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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Boy Volunteers on the Belgian Front » CHAPTER XIII THE LOSS OF THEIR MACHINES IN BATTLE
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CHAPTER XIII THE LOSS OF THEIR MACHINES IN BATTLE
When the camp was reached it presented an entirely different scene. The tents had been loaded into wagons. The kitchen was stored away in one of the vans specially designed for field purposes, and the first detachment had already started on the march toward the north.

After asking permission, Alfred mounted his machine and sped away after the troops, and soon overhauled them. With considerable difficulty he worked his way through the marching troops, and when he had cleared the train put on full speed.

He hoped to be able to reach the great camp before nightfall, and as it was now nearly four o'clock he knew it would not take more than an hour to reach it. A kilometer beyond, the road parted, one branch going to the right and the other to the left.

A peasant near by told him that either road would take him to Neerwinden, but that the better road was to the right. He did not hesitate, and was off without further questionings.

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In twenty minutes he came to a stream and crossing the well-built stone bridge which spanned it approached a little village that lay beyond. The town, like many others throughout Belgium, was distributed out along little lanes, which shot out at all angles, and it was not surprising that Alfred should become confused, and lose his way.

To add to the confusion there was great excitement in the village. Men were running to and fro. Women were holding their children, and looking pale. Alfred stopped.

"What is the trouble, Monsieur?" he asked as a man slowly moved along, quite in contrast with the people who formed the excited crowd.

"Trouble? Don't you know the Germans are beyond, and that all the roads are patrolled. They will be here any moment now."

This was an ominous warning, and he was glad he had stopped to inquire, otherwise he might have been a prisoner by this time. Then he reflected that Colonel Neerden ought to know this at once, so he ran his machine forward and, mounting it, turned it toward the bridge.

"Stop, stop," cried a dozen voices. Some waved their hands to indicate that he should turn back, but for some reason or other Alfred determined to recross the bridge. Then he heard what appeared to be a rifle shot, and something struck the machine.

He was now determined not to stop, as the bridge was less than two hundred feet away. He had not looked back, but now that he saw the149 stone walls which formed the sides of the bridge he cast his eyes over his shoulder, and riding through the village were a dozen German cavalrymen, with their carbines at their shoulders, all aiming at him.

You may well imagine that it was a thrilling thing for him to know that he was being hunted down and shot at. The bridge was finally reached and to his great relief was built out at an angle to the road on which the pursuers were following him.

Long before he had reached the bridge the machine was at full speed and as he emerged from the other side a dozen or more shots rang out; but he did not stop, or slacken his pace. He knew the friendly troops were coming toward him, so he went forward with the Germans behind him.

The welcome sight of the dust in the road beyond was appreciated now. As he dashed forward he held up his hand, and shouted to the advancing patrol: "The Germans are coming." On and on he went, and as each body of troops passed he cried the same warning.

Beyond was the Colonel and his staff, and toward him Alfred rushed the machine. "I met the Germans at the village beyond the bridge. The forward part of the column saw me and are going forward," he explained.

This information galvanized the officers into action and orders to clear the way went forward at once. Alfred turned his machine to follow, but after going a few hundred feet the power ceased,150 and in spite of all he could do the machine refused to move.

Several men kindly came to his assistance, and the trouble was soon apparent. "You have no petrol," said one of them.

"That is strange. I was told there was enough for a whole day's run, and I have not——"

"Ah! but there is a hole in the tank. Yes, two of them. See!"

"They were made by German bullets," said another.

"Look at the seat," said the first speaker. "You had a close call, my boy."

Alfred looked at the damage ruefully. "What shall I do?" he asked.

"We'll fix that up in short order," replied the man who made the examination and discovered the trouble. He was an expert motorcycle man, and this was an opportunity for him to be of service. He approached the commanding officer of his company and explained the situation, and was detailed to effect the repairs at once.

The tool box of the machine was opened, and the rolls of tape taken out.

"Now watch me, my boy. Let me show you how to make a temporary repair, in cases of this kind."

The tank had been perforated by two shots, which went entirely through, thus causing four perforations. As the machine had the type of tank which rested vertically between the fork, it was obvious that, since the lowest perforation was151 not at the bottom, there was still enough petrol left to enable Pierre to reach the command before the remaining portion was used up.

"First, take these patches, and put cement around the edges, and apply them over the holes. Then wind the tape around the tank and over the patches, just as I am doing, and be sure to stretch the tape well. There; now we must get some strong cord, or twine, and wind that over the tape. You will find that absolutely tight, and will hold the petrol for a time."

"Well, will it leak at all if it is put on right?", asked Alfred.

"In time the petrol will eat up, or dissolve the rubber, so that proper repairs should be made as soon as possible," he was informed.

"Now that it is fixed where can I get some petrol? I forgot all about that," said Alfred.

"Well, I didn't," said the workman.

