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   Chapter 5 THE DISPATCH-RIDER

The Wonder of War on Land By Francis Rolt-Wheeler Characters: 32895

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"Do you suppose," said Horace, after the veteran had gone, "that they'd let me join in the fight? It may begin any time, some one said."

"You wouldn't be any use," the hunchback answered, shaking his head. "What could you do?"

"I could try the cavalry, I ride pretty well," suggested the boy. "I used to live on a ranch when I was a kid."

His companion smiled indulgently.

"What do you know of bugle calls? What practice have you had with a saber? How much do you know about cavalry maneuvers? Why, boy, you'd bungle up a cavalry charge so badly that the kindest thing they could do would be to tie your hands together and let the horse do all the work."

Horace looked crestfallen but he knew his comrade was in the right.

"I'd like to be in the artillery, too," he said, "but I don't know anything about guns, and that's a fact. But the infantry?"

"You'd be no better there," Croquier answered frankly. "You couldn't even pack your kit. You don't understand the orders. You've never drilled. You don't know the first thing about it. With continuous work eight hours a day, it takes at least two years to make a real soldier. You don't know how to use a single weapon. You couldn't fix a bayonet. You don't know the workings of a Lebel rifle, which, by the way, is the only repeating rifle used in modern armies."

"What are all the rest?"

"Magazine rifles."

"What's the difference?"

This time Croquier was at fault. He called to a soldier who was strolling near by, smoking his pipe.

"As a matter of fact," the soldier said, when the question was put to him, "all magazine rifles are repeaters, though they are not called so. The Lebel is an old type and has a tube fitted in the rifle under the barrel, the cartridge being fed onto the carrier by a spiral spring and plunger, the advancing bolt carrying the cartridge into the chamber."

"And the other armies, what gun have they got?"

"Germans and Belgians have a Mauser, Austrians use a Mannlicher-and the British have a short Lee-Enfield. All of them have magazines under the bolt way for containing cartridges and can be loaded with a clip, which is quicker."

"Which is the best?"

"The Lee-Enfield, by far, so the experts say," the rifleman answered, "because it's shorter, easier to handle, and carries ten cartridges in its magazine against the Mauser's five. But," and he patted his rifle affectionately, "I like my Lebel better than any of them, maybe because I'm used to it. The Mannlicher, though, is very accurate. It's a good weapon for sniping."

"This lad," the hunchback remarked, "wants to jump right into the fighting-line without joining the army or ever having handled a gun."

"You'd get shot for nothing, boy," the soldier replied, halting as he strode off. "One trained soldier is worth fifty raw civilians. The greenhorn wastes ammunition, eats food, and is no manner of good. He's sick half the time. When there's an advance he wants to lead the way and runs into the fire of his own artillery. When there's a retreat, he starts a panic. When he's on sentry-duty he hears a suspicious noise about once in every three minutes. When he's told to do something he doesn't like, he tries to argue about it. If you want to be a soldier, boy, join it in the right way and learn your soldiering like a man. Then, if a war comes, you can do your duty until you're killed; or, if you're invalided home crippled, or blinded, or with a serious wound which will prevent you from further fighting, you can thank your stars that you were born lucky."

"And I did so want to fight!" said Horace mournfully, as the infantryman moved away.

"You may have the chance," remarked the hunchback, a curious glint in his eyes. "How long do you think the war will last?"

"A month or two?" hazarded the boy.

"I shouldn't be surprised if it lasted a year or two," came the reply, "that is, unless the Germans smash our lines before we have a chance to stiffen them."

"Well," said Horace, "if it lasts a year or two, I can learn!"

"Yes," said Croquier, "we'll all learn."

That afternoon, the officer sent for Horace and his companion.

"Namur has fallen!" he said, as soon as they were alone.

Croquier's jaw fell.

"Already, sir!" he said. "I thought it wouldn't hold out very long."

"Yes," said the officer, "Von Buelow seems to have learned from Liége. You were there, were you not?"

"I was, sir," the hunchback answered; "we lived just a mile from Fort Embourg."

