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CHAPTER XIV THE CAPTURE AND ESCAPE
The General looked at the boy for a moment and then exclaimed: "The old wound! When were you wounded?"

"At Russon, more than a week ago," he answered, without any attempt at bravado. That story by this time had gotten to be an old one with him.

"We cannot give you a machine to take you back to headquarters, but you may have a horse," said the officer; so as soon as the wound was dressed Ralph mounted a fine animal, and was told to take the cross country route, as the animal would leap any ordinary barrier.

Although he had ridden from his earliest recollection this was the first time that he was ever on a horse that could leap across obstacles, and when the first fence came in sight the horse refused to stop but with Ralph clinging to the saddle vaulted across with so much ease that it gave him the utmost confidence.

Ralph found the commanding officer about two miles behind the former location, with the Germans coming on in full force. The sound of battle was incessant, and everywhere could be seen the162 ambulance wagons and the doctors attending the wounded, but over all was the sad reflection that they were being driven on and on.

St. Trond was entered by the defenders during the afternoon, but they merely passed through, and before six that night the Germans had taken possession. Then came the report that the enemy's outposts had been reported as far north as Wellon, in the direction of Hasselt.

It was late that night when Ralph found Alfred. To him he told the story of his adventures; of the loss of his machine; of the assistance given to the wounded soldier, of his mission on foot to the officer to whom he bore a mission and on his return on a steed furnished him by the General.

"But what have you been doing?" asked Ralph. "I want to hear your story."

"Well," said Alfred, "after you left I was sent to the east, and made several trips to the different officers who were directed what to do as they retreated toward St. Trond. The last trip I ran into a German force, and was made a prisoner."

Ralph's eyes opened wide and glistened at this announcement.

"What did you do?" he asked eagerly.

"Well, just wait; it didn't amount to much," continued Alfred. "They took my machine away, of course, and then they searched me, and——"

"And took your orders away," said Ralph with a disgusted look.

"No, they didn't," answered Alfred.

"Why not?" asked Ralph.

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"Well, just wait," replied Alfred. "Do you remember when we were coasting down the hill the first or second day we were trying out the machine, that when we put on the brakes too suddenly it turned over on us and we ripped a hole in the seat?"

"Yes," answered Ralph.

"Well, when I saw that I was in for it, and that I couldn't get away, I tucked the paper in the torn hole in the seat, and it is there now, I suppose, and even if they do find it now it won't be of any use to them; at any rate, that is what the General said."

"But how did you get away? I want to hear about that," asked Ralph, eagerly.

"Get away? Well, I just walked away," said Alfred.

"But how?" asked Ralph.

"Oh! It wasn't any trouble," was the answer. "I stood around, and watched my chance. Of course, I heard an officer say something to a kind of under officer, as he pointed to me, and I suppose he told him to arrest me; but something happened just then that prevented——"

"What was it?" asked Ralph.

"A big shot landed about fifty feet in front of us, and exploded, and I never knew there was so much dirt in the whole of Belgium. You should have seen how that German officer looked. He had a most lovely uniform; but it was one mass of dirt, and I was just wondering, as I looked at him, if he had another suit like it, when I happened164–165 to think of the soldier who was going to arrest me. As he was not around just then I marched down a little lane, which was directly in front of the place where the shot struck, and there I crossed the double row of hedges, and seeing no one ahead I just marched across to the first field, and when I got there didn't I make tracks for our lines?" said Alfred, with glistening eyes.

"And you don't think that amounts to much?" asked Ralph.

"Well, it is nothing compared with being blown up in a machine," answered Alfred.

Ralph mused a while, and then burst out laughing. "Well, that is too good. Both of us to lose our machines on the same day. I am glad the Germans didn't get my machine," he said.

"Well, didn't they get it? I should think they did," and it was Alfred's time to laugh.