Alfred stared at him. "Do you know where to get some?"

"Certainly; they have plenty in the kitchen wagon."

Alfred might have thought of that, but he couldn't think of everything. Where was the kitchen wagon?

It was coming up, and Alfred applied to the officer in charge of the commissary department for a supply, and after some questioning the permission was granted. In a few minutes more the boy was supplied and was under way.

The command went forward with a rush and152 was now well along on the road to the bridge, but before Alfred had time to go any distance he heard a volley, followed by the rattle of musketry. The battle was on and he hastened to the front.

Two field pieces were with the regiment, and those were hurriedly drawn to the front by the dogs, and mounted, so that they cleared the road in short order. The Uhlans tried, ineffectively, to destroy the bridge, but the advance column was too far ahead for them and they slowly retreated down the road.

And now Alfred saw the first results of the running fight. Numbers had been killed at the first onslaught, and many more wounded. The Germans did not attempt to relieve their wounded, but the improvised hospital wagons were brought into service, and the wounded, Germans and Belgians alike, were gathered up and given first relief.

Thus, for three kilometers, the fight raged, and when the railway line was reached the enemy had disappeared, as it was learned that the commandant at the camp had sent out a large detachment to relieve the two regiments which had thus been on outpost duty, and which had been recalled by the commanding officer.

When Alfred reached the camp he was delighted to find Ralph there, and he reported to the commanding officer at once. Ralph, while he did not run into danger, as had Alfred, nevertheless rendered most efficient service during the day.

But the camp of the morning had undergone a153 great change. Everything which could be loaded on the trains was already under way, and hundreds of wagons were still in the camp and stretched along the road in the direction of St. Trond.

During the night news came that Tongres had been captured after a hard fight. That would mean serious business at St. Trond, whither they were now going.

They had little sleep that night. Much of the time the boys were hurrying thither and thither, delivering messages which gave the disposition of the forces, the delivery of the various things required by the fighting forces and the special orders to the different officers.

The breaking up of a camp is a wonderful transformation of materials. It must not only be completely disorganized, but every article, and each unit, must be so arranged that it will be handy and ready for immediate use the next morning, or in the evening.

At four o'clock in the morning the whole camp, or what remained of it, was in motion. The last infantry force to leave had a rear guard of cavalry, although the boys were well in the lead, with the commanding officer.

St. Trond was reached, just as the reports came in that the German forces were below the town, and that the first conflict had taken place.

The boys were interested to learn that their force was to go direct to the field, south of St. Trond. They arrived there at one o'clock in the154 afternoon and the kitchen wagons were soon in readiness for a hurried meal.

Firing was going on along one of the main roads leading south. They were in position on a road which paralleled the main highway to Tongres and it was obvious that the main force of the enemy was making its way along that route.

The boys were with Roland when the real battle began. To their right, on a slight elevation and artfully concealed, was a battery of three guns and a little farther to the right was the other part of the battery.

"Do you know anything of the number of Germans that are coming up?" asked Ralph.

"No, but it is reported that over 100,000 men are now on this side of the frontier and more coming on each day. It is probable there are twenty thousand men directly ahead of us. They are approaching from the direction of Vise, and from Huy as well, while the main force is coming direct from Liège."

"How many men have we to oppose them?" asked Alfred.

"Probably twelve thousand; but we shall give a good account of ourselves. We do not expect to drive them back, but our mission will be to hold them in check as long as possible."

They moved over to headquarters, where their place was, but before they reached it the battery began to speak. The boys looked to the south, but could not see the enemy anywhere. They looked at Roland.

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"Where are the Germans?" asked Alfred.

"Probably two miles beyond," was the reply.

"Why do they commence so soon?" inquired Ralph.

"The object is to throw an enemy into confusion as early as possible in an engagement, and endeavor to prevent formations of the troops."

"Do these guns carry that far?" inquired Alfred.

"Yes; they are now sending shrapnel; when——"

Roland's voice was submerged by a terrific explosion not a hundred feet away, and when they had time to recover they saw three men on the ground, lying quite still, while a half dozen or more were on the ground, and turning and twisting about. Then came several groans, and then the second explosion, like the first, but farther to the right.

The boys' face blanched. They did not know which way to go nor what to do. Then something happened which entirely changed their feelings. The two lines of infantry, lying behind the fences, not a hundred feet ahead, began to fire, setting up a terrific din which was punctuated by the shots from the batteries.

Then a new battery on their left began to take part, then another, but during all this time the infantry were pouring out a steady stream of hail. The boys stood petrified, at first, but the great din, the terrible confusion of sounds, the scattering debris, which appeared to fall about156 them, the staggering men, who were reeling about; all these things began to act like a tonic to them.

The greater the noise and confusion, the braver they became.

Alfred tried to speak, but his voice had a peculiar sound to him.