"Did you see any of the fighting?"

"Only the bombardment."

"Or hear any details?"

"Yes, sir," Croquier replied, "mainly from the wounded. I was in hiding, though, and the lad, here, heard more than I did."

Thus prompted, Horace told all that he knew of the story of the attack on Liége, of the fearful loss of life in the massed attacks and of the valor of the defense, as he had been told by the wounded officers and men nursed by Aunt Abigail.

"They never gave us a chance like that," the officer sighed. "Namur had no defense. Von Buelow's too wise a fox of warcraft to waste men when guns will do the trick. It seems he brought his 42-centimeter guns into position five miles from Namur about sundown yesterday. All the ranges had been tested out by the bombardments during the two days before with the lighter guns.

"Last night the real bombardment commenced. The shells were directed into the trenches, first, where General Michel and his men were eagerly awaiting the chance to mow down Germans as Leman did at Liége. They never saw a German. The hail of death on those trenches was so furious that no troops could live through it. There was no resistance. The guns of the forts could not reply, they were outranged. There was no possibility of a counter-attack, for scouts reported the Germans in force. For ten hours a scythe of shells swept the defenses. Not a man lifted his head above the parapet but was killed. The trenches were leveled flat. Few officers survived.

"By morning," the officer continued, "the Belgians could stand the tornado of slaughter no longer. The decimated troops fled from the trenches, leaving a gap between Forts Cognelée and Marchovelette. The Germans then turned their fire on the forts. Fort Maizeret received 1200 shells, at the speed of twenty to the minute, but was only able to reply with ten rounds. In that sixty minutes, the fort was reduced to a mass of crumpled masonry and a few shreds of armor-steel. Others of the forts, on which the 42-centimeters were turned, were blown to atoms with less than half a dozen shells. By ten o'clock this morning, five of the forts were silenced and the German infantry poured through the gap.

"We sent a cavalry brigade, mainly of Chasseurs d'Afrique, and two Turco and Zouave regiments up to stiffen General Michel's defense, but they arrived too late to be of any use to the Belgian infantry. It would have been madness for Michel to have faced that fire any longer.

"Before the war, we had expected," the officer continued, "that the forts of Namur would hold the enemy back for three weeks. After Liége, we hoped that they would hold out three days. They did not hold out three hours. Apparently there is nothing made by the hands of man that can resist the incredible destructiveness of those huge high-explosive shells. Our point of defense will have to be at Charleroi. Our airmen report a gap between the armies of Von Buelow and Würtemberg. You said, this morning, that you had seen troops in between. It is excessively important. Tell me again, exactly, and with all the detail that you can remember."

Croquier repeated his information of the morning, Horace supplementing from time to time. When he had finished, the officer tapped his fingers meditatively on the table.

"You're sure you can't tell me where they came from, who commands them, or what regiments they are?"

Croquier was silent.

"I'm not sure," said Horace, after racking his brain, "but I think the woman whose boy was killed, said that Saxons had done it."

"Saxons, h'm! Well, that's a slight clew. I hope you're wrong, because the Saxons are about the best troops in the German Army, pretty clean fighters, too, as a rule. I hope you're wrong," he repeated; "we're in a desperate position and we need three days' time."

Little, however, did the officer, with all his special information, suspect the nearness of the impending blow. Even at the time that he was speaking, a detachment of German hussars had crossed the Meuse near Namur, ridden through Charleroi and trotted on towards the Sambre. At first they were mistaken for British hussars, to whose uniform theirs was similar. Soon, however, they were recognized and driven back, with the loss of a few killed and wounded. Simultaneously, an artillery engagement began between the armies of Lanrezac and Von Kluck at the bridges above and below Charleroi.