The troops were now massed along the crest of a small hill which crosses the road north of the town. Early in the morning the German forces could be seen deploying in all the open spaces to the north and east of the town, and before seven the shells began to fly as on the previous day. The boys meantime were kept busy with orders, Ralph using the horse which had been turned over to him, and Alfred, seizing the first opportunity, secured a new machine.
Map
Map of Louvain

The second day's fight was terrific. More than 1000 men fell on that day, on the Belgian side alone. It was one continual scene of fighting in166 the retreat from St. Trond to Tirlemont. Hasselt and Diest both fell that day, but of this the boys had no knowledge until later.

The force passed through Tirlemont in good order, fighting every inch of the way. The Germans were now, on the 19th of August, advancing on Louvain by three roads, from Diest, Tirlemont, and from Hammeville. The boys were with the central force on the Tirlemont road.

Orders were issued to continue the retreat to Louvain, as the Germans were known to be east of the city in great force, and no one knew what the end would be. Ralph still had his horse, but it had been wounded late in the afternoon and he was forced to abandon it.

Alfred had his machine, but it was useless, as he had no oil for it, and it was finally loaded in one of the wagons and the two boys were forced to go along on foot.

Soon there was a halt, and they saw the men form along the road and spread out along the sides of a hill. Then the shells began to fall and the troops in front got into action. They were being surrounded and cut off, and although the men knew it they continued to fight.

Then a desperate charge from the open field in the left told the story. The order was given to cease firing and as a still greater force came over the hill, and the entire rear guard of their regiment, together with a battery, fell into the hands of the enemy.

Everything was confusion now. The boys167 plainly saw a white flag and noted that the firing had ceased.

"Let us get out of this," said Alfred, so together they ran across a field and soon reached a fence beyond. The Belgian troops which filled the road to the north in another hour had reached the gate of the city, called Porte de Tirlemont. It was reported that the Germans had entered the city at the eastern gate, but once within the city they hurried through and passed out the gate Porte de Malines.

On all sides were people, some walking, others riding, many of them in curious conveyances, and all excited to the utmost. They had now lost all trace of the Belgian army, although they knew it was some miles ahead of them.

That night they were aroused by a cry: "The Germans are coming."

A half hour thereafter the first troop of horsemen came from the east, and from that time until morning there was no cessation from the galloping of horses, the tramp of infantry and the rumbling of artillery wheels.

"I wonder where we can get something to eat?" said Alfred.

At a little cluster of houses, five miles south of Louvain, they found some food, and after breakfasting they again resumed the tramp along the main highway which led to Malines, ten miles away.

Before noon they reached the city where the Germans were. They had not been molested on168 the highway, but now, as they passed the gate, an officer gazed at them and commanded a halt.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"We are American boys, on the way to Antwerp," said Ralph.

"What uniform is that?" he demanded.

"Messenger service, sir," responded Alfred, as he glanced at Alfred.

"In whose service?" asked the officer.

Neither replied.

Motioning to a soldier, the officer said: "Arrest them."

They were marched to the great military prison, which was filled to overflowing with men and women. Two days thereafter they were taken out and marched through the town, past the great Cathedral. Crossing the open place they were taken westwardly along a wide street and turned to the left along a street that ran alongside a wide stream, which the boys afterwards learned was the Dyle.

They were halted in front of a large building which had the inscription "Salm Inn."

They were met at the door by nurses with large red crosses on their sleeves, and by smartly dressed uniformed men in white, also provided with red crosses.

"This is now a hospital," remarked their companion, "and it is one of the Red Cross stations."

"What do they want to bring us here for?"

"I suppose they are going to put us to work."

Within was an appalling sight as the boys169 went through the ward for the first time. Ralph's duty was to attend the physicians in their rounds each morning, and at two in the afternoon. He furnished supplies, waited on the nurses and attended to the wants of the sufferers.

Alfred was on like duty in the adjoining ward. While not together as much as formerly, they were constantly meeting in the halls, and one day Ralph was entrusted with the duty of going into the city on an errand.

