The Boy Allies At Verdun
Saving France from the Enemy
By CLAIR W. HAYES
AUTHOR OF "The Boy Allies At Liege" "The Boy Allies On the Firing Line" "The Boy Allies With the Cossacks" "The Boy Allies In the Trenches" "The Boy Allies On the Somme"
THE EVE OF VERDUN
On the twenty-second of February, 1916, an automobile sped northward along the French battle line that for almost two years had held back the armies of the German emperor, strive as they would to win their way farther into the heart of France. For months the opposing forces had battled to a draw from the North Sea to the boundary of Switzerland, until now, as the day waned—it was almost six o'clock—the hands of time drew closer and closer to the hour that was to mark the opening of the most bitter and destructive battle of the war, up to this time.
It was the eve of the battle of Verdun.
The occupants of the automobile as it sped northward numbered three. In the front seat, alone at the driver's wheel, a young man bent low. He was garbed in the uniform of a British lieutenant of cavalry. Close inspection would have revealed the fact that the young man was a youth of some eighteen years, fair and good to look upon. As the machine sped along he kept his eyes glued to the road ahead and did not once turn to join in the conversation of the two occupants on the rear seat. Whether he knew that there was a conversation in progress it is impossible to say, but the rush of wind would have made the conversation unintelligible, to say the least.
This youth on the front seat was Hal Paine, an American.
The two figures in the rear seat were apparently having a hard time to maintain their places, as they bounced from side to side as the car swerved first one way and then the other, or as it took a flying leap over some object in the road, which even the keen eye of the driver had failed to detect. But in spite of this, even as they bounced, they talked.
One of the two figures was tall and slender and there was about him an air of youthfulness. He was in fact a second American boy. His name was Chester Crawford, friend and bosom companion of Hal Paine. Like the latter he, too, was attired in the uniform of a British lieutenant of cavalry.
The second figure in the rear seat was built along different lines. He was short and chunky; also, he was stout. Had he been standing it would have been evident that he was almost as wide as he was long. He had a pleasant face and smiled occasionally, though upon each occasion this smile died away in a sickly grin as the car leaped high in the air after striking a particularly large obstruction in the road, or veering crazily to one side as it turned sharply. In each case the grin was succeeded by a gasp for breath.
The figure was that of Mr. Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent of the New York Gazette, on the firing line in Europe to gather facts for his newspaper. He was attired in a riding suit of khaki.
Said Mr. Stubbs:
"Well, we may get there and we may not."
"Oh, we'll get there all right, Mr. Stubbs!" Chester raised his voice to make himself heard.
"We're likely to land out here in the ditch," was Stubbs' reply. "The way Hal runs this car, there is no telling what may happen."
"Not frightened, are you, Mr. Stubbs?" asked Chester, grinning.
"Frightened?" echoed Stubbs. "Why should I be frightened? We can't be going more than a couple of hundred miles an hour. No, I'm not frightened. I'm what you call scared. Wow!"
This last ejaculation was drawn from the little man as he was pitched over into Chester's lap by an extra violent lurch of the car. He threw out a hand, seeking a hold, and his open palm came in contact with Chester's face. Chester thrust Stubbs away from him.
"I say, Stubbs!" said the lad half angrily. "If you want to jump out of here, all right; but don't try and push me out ahead of you. Keep your hands out of my face."
"I wasn't trying to push you out," gasped Stubbs. "I was hunting something to hang on to."
"Well, my face is no strap," declared Chester.
The automobile slowed down suddenly and a moment later came to a stop at a fork in the road.
"I'll have to have a look at this chart," Hal called over his shoulder to his companions, as he thrust a hand into a pocket. "Forget which way we head from here."
"We're headed for the happy hunting grounds no matter which road we take," mumbled Stubbs.
"Don't croak, Mr. Stubbs," said Hal. "Barring accidents, we'll reach General Petain at Verdun in time to deliver these despatches before it's too late."
"What I don't understand," said Chester, "is why it is necessary to deliver these despatches by courier. What's the matter with the wire?"
"I don't know," said Hal, as he returned the chart to his pocket after a quick scrutiny, "unless there is a leak of some kind."
"Hardly," said Chester.
Hal shrugged his shoulders as he settled his cap more firmly on his head and laid a hand on the wheel.
"You never can tell," he said.
"Well," said Stubbs, "I don't—hey! what're you trying to do, anyhow?"
For the little man again had been hurled violently against Chester as Hal sent the car forward with a lurch. "Trying to leave me behind? What?"
"Can't be done, Mr. Stubbs," said Chester.
Mr. Stubbs glared at the lad angrily, but deigned to make no reply. So the big army automobile continued on its way in silence.
Darkness fell. Hal stopped the car and lighted the lamps.
"Can't take any chances while going at this speed," he said.
Stubbs grinned feebly to himself, seemed as if about to speak, then thought better of it and remained silent. But he waved a hand in disgust.
A moment later the car was rushing through the darkness at the speed of an express train; and while this journey in the night continues it will be well to explain the presence of the three companions in the big army car, how they came there and why, and the nature of the mission upon which they were bound.
A month before the three had been in the Balkans. There the two lads, together with Anthony Stubbs, had gone through many dangerous adventures, finally reaching Greek soil in the nick of time, with a horde of Bulgarians just behind them. With them had been others—Ivan, a Cossack, a third British officer and a young girl. Ivan had elected to join the Anglo-French forces at Salonika; the other British officer had found his own regiment there and the girl, whom it had been the good fortune of the boys to save from the Bulgarians, found friends in the Greek city who had taken her in charge.
Hal, Chester and Stubbs had embarked on a French battleship, homeward bound. After due time they landed in Marseilles.
"Now," said Chester, when he once more felt French soil under his feet, "I suppose the thing for us to do is to return to the Italian lines and see if we can learn anything of Uncle John, then return to Rome and to New York."
Uncle John was the brother of Chester's mother. All had been bound for home when Hal and Chester had become involved in a matter that took them forward with the Italian troops. Uncle John had been along to keep them out of mischief, if he could. He hadn't succeeded and had fallen into the hands of the Austrians. The boys had saved him. Later they had been forced to seek refuge in the Balkans, having found it impossible to get back into the Italian lines, and they had lost Uncle John. Their arrival in Marseilles had really been the first step toward a return to Rome, where they intended to try and find their mothers.
But their plans to return to Rome did not materialize. As Hal said: "Luck was with us."
In a little room in a Marseilles restaurant they had overheard a conversation between two men, plainly foreigners, that had resulted in their once more being sent on active service. While they had been unable to gather all the details, they had learned enough to know that the German Crown Prince had laid careful plans for an attack on Verdun. They had taken their information to the French commanding officer in Marseilles. The latter had been somewhat skeptical, but Colonel Derevaux, an old friend of the boys, had arrived at the psychological moment and vouched for them.
Immediately the French officer decided that something must be done. The plans of the Germans, so far as he knew, had not been anticipated. For some reason he did not wish to trust the information to the telegraph wires, and the two lads had volunteered to deliver it in person to General Petain. Their offer had been accepted, which accounts for the fact that we find them upon the last leg of their journey to Verdun at the opening of this story.
Stubbs had elected to accompany them, for, as he said, "I've got to get the news."
The two lads had seen considerable active service. They had fought with the Belgians at Liege; with the British on the Marne; with the Cossacks in Russian Poland and in the Carpathians; with the Montenegrins and Serbians in the Balkans, and with the Italian troops in the Alps.
They had been participants in many a hard blow that had been delivered by the Allies. They had won the confidence of Field Marshall John French, commander of the British forces in France until he was succeeded by General Sir Douglas Haig after the battle of the Champagne, and of General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief.
While they ostensibly were British army officers, their titles were purely honorary, but they held actual lieutenancies in the Belgian army, these having been bestowed upon them by King Albert in recognition of services accomplished in and around Liege in the early days of the war.
The boys had been chums since early childhood. They had been brought up together. They attended school together and were inseparable companions. Each spoke German and French fluently, and service with other armies had given them a knowledge of other tongues. Both were strong and sturdy, crack shots, good with sword and sabre, and particularly handy with their fists. These accomplishments had stood them in good stead in many a tight place. But better than all these accomplishments was the additional fact that each was clear-headed, a quick thinker and very resourceful. They depended upon brains rather than brawn to pull them through ticklish situations, though they did not hesitate to call on the latter force when occasion demanded.
Hal, peering ahead by the glare of the searchlight on the large army car, suddenly slowed down; the car stopped. A group of mounted men rode up. Hal stood up and gave a military salute as one of the group advanced ahead of the others.