In the afternoon, that part of Langle de Cary's army to which Horace and Croquier had irregularly attached themselves moved north. The two fugitives followed, not because they were wanted, but Croquier had been told to stay and Horace, although he had been told to go back with the refugees, had not been served with a point-blank military order. He decided to chance it, not being punishable for disobedience as a soldier. The boy was wild to see a battle, if there should be one, but Croquier forbade his attaching himself to any infantry regiment. He, himself, had made friends with one of the gunners of a "Soixante-Quinze" and the battery was delighted with being chosen as the escort of the "captive Kaiser." The battery-commander took the boy under his protection, feeling that this was better than setting him adrift and took on himself the responsibility of seeing that the lad should be sent on to Paris that night.

"But I won't see the fight, back here with the artillery," persisted Horace.

A gunner looked round at him with his mouth twisted on one side.

"I hope you're right, my boy," he said. "I'm thinking we'll see too much of it."

"I don't want to see a lot of battles," reiterated the lad, "I just want to see one!"

As though his words had conjured it up, with startling suddenness, rifle-fire broke out near by. It sounded like the crackling of dry wood in an immense bon-fire. Horace looked up eagerly and listened for the heavy booming of the artillery. None was to be heard.

"Don't they use big shells, except on forts?" he asked.

"They'll come before long," the gunner answered. "Something's going to happen. I feel it in the air."

Infantry regiments swung by, marching north, with the quick, French step.

Though late in the afternoon, the sun was hot, the air sultry. The men were tired, grim, and silent. The faces were young, but every man had white eyebrows and either a gray beard or a gray stubbly chin. It took a moment's thought to realize that this was the effect of dust and not a regiment of old men. So thick was the dust that even the red of the breeches was absolutely hidden as the men marched on.

From over the hill, a machine-gun began its continuous death-bark.

"That means close action," said the hunchback. "They must be on us."

Horace felt his desire to see a battle slipping away quite rapidly.

"Probably action against cavalry," Croquier continued. "I hope so. We're considerably too close for an infantry attack to be comfortable."

Then, with majestic grandeur, the heavy artillery began to speak. As it opened, the crackling of the rifle-fire spread all round the horizon and the machine-guns yapped from a hundred points ahead. But, over all, the great guns boomed. It was as though, in the middle of a fight between terriers, two lions had sprung into the arena and deafened all other noise with their roars.

"Clear for action!"

At the words of the battery commander, every man of the crew of the "Soixante-Quinze" sprang to his post. The gun-numbers, who had been clustered about the "captive Kaiser," reached their places with a single spring.

"Attention!"

French Official Photograph.

French Infantry Advancing.

From "Illustrirte Zeitung."

German Infantry Advancing.

Horace watched the deft movements of the artillerists, as they made sure that the sighting-gear was in place and that the training and elevating levers were working smoothly.

"You wanted to see fighting, Horace," said Croquier, pointing with his finger, "well, look!"

In the dull, hot afternoon haze, the boy saw black figures which seemed no larger than ants run up the hillside, far, far ahead and then suddenly disappear as they threw themselves down. Jets of up-thrown earth showed where the shells were striking, and a rising cloud of dust, like to that raised by a tooth-harrow being dragged over plowed land on a dry day, told, to accustomed eyes, the terrible tragedy of the curtain of leaden hail.

"Gun-layers-forward!" came the sharp command.

A pause.

"That twisted willow, two points this side of the church-steeple."

"We see it."

"Use that!"

The commander gave the elevation and the range.

The guns were laid, the breeches returning smoothly to rest with their burden of death.

"All ready, sir."

"First round!"

Fear lay heavy on Horace, but an overmastering desire to watch the modern gladiatorial arena, drove him to look.

The firing number bent down to seize the lanyard.

"Fire!"

His experience at Beaufays had taught the boy to put his fingers to his ears, but it was the first time he had heard a .75, the famous "Soixante-Quinze" which the French believed-and rightly-to be the best field-gun in the world. It cracked deafeningly, stridently. The flame which darted out of the muzzle was long and thin and seemed to lick the air as though envious of the shell's flight. The smell of the powder was acrid and bitter, somewhat like the taste of an unripe persimmon, Horace thought.

"One thousand, five hundred!" the battery commander called.

