Western Front, 1918
The papers in the courier's saddlebags held information that might stop this madness. Thousands of soldiers on both sides had gasped out their lives in the mud and cesspools along the miles of trenches. Neither side could claim victory in this muddy waste. It was a land once recognized as being fertile. It had been cultured over hundreds of years and ready to grow bountiful crops, but now lay pitted like the pocked marked face of a person who had suffered from smallpox. The land was a labyrinth of pools formed by exploded shells, filled with water and human and animal parts rotting and adding to the high level of humus and bacteria. Those who fell wounded often ended up back behind the lines having legs or arms removed due to the ever-spreading gangrene. When was it all going to end?
The dispatch rider never thought beyond each day because one moment he might be sharing beer with a comrade, laughing about the failed attack by the British or French and in the next instant have to ask himself when he too would go over the top into the maelstrom of death. No, it didn't pay to think beyond the present because that was all he had to hold on to. He saluted as the officer quickly took the package from his outstretched hand.
"Sir, the orders have finally arrived!"
The officer looked at the sergeant with unseeing eyes. How many years had they been fighting this war? He knew that Germany was bleeding out of control, and no longer was there a belief that the cause was just. No longer did any new conscripts believe they were there to save the Fatherland. There were rumors that some had refused to come. Riots had occurred. Had that happened on the other side of the line as well? France was just a shadow of itself, with millions of men devoured by the mud. Some would never be found. Their graves would be the mud and their bodies would in time enrich the fields of Flanders. Thousands would have no known place in this world. They had disappeared out there in the vast expanse of mud, shell craters and the upheavals of underground mine detonations.
Helmut opened the orders with a fatalistic air, wondering what the generals had decided to do. He had seen some of their successes. The yellow clouds of mustard gas, like a genie being released from a magic bottle had enveloped the enemy. Never had he seen men turn back so fast, as they ran choking, stumbling in blindness to the rear. Using poisonous gas was the new low point in the deployment of weapons. It was the Canadians who held and fought until reinforcements could ensure the status quo was maintained.
With shock that he read the dispatch, it was not just orders, it was a personal letter from the General. At first he thought his father was using rank to get his eldest son out of the hell of the lines. Years before, Helmut would objected, believing it was only right for him to stay with his men. At this time it was a reprieve, a chance to see his wife of three months. He had seen her twice since they were married. Frieda had cried and begged that he go to his father and ask for a position at headquarters. Lovely Frieda always had a look of terror in her eyes when he headed back to the lines. Could she detect his change of attitude in his letters? Could she know he was now fearful for his life? So many things had changed. He would see what his father wanted, and then he could have some precious moments with the most beautiful girl in the world.
He reread his father's last note "There is a disease, a type of influenza, which has descended from God knows where and it is killing every young man it touches. There are reports that this disease was first discovered in Spain where it killed thousands. We are losing soldiers stricken with it in our training camps. No longer do we have men to replace those who have died on the firing line. If this continues and spreads, not a single man between 16 and 35 will be alive in six months. Helmut, as both your father and the General responsible for your Corps, I am ordering you home. Come as quickly as you can. Your brother Karl and your sister Madeline are now down with this disease.
The thought of returning to civilization away from the death-stalker was a relief for Helmut. After three years of war with advances and retreats, they were in a stalemate where no big victory could be achieved. How could their leaders think that such a war could be justified? Hadn't over a million men made the supreme sacrifice? He had learned to live with death. He had seen the foolish British rush into no-man's-land and be cut down by the hidden machine guns. He no longer felt he was doing something honorable as he cut them down in a hail of lead, leaving only posthumous medals to mark their death. Only the rats thrived on the front. They had all the food they could possibly eat; fresh meat, rotting meat and rations discarded in trenches.
The train home was filled with injured men. Nurses were carefully adjusting bandages, giving that care that keeps a man in awe and very much aware of these angels of mercy. To actually see fields of rye and hear the birds sing was like stepping into another world, the world where he had grown up in. This world had been lost to him as soon as the gray bodies left out in no-man's-land started to bloat.
He noticed that the towns and villages looked bleaker than before; there were no more young men or even old men sitting around the town squares and chatting. Few people were at the stations as the train discharged the returning invalid soldiers. Had the war bled the country to the point where the German vitality and the exuberance of youth were lost? He knew that many thousands of women would never find a mate now. There just weren't enough males available unless you believed a man could have many wives. That, at least, was a way to repopulate. He doubted that Frieda would support the idea of sharing him with other women needing the attentions of a man.
He heard the call of the ancient conductor. He looked to be 20 years beyond the normal retirement age. There was no one to replace an old man if he took his well-earned retirement.
