared at the ceiling, I thought of Magna and our mission, and wondered if I’d ever see her again.