And Number One of the gun crew repeated:

"One thousand, five hundred."

"Fire!"

The men worked as in a frenzy, loading, extracting, and loading again.

The shells, twelve to a minute, poured out of the flame-belching muzzle of the gun.

The gun-crew fell back to mechanical automatic speed, muscle and sinew moving with the precision of things of steel. Cartridge-cases littered the ground in irregular piles, smoking for a minute where they fell.

"Cease firing!"

The gunners drew their hands over their foreheads, black with dust and sweat.

"Hot work!" said one.

On the hillside, far away, the little dots who were men jumped up to run ahead and then fell to earth once more. Some never rose again.

"Is the enemy on this side of the hill?" Horace asked.

"No," answered Croquier, "on the other side."

"Then the Germans can't see us?"

"No."

"Why, then, do our fellows go ahead in short bursts? If they're not in sight of the Germans, what difference does it make if they stand up or lie down?"

"The difference between being shot and not being shot," replied the hunchback. "A modern rifle, using smokeless powder, will send a bullet 700 yards with an almost flat trajectory, that is to say, the bullet does not have to curve upwards much in order to reach its mark. Therefore every man standing up, within the distance of 700 yards, who is in line with that bullet, can be hit by it. A man, lying down, can only be hit by a bullet which is dropping to earth, so that the zone of danger is low. For example, a man standing at 1000 yards range is in a danger zone 65 yards wide, within which he will be shot; if lying down, the danger zone is reduced to 13 yards, or, in other words, he is five times as likely to be shot when standing up, irrespective of the fact whether the enemy can see him or not."

The sonorous tumult of the battle increased steadily. The dome of the sky beat like the parchment of an angry drum. High-explosive shell and shrapnel was bursting overhead, filling the air with splinters of shell and bullets. Now and again a clang on the gun-shield of the "Soixante-Quinze" told of some fragment that would have brought death to the gun-crew in default of such protection.

Horace, crouched down behind the gun-shield, watched a tall thistle, swaying in the breeze a couple of arm's-lengths away, and found himself wondering what would happen to him if he were lyin

g there.

He never saw the answer to his question. Suddenly, the thistle was no more to be seen, probably cut athwart by a splinter of shell.

In the heat of that August afternoon, Horace shivered. He was not precisely afraid, his experience in the woods near Embourg had freed him of fear, but death seemed very near. If this were battle, he had seen enough.

"Ah!" muttered a gunner, "they're falling back."

The wooded hill became alive with columns of infantry. They broke out of the woods, some still holding their formations under the orders of their officers, others scattered and disorganized. The roar of the artillery took on a wilder howl, as the high-explosive shells gave place to a larger proportion of the shriller-voiced shrapnel.

"They think they have us on the run," remarked the gunner.

"They have!" said Croquier gravely.

The infantry drew nearer, passing on the road just below the gun position, stricken, beaten, war-dulled-and dismayed. It does not take many minutes of fighting in the open against machine-guns to break the spirit and numb the hope of victory. A machine-gun spitting 600 bullets to the minute, swaying its muzzle from side to side like a jet of murder, is the material embodiment of the very spirit of slaughter. These men had seen it and terror had taken up its dwelling in their eyes. Panic and discipline struggled for the mastery.

But, as always, blood tells. The guns belched death behind them and carnage rode, shrieking, on the blast, but their officers were there, cool and masterful. On the very verge of disgraceful rout, the French steadied to the words of command from leaders whom they not only admired and respected, but loved.

In spite of the magnificent evidence of courage, Horace groaned.

"We're licked!"

Tattered remnants of troops, wounded, half-delirious, many without rifle or pack, surged back. The torrent of smitten humanity filled the road. The weaker were pushed into the ditch. Not a man but had bleared eyes looking wildly out of sweat-rimmed sockets. The way was littered with mess-tins, cartridge belts, kepis and broken rifles. But training, only a little less strong than the instinct of life itself, came to their aid. The sight of an officer brought the hand to the forehead in salute, and the gesture brought back the sense of control. Even as the regiments fled, they reformed.