The stop was just outside Berlin. Helmut noticed only three people at the station. He hadn't sent a message saying he was going to be on this train. There seemed to be no point with the new uncertainty of railroad schedules. The orderly railroad was now delivering war supplies and that took precedent over anything. Being late was not a habit he believed in, but he had no choice.
In his letter his Father had ordered him to come home. The old man would be suffering from the stress of being a general and seeing his men fall in such numbers. Then a sudden thought hit his son like a bullet from an English Enfield rifle. Had something happened to Frieda? Was this his father's way to get him home where the bad news could be more easily revealed?
Helmut grabbed his backpack and stepped down onto the platform. He didn't recognize anyone. His village was as quiet as a morgue. The sun still shone and covered the houses and stores in its bronze glow. Yes, that was a sign of life when the sun came out to welcome him home. He didn't have far to go and usually the path was well cared for, but he saw it had become overgrown with weeds.
Surely 1918 would be different but it had not started off much better than the year before. Hopes were locked inside. To think of the future was the quickest way to die. Once he had hopes of becoming a doctor and had begun to study medicine. The war changed all that. Oh he had saved many lives with his limited knowledge; if it weren't for his stitching and sewing more men would have died. He wasn't sure he could be a country doctor. He had seen too much blood for that. Still if he could save lives and improve the lot of those less fortunate than himself perhaps he could once again feel optimistic about life. Helping women give birth and hearing newborns cry was better than hearing the screams of the wounded that lapsed into curses, screams fade in moans and groans till death silenced them. He'd continue his studies and get back into the world of the living.
He knocked at the door of his father's country manor house. A strange foreboding gnawed at his heart. On cue, the door opened and Annie, the woman who had lived there as a housekeeper for nearly 50 years, beamed with affection as she recognized him.
Why Helmut, we didn't know you would arrive so quickly although we knew you would appear as soon as you could. Our message just went out this morning. You should have told us and we could have sent the coach to pick you up. It is a bad time for us all. I'm so sorry to have this waiting for you."
"Annie, I enjoyed the walk, so you will never hear me complain. What has happened? Where is Father?"
The old woman looked ashen. "You don't know then. You didn't receive the telegram."
"Father sent for me to come home at once. I have been on my way here. It's only three days since I received his letter."
The old nurse looked into the questioning eyes. "Helmut, your father died yesterday morning in his sleep. He caught the influenza and the poor man was in no shape to fight a bad cold. He died worn-out. He left you his diary and his notes, and there is a letter for your attention only."
Helmut reached for it. He could hardly remember anything that Annie said. His father was dead! He knew his father was a tireless worker, and the last time he saw him he looked completely spent. Now the flu had killed him. He opened the letter and felt his whole world close in on him.
My dear son. I fear this is a message that I never thought I would have to send to you. You may know as will the German people soon know, that despite their efforts and sacrifice this war has drawn us to an abyss that can surely destroy us. Now a greater threat is facing us and I suspect the world will feel its wrath. Our agents in Spain are telling us that people by the thousands are contracting a terrible disease that turns them black, and causes their lungs fill up with fluid. They die a horrible death within days. The doctors do not seem to know how to cure it. It has come into our land. People who are the healthiest seem to be stricken first, and then it is the tired and aged like me who come down with it. This is worse than the battles of the Somme. I have talked to our medical experts and they are predicting that whole nations will be destroyed. This is not like our battle against the British or the French. We always had people at home ready to take the places of the fallen, although we are now at the bottom of that barrel, but this disease, this epidemic, is killing without quarter. No longer can you go to work and believe that your family is happy and safe at home. Not now, not with this harbinger of death which carries a sword so sharp it cuts the life of a nation, and maybe of a continent, to the very core. Already 23,000 of our countrymen have died. I visited some hospitals where I saw young men and girls prostrate and dying before my eyes. I fear my visits have been my death sentence too.
My son, the doctors do not know what to do. They have tried many treatments without success. There is one expert in Britain who may have the ability to stop this disease. So I am asking you to take the leather pouch, which Annie will give to you. In it are three glass ampoules, which contain what our best physicians believe may provide a doctor by the name of Nigel Showmaker, with the means to find a solution that will arrest this disease. Go to Britain and find this doctor and tell him what is happening on this side of the Channel. He may already know. Rumors are now coming in that our enemy is now experiencing this fatal disease. It is time to forget about who the enemy is. Forget that the Kaiser and the King of England are cousins who are fighting and killing one another's countrymen. This disease has gone beyond nationalities. I fear it might destroy the human race.
The orders were approved last week when I presented my case. Little did they know that they were talking to a walking dead man. I am sorry to leave you like this. You have been my pride and joy. I wish that your dear old mother could have seen you grow up to be a fine young man. Good-bye my son.
