September 13, 1916
I actually had a bit of free time today, a very rare occurrence indeed, so I arranged to meet Nurse Haley Higgins over lunch. We’d met last summer when I delivered a wounded French operative to the triage unit in Beauvais, and she saved his life. I recently discovered she was to be stationed in Amiens for a few weeks during the same time I would be there as well.
A little cafe on one of the main roads called CAFE DE L’HOMME in Amiens serves the best French onion soup I have ever tasted. One can sit at a table beside a cobblestone street on a sunny fall day and forget for a short while that not far to the west, the war is raging.
“Hello, Mademoiselle LaFleur,” Nurse Higgins said warmly. As tall as many men, she folded herself into a ornate wrought iron chair, and with long competent fingers chased strands of curly brown hair, pushing them back under her hat.
“Hello again, Nurse Higgins.” I held a hand across the small round table and she shook it.
She leaned forward slightly and spoke in a hushed voice. “How are you? Well? And safe, I see?” She didn’t know that I was with British Intelligence but she was astute enough to realize from our last meeting that I was in some way working in some capacity against the Bosche. I answered as vaguely as possible. “Indeed, I am. And by all accounts, so are you!”
Haley nodded gravely. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”
“Nursing in such extreme conditions must be terribly trying,” I continued, determined to keep the focus on her. “I don’t know how you do it!” I really meant what I said. From what I’ve seen of the casualty clearing units at the front as well as the triage units, anybody working on the field had my utmost respect. It was a place where unflappable courage and medical skill are absolutely necessary to get through a normal day.
“We must all do our best,” she said.
We ordered a simple meal of soup and bread which came quickly, and had only just started eating when the ground began to shake! We both stopped talking and looked at each other.
“What on earth?” Nurse Higgins said as she put down her cup of coffee. The brown brew swirled in the rattling cup.
I glanced down at my bowl of soup and my own cup of coffee, both of which had small ripples undulating on the liquid surface. Was it possible we were experiencing an earthquake in France?
A low rumbling sound echoed off of the buildings, shaking the windows and rattling the doors. A few people strolling the sidewalks glanced nervously at the tall buildings while others ran into the middle of the street to avoid any falling debris from above.
“Wait,” Nurse Higgins said, springing to her feet. “I hear the sound of engines.”
My gaze first went to the sky, but no airplanes, friendly or otherwise, were anywhere in sight.
As the noise drew closer it became clear that it wasn’t the steady hum of propellor airplanes accosting us, but something rather more industrial, and honestly more frightening. My heart caught in my throat.
The cacophony of clanking machinery grew louder and when the source came into view, I was certain I must be caught between the covers of a novel by H.G. Wells. Great, lumbering steel beasts on metal tracks nosed awkwardly around the corner. On either side of these strange contraptions were two machine gun turrets completely enclosed in metal. About eight feet high, twenty-six feet long and eight feet across, this strange steel monster belched out fumes underneath it.
White and red stripes on the forward side marked it as a British vehicle. Not German. I caught my breath again.
“Mark 4 tanks!” Haley yelled across the table at me. “They must be on their way to the Somme!”
It was truly a fearsome sight!
As the tanks clanked and rumbled past it was far too loud to speak so we just sat in silence as the strange parade went by. The tanks were followed by no less than five infantry transport lorries. Several young boys on bicycles sped past us to catch up to the noisy machinery.
“I heard a British soldier talking about these things while he was recovering from a shrapnel wound a few weeks ago,” Haley said. “He told me they were to be arriving at the front soon. At the time I couldn’t imagine such a beast.”
“Indeed,” I said, “but we’ll have no problem imagining it now!” We both chuckled. “There’ll be more than a few German commanders losing sleep when they see those things.”
“Impervious to machine gun fire, able to mow down barb wire, and of crossing deep trenches,” Haley said, her voice taking on a note of awe. “It could change the way war is waged.”
I lifted my coffee cup as if giving a toast. “May it hasten its ending.”
Nurse Higgins touched her cup to mine. “Amen,” she said.
I nodded in agreement. “Amen.”