Horace bit his parched lips.

"Are we going to stay here and be killed?" he cried.

The hunchback, his iron will unmoved by the imminent peril, answered in a perfectly even tone,

"None of the guns have moved."

Harsh and wild, the air overhead screamed like a living thing. Men dropped on every side. The road of flight was a shambles.

"Won't they even try to save the guns?" gasped the boy, battling with panic.

"Second round!" remarked the battery commander, as calmly as though on maneuvers.

"A man!" declared Croquier admiringly, under his breath.

"But everything's lost!" gasped Horace.

"Is it?" said the hunchback.

"In echelon!" came the order, followed by correction and range for each gun.

"Eight hundred and fifty!"

"... and fifty!"

"Fire!"

The battery had scarcely fired, the first shell was but half-way on its mission of revenge, when, as though at a signal, a dozen other batteries replied.

A cloud of men in iron-gray uniforms topped the hill, met the concentrated fire of those batteries of seventy-fives and melted into a gray carpet on the earth which would never stir again.

Sweeping up through the scattered and broken troops, as jaunty and full of fight as though they had not been marching for hours and had not encountered the débris of a defeat, came the French reserves. They cheered as they passed the battery.

"Back us up!" they cried.

"Third round," said the battery commander.

The guns roared again, and under their fire, the Germans broke and fled, deserting some of their guns. As they wavered and gave way, the French cavalry, who had been waiting their chance, charged down and cleared the hillside of the last invader.

"Cease firing!" came the order.

The gunners threw themselves down on the grass to rest.

Then, from the rear, came a new sound, a whip-like crackle, of little sharp explosions, rapidly coming nearer.

"That's a queer machine-gun," said one of the gunners, listening.

"It's not a gun," put in Horace, whose composure had begun to return when the cavalry made their triumphant dash, "it's a motor-cycle. I used to ride one in Beaufays."

The dispatch-rider whizzed by on the road below. The men watched him, and, ignoring their own dangers, one of the gunners remarked,

"It takes a hero or a fool to risk his neck in that part of the work!"

A dragoon galloped up with orders for the officers of the battery.

"Limber up!"

Instantly all was excitement. The gun was to take up a new position. The German infantry rush had failed, but the artillery halted not its tempest of shell.

Three of the horses had been killed. This left only five for the gun. They strained at their collars, but the wheels had sunk in the soft soil.

The shrapnel whined murderously. Another horse fell.

"Peste!" cried the hunchback.

He thrust the cage into Horace's hands, ran up to the wheels of the gun, where two gunners were lifting, shouldered the men aside, stooped and put his tremendous strength into the heave and the gun jerked forward.

"Hey, but you are strong!" said the sergeant.

"But yes," the hunchback replied, "I am almost as good as a horse."

The guns moved off at a sharp trot.

Horace and the hunchback jumped on the rear of the ammunition wagon. They had not gone a hundred yards when a shrapnel bullet struck one of the gun-drivers in the head and he fell.

The horses commenced to plunge.

There was a moment's confusion, and, before any one could say a word, Horace had dropped from the wagon, run forward to the gun and leapt on the plunging horse. Old memories of the ranch came back to him and the rearing animal quieted at once.

The gun-team trotted on.

The keen eye of the major caught the strange figure on the horse.

"Where do you come from, boy?"

Horace saluted, trying hard to do it with military precision, and explained.

Courtesy of "L'Illustration."

"They Do Not Pass!"

"The Veteran's Advice."

Two famous pictures by Georges which awoke red-hot interest in France at the beginning of the war.

"But you may be shot, there!" the major remarked, in a conversational tone of voice, as he cantered beside the gun-team.

"If you'll excuse me, sir," said the boy, "but I'm in no more danger than the rest of us."

"But that of course!"

"It is 'that of course' for me, too, sir, if you'll let me," Horace said.

The major smiled under his grizzled mustache and galloped on.