The only thing which the boys could not bear was the fact that they could get no news of the outside world. All communication was shut off. Had Liège fallen? Where were the Belgian forces? Had Brussels yielded? Their captors would give them no information, and the nurses, most of them could talk German only, did not seem to know any more than they did.

Ralph determined to get some information, and while on his journey sought a stationery establishment in order to purchase some papers. The first one he spied had a large assortment of papers but, singularly, not a single French paper.

He was disgusted, and as he turned away, voiced his complaint. The shopkeeper said: "This is now a German province, and no more French will be spoken or printed here."

During his absence Alfred, in making his rounds as usual, was startled at hearing his name. He turned, and near him, with his head bandaged, and an arm bound with many layers of surgeon's tape, stood a young man.

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"Don't you recognize me?"

"No," said Alfred, with open eyes.

"Have you forgotten Roland?"

Alfred was down by the bedside in a moment.

"Where were you wounded? Is it serious? How long have you been here?" said Alfred.

"I was wounded over two days ago, and was in the field hospital a day. My company was captured in the fight below Malines, and Colonel Moreau is also a prisoner. What have you been doing?"

"We have had a wonderful time," said Alfred.

"Where is Ralph?" asked Roland.

"He is here, in the next ward. I will surely tell him about you."

At the hospital the boys saw every sort of wound, and soon learned to distinguish between the gunshot and the shrapnel wounds.

"Why is it that the shrapnel make such awful holes?" he asked one of the nurses one day.

"Well, you know, shrapnel does not go through the air as fast as the bullets from the rifles, and it has been shown that the greater the velocity the smaller the size of the wound. The bullets from the Mausers and the Mannlichers, which have such a high velocity, seem to go through so quickly that they sear the flesh, and thus form an antiseptic path which aids the wound in healing. But the shrapnel bullets are larger and this causes such terrible wounds."

"But they seem actually to tear the flesh," said Alfred.

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"That is caused, not by the bullets which are in the shrapnel, but by the shell itself. If the shell bursts near the soldiers it often strikes the poor fellows and sometimes tears them to pieces."

It would be too sickening to go over the many details that came to the notice of the boys. They were kept at their duties daily for over two weeks, when something happened which made them decide to effect their escape, if possible.

"Let us get away," said Alfred, after they had been on duty for a week. "I think we can easily do it," he added. Ralph hesitated, for a moment.

"Yes, by all means if we can," responded Ralph. "But I don't mind this work, and do you know they intend to pay us for it?"

"How do you know?" asked Alfred.

"Because the steward told me so when he made the rounds to-day and was making up the list."

"Then let's wait until we get some money," answered Alfred.

Two days thereafter, to the gratification of the boys, they were handed envelopes, each containing a number of pieces of silver coin.

"How much money have we earned?" asked Ralph.

"Well, each of you has nine marks, and that is about eleven francs, or five and a half francs a week," he was informed.

During their work they found that more and more liberty was accorded them. Each had the Red Cross emblem on his sleeve, and after the first week they were furnished with new suits.172 During their work they had also been provided with clean rooms, and opportunities for daily baths. However, they felt the restraint when that night as they had several times done before they wandered down to the heart of the city it was with a determination to cross the barriers at the first opportunity.

One day a soldier was brought in whose arm was completely shattered. On examination it was found that only a single bullet had passed through. The surgeon in charge said it was the first instance he had noted where the high power missile had caused such a terrible fracture.

Colonel Moreau, who was present, said: "I can understand the reason for that. The bullet, evidently, was deflected before striking the arm, and as it came from a rifled gun, its screw-like action caused it to set up a motion at its rear end, something like the upper end of a top, just before it stops to spin. This is called a key-holing motion, and as the bullet strikes the solid bone it simply tears its way through, instead of making a clean round hole, as is ordinarily the case."

The city was full of soldiers and every street was as lively at ten o'clock that night as during any part of the day. Troops were moving through the town, but most of them passed out through the Porte de Adeghem toward the northwest.

