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   Chapter 14 THE THRILL OF THE FIRE TRENCH

Uncle Sam's Boys with Pershing's Troops Dick Prescott at Grips with the Boche By H. Irving Hancock Characters: 12132

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Passing the two sentries at the front door the officers found themselves in a small ante-room.

Excusing himself, Captain Ribaut left the Americans briefly, but was speedily back.

"General Bazain is most eager to meet you, and has the leisure at this moment," the Frenchman announced.

He led his guests through the adjoining room, where half a dozen younger French officers rose hastily, standing at salute. Then on into a third room, just over the sill of which Captain Ribaut halted, bringing his heels quickly together as he called out:

"General Bazain, I have the honor to present to you four American officers, Major---"

And so on, through the list of names. The French divisional commander bowed courteously four separate times, taking each American officer by the hand with both his own, and finding something wholly courteous to say. He spoke in French, a tongue that only Major Wells and Captain Prescott understood well.

"My division is greatly honored, Messieurs les Officers," General Bazain continued when he had seen to the seating of his callers and had resumed his own chair behind a desk on which were spread many maps and documents.

"You have been having a smart fight this afternoon, sir?" inquired

Major Wells.

"Ah, yes, for some reason, the Huns have been trying to break through my division this afternoon, but they have not yet succeeded, nor will they," General Bazain added, his eyes flashing grimly.

He was a little man, short and thin, his hair well sprinkled with gray. He looked like one whom more than three years of war had borne down with cares, yet his eyes were bright and his shoulders squared splendidly whenever he stood.

"Here is a map of the divisional front, gentlemen, if you care to draw your chairs closer and look it over," proposed the general. "This shows not only our lines, but as much as we know of the enemy lines facing us. And I believe," he added, with another flash of pride, "that we know all there is to know of their lines for a kilometer back, except whatever may have been added since dark yesterday. We---"

He was interrupted by an explosion that shook the house. It sounded over their heads on the floor above.

"We have excellent air service at this point," General Bazain went on, his attention not wavering from the map. "And at this point, as you will see, we have five lines of trenches, one behind another, instead of three. It would take the Hun an uncommonly long time to drive my brave fellows back out of our five lines of trenches."

There followed a rapid description of the work of the division on that sector during the last four months. The two present first lines of trench had been taken from the Germans. Plans were now under way to stage a series of assaults which, it was hoped, would drive the Huns out of their three present first lines of trench and add them to the French system.

An officer wearing the emblem of the French medical service opened the door and glanced in.

"My general, you were not hurt by that bomb?" he cried anxiously.

"I had forgotten it," replied the French divisional commander.

"What was it?"

"A Hun airman dropped a bomb on the roof. It blew a hole in the roof and worked some damage in your bedroom overhead."

"It does not matter," said General Bazain simply.

Bang! bang! smashed overhead.

"It must be the same rascal, returning in his flight!" cried the medical officer, darting out into the yard to look up at the sky. A moment later anti-aircraft guns began to bark. Two minutes after the medical officer again looked into the room.

"We are fortunate to-day, my general!" cried the doctor. "That scoundrel will not bother you again. One of our shots wrecked his plane and brought the Hun down--dead."

Evidently, however, that airman of the enemy had given the location and range of division headquarters, for now a shell from a German battery struck and exploded in the yard outside, killing a sentry and wounding two orderlies. A second and a third shell followed. A fourth shell tore away the corner of the house without injuring any one.

"Your orders, my general, in case our observers can locate the Hun battery?" asked a staff officer, coming in from the next room and resting a hand on a telephone instrument.

"If the enemy battery can be located," replied General Bazain, "let it be destroyed."

Rapidly the staff officer sent his message to the artillery post of command.

"But surely you will go to a shelter?" asked the staff officer, laying down the instrument when he had finished.

"It will be inconvenient," sighed the division commander. "The light here is much better."

Yet General Bazain permitted himself to be persuaded to remove from this now highly dangerous spot. As he and his staff, accompanied by the visitors, stepped outside another shell exploded close at hand, fortunately without doing harm.

Descending to the cellar of a wrecked house near by, in the wake of their hosts, the Americans found the entrance to steps, cut in the earth, leading to a secure shelter on a level much below that of the cellar. Here were two rooms underground, both equipped with desks, lights, chairs, telephones and all that was needed for communicating with the ranking officers of the division at their posts in the trenches.

"It is stupid to have to work under candlelight in the daytime," sighed the division commander. "However, Major Wells, as I was explaining to you---"

Here recourse was again had to the maps, which the officers of the staff had brought along.

Before dark supper was served at division headquarters in this dug-out reached through the cellar of a ruined house.

"If it were not that I expect an attack tonight, and must be at my post, it would give me delight to go with you and show you our trenches," said the division commander at parting.

