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   Chapter 6 RETREAT! RETREAT!

The Wonder of War on Land By Francis Rolt-Wheeler Characters: 36701

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


There were tears in the major's eyes as he rose, and he unaffectedly wiped them away.

"Major Fouraud, sir," said Horace eagerly, "let me take the dispatches. The machine isn't injured a bit."

"You ride a motor-cycle also?" the major asked.

"Yes, sir. I had one in Beaufays, not this make, but one a good deal like it."

The officer pondered.

"My battery may go into action at any minute," he said, "and there's been no chance to send you to the rear. I certainly have not the right to keep you with the battery. The dispatches are important. Minutes are precious and I do not know where to find a messenger. Well, then, you shall go."

He drew the boy aside, out of hearing.

"I will tell you the message," he said, "that, if anything happens, you can pass on the word and the dispatch. Charleroi is in German hands."

"So Croquier told me last night," ejaculated the boy.

"Pay attention," said the Major, curtly. "This dispatch is in reply to a message from the Fourth Army, asking for support. The reply is that this army will move its left wing north to join the Fifth Army, falling back on Philippeville and presenting a united front to the armies of Von Buelow and Würtemberg. You understand?"

"Perfectly, sir," the boy answered, biting his tongue to keep from repeating his information concerning the German army which lay in between.

"Off with you, then," said the major, "and good fortune!"

Horace clambered into the saddle of the motor-cycle, snatching a look at the road map which had been found in the dispatch-rider's pocket and started off at full speed. The cheers of his former companions of the battery, led by the loud bellow of Croquier, reached his ears as he rounded a turn of the road. All this had happened before the rising sun had cleared the horizon. He waved his hand in reply.

His motor-cycle ate up the miles to Anthée and Rosée and he tore up to Florennes with a fine burst of speed. Just before reaching the village, the boy thought he caught a glimpse of spiked helmets at a farmhouse window and he slackened speed for caution.

It was well that he did so.

Trotting rapidly, straight for him, was a squadron of cavalry, and, on the slope of a hill beyond the town, Horace saw column after column of the iron-gray infantry.

He stopped, jumped from the saddle before the wheels had ceased to turn, and whirled the heavy machine around as though it were a racing bicycle. Well he knew that on a narrow road, such a maneuver was far quicker than trying to make a turn. In a second he was in the saddle and had started off again, leaning low over the handle bars as he put on full speed.

A volley of bullets followed him, but scattering and most of them wild, for the cavalry had been utterly unprepared for this sudden vision of a motor-cycle twisting around a bend of the road. No sooner, however, did it become clear that the boy was in full flight than the Uhlans realized he must be an enemy and started in pursuit.

Courtesy of "The Graphic."

"We've Got Them Licked, Boys!"

Wounded sergeant-major being borne off the field by German prisoners, cheering the reservists going to the front.

If all went well, on his fast machine the boy could afford to laugh at the speed of a galloping horse, but he had a lurking fear of the spiked helmets he thought he had seen in the farmhouse.

Was he ambushed?

At the sound of the volley, two soldiers had run out of the farmhouse. Seeing the motor-cycle driving straight at them and the Uhlans galloping behind, the riflemen prepared to fire.

Lacking an officer's direction and unaccustomed to judging the speed of an oncoming motor-cycle-that particular form of target not having been included in the German drill-book-the soldiers waited a second too long. Horace swerved to one side of the road as their rifles came up and, with the speed of the wind, he was between them.

One of the soldiers put out his hand to grab the flying rider.

Horace was conscious of a sudden desire to drive straight into his foe and scatter his brains on the road, but prudence reminded him that, in such case, he might not be able to control his machine. Ignoring vengeance, he shot between the soldiers like a thunderbolt and was half a mile or more ahead when the Uhlans reached the farmhouse.

He turned off a side-road not marked on his map, and, seeing an old peasant working in his fields, halted to secure information as to a possible route.

"Have any Germans passed here?" he asked.