"I am from General Durand at Marseilles, sir," he said. "I have important dispatches for General Petain."
The French officer returned the salute.
"Follow me," he said briefly.
Rightly is the fortress of Verdun called the gateway to France. By reason of its strategic position, it is absolutely essential that an invading army have possession of Verdun before thought of a successful advance on Paris can be entertained; and it was upon the capture of Paris that the German emperor laid his hopes, in spite of the collapse of a similar offensive launched in the first days of the war.
But Wilhelm II had learned a lesson. Verdun must be taken before he ordered his armies upon the French capital; and so it was that, upon February twenty-third, 1916, the German Crown Prince began a determined assault upon the historic French fortress.
In sheer human interest the battle of Verdun surpassed all other individual events of the war. For six months and more the defenders of the gateway to France withstood a storm at the fury of which the world stood aghast.
Foot by foot, almost inch by inch, the Germans forged ahead with a reckless disregard of their lives, a tenacity and cool courage which was only equalled by the cool determination of the French. Five months after the opening of this great battle, the unofficial estimate of German dead was a half million men. The assailants fought their way to within three miles and a half of the fortress itself, but there they were finally halted. It was then that the tide turned; and though the Germans surged forward day after day in heavy masses they progressed no further. It was the beginning of the end.
The Germans advanced confidently. The destruction of the fortress presented no hard problem to them. The utter worthlessness of similarly fortified positions had been proven in the earlier days of the war—in the destruction of Louvain, Liege, Brussels and Antwerp, the latter the most strongly fortified city in the world, with the exception of Paris itself. The huge 42-centimetre guns of the Germans had battered them to pieces in little or no time at all.
It was with the knowledge of the effectiveness of these great guns that the Crown Prince opened the battle of Verdun. The fortress of Verdun and the outlying fortifications, it was believed, would be shattered with little effort. With these facts in mind, the German Crown Prince opened with his big guns, first upon the fortresses guarding Verdun itself.
These approaches shattered, the Crown Prince ordered his infantry and cavalry to the attack. But where the onrushing Germans, according to the reasoning of the Crown Prince, should have found no resistance, they encountered strenuous opposition. Abandoning the outlying artificial fortifications, the French had thrown up huge earthworks and from behind these received the German attacks coolly.
Against these great earthworks the heavy guns of the attacking forces availed little. The force of even the great 42-centimetres was not great enough to penetrate the loosely built mounds of earth behind which the French reposed. The great shells struck the fresh earth, were embedded there and did no harm. The French general staff had realized the uselessness of fortresses as soon as had the Germans.
Therefore, while the Germans were able to destroy forts and fortresses at will, almost, it availed them little. The defenders were secure behind their breastworks of earth. True, German guns dropped huge shells in the trenches, a veritable rain of death, but the gaps in the defending lines were filled promptly.
There remained naught for the Germans but to try and carry the trenches, under the support of their artillery.
Day after day the Crown Prince launched assault after assault. The French met them bravely. But the Germans were not to be denied; and urged on by the Crown Prince, and often by the presence upon the firing line of the German emperor himself, they continued the herculean task without regard to loss of life.
Gradually the French were forced back. Hand-to-hand fighting for possession of the greatest strategical positions, fought daily, for a time resulted in advantage to neither side. Among the chief objectives of the German attack were two particularly important positions—Hill No 304 (so called to distinguish it from numerous other elevated positions) and Le Mort Homme (Dead Man's Hill). This name, which was fated to become historic, was gained only after days and days of constant hand-to-hand fighting and is now recalled as one of the bloodiest battlefields of the titanic struggle.
General Henri Phillip Petain, in direct command of the French operations at Verdun, endeared himself to the hearts of all his countrymen by his gallant conduct of the defense. While the decision of General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, to give ground before the German attacks rather than to sacrifice his men in a useless defense of the fortresses, was criticized at first by the people, the resulting value of this move was soon apparent and censure turned to praise.
While the heaviest assaults of the Germans were launched in the immediate vicinity of Verdun itself, the great battle line stretched far to the north and to the south. When it appeared at one time that the French must be hurled back, General Sir Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, weakened his own lines to the far north to take over a portion of the ground just to his right and thus relieved the French situation at Verdun somewhat.
General Petain thus was enabled to shorten his own lines, and from that moment, with few exceptions, the French stood firm.
It seemed that the Germans, beaten off time after time as they were, must soon abandon the attempt to break the French lines at Verdun; but each repulse brought a new assault mightier than before. The Germans raced across the open ground under a veritable hail of lead. They fell by hundreds and thousands, but what few survived hurled themselves against the barbed wire entanglements of the French or into the trenches, there to die upon the points of the foes' bayonets, or to be shot down as they tumbled over the breastworks.
The German general staff drew heavily from its forces on the east front and added these new legions to the already large army occupied before Verdun; but the result was always the same. So far they could progress and no farther.
After almost five months of defensive tactics, General Petain began to launch assaults of his own. At first the Germans put these down with regularity, but at last the effort began to tell. The French made headway. Much of the lost ground was recovered. The French moved forward a bit day by day, occupied new positions and consolidated them. It was terrible work, but the French persevered.
Around Hill No. 304 and Dead Man's Hill the fighting was especially severe. There men died by the hundreds and by the thousands that one of the opposing armies might advance a few yards. Gains even were counted by feet—almost by inches. Gain of a few yards was accounted a day's work well done.
Not once did the French troops falter under fire; nor did the Germans, for that matter. Never was there greater bravery, loyalty and devotion. Called upon for tasks that seemed well nigh impossible, the men did not hesitate. They met death in such numbers as death was never met before.
Almost daily, after the French had taken a brace three and a half miles from Verdun, it seemed that the Crown Prince must give up the effort. It appeared incomprehensible that the useless sacrifice of men could continue. But the attempt was not given up; rather, it was pressed with greater vigor each succeeding day.
But, after five months, the fury of the German assaults gradually lessened. They were not delivered with the same effectiveness as before. The great guns continued to rage, scattering death over the field for miles, but the massed attacks of infantry, and cavalry charges, became more uncommon.
Then came a day when the Germans failed to attack at all. For more than twenty-four hours there was a lull. Weeks passed with the Germans launching only occasional drives. The same held good for the French. It appeared that each side was content to rest on its laurels, biding the time when a grand assault could be delivered with some degree of effectiveness.
The fighting was intermittent. It came spasmodically. Each side had fought itself out and had paused for breath. What advantage there had been, all things considered, rested with French arms. The losses on both sides, in killed and wounded, had been enormous—almost beyond comprehension. The number of prisoners taken by the French was large. Many French troops also had been captured, but not so many as Germans. Also, the French having been the defenders for the most part, they had suffered less in killed and wounded than had the foe.
This, then, was the result of the battle of Verdun six months after it had begun. There had been no decisive victory. Each side retained its positions, but each was ready to strike whenever the opportune moment presented itself.
Even while the fighting at Verdun was at its height there came the whisper of a grand offensive to be launched by the Allies. The whisper became louder as the days passed. There was more talk of Roumania and Greece throwing their armies to the support of the Allies, thus forming a steel cordon around the Central powers and their smaller allies, Bulgaria and Turkey, and forcing the Germans to shorten their lines. In the eastern war theater the Russians again were on the advance and were pushing the Germans and Austrians hard, threatening for a second time to invade Galicia and the plains of Hungary. It began to appear that the end was in sight.
Italy, too, had launched a new offensive with Trieste as the objective and the driving power of the Italian troops was beginning to tell. It began to appear that the Central powers must before long be placed upon the defensive in all war zones.
The world waited impatiently for the opening of the grand allied offensive that, it was expected, would be delivered simultaneously on all fronts. It was felt that it would not be long coming. There was talk of a new great field gun perfected by Great Britain—a gun that would be more effective than the German 42-centimetres—but so far it had come to play no part in the struggle.
But of all battles, land or sea, that had been fought in the greatest war of history, the battle of Verdun stood head and shoulders as the most important. It was the greatest and bloodiest struggle of all time, up to that period.
And it was in this battle that Hal and Chester, with the friend Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent, and other friends, old and new, were to play important roles. While each realized, as the three made their way to General Petain behind the French officer who had interrupted their wild automobile ride, that an important engagement was about to be fought, neither had, of course, means of knowing that they were to take part in one of the greatest of all battles.
It was with the satisfaction that they had arrived in time to prevent a surprise attack that they made their way to General Petain's quarters. But, as it transpired, they had arrived a trifle too late. For even as they reached the general's tent the German guns spoke.
