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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Boy Volunteers on the Belgian Front » CHAPTER X IN THE MESSENGER SERVICE
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This part of Belgium has a very curious formation. Many of the limestone quarries are really subterranean passages, and are of very ancient origin, and all this section of the country has a history which goes back to the time of the Romans. Not far north of the elevation where the present camp was formed, is an old Roman road, which runs in an unbroken line to Mons, in southwestern Belgium.

Belgium soil is also rich in human blood in this vicinity. Near by is a historic battle field, fought on Sept. 11, 1746; and northwest of Liège, on the plains of Neerwinden, two great battles were fought, one on July 29, 1693, when the French under Marshal Luxembourg defeated the Allies under William III, of England, and in the second battle, March 18, 1793, when the French under Dumouriez and Louis Phillipe were defeated by the Austrians under the Prince of Coburg.

It is no wonder that their proximity to the great battlefields should make the Belgians good soldiers. They knew that their forefathers had fought on many a field, and they possessed the spirit to try to emulate them.


That evening the boys had an opportunity to learn of many of the battles fought in the vicinity, the commander being a descendant of a famous family which contributed fighting heroes before Belgium became a separate nation.

Before ten o'clock that night, several messengers appeared in camp from the military commandant near Tondres, and they were ordered to proceed to the north at once.

The scouts in the front, who had been deployed in many directions, were informed that at twelve o'clock the command would break camp, and that Capt. Renee would command the rear guard, composed of the outlying pickets.

A large detail of men had been chosen to take care of the guns, which were first taken down the hill, half of the force accompanying them in the march toward Tondres, Ralph and the six wounded men being carried along on the caissons. Alfred was with Roland, under command of the Captain.

This was an opportunity that he had long awaited, as military operations in the night were fascinating to him. Ralph bitterly regretted his inability to be with them, but the loss of blood had weakened him, and it was not prudent to permit him to walk.

Promptly at twelve that night the corporal made his rounds, and quietly gathered in the picket patrols, which silently followed the two companies that had been left behind, the retreat being effected without the knowledge of the Germans. At two in the morning Alfred saw that they109 came up with the halted division, which had reached the railroad south of Tongres.

After a half hour's rest the entire force moved on, and as daylight began to appear the command was halted, and it was not long before many of the men had found comfortable places and were sleeping soundly.

Alfred was too fatigued to care where he slept. Ralph, on the other hand, was able to only after he became accustomed to the rolling motion of the heavy ordnance wagon.

At six o'clock he was up, and looking around was gratified to see Roland, who greeted the boy with the greatest enthusiasm.

"Are you looking for Alfred?" the latter inquired.

"Yes, do you know where he is?" asked Ralph.

"Poor fellow, he is almost dead with fatigue. You will find him on the straw to the left."

Ralph was over in an instant, and there was Alfred, lying on his side, sleeping as peacefully as though dead.

What he now noticed for the first time was the condition of Alfred's clothing. There was not a clean thread on the boy. The trousers had holes in the knees, the shoes were badly jagged, and the toes worn through. It would have been hard to recognize the hat, as it had no semblance of its former shape.

After gazing awhile he thought of his own clothing. It was no better, although strange that he had never noticed its dilapidated condition before.110 He remembered how they had to crawl through the brush, and along the hedges, and it was not remarkable that their clothing hung in threads.

No, he would not waken Alfred, much as he had to tell him, so he quietly wended his way back to the caisson. As he did so he passed the commandant's quarters, and that officer greeted him.

"And you are the wounded boy?" he said.

Ralph blushed, and answered: "I am the wounded soldier, sir." And then he stammered to correct his answer.

The officer laughed, as he responded: "You are right; I should have called you a man, because you have done a man's work. You boys are made of the right kind of stuff. But weren't you afraid when the bullets began to come whistling around you?"

"Yes, at first," he said a little hesitatingly, "I was afraid before Antonio told us to shoot."

"So you were afraid before either you or the Germans had a chance to shoot; is that it?"

"Well, yes; you see they seemed to come up pretty close before he gave us a chance to fire; but when we once commenced to shoot we didn't stop to think whether we were in danger or not."

"That is the right spirit, my boy. That is the way the true soldier feels."

At seven o'clock breakfast was ready and the entire camp was awake. Alfred came from the hillside, where he had his bed, and was directed to the caisson, where he greeted Ralph with many expressions of delight.


"Oh, we had a big time during the night; it was fine. We trailed along, but got awfully tired. But it was exciting," said Alfred.

"Sorry I couldn't be with you; but that is just my luck; had to be hit the first pop," answered Ralph, with a rueful look.

"But then you had a ride during the night. That was something," said Alfred.

Ralph didn't think so. It would have been more to his liking to have been with the moving column.

After breakfast the order was given to march. At ten o'clock they saw ahead of them a force of cavalry, and the boys recognized the familiar Belgian colors at the head of the column, and the well known uniforms of the troopers.

From the officer in command they learned that they were to encamp on the plains a little beyond the town, to await the arrival of the forces gathering to support the defenders of Liège.

Part of the cavalry remained with the troops, but the main body rapidly moved down the highway to intercept the Uhlans who were advancing from the east.

Alfred noticed their departure, with considerable wonder. "What is the object, Roland, of sending the cavalry down to fight, after we were told to retreat?" he queried.

"The cavalry can move more rapidly than the infantry, and they are to act as the scouts, to locate the positions of the enemy, report the direction of their movements, the sizes of the forces, and the character of the troops, and thus enable112 the main army to dispose of its forces accordingly."