"Do you notice that all the troops are going northwest and west?" asked Ralph. "They must go that way to reach Brussels, and as Brussels is now in the hands of the Germans," he added, "we173 should by all means go to the north or east and reach Antwerp."

Without molestation they passed through the streets and moving north through the Rue de Catharine crossed the great boulevard and out through Porte de Anvers without being seen.

At twelve that night the road was still filled with troops, wagons and paraphernalia of war. Watching an opportunity, Ralph sought information from a peasant. The latter said:

"The Belgians are not far away, and there has been a battle hereabouts. If you want to reach the troops do not follow the road, but go to your left, directly west. In that way you will get in touch with them."

"What does the great movement of troops toward Antwerp mean?" asked Ralph.

"Why, the Germans have determined to capture Antwerp, and they are moving up the big guns to batter down the forts," he was informed.

About five miles north of Malines they reached the river Nethe. Acting on the suggestion of the peasant, they left the road at this point and determined to follow that stream as far as Boom, from which point they would have a safer route to Antwerp.

After going less than a mile they saw a road which had the inevitable cavalry patrols. They were now undecided what to do, but determined on one thing—to get to the Belgian lines and to risk all rather than be recaptured.

So they remained close to the hedge and moved174 up carefully to get a more favorable view. They were soon convinced that the patrols were Germans and this made it imperative for them to avoid the highway.

Awaiting the first opportunity they crawled through the hedge and found themselves in the roadway, but before there was an opportunity to cross they were spied by the advance sentries and the first cry they heard was: "Wer geht da?"

The boys rightly interpreted this to mean "Who goes there?" but they did not stop. This time they darted through the bush and ran to the south along the hedge row, as fast as they could scurry, while the sentry, putting the spurs to his horse, was over the fence at a leap, and after shooting twice came directly across the field.

The boys knowing that the sentry could not see them after they crossed the little ravine, entered the dense shrubbery which grew along the river bank. Their hearts were in their mouths. As they looked around, however, they saw three other horsemen following them.

Now began the flight of their lives. "Let's go to the left along the river bank. That may throw them off our tracks. They may turn to the right, thinking that we would be most likely to go in that direction," proposed Ralph.

His prediction was verified, for without waiting to go directly to the brink of the river the horsemen all headed for the river to the right, thus enabling the boys to look about for some sort of protection.

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The high grass and weeds enabled them completely to cover themselves and they had the satisfaction of hearing the troopers a half-mile in the distance, beating every clump of shrubbery, but soon all was quiet.

Ralph laughed as they lay there and reflected how the Uhlans were outwitted. "What made you think of that ruse?" he asked.

"I happened to remember what the General said one day, when they were planning some new movement of the troops. He said we ought to get east and occupy the ridge. Our weakest movement would be to go to the left. Napoleon's policy was first to consider what a commander would be likely to do to defend a position, and then do just the other thing. It was by following this plan in the field that he won all his battles in Italy, and it gave him wonderful fame. You see, they were driving us down the river bank, and they would naturally think we would not go in the opposite direction, as it would bring us closer to them, in stead of farther away."

"Well, that is a good lesson, any way. I suppose the proper thing for us to do now is to follow them by going up the river?" said Alfred.

"Certainly. They won't be looking for us in that direction now," said Ralph.

They were careful, however, not to expose themselves needlessly, but keeping as much as possible alongside of the high grass they reached the road. After safely crossing it they sprinted alongside of the river, and soon covered another mile. At176 this point they saw a little village at the end of a long bridge which crossed to the western side of the stream. As it was necessary to pass this village, and to make a detour around it would mean a long tramp, they consumed fully an hour as they quietly made their way toward the town in order to ascertain whether or not it was occupied by a force, whether friend or foe.

A woman who crossed their path was greatly startled at their appearance, but their speech at once reassured her.

"Do you know, M'selle, whether the Germans are in the village?" asked Ralph.

"No," she answered. "But we were informed that they are coming up the road."

"They are not far away. They left the bridge last night."