To the soldier the voice of the great guns speaks plainly. Their ears accustomed to the various forms of bombardments, Hal and Chester realized as well as the rest that this was no mere resumption of an artillery duel. It was not a single salvo from a single German position that had been fired. The great guns boomed from north and south; and continued to boom.
The officer who was conducting the three friends to the headquarters of General Petain turned and called a single word over his shoulder:
He broke into a run and the others did likewise. A short turn or two and they brought up before a tent somewhat larger than the rest. This the lads knew was General Petain's field headquarters.
Even as the French officer approached the entrance, the general himself rushed from the tent, followed by members of his staff. The officer who had conducted the lads there accosted him.
"Sir," he said, "despatch bearers from General Durand at Marseilles."
General Petain waved them aside.
"I've no time for them now," he said, and made as if to move on.
Hal stepped forward.
"Sir," he said, "the despatches we carry have to do with the impending action."
General Petain stopped suddenly and eyed the lad keenly. Then he said abruptly:
"Come with me."
He led the way into the tent, and Hal, Chester and Stubbs followed him. The general seated himself at a desk at a far end of the tent and demanded:
Hal produced several documents, which he passed to the general. The latter broke the seals quickly and read. Then suddenly he sprang to his feet and dashed outside. The lads could hear him delivering sharp orders to members of his staff. A moment later his voice became inaudible.
After fifteen minutes' waiting, Chester grew fidgety.
"Wonder where he went?" he said.
"Don't know," returned Hal with a shrug.
"Let's go out and see what's going on," said Stubbs, and moved toward the exit.
"Hold on," said Hal. "We're under General Petain's orders now. We had better remain here until he returns."
"You and Chester may be," said Stubbs, "but I'm not. I'm going out and have a look around."
"Better stick around, Stubbs," said Chester grimly. "If they find you wandering about you're liable to be put under arrest. You can't go snooping around without permission, you know."
"Snooping!" repeated Stubbs. "Snooping! Who's going snooping? I want to find out what's going on."
"Same thing," said Chester.
The little man was offended.
"Call it snooping when I go out hunting news for my paper?" he asked.
"It's snooping when you go sticking your nose into other people's business," declared Chester.
"This is my business," exclaimed Stubbs.
"Oh, no, it's not. It's just a plain case—"
"I tell you it is my business. It's the business of the New York Gazette. The people in the United States want to know what is going on over here."
"I'm afraid General Petain wouldn't agree with you, Stubbs," interposed Hal. "He doesn't care what the people in the United States want. All he cares about right now is to lick the Germans."
"Well, maybe you're right," Stubbs admitted, "but just the same—I want you fellows to know that hunting news is not snooping."
"Stubbs," said Chester, "I've got to give you credit. In my opinion you're a first class snooper."
"What?" exclaimed the little man, fairly dancing with rage. "Snooper? Me a snooper? What do you mean?"
"Of course you are," replied Chester; "and a good one. Why, I can remember once or twice that if you hadn't been a good snooper Hal and I wouldn't be here now. Remember?"
"Well, yes," said Stubbs, somewhat mollified, "but I don't know whether that's what you meant or not."
"Why, Stubbs," said Chester, "what else could I have meant?"
Stubbs looked at Chester coldly; then turned and walked to the far end of the tent.
"Now see what you've done, Chester," said Hal, in a whisper meant for Stubbs to overhear. "You've made him mad."
Stubbs whirled about angrily.
"You bet you've made me mad," he declared. "You can bet, too, that I won't ever do any more snooping on behalf of either of you. The next time you get in trouble you'll have to depend on someone besides Anthony Stubbs to get you out of it."
"See," said Hal. "I told you not to do it, Chester. He's liable to let us both get killed. He—"
Stubbs could stand no more. He turned on his heel and made his way from the tent. But even as he would have moved away he became involved in more trouble.
With head down and not looking where he was going, he collided with another figure and was pushed violently backwards. Stubbs looked up angrily and was about to say something when he glanced at the other. It was General Petain. The latter spoke before Stubbs could apologize.
"What's the matter with you?" he demanded. "Can't you see where you're going? What were you doing in my tent, anyhow? Who are you? What's your business here?"
The questions, came so fast that Stubbs was confused.
"I—why—I—" he stuttered.
"Come inside here," said the general.
He stretched forth a hand, seized Stubbs by the collar and pushed him in the tent. Stubbs, caught off his balance, went stumbling and almost fell into Hal's arms. General Petain entered the tent immediately behind him.
When his eyes fell upon Hal and Chester he gave a start of surprise. Evidently he had forgotten all about them. Then he remembered.
"So you're still here?" he said. "I had forgotten all about you."
"We are awaiting your orders, sir," said Hal.
"I don't know as I have any for you," was the reply. "I have taken what precautions I can. Had you arrived a day earlier it might have been different. I would have had more time."
"We came as fast as we could, sir," said Chester.
"I've no doubt of that," said the general. "Your information is of great value, of course. I suppose you will return to Marseilles?"
"We had rather remain here a while, sir," said Hal.
"So," said the general. "It's fighting you want, eh? Well, I guess I can accommodate you. I probably shall need every man I can get hold of. I shall attach you to my staff temporarily. But tell me, who is this man here?" He pointed to Stubbs.
"War correspondent," replied Hal briefly.
"What?" roared the general, "and in my tent! I'll have him court martialed!"
Stubbs quailed visibly.
"A war correspondent, eh," continued the general, "and walking about within my lines as free as air. He may be a spy. I'll have him shot."
"Look here, general," said Stubbs, "I—"
"Silence!" thundered General Petain. He turned to Hal. "Your name, sir?"
"A lieutenant, I see."
General Petain turned to Chester.
"And your name?"
"Lieutenant Crawford, sir."
"Good. I'll turn this man over to you. You may do as you please with him. I see he is a friend of yours."
"Yes, sir," returned Hal. "He's a good friend of ours, sir. He's rendered us several valuable services. Also, sir, he is to be trusted. He will seek to send out no information which you desire suppressed."
"I never heard of one like that," said the general.
"He's the only one in captivity, sir. His name is Stubbs, sir, of the New York Gazette"
"His name will be Mudd, sir, if he doesn't conduct himself properly while within my lines," declared General Petain. "Take him with you. Find Lieutenant Maussapant and tell him to find quarters for you. Report to me at midnight. I probably shall have work for you."
The lads saluted and made their way from the tent. Stubbs followed them. Chester glanced at his watch.
"Great Scott!" he ejaculated. "I had no idea it was so late."
"How late?" asked Chester.
"Nor I," said Chester. "Where do you suppose we are going to find Maussapant?"
"You've got me. However, here comes a young officer; we'll ask him."
Hal did so.
"That is my name," was the young man's smiling response.
"Then we're in luck," said Hal. "General Petain requests that you find quarters for me."
"As it happens," said the young Frenchman, "two of my brother officers have been transferred and I can ask you to bunk with me."
"How about Stubbs?" asked Hal.
"Yes; our friend here, a war correspondent."
"Oh, I guess we can find room for him. Come with me."
The three friends followed the young Frenchman and presently were installed in a large, comfortable tent.
"Turn in whenever you're ready," said the Frenchman.
"We must report to the general at midnight," was Hal's reply.
"You've got me," said Hal. "Hope it's something good, though."
"Probably is, or he wouldn't want you at that hour."
"Well," said Stubbs at this point, "you boys can do what you please. I'm going to get a little sleep."
"All right," said Chester. "If we shouldn't be around in the morning, don't worry. We'll turn up sooner or later."
Stubbs nodded and made ready for bed.
At five minutes to twelve o'clock, Hal and Chester started for the headquarters of General Petain.
"Here's where we get busy again, old man," said Chester.
THE BATTLE OPENS
For forty-eight hours the greatest of modern artillery duels had raged incessantly. German guns swept the French positions in all sections of the Verdun region. Fortresses protecting the approach to the city of Verdun had been shattered. The Germans had hurled two and three shells to each one by the French.
But after the first day the French had entrenched themselves behind their earth breastworks, hastily dug and thrown up, and now remained secure. Into these the German guns now poured their fire. The defenders were ready for the first attack by infantry, which it was realized would come soon.
And it came even sooner than was expected.
Hal, with a despatch for the officer in command of the first line troops just to the north of Verdun, was about to return when there came a sudden shout:
"Here they come!"
Hal turned quickly.
There, perhaps half a mile away, stretched out a long thin line, barely visible through the dense cloud of smoke that overhung the ground. Hal took in the situation, instantly. The German infantry was advancing to the charge under artillery support.