"Do you know how long we shall remain in camp?" asked Alfred.

"That is difficult to tell," responded Roland. "You must understand that when war broke out Belgium did not know that her territory was to be crossed. For that reason, believing that Germany would observe her treaty obligations, our forces were not mobilized. Now we know better."

"But why do they gather the soldiers here?" queried Ralph.

"Because the object is to gather the soldiers as near the scene of action as possible. All our troops are being sent to the German frontier. One of the camps will be here, on the plains of Neerwinden, the great battle ground, where many of our army man?uvres have taken place."

"And is this the great battle ground?"

"Yes, the elevations about the plain have been filled with armies, and many a soldier has been slain on these historic grounds."

The boys looked about them, and they imagined how the soldiers of old must have fought and rushed hither and thither in the fury of the combat.

"It would be wonderful to see a battle here," said Ralph, half to himself, as he glanced at the hills beyond.

He little knew at that time that he would actually witness, not the battle between the ancient knights, that his fancy pictured, but the crash and113 roar of contending forces, with smoke and screeching shells and that on that very spot they would soon see dead and dying men, under conditions that would not permit them either to rescue or comfort them.

The boys soon became known to the others, and Ralph was the hero of the newcomers, as he had been wounded in one of the first fights that had actually taken place between forces in the field. The men never tired of telling how Alfred carried the first orders from a fighting force.

Here were two boys who had really been in an engagement, while most of the men who had been in the ranks for years had never seen an enemy in the field.

It had occurred to them that they ought to write home, but they believed that such a task would be useless. However, Roland informed them that the mails were still being carried and both boys now wrote the first accounts of their wonderful experiences.

How they detailed all the events, and the trials in their wanderings, and above all, of the great battle that they were in two days before, can best be left to the imagination. They were vivid boys' pictures, told with enthusiasm, and with pride.

The troops arrived every hour, some trains being made up entirely of artillery, others unloading great quantities of food and supplies. Stores of every kind were set up for the comfort and need of the troops, and it was a never-ending scene of bustle and activity.


Roland, who was with them much of the time, answered: "An army must live, and to be effective must be well fed. Napoleon said that an army fights on its stomach."

"What did he mean by that?" asked Ralph.

"That without a well-filled stomach a soldier cannot fight well."

"But how do they know how much food of this kind to send down here? It seems to me they have enough here now to feed a big army," said Alfred.

"And it will be a big army, too, before we are through with it. The government has what is called a commissary department, whose duty it is to calculate just how many rations are required for each company for a certain period. They know it takes so much flour, and vegetables, and meat, and all the other necessaries to sustain them. Then the ordnance division knows how many guns are needed for that particular force, and what ammunition is required. The transportation department is called upon to deliver the requisite quantity of supplies to a certain point within a certain time. They must calculate how many trains are necessary to transport so many troops. In that way every department is called upon by the commanding officer of an army."

"But just what is meant by 'mobilization'?"

"Mobilize means to move. To mobilize troops means not only to move troops to a certain place but also to move food and ammunition supplies. One without the other would be useless."


"It must be a wonderful thing to have all those things so arranged that it can be done promptly and without confusion," said Alfred.

"Yes, that is what the German army has been noted for. To have all those details arranged so that within twenty-four or forty-eight hours fifty thousand troops can be moved even fifty miles appears a great undertaking, but that is what the Germans have done."

"How many German troops are now before Liège, do you think?" asked Ralph.

"I have heard it said there were over seventy-five thousand, either there or else in the close vicinity, and probably three times that number crossing the Rhine."

"And war was declared only eight days ago!" said Ralph.

The next day the first definite news was brought to the camp concerning the state of affairs in Liège. The forts had repulsed every storming party and defeated the invaders, so there was great cheering in the camp when the papers reached them.

Alfred carried a paper to Ralph. "We are whipping the Germans all along the line," he said, as he waved the paper.

Ralph read the startling head-lines, and gave the news the greatest emphasis. The stubborn resistance added immensely to the spirit of the soldiers and they commented on every feature.

Two days more passed, then ten days, and the forts still held. It was a period of pride to the116 boys, as they read every line of the papers brought into the camp. They gloated over the dismay of the Germans, who believed that a bombardment of a day or two at most would enable them to storm the town and capture the forts with their heavy guns.

"Why are they so anxious to capture Liège?" asked Ralph.

"Because they dare not leave a stronghold of that kind in their rear, as they pass through Belgium," answered Roland.

"What difference would it make?" asked Alfred.

"An enemy in a strongly fortified position in the rear, or on either flank, will always subject the advancing army to attack, but the most serious difficulty to an army under such condition is that, as the advancing army must be daily supplied with provisions and ammunition, a fortified city, like Liège, would always lay open to attack the railroad lines, which supply them, and the cutting of the lines of communication would subject them to defeat or capture."

"I did not think of that," answered Ralph.

"The General said in the first fight we had, that the Germans tried to out-flank us. What did he mean by that?" asked Ralph.

"If an enemy goes around the end of the fighting line it has out-flanked them. The object of flanking is to get behind one end of the force, and thus make it change its position or, as is most usually the case, compel the out-flanked party to117 fight on a front which is not provided with earthworks or other means of protection."

During all this time the bombardment continued. Sometimes it was an incessant roar. In the meantime the Germans came closer, but the city was not yet entirely surrounded. As infantry would be useless within the town, the Belgian forces were waiting outside to resist the advance of the foe, in its attempt to cross toward the border.


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