Private Berger had been summoned to lead the party through the intricate system of communication trenches to the front. Berger, who was a short, squat fellow with a sallow fac

e and uneasy black eyes, took his seat beside the soldier chauffeur.

For only a little more than a mile the Americans proceeded in the car, which then halted, and all hands stepped out into the dark night.

"From here on we must walk," announced Captain Ribaut. "Berger, be sure that you take us by the most direct route. Do not take us into the Hun trenches to-night."

"I know the way excellently, my captain," Berger replied briefly.

For some distance they walked over open country, made dangerous, however, by the presence of gaping shell-holes. Runners, soldiers and others passed them going to or from the trenches. The artillery duel, save for an occasional stray shot, had ceased on both sides.

"The road is steeper here," said Berger, halting after he had led his party half a mile through the darkness. "We now go up hill."

It was harder climbing, going up that incline. A quarter of a mile of this, and Lieutenant Terry suddenly found himself following the guide through a cut in between two walls of dirt higher than his head.

"We are in the communication trenches," said Berger in French. Noll gathered the meaning of the remark.

At every few yards there was a twist or a turn in the trench. At times they came to points where two trenches crossed each other. Had it been left to the Americans to find their own way they would have been hopelessly confused in this network and maze of intersecting ditches. Berger, however, proceeded with the certainty of one long familiar with the locality.

"Here is one of our defence trenches," said Captain Ribaut, halting at last and calling softly to Berger to stop. "This is our fifth line trench, formerly our third line. We have no men here, you will note, nor in the next line. In case of a heavy general attack men would be rushed up from the rear to occupy these two lines of trenches. We will proceed, Berger."

They were soon at the fourth line trench. At the third line trench they found sentries of the reserves on duty.

"The rest of the reserves are sleeping," Ribaut explained. "You will see their dug-out entrances as we pass along this trench, for I am taking you to the quarters of the battalion commander."

It was necessary to proceed along this third line trench for nearly a quarter of a mile before they came to a dug-out entrance before which a sentry and two runners crouched on the ground.

"Captain Ribaut and American officers present their compliments, and would see Major Ferrus," explained Ribaut.

A runner entered the underground shelter, speedily returning and signing to the visitors to descend the steps. Dick and his friends found themselves in an underground room of about eight by twelve. Around the walls were several bunks. At a table, which held a telephone instrument, sat Major Ferrus and two junior officers.

"It is quiet here, after the Hun assault of this afternoon," explained the French major when the Americans had been presented. "Captain Ribaut, you are taking our American comrades to the front line?"

"That is my instruction, Major."

"It is well, and I think you will find it quiet enough to-night for a study of the Hun line. Still one can never say."

A brief conversation, and the visitors returned to the outer air, where Private Berger awaited them. At the second line trench, which held the supporting troops for the first line, Ribaut took them to the captain of French infantry in command at that point.

"I will send Lieutenant De Verne with you," said the captain, and passed the word for that officer.

"Show our American comrades everything that can possibly interest them," was the captain's order.

"I shall do my best, my captain," replied the lieutenant. "But I do not know. The Huns are as quiet, to-night, as though they had tired themselves to death this afternoon."

Turning to Private Berger, Lieutenant De Verne added:

"You may find your way into one of the dugouts if you like, as you will hardly be needed for hours."

"But my orders, my lieutenant, were to remain with the American party," protested Private Berger mildly.

"Oh, very well, then," replied De Verne carelessly.

This time, instead of leading the way, Private Berger brought up the rear.

"You will do well to talk in low tones," the French lieutenant cautioned them in whispers, "for, when we enter the front line trench we shall be only about a quarter of a kilometer from the Huns' first line trench."

With that they started forward. A short stroll through a communication trench brought them to the first line ditch. As the ground was wet here duck-boards had been laid to walk on. The parapet was piled high with bags of sand through which loop-holes had been cunningly contrived for the French sentries who must watch through the night for signs of Hun activity. Over the rear wall of the trench was another built-up wall of sand-bags. This parados, as it was called, is intended to give protection against shrapnel, which often burst just after passing over a trench. Thus the parados prevents a back-fire of the bullets carried in the shrapnel shell, which otherwise might strike the trench's defenders.

"You may stand up here on the fire platform, if you wish," whispered Lieutenant De Verne to Dick in English. "If you do not think it too foolish to expose yourself, you will be able to look over the top of the parapet. First of all you will see our lines of barbed wire fencing and entanglements. Beyond the wire you will see open ground, much torn by shell-holes. Further still you will see the wire defenses of the German first trench, and then the parapet that screens the enemy from your gaze."

Hardly had the French lieutenant finished when Dick was up and peering with all his might and curiosity. Hardly an instant later the bark of a field-gun was heard to the northward. A whining thing whizzed through the air.

Then, into the trench in which the party stood something thudded, with, at the same instant, a sharp report, a bright flash, and the air was full of flying metal!

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