Behind the first long line stretched out a second and beyond that a third and a fourth and many more. They advanced slowly in the face of a rain of lead turned on them by the men in the trenches. Men fell to the right and to the left, Hal could see, but the gaps were filled instantly and the long lines pressed forward.
Now they were within three hundred yards and the heavy German guns became silent. The advance now must be made without further artillery support, for the German batteries could not fire without imminent danger of shooting down their own men. The Germans broke into a run.
From behind the French earthworks was poured a hail of lead, but it did not serve to check the approaching foe. On to the breastworks they came and clambered up. Behind the first line came many more and they swarmed upon the defenders like bees in a hive.
Bayonet met bayonet and revolvers cracked. Men struggled with their bare hands. Friend and foe went down together, struggling to the last. On the right and on the left, though Hal could not see these actions, similar scenes were being enacted. The Germans had made their initial advance upon a front of almost fifteen miles.
A bugle sounded.
French reinforcements were rushed forward to aid the hard-pressed men in the first line trenches. More Germans poured in. The struggling mass surged backward and forward. Then the French broke and fled, and Hal found himself among a panic-stricken mass of humanity, running for life for the protection of the second line trenches. From behind, the victorious Germans fell to their knees and poured a steady rifle fire upon the vanquished. Over the heads of their fleeing countrymen the second line French troops returned the fire.
Hastily the Germans fell to work throwing up earthworks facing the second French line. Under experienced hands the breastworks sprang up as if by magic. They entrenched calmly under the rifles of the French infantry and the heavy guns of the French batteries, though men fell upon all hands.
Far away, but coming closer, the German batteries now opened fire on the second French trenches, firing above the heads of the victorious German infantry. The infantry action subsided. The duel of big guns was resumed.
Chester, who had been despatched by General Petain with orders, arrived there to witness a scene similar to the one Hal had seen in the center. The German assaults had been successful all along the line. The French had lost their first line trenches on a front of approximately twelve miles. Only at one or two isolated spots had the Germans met reverses; and these few points that the French still held were doubly dangerous now. They could not be given the proper support. Later in the day they were abandoned.
Hal and Chester returned to their posts about the same time. Each was sadly disappointed at the result of the first infantry fighting. For several hours they were kept on the jump carrying despatches, and it was after dark before they found themselves alone together after the strenuous day.
"Pretty hard," said Hal, shaking his head sadly.
"I should say so," Chester agreed. "It seems to me that those fellows could have been stopped."
"It doesn't to me," declared Hal. "The way they swept into our trenches seemed to me beyond human power to stop. I'm glad they stopped when they did. They probably could have gone farther."
"They'll try again to-morrow," said Chester positively.
"I'm afraid so," agreed Hal; "and if they do, I'm afraid they'll drive us back again."
"And what's the reason?" demanded Chester.
Hal shrugged his shoulders.
"I don't know," he said. "Of course they can only progress so far. They'll wear themselves out by their own exertions. They lost a great deal more heavily than we did to-day; but certainly it seemed as if nothing could stop them."
There was little rest for Hal and Chester that night. It seemed to both that they had hardly closed their eyes when they were again summoned to General Petain. Assembled there they found the entire staff. The French commander was reviewing the events of the day and issuing orders and instructions rapidly. He realized that there would be more and probably harder fighting on the next day and he was laying his plans accordingly. Hal and Chester received their instructions for the morrow along with the rest.
Returning to their own quarters again, they were attracted by the sound of confusion a short distance away.
"Something up," said Chester. "Let's have a look."
Nothing loath, Hal followed his chum.
In the light of a large camp fire they made out a crowd of soldiers gathered about in a large circle. Howls of amusement and hilarious laughter rose on the air. Hal and Chester pushed closer and were able to ascertain the cause of merriment.
In the center six French soldiers held a blanket and in the center of this blanket was a man. He rose and fell as the six men alternately released the blanket and then drew it taut again. He was yelling at the top of his voice to be let alone and threatening dire vengeance on his tormentors when he would be able to get at them. But he was laughing and taking the joke good naturedly.
Hal and Chester joined the circle of spectators and derived as much amusement as the others from the proceedings. At length, tiring of their present victim, the men lowered him to the ground. One of them, a large, strapping fellow, perhaps thirty years of age, cast his eye around the circle of faces.
"Let's get another one," he shouted.
There was a chorus of assent from the others and all six set to looking about for a victim who would not prove too willing. As Hal said to Chester, apparently there was no fun tossing a man who took it good naturedly.
At last the big fellow gave a howl of delight and dashed forward. Hal gazed after him. As the big fellow bounded forward, a slight figure in the first row turned and ran. But the big fellow overtook him and dragged him back.
"Here's one, men," he cried. "See, he doesn't want to come with me. He doesn't know what a good time he is going to have. We'll give him a good one."
The others lent a hand and dragged the unwilling captive forward. As they would have put him on the blanket, the youngster—for such the captive proved to be—protested.
"Some other time, fellows," he said. "I'm sick to-night. I hadn't ought to be out at all, but I couldn't stay in the tent any longer. I'll let you toss me in the blanket some other time, but please let me alone to-night."
From where Hal and Chester stood it was plain to see that the boy was telling the truth. His face was deathly pale and he looked very ill.
"Great Scott," said Hal, "they shouldn't torment him. He is telling the truth."
"Certainly he is," Chester agreed. "I believe the boy is very ill."
But the young French boy's protest fell on unheeding ears.
With loud guffaws the men grabbed hold of the blanket and sent the captive spinning aloft. Two, three times he rose and fell, and upon the last was still in the blanket. Apparently the men who held the blanket had not noticed this, however, for they were preparing to toss him aloft again. But Hal had detected the lad's condition. He decided it was time for some one to interfere, and as no one else apparently was ready to call a halt on the proceeding, he determined to take a hand himself.
Quickly he shed his overcoat and then tossed off his jacket and passed them to Chester.
"Hold 'em!" he said, and sprang forward.
At the edge of the circle he halted and gazed at the big Frenchman, who had chanced to turn in his direction.
"Let the boy go," he said. "Can't you see that he is unconscious?"
The big Frenchman grinned at him. When Hal had taken off his coat, he had removed all signs of his rank and the soldier had no means of knowing he was an officer.
"One more toss," said the Frenchman.
Hal stepped close to him.
"The boy is unconscious," said the Frenchman, and added: "Then we'll take you."
He nodded to the others in signal that it was time to toss; but before he could move, Hal had seized him by the wrist and whirled him around.
"You heard me," the lad said quietly. "I meant what I said."
He gave the Frenchman's arm a quick twist and the man dropped his hold on the blanket. The Frenchman's hold on the blanket released, the lad upon it tumbled to the ground, where he lay still. Instantly several others bent over and gave their attention to bringing him to. The man whom Hal had confronted turned on him angrily.
"What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
"I told you to let the boy alone and I meant it," said Hal quietly.
For answer the Frenchman struck at him. Hal dodged the blow and stepped back. He would have avoided a fight if possible. But the Frenchman stepped after him and struck again. Again Hal dodged and the blow passed harmlessly over his head. The lad struck out quickly with his right and caught the Frenchman a hard blow upon the side of the neck. Big man though he was, the Frenchman toppled over. Hal walked back to where he had left Chester, donned his coat and the two moved away.
Behind them, as the big Frenchman staggered to his feet there was a howl of merriment. The Frenchman shook a fist angrily at Hal's back.
THE BLACK PEAS
The howling without continued when Hal and Chester reached their own quarters.
"Well, you've made another enemy, Hal," said Chester.
"Can't help that," was his chum's reply. "It had to be done. By the way, I wonder what's happened to Stubbs?"
"Oh, I guess he is spooking around some place. He'll turn up before long."
The lad was right. Hal and Chester had hardly composed themselves to sleep when the flap to the tent was lifted and Stubbs' head appeared. He struck a match and looked at the two lads.
"Asleep?" he asked.
Neither lad was, but neither replied. They were both too sleepy to care to enter into a conversation with Stubbs, so they maintained a discreet silence.
"All right, then," said Stubbs, "if you're asleep I'll soon be with you."
He removed his clothing and went to bed.
Stubbs was up early the following morning and when the lads arose entertained them with an account of his wanderings.
"And," he concluded, "I've stumbled across a story that's a wonder."
"A story?" repeated Chester.
"Yes. A 'story' is a newspaper man's way of expressing something big."
"Something to do with the battle?" asked Hal.
"It may have and it may not," declared Stubbs. "It may have something to do with the whole war—and it may not. I don't know."
"What is it, Stubbs?" asked Chester.
Stubbs winked one eye at him.
