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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Boy Volunteers on the Belgian Front » CHAPTER IX THE FIRST BATTLE
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Thus the boys spent the first day of their journeyings as soldiers. How proud they were. They actually petted the guns. They had no uniforms, of course, and it was the only thing needed to make them supremely happy.

Their joy was so great that they almost forgot home, and when, in the dangers that later came, they thought of their parents, it was with great pride that they were able to be of service to Belgium in her hour of need.

There was another thing which awakened a sense of pleasure. The men realizing that they were only boys treated them like privileged characters. In accordance with the laws they had no right to bear arms; but in war many things are permitted that would not be tolerated in times of peace.

The boys had an early awakening. Ralph, who was first to arise and emerge from the little cove, which was occupied by their squad, rushed back into the enclosure, and cried: "An airship is coming."

Alfred was out in an instant. There, circling97 above them, was an air plane. The officers were viewing it with their glasses.

"What is it, Roland?" asked Alfred.

"It is a German flying machine, of the type called the Taube," he answered.
German Taube Airplane

"What is the difference between the Taube and the monoplane?" asked Ralph.

"The Taube is a monoplane. The word is the German name for dove. That name was given to it on account of its shape. See the broadly-spreading tail, and the peculiar wing-formation of the main planes."

After passing above the quarry the machine flew98 to the south, and then circled around so as to get a view of the tier of forts.

"See, there is another one off to the left," exclaimed Ralph.

In the distance, and in the direction from which the boys had come, in their wanderings, they noticed another ship of the same character. These were used for the purpose of ascertaining the locations, not only of the forts themselves, but to spy out the most convenient elevations in the vicinity of the fortifications.

The most important duty of the airplanes is to watch the movement of troops from one vicinity to the other, and to take particular note of the effect of the shells. In this respect they have an undoubted advantage over any other method ever used in warfare.

Heretofore the only way in which an attacking party could determine whether the shells took effect was indicated by the failure on the part of the fort to answer with their guns. But this was not the most satisfactory thing to judge from, because, in many instances, the forts would purposely cease firing, and thus delude the attackers into the belief that they were silenced by the exploding shells.

There is no mistaking the explosions of shells, as they fall around a fort. The flying machines are usually manned by a military observer, who has powerful glasses. He also has a large flag with a white center, and dark border. With this he can readily signal the effect of the shots to99 the officer at the battery, the latter being provided with field glasses.

The system of signals vary. Obviously, there are only four directions necessary in order to tell the gunners where to shoot. That is, if the shot should, for instance, go over the fort, the flag would be raised far over the head to indicate that fact. If the shot fell short, the flag would be lowered. In like manner, should the shot strike to the right, the flag would be waved in that direction, and so on.

If the shots are properly placed the flag is waved around the head, to show demonstration of approval.

The commander called Antonio, and directed him to take a squad and mount the hill directly to the east, using that as an observation point. Roland was one of the squad, and the boys begged permission to accompany them.

They made a hurried rush across the intervening depression, the entire force numbering fifty-five men. If the officer in command had known that the mission would be a dangerous one he would have denied the boys permission to go along; but it was too late now.

It was well that the commander had taken the precaution, for the moment they gained the crest of the hill they could plainly observe a body of infantry coming up the hill a mile to the east, and this was absolutely unobservable from the quarry position.

Before Antonio had time to consider what to100 do a company of dismounted cavalry appeared at the foot of the hill, evidently with the object of using the elevation as an observation point. The Germans had no idea that it was already occupied.

Antonio quietly gave instructions to the men. "Do not fire until I give the order. Keep cool, and when you fire, shoot low, and aim deliberately."

Alfred and Ralph were now at fever heat. It was the most momentous period of their lives. The excitement was most intense, and what made it still more trying was that they must keep quiet and suppress their feelings.

What emotions must be uppermost in the minds of soldiers when they are about to engage in the first real battle. Gen. Grant describes the feeling that overtook him while leading his company up the hill to meet, for the first time, an enemy, who was waiting to receive him. He said that the sensation was an indescribable one,—that his heart was in his mouth, and a spasm of sickness passed through his frame, which grew in intensity, until he began to think that, probably, the enemy felt just the same as he did, and gradually that terrible agony passed from him.

The enemy crossed the last fence and was now coming forward, fully a hundred men, along the side of the hill, and over obstructions that horses could not have passed.

Onward and upward. Why would not Antonio give the word to fire. The boys saw more than101 one of the men look toward him. The rifles were held ready for the trigger; still Antonio remained cool and impassive.

"Look at Antonio," said Alfred, under his breath. Then when he turned to look at Ralph he saw the gun in his hand trembling, and Alfred for the first time realized that his own hand was not steady, and it might be said that many a gun trembled at the first experience, for, aside from Antonio, few, if any, in that firing line had ever been in actual battle.

"Now, ready," said Antonio. The great suspense was over. Nobody looked toward Antonio now. They were looking toward the enemy. The guns ceased their trembling. All were firmly clasped as they awaited the next word.

"Fire!" The word came like a shriek. There was no necessity for silence now.

Every gun in the column spoke. And now each man, at command, began to fire at will. The boys were so excited that they did not know whether or not they served the guns properly. There was an overweening desire to see what the results of the shots were. Then something occurred which they had overlooked in the intensity of their feelings.

It was the roar of a hundred guns below them. They had momentarily forgotten that the enemy could also shoot. The boys, like the others, were behind a stone fence which ran directly across the hill.