Your loving father.
How long Helmut looked at the letter he did not know. The General, his father Hans Worstein, was dead. The world was falling apart and his father had wanted him to go on a mission that might save it. That was typical of his father. He was always so much ahead of the Junkers and the ruling class. He saw things from a global perspective and not just from that of a German. The thought of a disease so deadly it might destroy mankind was more than terrifying. He opened the leather pouch to look at the ampoules, which were sealed in wax. It was hard to believe that these three glass ampoules might hold the clue to saving the human race.
How was he to get to Britain? The British were now fighting them, killing and being killed. Would they suddenly allow a special envoy free passage to Scotland? He knew that no one would believe him. Indeed they could think it was a plot to introduce the disease into the British Isles.
* * *
The medical officer looked at the autopsy report, and then put the document down.
So this person was not just a poor unfortunate sailor or fisherman who fell overboard and drowned. The man was a soldier, and by the cut of his uniform he was not a subject of King George but rather of the Kaiser. His uniform confirmed that the wearer was a German officer. How he became entangled in a fish weir was a question that needed to be answered.
The top brass would need to be notified. A German officer dead in a fish weir in an estuary on the east coast of Scotland was bad enough. It didn't explain whether this man had first made a successful landing and had been in communication with others. He made a note to talk again to the two children who discovered the body. The other information in the autopsy report was not that useful. The body could have been there for a month or more, but due to a strange aberration, it was caught in an area where oxygen was at a minimal level, so normal decay had not been as fast as expected. That little gem of oceanographic information put the date of death at around 6-12 weeks ago. If this officer had died trying to escape from Britain, then only God knew how long he was tramping about.
Major Carmit looked at the medical officer, then back at the report.
"So this German, this spy might have been in communication with traitors or other German operators?"
"Yes Sir, that is a possibility."
"What makes you think he landed somewhere else and wasn't drowned landing in the estuary?"
Doctor Scot put his hand to his chin in thought. "The estuary is not an easy one to navigate. There are all sorts of eddies and currents, which is why a fish weir has been located there. From what I understand from the locals, it tends to wash in fish and other refuse from several miles away. At floodtide it can get rather difficult to avoid some of those whirlpools. A boat landing from say one of those U-boats wouldn't want to be caught the riptide, and during the daytime it would attract the attention of the local fishermen if a strange boat came in. No, I think this poor soul landed somewhere else, did what he wanted to do, then tried to make his way out to sea for a rendezvous and got sucked into the weir."
"That's quite a story. I hope we can find out if your idea is true. What is the reference to a leather pouch and two glass ampoules?"
"That's another strange thing. There was no identification on the body. Everything including labels from clothes had been carefully removed, but there was a pouch that appeared to be made especially for these glass ampoules. There were three spaces, but only two ampoules were present."
"What is so special about the ampoules?" the Major asked.
"I'm not sure, but each is encased in wax. The two are back in cold storage in my lab. But they were done up in a very professional manner. They were sealed for a reason and I didn't think it was a good idea to see what they contained."
"All right, I'll inform my superiors. So this man, whoever he was, drowned. It's a shame we couldn't have apprehended him before that. We better try to trace anything we can about your spy. I'll check with the coastal folks and see if any unusual activity took place. It's not the first time the Germans have tried to plant spies. But this ampoule thing is worrisome. What do you think they may contain?"
"I've been thinking about that. I'm not too sure that I have all the evidence. I'll go back and do a more thorough examination of the body and take samples of the organs, just to be sure. I have a feeling that drowning in the fish weir was just too simple. We are getting rumors. In Spain a horrific epidemic is killing people by the thousands. It is believed that now it has crossed into France and Germany. If it's truly dangerous and someone discovered what it was, possibly it could be used as a weapon by releasing it here. Once a lethal disease takes hold it can go through a population like a brush fire. It may be nothing like that, but it might be something as heinous as germ warfare. We've already experienced poison gas. I've seen men blinded by it and choking unable to breathe. What a better way to break an enemy's will to fight if all those who are dear to them on the front line and the home front are dying of a terrible disease. These ampoules might contain something extremely dangerous."
"How are we to know if those ampoules are deadly? Have we anyone here who is an expert in communicable disease?"
The doctor nodded his head. "Yes, we have a local resident who is recognized worldwide. He lives in a small hamlet just north of here. Dr Nigel Showmaker, M.D. is quite a fellow. Maybe he could help."
"Have the police ring him up and get him involved. If you are correct, we may have a disaster already in the making. You said there were spaces for three ampoules. So where is the third one?"
Copyright © 2004 by George W. J. Laidlaw