The road was cut into deep ruts and great care was needed in driving, for the ditches were filled with wounded. To lighten the loads, the gunners ran alongside the guns and ammunition wagons. Darkness fell over the scene. The battle came to a lull. Night covered the slaughter. Never in his life before had Horace been so glad to see the dark.

The boy's first battle was over.

None of the gun crew, now, rode on the limbers. Every available point on which a man could lie or sit was crowded with wounded. Many of the wounds were terrible, but few of the sufferers complained.

One man was lifted off, dying, as the battery stopped for a moment.

"Is it the end?" he asked.

"I'm afraid so, my boy," said the major.

"My mother wished to give a son to France. Tell her she is victorious!" and he died.

Said another, when the surgeon told him that one leg would have to be amputated,

"Only one, my doctor? Then France has made me a gift of a leg. I was willing to give her both."

The battery passed on through the village. There were no cries of welcome. The women gave food to the soldiers, all silently. With a noble restraint, moreover, none of the women raised a word of blame. The men drove through with hanging heads, downcast, humiliated by the mute reproach in the eyes of the villagers, who knew they were being abandoned to their fate by their own army, which was powerless to aid them. The morrow would bring ruin, brutality, and massacre.

It was late in the evening before the battery halted and Horace took his turn in watering the horses and doing the chores of a driver attached to a gun. Croquier, in a manner attached to the battery, felt he could be of principal service in trying to secure information. When he returned, his expression was full of concern.

"What's happened?" Horace asked sleepily.

The reply came like a shot from a gun,

"The Germans have reached Charleroi!"

Horace pondered for a minute to think what this might mean, then raised himself on his elbow, suddenly wide-awake.

"That smashes the corner!" he cried. "They've pierced our line! The whole strategy is gone!"

"Not quite," said the hunchback grimly, "but unless something happens to-morrow, it will be smashed."

Therein, Croquier was right. The next day, Saturday, August 22, Von Buelow attacked Charleroi in full strength. The two main bridges east and west of the city, at Chatelet and Thuin, fell under the impact of the combined light and heavy field howitzers, and, before noon, Charleroi was in German hands. Von Buelow thrust swiftly round the eastern end of the Fifth French Army, in order to roll up its flank and force it into the arms of Von Kluck for annihilation.

"Unless something happens to-morrow!" Croquier had said.

That something did happen.

The Chasseurs d'Afrique, Turco and Zouave troops which had been detached from the Fourth Army to help the Belgians at Namur, arrived unexpectedly in Charleroi during the middle of the engagement. They were too late to keep the Germans from entering the city, but not too late to drive them out again, not too late to put a spike in Von Buelow's plan to flank the Fifth Army.

In all the history of modern war, there has never been more savage street-fighting, hand to hand, tooth and claw, sword and bayonet, than in Charleroi. The Germans were more than five to one, but they could not stand cold steel. The onslaught of the French colonials was a spume of wrath that the invaders dared not face. They fled like gray rats.

Then, upon doomed Charleroi, crashed the full force of the German field artillery. Church steeples and foundry chimneys fell like dry sticks before a whirlwind's blast, factories crumbled into ruin under the disintegrating effects of high explosive shells, burying French and Belgian defenders in the ruins. The blue sky overhead was gray with the web of flying steel, the gutters of the streets ran red.

Trebly re?nforced, the Germans charged Charleroi again. Here were no modern tactics, here was no battle born in the military schoolroom, but a savage, primitive combat, where each man fired, stabbed, thrust and clubbed to save himself and to fell his foe. Though outnumbered ten to one, the French drove the sharp-biting rats, back, back, and back beyond the outskirts of the town.

Again the artillery deluged Charleroi with an avalanche of shell.

Again the German infantry charged forward, now twenty to one, all fresh troops, against the wearied but still defiant Turco and Zouave regiments. The torrent was irresistible and Charleroi was again in German hands.

This was the moment for which the French artillery had been waiting. No sooner was Charleroi filled with German troops than the French guns hammered at the shattered town. The French Army, however, had almost ignored the development of howitzers, which proved so valuable to the Germans. They had but few of their 3.9-inch (105 mm.) and 5.7-inch (155 mm. Rimailho) guns available for a reply to the German batteries and they could not retake the town. About midnight, the city burst into flames.

