CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE leap of Faith
5th October 1918
The problem with waiting is it gives you too much time to think. I knew my plan had risks but it wasn’t the risks that were getting to me.
As a soldier I am trained to be loyal, to follow orders, but I never wanted to be a leader like Heidemann or a hero like Stachel. Maybe I dreamed about it when I first enlisted, but those dreams faded long ago. I love my country but after four long years, I have learned to hate the war. I no longer see heroes or villains.
All I see is death.
I was a fool to think that if I kept my head down, did my job as a clerk, developed my side businesses, I could outlast this war. That all went out the window when Heidemann sent me to Bellicourt.
Maybe it was the headaches from the chemicals or the constant pounding from the bombardments. Maybe it was all those trips across the Riquevel Bridge. More likely it was whatever Heidemann put in that envelope that finally turned me. Those orders made me expendable. My new Hauptmann sent me into harm’s way on a whim because I no longer mattered. How could I be loyal to that?
This war was over for me.
I packed a light kit bag to get ready. I got out my sewing kit and cut a sleeve in the lining to conceal my journal. It would have been safer to leave it behind, but it was my last connection to my Mutter and my promises to her…I just couldn’t let it go.
When the bombardment finally started on 29th September, there was no time left for thinking.
The bombing stopped at dawn and under the cover of thick fog, we relocated to the new dressing station east of Nauroy. I could tell the battle was going badly by the number of trips we made with the stretchers.
By night fall I was exhausted. I could tell the tide had turned against us when I started to see large groups of men retreating in a panic. This was my opportunity. The next time we passed the old church, I slipped away. In the darkness, I climbed up the metal stairs to the belfry. A hard kick sent the decrepit stair tumbling down into the rubble below. I crouched down and carefully changed into the French uniform I had stashed there several weeks before.
There was only one way down now.
Thanks to my Mutter I spoke English and French reasonably well. My uniform and identity documents were perfect. If I could bluff my way to the rear of their lines, I’m sure I could fade into the French landscape and lay low until this war was over.
Around midnight, Nauroy was finally overrun by the enemy. Even from my vantage point, I could tell there was a lot of confusion. The Americans were inexperienced and it showed.
Just before dawn, I knew it was time. I inched myself over the stone sill at the belfry window, took a deep breath and pushed off feet first into the darkness.
I hit the ground at an awkard angle and my leg folded under me with a sickening crack. My head bounced hard against the foundation of the tower. Everything went dark. Not sure how long I was under but voices work me up.
“So what do you think mate, dead or alive?”
“Alive Sir, but shouldn’t we get his paperwork so we can notify the French?”
“You Sammies….don’t you know anything? You see that pin, he’s in the Lafayette Flying Core! He’s one of yours. Must be that missing rear gunner from the Breguet. By the look of that leg, he won’t be doing much flying, let alone walking, anytime soon. Better get him back to the Aid Post.”
The next thing I remember I was being carried across the Riqueval Bridge, but going West this time instead of East.
The injured fill the old train station with cots laid out from wall to wall. The Americans may have been winning the battle but they took a pounding at Bellicourt. The instructions pinned to my bed shirt say I have a compound fracture to my right leg that will require the work of a surgeon at the main hospital. It also said notice had been sent to the Armée de l'Air that I am no longer missing in action. The Australians didn’t know what to do with an American who flies for France, so they decided to send me to the new American Hospital in Étretat.
So far I have been lucky. The head injury and the morphine gives me an excuse to be fuzzy on the details when people ask me questions. The injury to my leg is a much bigger problem. With that big splint, there is no chance I will be wondering off anywhere anytime soon.
I guess I better get ready for a train ride.