"Just before daybreak, they did," the old man answered. "Saxons, they were. They didn't do me any harm, though. They went over the fields that way," and he pointed to the left.

"Is there any road from here to Walcourt?" the boy asked, studying his map, fearing that his road was cut off entirely.

"There's a foot-path," said the peasant, "but it's too narrow for that machine of yours."

"Has any one gone that way?"

"Only some children."

"I'll tackle it," said Horace, remembering the way in which Croquier and he had slipped through all the German armies by keeping away from the roads. Any foot-path, however narrow and stony, was better than encountering the Saxon advance-guard.

It was not long before he overtook the children of whom the peasant had spoken. There were three of them, a girl about fourteen years old and two boys of seven and five years old. They shrank into the bushes when they heard the motor-cycle behind.

Horace stopped and asked them details of the way.

The girl was terror-stricken, but on finding out that Horace was not a German, told him all she knew.

"You've been hurt!" the boy said, sympathetically, noticing the boys' arms were bandaged.

The girl looked at Horace with a brooding rage and fear in her eyes.

"The Germans cut off both their right hands," she said, fiercely.

"But they're going to grow again, Marie!" exclaimed the youngest boy, whose face was streaked with tear-stains. "You said so!"

The girl looked pleadingly at the young dispatch-rider. He read the look aright, realizing that the girl had tried to soften the blow to the children. So, to help lift the terrible burden of the girl and to ease the pain of the little ones, he answered cheerfully,

"Oh, yes, they'll grow again, right enough!"

But Horace, as he rode on slowly over the faint footpath, which was shaking his machine to pieces, laid up this cruelty as another item in the long black count against Germany. Thousands of boys in Belgium and in northern France have been deliberately crippled for life, so that, when they grow old enough, they will not be able to carry arms to aid in the revenge which the world will inflict on Germany.[15]

Walcourt, as Horace approached it, was evidently the scene of fighting, but an orderly from a Chasseur regiment told him where to find headquarters, and the boy whirled past, south of the village, on another road. In spite of all his adventures, he had been only two hours in the cycle-saddle when he reached his goal. There he had a great deal of difficulty passing the sentries, owing to the lack of a uniform. He was still wearing the woolen shirt that Aunt Abigail had thrown out of the window and the bloodstained clothes in which he had picked up little Jacques Oopsdiel, a week before. Finally he was passed through, though on foot and under guard.

Having delivered his dispatch, he saluted, conveying a desire to speak.

"Well, sir?" the staff officer asked.

"I have other information, sir," said Horace. "It's not official, sir, but it may possibly be of value."

"Speak, then."

"I'm pretty sure, sir, that there is a whole German Army operating between Von Buelow's force and the Duke of Würtemberg."

The officer strode forward a step, looking critically at this lad in civilian clothes who seemed to have so clear a knowledge of the opposing armies.

"We have suspected it," he said. "Tell me exactly what you know."

"In detail?"

"No, briefly!"

"Last week, passing through Belgium, I saw a big army. A little later on I found out they were Saxons. This morning I learned from a little girl that the general in command is General Von Hausen."

"Your information," said the officer, "tallies with news brought in by our scouts this morning. It may explain the pressure on the Charleroi corner, which is out of all proportion to the forces we were supposed to have against us. You have not breakfasted?"

"No, sir."

"Go and have something to eat. I will send for you later."

Horace went gladly. He had not finished eating when he was summoned hurriedly.

"I have sent an official message to the Fourth Army," the officer said, "but there's always a chance that the messenger may not get through. Our lines of communication past Charleroi are demoralized. Apparently all the wires behind us have been cut. This dispatch is important. I should like to forward it in duplicate. Will you take it?"

"Willingly, sir," said Horace, delighted to find that he had discovered a way to be of service.

"I have no desire to expose you to danger," he was told, "especially as you are volunteering as a civilian, so you had better go by Beaumont and Chimay. It is a long way round, but I think you will find the roads clear."