"As I happened to stumble across this while I was snooping," he said, "and as you don't think much of snooping, I am going to keep this to myself."
"Come, Mr. Stubbs," said Chester, "you know I was just fooling."
"Well, I may be just fooling now, for all you know," said Stubbs.
In vain did the lads plead to know what he was talking about. Stubbs was obdurate and took his departure, announcing that he was going to do some more "snooping," without enlightening them.
Hardly had he gone when the lads received a caller. It was none other than the young French boy whom Hal had rescued from the hands of his tormentors the night before.
"They told me you came to my aid," he said to Hal, "so I have come to thank you."
"Who are they?" asked Hal.
"Some of the men. It was true that I was ill last night. Jules Clemenceau will not forget."
The young French boy had stood with one hand in his pocket, and now withdrew the hand and extended it to Hal. As he did so, two small objects fell from his pocket. Apparently Jules did not notice them. Hal shook hands with the boy and the Frenchman took his departure.
Chester, in the meantime, had picked up the two little objects and now he called to Jules, but the young Frenchman did not hear him.
"Oh, I guess he doesn't want these things, anyhow," the lad muttered.
"What things?" asked Hal, who had not seen the objects drop from Jules' pocket.
Chester passed one of the objects to him.
"Know what it is?" he asked.
"Sure," returned Hal, "don't you?"
"No. What is it?"
"I never saw a pea like that."
"Probably not. They are rather rare. A black pea, that's what it is. Where did you get it?"
"Jules dropped it out of his pocket."
"Well, as he seems to think I have done him a favor, I am just going to keep this. I guess he won't mind. I'll carry it as a pocket piece."
"Then I'll carry the mate to it," said Chester.
He put the little round pea in his pocket and Hal followed suit.
Although neither could possibly have suspected it, these two little peas were to be the means of getting them into all kinds of trouble.
There was heavy fighting that day and when night fell it found the Germans safely entrenched in the French second line trenches along a seven-mile front. For some reason or other Hal and Chester did not get to the front, their duties confining them close to General Petain's headquarters. They were kept busy most of the day, however, and were tired out when they returned to their own quarters late that night.
Ready as they were for bed, they consented to sit up a while and talk with Stubbs, who announced that he had a wonderful tale to unfold.
"Well," said Stubbs, "I have discovered a strange thing. It's a big thing and there are many men in the French army implicated in it. Most likely in the British, too, and I know that it has touched the ranks of the enemy."
"What is it, a conspiracy?" asked Chester.
"It is," said Stubbs, "and it's a whopper. I haven't been able to find the names of any of the leaders and I wouldn't know what to do if I did learn who they are. This one thing, rather than anything else, is likely to disrupt the aims of the Allies."
"Then you had better tell General Petain about it," declared Hal.
"I suppose I should," said Stubbs, as he drew out his pipe and proceeded to fill it.
He was quiet a moment as he ran his fingers in his vest pocket, seeking a match.
"Say, I'm a good one, ain't I?" he demanded, forgetting his grammar absolutely.
"What's the matter now?" asked Hal.
"Matter is that I can never keep a match. Have you got one?"
"Fortunately for you, I have," said Chester. "I don't carry them, as a rule, having no use for them, but I chanced to find a box of safety matches to-day."
He reached in his pocket and produced the box; and as he did so the little black pea rolled from his pocket. It rolled toward Stubbs and the little man caught it. He would have returned it to Chester, but as he started to do so he took a close look at it. He gave a sudden start and the box of matches Chester had extended to him dropped to the floor even as his fingers would have closed on it.
"H-m-m-m," he muttered to himself. "I wonder. I suppose it would be a great thing. I wonder."
Stubbs picked up the box of matches and proceeded to light his pipe with deliberation.
"Well, now that you have that pipe puffing," said Hal, "what's the rest of this story of yours?"
"On second thought," said Stubbs calmly, "I have decided to keep it to myself."
"You're not going to tell us?" demanded Chester.
"No," said Stubbs. "By the way, here's your black pea," for Chester had not noticed that he had dropped it.
"Thanks," said Chester, taking the pea and dropping it in his pocket, "I wouldn't want to lose it."
"No, I guess not," said Stubbs mysteriously. "Pretty scarce articles. I don't suppose you could find another one in some distance."
"Oh, yes, you could," said Hal. "I have one myself."
"That so?" said Stubbs, and added to himself: "I thought so, but I wanted to make sure."
Hal produced his black pea. Stubbs examined it carefully and passed it back to him.
"Better keep it in a safe place," he said. "As I say, they are scarce and it never does a fellow any good to lose anything when there is anyone around."
Hal and Chester started guiltily. How could Stubbs know they had found the peas when they fell from the pocket of Jules Clemenceau? Stubbs, who had been watching the two closely, observed these sudden starts and interpreted them to his own satisfaction.
"Come now, Stubbs," said Chester, "tell us the rest of this story of yours."
"No," said Stubbs, "I am going to keep it to myself." He added under his breath: "The young cubs! Trying to pump an old-timer like me to see how much I know!"
"You mean you are not even going to tell the general?" asked Hal.
"That's what I mean," said Stubbs.
Hal and Chester exchanged glances. They wondered what had come over the little man so suddenly. Stubbs caught the interchange of glances and again he read it wrong. To Stubbs it appeared that there was relief on their features.
Stubbs shook his head.
"I'm going to turn in," he said.
Not another word could the lads get out of him, try as they would. But Stubbs, on his cot, did not sleep immediately. Covertly he watched the two lads as they talked in tones too low for him to hear, strain his ears as he would.
"Well, I guess I don't need to hear 'em," he told himself. "I can guess what it's all about."
He rolled over and went to sleep.
But the nature of the lads' conversation was a whole lot different from what Stubbs thought it was, though it concerned the little man himself.
"Something wrong with him," said Chester.
"Right you are," agreed Hal. "Talks like we had offended him or something."
"Maybe he just wants to keep us guessing."
"That might be it. Anyhow, if he doesn't tell us to-morrow, I'm going to tell him what I think of him."
"Then he won't talk," said Chester.
"We might be able to get him mad enough to make him talk," returned Hal.
"By Jove! so we might," said Chester. "We'll have a try at it to-morrow if it's necessary."
"All right. Then let's turn in. I've a feeling it's going to be a strenuous day to-morrow."
And it was; though not strenuous in the way Hal had expected.
A PERILOUS SITUATION
Hal and Chester held no conversation with Anthony Stubbs the following day, and therefore were unable to learn more than they already knew of the war correspondent's great "story."
Before they rose Stubbs was up and gone, and when he returned, several hours later, Hal and Chester were receiving orders from General Petain.
The German advance had continued the day before in spite of the heroic stand of the French troops. Successive charges by the Teuton hordes had driven the defenders back along practically the entire front. Here, with the coming of night, they had taken a brace with the arrival of reinforcements and had stemmed the tide; but not a man failed to realize that there would be more desperate work on the morrow.
The French lines now had been pushed back well to the west of the city of Verdun itself and the civil population of the town had fled. The town had been swept by the great German guns until hardly one stone remained upon another. North of the city, the French had been bent back as the Germans thrust a wedge into the defending lines almost to the foot of Dead Man's Hill.
This hill was of particular importance to the Germans, for it commanded the approach on all sides; and now the German Prince had determined upon its capture. General Petain anticipated the move and acted promptly.
It was toward this point, then, that Hal and Chester found themselves moving upon the sixth day of the great battle. They bore despatches from General Petain and each bestrode a high-powered motorcycle, which the French commander had placed at their disposal. The two lads rode swiftly, for there was no time to be lost.
Even above the "pop-pop" of their motorcycles could be heard the terrible roar of the German guns as they were brought to bear on Dead Man's Hill, paving the way for an infantry advance, which was to come a few hours later. It was risky business upon which the lads were bent, for the great shells struck on all sides of them, throwing huge masses of dirt in the air like giant fountains and digging immense excavations in the hard ground.
But the lads reached their destination in safety; and here, for the first time, Hal and Chester were to come in contact with a new method of fighting.
General Domont, in command at Dead Man's Hill, having read the despatches the lads carried, announced that they would remain with him during the day, acting as members of his staff. He ordered Hal forward with instructions for the troops holding the crest of the hill to the north and Chester was despatched upon a similar mission to the south.
Hardly had Chester delivered his message when a shout told him the German infantry was advancing to the attack. The lad glanced around, and as he did so, a sharp order rang out and a moment later the French troops clamped queer-looking devices over their faces and heads.