That same Saturday had been one of disaster, also, for the Fourth Army, though in a lesser degree. Horace had partaken in the retreat from Givet, though, naturally, he did not know the character of the engagement, the night before. All next morning he stayed by the battery, acting as a driver, but the battery was not in action more than an hour. The army suffered heavily, but retreated in good order, the line stiffening, and holding the Germans in check. The battery slept that night on heaps of straw in a little chapel.

A dispatch-rider on a motor-cycle whizzed by. He was traveling thirty or forty miles an hour on a road which was nothing more than a series of holes and ruts. A few guns fired from time to time, but the air reverberated with the grumbling breathing of that master of modern war-petrol.

At half-past two o'clock the sergeant came.

"Get up there, Battery Two. There's coffee ready outside."

The little red lamp over the altar in the chapel burned steadily and comfortingly; the red camp fires in the village streets wavered in the chill air of the early morning. A heavy dew had fallen. The German guns were beginning to speak in the distance, but, as it seemed, sleepily and sulkily.

"Those are the ten- and thirteen-centimeter pop-guns," said a gunner, listening.

"And they've all the seventy-sevens in the world, there," added another, "hear those bunches of sixes coming over!"

The sky was still dark enough to show the distant flashes of the heavier guns, like the glare from the eyes of a herd of giant beasts of prey.

As the day lightened, in the half-dawn, the columns of earth upthrown by the shells seemed like gray specters that appeared for a moment and then vanished. An 8.2-inch (220 mm.) shell buried itself in the ground behind the battery, drawn up at the edge of the village, waiting for orders to take up position, and then, thirty seconds after, exploded like a miniature volcano.

From the distance came the clacking of the motor-cycle.

"That's the dispatch-rider again," muttered Horace, turning to watch the flying rider, though his ears warned him of a heavy shell humming on its way, and a few seconds later, the wind of its passage blew cold upon his cheek.

The next second, the earth heaved itself up as though a subterraneous monster were emerging from its lair, and the 10.1-inch (270 mm.) shell[14] burst with a slow majestic grandeur. A tree near by, at whose roots the shell had fallen and burrowed, was tossed into the air like a twig. In the pattering silence as the fragments of the shell and earth hurled outward, a shrill human scream penetrated.

Through the cloud of salmon-colored dust, with its gagging acrid fumes, could be seen the motor-cycle. It had plunged off sharply from the road, jumped a low ditch and was stuck fast in a thick, dense hedge. The motors were running still. The rider-

Horace jumped from the back of the wheel-horse, followed by a couple of the gunners, and ran across the road. The lad stopped the motor while the gunners lifted the cyclist from the saddle. He was terribly mangled. Horace turned his eyes away, in spite of himself.

"Let me go on!" cried the rider, in a voice so full of agony that it was almost a screech. "I have dispatches."

They laid him down on the grass by the edge of the road, grass scorched and crispened by the explosion.

The dispatch-rider looked up and saw the major, who had hurried to the scene.

"Dispatches! They are life or death for France!" he gasped.

The major stooped down and the wounded man guttered out a few sentences, while feebly trying to reach the paper he bore.

Life was ebbing fast, but though the man's sufferings must have been intense, he said no word of himself. Only he cried out again.

"I have dispatches!"

Then the major, in order that the gallant soldier should not die in the despair of an unaccomplished trust, answered, in a firm tone,

"They shall be delivered. I promise it."

The dispatch-rider smiled through all his pain.

"My France!" he whispered proudly, and tried to salute the officer.

The major laid his hand lightly on the terribly torn body.

"It is not you, who salute me," he said, "but I, who salute you!"

With those words in his ears, the dispatch-rider joined the immortal host of the dead heroes of France.

* * *

FOOTNOTES:

[14] In strict accuracy, this particular type of gun was not in use until the following spring.

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