"Yes, sir."

"You may state that an army estimated by our airmen as being four corps strong is being forced in between the Fourth and Fifth Armies. Here is the dispatch."

"Very well, sir."

"You'd better put on a French uniform."

"But I haven't the right-" Horace began.

The officer summoned an orderly.

"Have some one find a uniform for this boy," he said. Then, turning to Horace, he added, "I'll write you an order authorizing its use, as you are on special service."

Half an hour later a uniform was brought to Horace where he was busy oiling his machine and filling the petrol tank.

"Where did you get it?" the boy asked curiously.

"There was a dispatch-rider shot a little distance up the road."

Horace shivered with repugnance. He did not like putting on a dead man's clothes. However, there was no help for it, and, in uniform-which was a little big for him-he started back for the Fourth Army.

The ride was without special incident and the boy delivered his message. He was expected, for the official dispatch-rider had succeeded in getting through, though a bullet had clipped his ear. Langle de Cary, however, had anticipated the news, and, drawing back from Dinant, had joined with the Fifth Army, thus renewing the operative corner, to which the reserves were being hurried.

In and around staff headquarters, the boy picked up information which enabled him to piece together the happenings from the time he had escaped from Liége, to this crucial Sunday morning of August 23.

Soon, quite soon, Horace was once more to come in touch with the troops he had encountered at Beaufays, who had attacked the forts of Embourg and Boncelles, whose shells had blinded Deschamps and whose companions had murdered the curé and little Jacques. This was Von Kluck's army which had marched westward, undelayed by the detachment of 40,000 picked troops to make a triumphal parade through Brussels, undelayed by the detachment of several "frightfulness companies" deliberately chosen and ordered to terrorize that section of Belgium between Aerschot and Louvain.

Von Kluck, indeed, had not halted a moment. He had farther to march than any other of the German armies, although it is true he had the magnificent railroads and highways of Belgium to aid him in his transport. By August 18, Von Kluck was at Tirlemont; by August 19, he was at Wavre; by August 20, he was at Nivelles; by August 21, his left or southern wing had halted a little northeast of Namur, his center advancing slowly over the famous field of Quatre Bras, while his right wing made a forced march at top speed through Enghien to Mons, the cavalry sweeping out in the direction of Tournay. By August 22, the straightened line, now facing south, advanced slowly in a heavy massed formation to take up positions facing the British line and the left of the Fifth French Army. Thus, if Von Buelow and Von Hausen should curl up the eastern flank of the Fifth Army, Von Kluck was in position to crush it in his iron teeth.

On this Sunday morning, August 23, the British force was still ignorant of the fall of Namur. Sir John French had heard nothing but the distant cannonading of the Battle of the Sambre, and when, at midnight, Charleroi broke into flames, the British, though holding the left wing of the whole Allied movement, were unaware of the disaster. The disorganization caused by the sudden fall of Namur and the still more sudden appearance of Von Hausen's mysterious army had demoralized all communication. Spies behind the lines had cut all the telegraph and telephone wires, and the only messenger sent to the British never reached them, either having been killed or taken prisoner.

Although the attack on Givet, on Dinant, on Namur, on Charleroi and on Mons are all a part of the same simultaneous battle-plan, which might perhaps be called the Battle of Namur, history has definitely divided it into four parts: the battle of Givet-Dinant, between the French Fourth Army and the Duke of Würtemberg, of which Horace had seen the first day's fighting; the defense of Namur, between the Belgians and Von Buelow, which was merely a holocaust produced by the 42-centimeter howitzers; the battle of Charleroi, between the French Fourth Army and Von Buelow and Von Hausen combined, at which the one day's grace necessary to save the whole campaign from destruction was secured by the glorious and desperate courage of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, the Turcos and the Zouaves; and the battle of Mons, between the British and Von Kluck, which became a week-long retreating engagement.