"I wonder why the bridge was not destroyed?" said Ralph. "Well, don't let us wait. We must go on while we have time," was Paul's eager and hurried observation.

They leaped forward. They could now see the villagers,—that is, women and children on the main road looking east. All were extremely excited as the boys came up, and some of them began to retreat toward the houses.

Ralph cried out: "We are Americans, and have just escaped from the Germans. Which is the best road to Boom?"

The villagers pointed to the road leading along the river bank. One of them cried out: "Don't go that way; the Uhlans are on the road."

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Several men were now seen at the lower edge of the village, where they stood waving their hands.

"That means the enemy are coming," said Ralph. "Our only hope now is the bridge," and without waiting to hear further news, both boys started on a run to make the crossing.

Throughout this section there was a vast amount of shrubbery, and the inevitable rows of trees along the highways made it difficult for those on the western side of the stream to notice the approach of any one until they were within a few hundred feet of the bridge.

This was the boys' salvation. Within a minute they were on the bridge and they were then startled by the sound of the first gun behind them. They did not stop, but on glancing back were somewhat relieved to find that the shot was not intended for them. Possibly someone in the village had been made a victim.

They were now in the middle of the bridge, when a most terrific explosion shook them, and they stopped running as though they had been struck. They looked at each other in consternation. Then they glanced back, but the dense smoke hid them from the view of their enemies. A section of the bridge had been blown up; but by whom they didn't know, so they now walked toward the end of the bridge. As they went down the slight incline a soldier stepped in the roadway and halted them.

The boys halted for a moment and cried, "Belgique!"178 then rushed forward, at which the sentry understood and permitted them to pass. Behind the sentry were others who hurriedly motioned them to conceal themselves by the side of the road. At the same time they noticed that the lone sentry also had disappeared.

Looking back, they now saw a platoon of Uhlans at the other end of the bridge.

"Too bad," said Alfred, "that the explosion didn't do more damage." The troopers advanced, some of them dismounting, and within fifteen minutes sufficient repairs were made to allow a half-company to cross over.

The leaders were galloping off the bridge when two distinct explosions took place, one near their end of the bridge and the other behind the first explosion, thus completely cutting off those on the bridge and also entrapping those who had crossed.

A brief order, "Tirez!" on the part of the Belgian officer brought into view over a hundred concealed infantrymen, who fired volley after volley as they made a rush toward the horsemen. Some of the Uhlans turned and plunged into the stream, and many of those on the bridge did likewise, while the officer in command of the Belgians called out to them to surrender. Most of them did so, throwing down at the same time their lances and guns.

Thus the moving column was checked, and at this very place the Belgians held up the further movement of the Germans toward the west, until after Antwerp had fallen.

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The fighting was soon over, and when the prisoners had been rounded up the men started to the rear with them.

Upon reaching the main camp the first one to greet the boys was Antonio, and before nightfall every one in the camp had beard about the boys and of their achievements. An amusing thing occurred as the prisoners were being assigned to their quarters.

Marching along at the head of the tired troopers was a German lieutenant. The boys now noticed for the first time that this officer wore the helmet of the Death's Head Hussar.

"There is a friend of ours," said Ralph, with a smile.

"Who do you mean?" said Antonio.

"The German lieutenant, with the big helmet on."

As they moved toward him the officer, who now recognized the boys, looked at them in astonishment. He held up a hand in token of recognition, as Alfred went up to him and said: "Well, Lieutenant, we intend to put you to work in the hospital."

The officer gazed at him in amazement for a moment, and then, as he saw the twinkle in the boy's eyes, said: "Ah! you are not serious. You do not take these things seriously."

Two days thereafter our young heroes marched into Antwerp with the troops, where they were to meet Ralph's family. During their three weeks' wanderings not a word had been heard180 from the boys or from Pierre, and their parents were naturally much alarmed, knowing that they were traversing the very section of Belgium where the first fighting had taken place in the great conflict.

We shall now take leave of our young friends in the hope that we may have the good fortune to follow their further adventures on European battlefields.

The End


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