Chester knew what they were—gas masks to protect the defenders from the poisonous vapors of German gas bombs, which, had the defenders not been protected by masks, would have killed them instantly. A passing officer said something unintelligible to the lad as he passed and pointed to the ground. Glancing down, the lad perceived a mask and then understood that the officer had meant for him to put it on. Chester did so, though not without some difficulty, for he had trouble adjusting it. But with his nostrils protected at last, Chester turned to watch the approach of the enemy.
The Germans came forward in a dense mass, despite the fearful execution worked in their ranks by the French guns. In the lines of the defenders dropped huge bombs that sent up dense vapors—the deadly gasses of the foe—but they caused little harm, for the French were protected. Now and then a man fell, however; perhaps he had failed to adjust his helmet properly, or perhaps it was not perfect. But for the most part the gas bombs had little effect.
The first concerted attack of the German troops availed little; and after trying for half an hour to gain a foothold in the French lines they withdrew. But a second attack followed a few moments later. This also was beaten off. A third attack, however, met with better success.
This time the Germans succeeded in gaining a hold in the French lines, and this they retained in spite of repeated counter assaults by the French. Bravely the men charged, but they could make no impression on the positions so recently won by the foe. The troops of the German Crown Prince stood firm.
The French were forced to retreat toward the summit of the hill.
Here the big French guns opened violently upon the enemy, but the invaders remained in spite of the hail of death.
Chester had been carried back with the French retreat and he now found himself almost in the first line. He was sadly disappointed, for he had felt sure that the French effort to repel the attack would be successful.
His men still falling back before the German advance, General Domont determined upon a bold stroke. Orders were given thick and fast. Hal and Chester, returning from their first missions of the day, found themselves again near the front. The orders to the various French divisional commanders were explicit. As the Germans advanced again to the attack, the French, too, all along the line, were to take the offensive.
The men awaited the word eagerly.
At last it came. With a shout the French, still wearing their gas masks, hurled themselves forward with the troops.
Halfway down the hill the lines met with a crash. Rifles and small arms were fired point blank into the very faces of the foe and then the men fell to the work with bayonets. Both sides fought desperately.
Hal and Chester had drawn their swords and found themselves engaged with the troops. So close was the fighting that had it not been for the difference in uniform it would have been practically impossible to distinguish friend from foe.
Hal found himself engaged with a German officer of huge stature, who was endeavoring to bring the lad to earth by fierce sweeping blows of his officer's sword. Hal was hard pressed to defend himself.
As the German's sword descended in a stroke of extra violence, Hal stepped lightly aside and evaded the blow. Before the German could recover himself, Hal moved quickly forward. There was a sudden, quick movement of his arm and the German officer toppled over, to rise no more.
Hal turned just in time to see a second German officer level a revolver straight at his head. The lad ducked and the ball passed harmlessly over his head. Before the German's finger could press the trigger again Hal had raised his arm and struck.
Chester, in the meantime, had his own hands full. He had accounted for a German trooper who had sought to bring his rifle butt down on the lad's head and was now engaged with two other troopers, who sought to end his career with bayonets.
Chester sprang nimbly back as the two men advanced on him. One tripped and stumbled over a fallen comrade and as he did so Chester took advantage of his misfortune to strike with his sword. But the second German protected his fellow by catching Chester's stroke with his bayonet and for a moment Chester was at a disadvantage.
Even as the bayonet of the first trooper, who had regained his balance, would have pierced him, however, Chester dropped flat on the ground and seized one of the man's legs. The German dropped his bayonet and crashed to the ground. Chester sprang up quickly and jumped to one side to escape the point of the bayonet in the hands of the second trooper.
Chester thrust with his sword, but the effort was futile. The point of the lad's sword fell short. Again the lad was at a disadvantage and the German grinned as he stepped forward to end the combat. His bayonet was pointed straight at the lad's breast and it seemed as though nothing but a miracle could save the boy.
But the miracle happened. Suddenly the German dropped his bayonet with a crash and threw up both arms. He spun on his heel and then fell to the ground without an outcry. A stray bullet had done what Chester had been unable to accomplish, and for the moment the lad was safe.
The second trooper now returned to the attack and engaged Chester fiercely. All this time the French were gradually being forced back, and of a sudden Chester found himself the center of a mass of German troops.
But the lad had no mind to give up. Throwing caution to the winds, he now struck out swiftly and sharply with his sword. Once or twice the thrusts went home. Chester felt a sting in his left shoulder. The bayonet of a German trooper had pricked him slightly. Chester whirled about and seized the bayonet with his left hand. A powerful wrench and it was wrested from the hands of the German soldier, who had been caught off his guard.
Without taking time to reverse the weapon, Chester hurled it in the faces of the foe who pressed in about him. It struck one man squarely on the forehead and he toppled over with a groan.
Again Chester laid about him with his sword, retreating slowly as he did so. The gas helmet that he wore impeded his progress somewhat, for it was strange to his head and felt uncomfortable. Now the lad realized for the first time that the Germans before him also wore the heavy helmets.
He aimed a blow at one man's breast and it went home. At the same moment a second German brought his rifle butt down upon the lad's sword and the weapon snapped off. Chester felt a second sting in his arm and then he felt a blow across the helmet.
There was a sudden roaring sound, Chester saw a million stars flash through the air; then he threw up his arms, made a move to step forward and crashed to the ground.
The last blow had broken open Chester's gas helmet and the lad was at the mercy of the poisonous vapors!
HAL TO THE RESCUE
At the same moment that Chester fell to the ground, the clear note of a bugle rang out from the German rear, sounding the recall. The attack was to be given up. The resistance of the French had been too much for the foe.
Hal, who had been retreating with the other French troops, turned a second before the recall was sounded just in time to see a single form that had been struggling with a knot of the enemy crash to the ground. Hal gave a loud cry, which was stifled by his gas helmet, for he felt sure that it was Chester.
It was at that moment the German bugle sounded the recall.
Hal dashed toward the spot where Chester had fallen. A score of enemy troops, perceiving his approach, stayed their retreat and offered him battle. Hal was nothing loath. He dashed toward them at top speed.
Other French troops, seeing one of their numbers dashing forward, and perceiving his peril, jumped to the rescue. Still more Germans turned and more French dashed forward. For a moment it seemed that the struggle would be renewed in spite of the order for a German recall.
Hal dashed among the foe with sword flashing aloft. Right and left he slashed and the Germans gave way before his fury. Then they closed in. Almost at the same moment the French troops came to his assistance. Again the recall was sounded from the German rear. The few of the foe who apparently had Hal at their mercy heeded this second call reluctantly. They drew off slowly, opening upon the advancing French with their rifles as they did so. The French returned the fire and the Germans retreated faster.
Apparently it was not the plan of General Domont to follow up the retreating Germans, for there came no order for a charge. Instead, the French commander apparently was satisfied with having broken down the German attack. He had no intention of sacrificing more of his men in a useless pursuit that would bring them again under the mouths of the big German guns.
Quickly Hal bent over Chester. The latter had fallen with his face on the ground, and this fact undoubtedly had saved his life. He was unconscious and his nose was buried in the dirt. He had almost suffocated, but this fact had saved him from the poisonous gases. Hal stripped the gas helmet from a dead French soldier and slipped it over Chester's head. Then he lifted his chum from the ground and started toward the rear, supporting the unconscious figure as well as he could.
Several French troopers ran to his assistance. Hal lowered Chester to the ground and put both hands under his chum's head. He motioned one of the French soldiers to take Chester's feet, and in this manner they carried Chester from the danger zone.
Hal did not rest easily until after a French surgeon had pronounced Chester little the worse for his experience. Two bayonet wounds in the lad's arm were found to be mere scratches.
"He'll pull round in a day or two," said the surgeon. "In the meantime it would be well to keep him as quiet as possible, though he is in no danger."
Hal thanked the surgeon, and leaving Chester in safe hands, sought out General Domont and explained the circumstances to him.
"And I would like to get him back to my own quarters," he concluded.
"Very well," said General Domont. "I shall place an automobile at your disposal."
The French officer was as good as his word and in a high-power motor car Hal and Chester, the latter having regained consciousness, were soon on their way to headquarters, Hal bearing General Domont's report on the morning's encounter.
Hal went first to the quarters of General Petain, where he delivered General Domont's report; then he accompanied Chester to their own quarters, where he made Chester as comfortable as possible.
He was just about to leave Chester alone, when another figure entered the tent. It was Stubbs.
"Hello, Mr. Stubbs," said Chester from his cot. "Where have you been all summer?"
"Summer?" said Mr. Stubbs, removing his overcoat. "This is the month of February."