Besides the roar of the guns they could now102 plainly hear the impact of the leaden bullets on this barricade. They had an awfully sickening sound. Sometimes, when the bullets passed over, they could hear a whizzing sound.

"Do you hear the sounds like bumble bees?" said Ralph to Roland.

"They must be bullets," said Alfred.

The latter nodded but did not reply. The boys now had an opportunity to see a little through the clouds of smoke around them. Antonio passed from one end of the column to the other incessantly. "Shoot deliberately," he said to one. "Don't hurry," to another. "Be sure to aim carefully; it is the true shot that counts, not the number."

Such coolness gave every one courage. It inspired them. If Antonio was not afraid, why should they be alarmed.

"Isn't Antonio brave!" said Ralph, who could not help admiring the calm officer.

Alfred merely straightened up, as though he disdained the shelter of the barricade, and brought his gun up for another shot.

"Good, boys!" cried Antonio. "We have them!" "Keep at it." And he ran back and forth in the greatest enthusiasm. Ralph jumped up in the excitement, and felt a sting in his left arm, that seemed to turn him around.

He sat down, and again threw his gun over the protection and kept on firing. Alfred was very business-like. He handled the gun like a veteran.

Roland called to Alfred, and said: "My boy,103 you will do us a good service if you can bring up some water for the men."

He jumped up and started for the cottage half way down the hill. He now remembered that he was intensely thirsty. He knew there was something lacking, but did not recognize what it was. A woman and three children were there, terrified at the scene before her. To her he made known his wants.

Instantly she brought forth several pails, and filling them at a nearby spring, assisted Alfred in carrying them up the hill. He did not forget the dipper and the other drinking vessels. What a mission of mercy Alfred and the woman performed, as they passed the cool water to the parched lips of the feverish fighters.

When Alfred returned to the firing line he saw Ralph leaning forward on his gun, and a stream of blood flowing out of his sleeve.

For a moment he was paralyzed; then jumping up he ran over to Antonio, and said: "Ralph has been shot!"

It was, indeed, a terrible thing to him, to see the blood, but the moment he uttered that word, "shot," it seemed to be much more of a catastrophe than to see his friend lying there motionless.

Antonio sprang forward and pulled off Ralph's coat. "Bring some water here," he said. This was plentifully applied to his head and face. "He has only fainted," was Antonio's comment. This was, fortunately, true, for Ralph soon opened his eyes and gazed on them in surprise.104 Roland quickly bathed the wound, which was a shot through the arm from which the blood was still flowing, and bound it up, while Ralph watched the proceeding.

But Antonio did not forget his duties. The shots from the attacking party came slower and at longer intervals. They were shielding themselves along the hillside, but they were not yet defeated.

"Roland, you must go to the quarry and tell them that reinforcements are coming up along the north road, and get the orders as to our disposition."

"Please let me go," pleaded Alfred. "There is a wheel down at the cottage."

The voice and the earnest manner appealed to Antonio. "Yes, you are a brave boy. You may take this order."

Those words of commendation were like a stimulant to the boy. The communication was quickly prepared, and Alfred hurried down the hillside, and told the woman his mission. He then grasped the bicycle and rapidly coasted down the hill along the main road which, although it made a detour, in order to reach the quarry, was nevertheless the most speedy means of reaching the main party.

The soldiers at the quarry had heard the firing and knew from its intensity and continued character that a strong party was in front, and were eager to hear from Antonio. Alfred was observed long before he reached the bottom of the depression, and half a dozen of the soldiers rushed down105 to the foot of the hill, and assisted him up the steep grade.

"We have whipped them," cried Alfred. "Oh, it was glorious."

"Have many been killed?" asked one of the men.

"I don't know," he responded. "Yes, several have been wounded. Ralph was shot."

"Who is Ralph?" asked one of the men.

"He is my cousin," answered Alfred.

"Oh, you mean your boy friend?"

"Yes, he was wounded in the arm, but we whipped them. We shot, and shot, and shot, until they stopped."

The soldiers could have hugged him with joy. When Alfred came into the quarry, still on his wheel, he handed the note to the commander, who hurriedly perused it. Without waiting for questions he gave a command, and soon a hundred men were on the way, under double time.

"So you two boys have been commended for bravery? We shall take particular pleasure to see that a proper report is made about you. As long as we have boys like you we shall have brave men," was his comment.

Alfred was bewildered. Antonio had commended him and Ralph as well, in the note. He did not know what to do or to say. "May I go back?" he finally asked.

"Yes," was the reply. "I will give you an order." This was hurriedly written and handed to him. With a salute, he mounted his wheel, and106 was ahead of the moving column before it began the ascent of the steep hill where Antonio's forces lay.

Ralph looked cheerful when Alfred arrived, but apparently was resentful, when the latter appeared.

"What is the matter?" asked Alfred.

"You have carried orders, and have really done something," was the halting reply.

Alfred looked around at the watchers, and then he smiled. "But you have been wounded in battle," he said.

"Yes, and mentioned in orders, too," added Roland.

"Oh, I forgot about that. The General said so. Yes, you have been wounded in battle and I haven't been." Alfred said this in a regretful tone of voice, and Ralph's face brightened at the thought.

Ralph looked up, and then turned to the men. "Well, is that anything?"

"Why, anybody can ride an old bicycle. That's nothing. But it's something to get in the way of a bullet that has been shot by an enemy for the purpose of killing," said Alfred.

Ralph smiled, and the men about them turned their heads away. There was a philosophy in that remark which went home to many of them that day. Can it be possible that a man can be a hero because he is wounded on the battle field?


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