"Let us go over to headquarters," said Ralph to Alfred. "We may be wanted there," and as he spoke they saw Roland coming out of the General's tent.

Roland beckoned to Ralph as he said: "These are your first orders; see that they are delivered to the officer in command of the forces on the main road."

Ralph was off in an instant. He could not follow the road, as he had to go nearly a half mile across the fields, but he set his course at a safe distance behind the firing line. More than once in that first ride on the battle field he saw the shots as they dug in the earth about him and noticed the explosion of the shells.

It was an exciting ride, and it stimulated him as nothing before had ever done in all his experiences. When he reached the headquarters of the commanding officer, who held the main road, he knew that some great movement was on foot.

He could see immense bodies of their own troops moving back, and the headquarters of the officer was even then being moved back a half mile so as to be partly outside of the firing range. But the Germans were coming on, and he could see men falling all about him.

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Ambulances were at work, gathering up the moving figures, as they writhed on the ground. Men were staggering about, some delirious, others trying to staunch wounds in their arms, legs or bodies, and more than once he saw one comrade, although wounded, trying to check the flow of blood, or bind up the wounds of another.

But the more he saw the less these things seemed to affect him. The orderly from headquarters beckoned to him, and placing a message in his hands Ralph was off to deliver the reply.

Before he could reach headquarters he saw that another route would be necessary, as the enemy seemed to be not a quarter of a mile away. New formations were being made by the Belgians, and it was clear they were being driven back.

It seemed that every avenue of cross country travel was closed to him, as men were moving north from all points. As a mass of soldiers rushed from one position to the next behind they would turn and deliver a volley or two before retreating. Above it all was the continual hail of the shot and shell on every hand.

When Ralph reached a hedge that was impenetrable he would enlist the sympathy of some of the men, and they would either carry the machine over the thick brush or cut a way through.

It took him less than ten minutes to make the trip across, in delivering his first message, but he was more than a half hour in getting back, and when he arrived at headquarters he found it over a mile to the rear of the original position.

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He reported to the commander at once, but before he had time to make any inquiries another message was thrust into his hands, and this time he was sent to the west.

Again attempting to make his way across the fields he was met by a retreating regiment which was slowly falling back. He then made his way along a hedge toward the north, and struck across the fields again. Beyond was the firing line, and the men there must know the location of their commanding officer, so he speeded in that direction.

There, ahead of him, and coming out of the woods, was a regiment of infantry. At the edge of the wood, to the left, was a light field battery which poured a deadly fire into the Belgians, and Ralph involuntarily slackened the speed of the machine.

Then something happened to him. It was as though he had been struck a stunning blow, although he felt scarcely any pain. When he recovered he was seated on the ground, and scattered about him were the pieces of his machine. He could not comprehend it for a moment. Then he moved his body. He seemed natural and comfortable, but what had happened to his machine?

Then, for the first time, he noticed that there were men about him, some wounded, others dead. One young man who was near him had a wound in his leg which he was treating by wrapping a handkerchief around it.

"What has happened?" asked Ralph, as he159 looked at the man and then at the scene about him.

"A shell burst over there and it got both of us. Are you much hurt?"

"I have no pain," replied Ralph.

"Only stunned, perhaps," he replied in a mere matter of fact way. "Was that your machine?" he inquired.

"Yes; I was carrying orders from headquarters," answered Ralph.

"Rather risky business, I should say," he answered.

"Are you hurt much?" asked Ralph.

"Well, not much compared with some about here. Say, could you help me over to the hedge?" he asked.

Ralph was up in an instant. He looked over himself, just as a person would make an examination of an object to see if it had been injured.

When the young man was safely landed at the thick hedge, Ralph thought of his duty. "I must be going," he said.

"Where are you bound?" asked the wounded man.

"To see the commanding officer. I must deliver my orders," said Ralph.

"That is right," he answered. "Go to the north for a half kilometer, and cross to the west at the large stone house. I know these parts well."

Ralph did not mind the falling shots or the screaming shells so much now as he had at first. The message must be delivered, so he struggled160 across the field and met the men who were slowly moving back on the road.

"Where is the officer in command?" asked Ralph as he reached the first of the troops.

"Beyond a short distance," was the only answer.

He fairly flew down the road, and had the satisfaction of handing the message to the officer, who glanced at Ralph.

"How did you get across?" he asked.

"On my machine; but it was wrecked by a shell in the field below the stone house," said Ralph.

"Weren't you hurt?" he inquired.

"No, but it stunned me for a time," remarked Ralph.

"I must congratulate you on your bravery and determination," said the officer. "But you were hurt," he added, as he approached Ralph. "See the blood at your left hand."

Ralph was startled, at first. He felt no pain, but there was blood flowing out of his left sleeve.

"Oh! I remember now; that is only the old wound reopened," he explained, so the surgeon was called in at once.


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