"All right; have it your own way," said Chester.
"Well, I've just been having a look around," said Stubbs.
"Find out anything more about the conspiracy?" asked Hal.
"What conspiracy?" demanded Stubbs.
"Why, the one you were telling us about the other night," exclaimed Chester.
Stubbs looked at the lad critically.
"Wounded to-day, weren't you?" he asked.
"A trifle," returned Chester.
"Any fever?" asked Stubbs.
"No," said Hal. "Why?"
"Why? He's dreaming things. What's this conspiracy he's talking about?"
Chester sat up in his cot.
"You don't mean to tell me you don't remember what you told us about it?" he demanded.
Stubbs tapped his head with a significant gesture and nodded to Hal.
"Did you have a surgeon look at him?" he asked.
"Look here, Stubbs—" began Chester angrily.
"Here, here," interposed Hal. "You lie down there, Chester. I'll talk to our friend here."
At this Mr. Stubbs moved toward the outside.
"I've got to be going now," he announced.
"Well, you're not going to go until you tell me what all this foolishness is about," declared Hal.
"Yes, foolishness. You can't deny, can you, that you told us the other night you had unearthed a conspiracy of some kind?"
"I can," said Stubbs, "but I won't. It's my belief that there is something wrong with both of you. What would I know about a conspiracy?"
"That's what I would like to know," returned Chester, from his cot. "If you won't tell us, I've a notion to tell General Petain what you told us."
"I wouldn't if I were you," said Stubbs. "It wouldn't do you any good. He probably would think your wound had affected your mind. That's what I think."
"Oh, no you don't," said Hal. "You are just trying to keep the thing to yourself, whatever it is. Maybe you're going to slip it by the censor to the Gazette, eh?"
Stubbs made no reply.
"If I thought that, I would tell General Petain," declared Chester.
"It must be a great thing to have such imaginations," said Stubbs with something like a sigh. "Some of these days, if you like, I'll get you both jobs on the Gazette."
"Now look here, Stubbs," said Hal. "Laying all joking aside, are you going to tell us about this thing or not?"
"What thing?" demanded Stubbs.
"By George!" ejaculated Hal in exasperation. "You're the limit, Stubbs."
"Sure I am," was the little man's smiling response. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be in this tent with you."
"Stubbs," said Chester, a sudden idea striking him, "have we done something you don't like?"
"You have," was Stubbs' reply.
"By Jove!" said Hal. "We're sorry for that, Stubbs. We apologize. Will you tell us what we've done?"
Stubbs looked at the lad with a peculiar smile on his face. He was silent several moments before replying:
"You don't know, eh?"
"Of course not."
Stubbs shrugged his shoulders and started out of the tent.
"Say!" Chester called after him, "are you going to tell us or not?"
"Not!" said Stubbs briefly, and was gone.
"Now what do you think of that?" demanded Chester of his chum.
"There's something wrong with him," was Hal's reply. "I haven't any idea what it can be."
"Suppose it is because we were poking fun at him the other night?"
"I don't know. I don't believe he would take a thing like that to heart. However, you can't tell."
"Anyhow," said Chester, "we're not likely to find out what it's all about until he gets good and ready to tell us."
"You're right, there," returned Hal. "He can be as mum as an oyster when he wants to. Well, old boy, I'll leave you alone now and go out and look around a bit. Maybe I can stumble on this conspiracy Stubbs talks about."
"You mean the one he won't talk about," said Chester with a smile. "All right. Go ahead. I'll take a little snooze."
He rolled over on his side as Hal left the tent.
How long Chester slept he did not know, but it was dark in the tent when he opened his eyes.
"Wonder what can be keeping Hal?" he muttered to himself.
He had hardly had spoken the words when a form came through the entrance to the tent. Chester was about to speak, for he thought at first that it was Hal, but something seemed to tell him to remain silent. The lad, therefore, said nothing.
At second glance Chester realized that the figure that had entered the tent was not Hal. Neither was it Stubbs.
"Great Scott!" muttered the lad to himself. "Wonder who he is and what he wants here? He hasn't seen me though. Guess I'll wait and see what happens."
The lad stretched out a hand carefully and drew toward him a camp stool upon which he had laid his clothes before going to bed. Without a sound he secured one of his revolvers and straightened to a sitting posture.
"I'm ready for whatever happens," he told himself.
The intruder had now taken up such a position in the tent as to command a view of the entrance, shielded from sight himself. Chester saw something glisten in the man's hand.
"Gun," said the boy to himself. "Guess I can beat him to it."
Came footsteps without. They stopped just outside the tent. Chester saw the nocturnal visitor in the tent raise his revolver arm. Chester did likewise.
"I'll just shoot that gun out of your hand, my friend," he said quietly.
He took deliberate aim.
AN UNKNOWN ENEMY
The footsteps outside came nearer the entrance. Chester's finger tightened on the trigger of his revolver, as he saw the stranger in the tent draw himself taut.
At that moment Hal's figure appeared in the entrance.
There were two sharp cracks, so close that they seemed as one, and two spurts of flame in the darkness. Came a cry of pain from the stranger in the tent and Hal dashed forward.
"Quick, Hal! Grab him!" shouted Chester.
But quick as he was, Hal was not quick enough. With a snarl the man jumped toward Hal even as Hal leaped himself. The stranger was of much greater bulk than Hal and the lad was hurled to the ground. When he regained his feet the stranger had disappeared.
Chester, unmindful of his wound, had leaped from his cot and now ran outside. Some distance away he saw a figure disappear in the darkness. The lad did not fire a second shot, for at that distance he could not be sure of a hit and he did not wish further to alarm the camp.
Hal struck a light and the two chums looked at each other.
"Did you get a look at him, Hal?" asked Chester.
"No, did you?"
"No. He was in the tent for some time, but I waited until I was sure what he was going to do before I fired, though I had him covered all the time."
"You must be losing your eye. At that distance you should you should have potted him without trouble."
"I guess I could have done it this time had I tried," returned Chester. "I shot at his revolver."
"Well, I guess you hit it," said Hal. "There it is, right where he dropped it. But his bullet whistled pretty close to my ear."
"I suppose I shouldn't have taken a chance," said Chester. "Next time I'll shoot to hit something better than a pistol."
"Well, it doesn't make any difference now," said Hal. "He didn't get me. I wonder who he is and what he wanted to shoot me for?"
"You've got me, look at the gun and see if there is any mark of identification on it."
Hal stooped over and picked up the revolver. He examined it carefully and then passed it to Chester.
"Can't find anything," he said.
Chester examined the weapon with no better success.
"Well," he said at last, slowly, "there is one thing certain. You've an enemy of some kind in the camp. It will behoove you to be careful in the future."
"I suppose the bullet was meant for me," said Hal, "although, of course it might have been meant for either you or Stubbs."
"Great Scott! What would anybody want to shoot Stubbs for?"
"Well, you can search me," said Hal with a shrug of his shoulders, "which may not be very good English, but expresses my sentiments just the same."
"How about Stubbs' conspiracy? Maybe one of the conspirators has caught Stubbs nosing about."
"By Jove! It might be that, after all," said Hal. "I wonder!"
"At all events, we shall all have to be on our guard," declared Chester. "We don't know for which of us the bullet was meant. We'll have to warn Stubbs."
"So we shall, and if I mistake not here he comes now."
Hal was right. A moment later the rotund face of the little war correspondent appeared in the tent entrance.
"Stubbs," said Hal gravely, "you missed getting killed by just about five minutes."
The little man started back in alarm.
"Wha—what's that?" he demanded.
"I said you just escaped getting killed."
"But who would want to kill me?" demanded Stubbs, plainly very nervous.
"It might have been one of your conspirators," said Hal. He displayed the weapon from which a bullet had sped toward his own head.
"Hey!" shouted Stubbs. "Put that gun down! Don't shoot!"
The little man was so visibly frightened that Hal looked at him in surprise.
"Surely you didn't think I was going to shoot you, Mr. Stubbs?" he asked in some surprise.
"I don't know," returned Stubbs, wiping a moist brow with his handkerchief. "I don't understand you fellows at all. First you said you wanted to kill me five minutes ago and there you stand with a gun in your hand. What am I to think?"
"Stubbs, you're crazy," said Hal, calmly. "I didn't say I wanted to kill you. When I came into the tent just now there was a man took a shot at me. I don't know whether he wanted to kill me, or whether he wanted to kill you. He may even have been trying to kill Chester. He didn't take time to investigate. He fired at the first figure to enter the tent. I don't know who he was. Have you any enemies?"
"I—I—Why I don't know," said Stubbs.
"How about the conspirators. Do any of them know you?"
"What conspirators?" demanded Stubbs, and added, "I wish you would quit harping on that subject. It's all right to have a little fun with me once in a while. I don't mind it; but enough is enough."
Chester was about to make an angry retort, but Hal stayed him with a word.
"All right, Stubbs," he said. "If you don't know anything about a conspiracy you don't and that's all there is about that. But if you do, I should advise you to be careful. I believe that shot was meant for you."
"I am afraid that this tent is going to be dangerous for me," said Stubbs, slowly. "I shall remain here no longer."
"What! Not going to leave us, Stubbs?" exclaimed Chester.
"Yes," returned the little man quietly. "If I remain here I'm liable to wake up dead some morning, and I wouldn't like that. There's an expression in New York that hits me just right. 'Safety first!' I'm going to get out of this tent, and I'm going to get out right now, while I'm all together."
He hurried to the far side of the tent and got his belongings together. Then he moved toward the door. There he paused a moment, as if undecided, then walked up to Hal and extended a hand.
"Good-bye, Hal," he said quietly. "I may not see you for some time and then again it may be soon."
Hal took the hand as he said:
"Look here, Stubbs, we don't like to lose you."
"I know, I know," said the little man, "but it will be better for all concerned."
He approached Chester and extended a hand to him also.
"Come now, Stubbs," said Chester. "Drop those things back down there and go to bed."
"Not much," replied Stubbs grimly. "I'm going to hunt a safer spot than this."
He released Chester's hand and made his way to the door. There, just before moving away, he turned and spoke.
"Boys," he said, "we've been pretty good friends, the three of us, haven't we?"
"You bet we have, Stubbs," returned Chester warmly.
"We certainly have, Mr. Stubbs," Hal agreed.
"All right, then," said the little man. "You both have been good enough to tell me once or twice that I have been of some service to you."
"You certainly have, Mr. Stubbs," declared Hal, "and anything we can do to repay you—"
"Never mind that," said Stubbs with a wave of the hand. "All I want to say is this: If, at any time, within a day or two or within a month or two, I do anything you don't like, anything that puts you to some inconvenience—you will know that I am doing it for your own good—because I am fond of both of you and don't want to see you get in trouble."
"Say, Stubbs, what on earth are you talking about?" asked Chester in great surprise.
"Never mind what I'm talking about," returned Stubbs, half angrily. "I just want you to remember what I am saying."
"We'll remember, if that will do you any good," said Chester, "but I wish you would tell me what it is all about."
"I may not be talking about anything, and then I may be talking about a whole lot," was Stubbs' enigmatical response. "Time will tell."
"Time will tell what, Mr. Stubbs?" demanded Hal.
"Oh, rats!" said Stubbs. "I haven't time to stay here and talk to you fellows all night. Just remember what I said. That's all."
He stepped out the tent and was gone.
Hal and Chester gazed at one another in the utmost surprise.
"What in the time of the Czar do you suppose he was talking about?" asked Chester.
"I'm not good at conundrums," replied Hal. "He's got something on his mind, all right."
"Providing he has a mind left," agreed Chester.
"From the way he talked that fact is open to doubt," he replied.
"I didn't think he was a drinking man," said Chester.
"Oh, he was sober enough. By the way, did you notice his hesitation when I asked him if he had any enemies?"
"By George! I did. He couldn't answer. I'll bet he knows more about the man that fired that shot at you than he is willing to admit."
"It looks like it," Hal agreed. "From his actions, I would judge that the shot was meant for him."
"Exactly," said Chester, "and he knows who it was that fired it."
"Well, there is no use talking about it," declared Hal. "We can't possibly figure it out ourselves. One thing, though, we shall have to be on our guard. The unknown enemy may not know that Stubbs has moved and may try again."
"Right," said Chester. "We'll have to sleep with one eye open."
"Oh, we're safe enough to-night," said Hal. "He'll figure we'll be on the watch and will postpone his next visit for a day or two. By the way, old man, how do you feel?"
"First rate. I'll be as good as new in the morning."
"I hope so. In that event we had better get a little sleep."
"Then you don't think it necessary for one of us to stand watch?"
"No; here goes for bed."
IN THE TRENCHES
In some manner, known only to himself, Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent of the New York Gazette, had ingratiated himself with General Petain, the French commander at Verdun. General Petain, upon Stubbs' request, agreed that the little war correspondent should be allowed to make a tour of the city of Verdun and the surrounding fortifications and view for himself the effects of the siege thus far.
An officer of the general staff was assigned by the French commander to show Stubbs about. It was the first time a war correspondent had been admitted to Verdun and the surrounding fortifications; and because of the things that Stubbs learned on the tour, it is fitting that the reader take the trip with him.
The officer first led Stubbs to the highest point on the walls encircling Verdun and there explained the lay-out of the contending forces. From this point of vantage, commanding the battlefield, Verdun looked like the center of a huge saucer, with the town lying very low, while all around rose an even circle of crests forming the outer edge of the saucer.
The dangerous proximity of the Germans was apparent. At the time that Stubbs viewed the battlefield the armies of the Kaiser held a goodly portion of these crests, though the battle of Verdun was less than two weeks old.
An intermittent bombardment was in progress from Fort Tavennes, Fort Soueville, Fort St. Michael and Fort Belleville, which were barking steadily and giving off jets of black smoke. The German cannonade sounded like a distant roar. The shelling of Verdun was continuing.
Three hundred shells a day had been hurled into Verdun itself during the battle, Stubbs was informed by the French officer, upon one day as many as 750 having been counted; but the average was 300. As the two stood there a French aeroplane was attacked by a German gun, shrapnel bursting all around as the machine turned from the German positions and darted back to French cover.
The terrible course of the destruction was pointed out by the French officer. The town itself had been abandoned by the civil population, and even few troops were to be found there. Such shops and houses as had escaped the shells were closed and barricaded; and the shells continued to fall.
The streets were crumbling ruins, with only jagged walls remaining here and there. The cathedral had two shell holes in the roof; the main altar was a mass of debris and the side altar was littered with broken carvings, statues and chandeliers.
One wing of the handsome military club was torn off and the whole establishment was a wreck. The archbishop's residence had its famous sculptured walls peppered with shell holes and the adjoining College of Marguerite had its delicate stone filigree reduced almost to powder. The houses along the Meuse, flanking the principal bridge, were literally wrecked.
Sixteen great shells had struck the town hall; one corner of the building had been torn off and the clock tower smashed. The mayor's office was being used as an emergency butcher shop.
Stubbs' guide now led him to one of the inner forts of the fortifications, which was still shelling the Germans. From here Stubbs gained a view of the fighting ground of Fleury at close range. Over the entrance of the fort was a notice to the garrison that the fort was to be levelled in extremity and never surrendered.
Fleury, lying to the right of Verdun, showed not a house standing. The great German guns had carried all before them. The whole village was a mass of ruins. At the moment the village was in the hands of the French. It had been occupied twice by the Germans, but only the day before had again been captured by the French. Although Stubbs did not know it, the little village was to change hands a score of times more in the months that were to follow.
As Stubbs' guide pointed out the various points destroyed by German shells, he gave the little man an account of the fighting in each spot. He pointed out the advantages of earthen breastworks as against the solid walls of fortresses. The effectiveness of the former was very plain.
Stubbs and his guide now returned to the citadel of Verdun, where Stubbs thanked General Petain for being allowed to make the tour of inspection. Gathered about the commander were many members of his staff, who joined in the conversation. Stubbs could not but be impressed by the confidence manifested by the officers that Verdun could be kept from the Germans, and this in the face of the reverses of the past few days. The feeling was summarized in the closing word of General Petain, as he bade Stubbs farewell.
"Au revoir, Monsieur Stubbs," he said, "until you come back when our victory is complete!"
By a series of fierce counter assaults, the French now had driven the seasoned veterans of the German Crown Prince from Dead Man's Hill; from Hill No. 265, to the north, from Chattancourt and Charny. Back across the Meuse the Germans fled from the vicious attacks of the French. Second and third line trenches were re-won.
But the French did not stop there. The third day of March found them still pushing the Germans and as darkness fell that night, the troops of General Petain entrenched themselves just to the east of Thiaumont farm and Hill No. 320. A trifle to the south, Fleury was once more in German hands, the opposition in this sector having been too much for the French to overcome. Almost due east, German guns, wheeled into position at Fort Vaux, captured the preceding day, shelled the reconquered positions of the French; but the latter stood firm. All night the artillery duel raged and the coming of morning found both armies ready for the day's work.