The British had not reached their appointed positions on the barge-canal until Friday, and had spent Saturday, entrenching. Sir John French had only an army corps and a half in his command, with an extra cavalry division covering the west wing. There was not the slightest indication of immediate danger. Sir John French himself stated that he was informed by his patrols, that "little more than one, or at the most, two of the enemy's army corps, with perhaps one cavalry division, was in front, and I was aware of no outflanking movement." As a matter of fact, Von Kluck had five army corps opposed to the British one and a half, and three cavalry divisions besides. The odds, therefore, were over three to one.

Courtesy of "L'Illustration."

The War of Fire.

Modern warfare has horrors heretofore unknown, with liquid fire, poison gas, and explosive fumes. Yet after all, it is the spirit of the soldier which counts most.

Von Kluck's strategy was clear. He sent one corps to engage the jointure between the French and English lines-always a weak spot because of the division of command. He threw three army corps against the one and a half of the British, not trying to throw them back, but merely to keep them in action every minute of the time. With the line thus fighting for its existence, he sent his entire fifth army corps in a tremendous mass of motor vehicles around by Tournay and the Forest of Raimes to crumple up the British left flank. Here was the outflanking movement, again, beloved of German strategy and made possible by superior numbers.

The attack on the British by Von Kluck, then, began on the morning of Sunday, August 23, at just about the time that Horace escaped from the Uhlans while on his way to deliver the dead dispatch-rider's message. The battle, that morning, was wide-spread but not too heavy. Von Kluck did not want the British to retire, for that would make his flanking plan more difficult; he merely wanted them to hold. On the British right, however, this need for restraint was less and the pressure was made heavy enough to compel the withdrawal of the British from Binche. This was for the purpose of flanking the French Fifth Army's right.

As the infantry fell back, a cavalry division was hurled after them. The English turned suddenly and charged the German horsemen, who broke in disorder.

"When they saw us coming," wrote Trooper S. Cargill, of the British Army, "they turned and fled, at least all but one, who came rushing at us with his lance at the charge. I caught hold of his horse, which was half wild with terror, and my chum was going to run the rider through when he noticed the awful glaze in his eyes and saw that the poor chap was dead."

So Death rode on his pale horse into the British lines that day and became a constant companion in the awful week that was to come.

Shortly after noon, Horace was sent back to the Fifth Army with dispatches to the effect that the Fourth Army had made the turning movement successfully and had retired on Philippeville.

By two o'clock that afternoon, the Fifth French Army was at the point of annihilation. Von Hausen had pierced the line at Charleroi. Von Kluck had pierced the line at Thuin. General Lanrezac was partly enveloped on both flanks. Knowing that the whole strategy of the campaign was in process of swift destruction, Lanrezac did the only thing possible. He retreated so precipitately that he was compelled to leave behind his wounded and not a few of his guns.

When Horace came up with the dispatches, he found himself entangled in such a confused retreat that an hour passed before he discovered some one who could tell him to what place staff headquarters had been moved. And, when he reached there, it had moved again. Undoubtedly some kind of order existed, but to the boy's untrained eyes, all was confusion, while into, over and through this confusion, Von Hausen's cavalry was plunging.

All communication between the Fifth French Army and the British troops was cut by the presence of Von Kluck at Thuin. Horace, who, thanks to the veteran's teaching and the hunchback's perception of military values, had a fair idea of the strategy of the campaign, saw the danger that the British might be encircled and captured in a body. Accordingly, he volunteered to try to take the news of the fall of Charleroi to Sir John French. Owing to lack of telegraphic communication with the General Staff, the Fift

h Army Staff had no warrant for this, but the boy was given to understand that if he took the news on his own responsibility, he might be rendering the British an important service. He decided to go.

Horace had planned to ride south within the circle of the forts of Maubeuge and thence toward Sir John French's headquarters, but he was compelled to abandon the plan. Every road to the rear was choked with wounded, with refugees, with transport, with the inextricable disarray of vehicles that follows a sudden change of army plans under the threat of a disaster. Horace, fearing that every hour might see the final smash of the weak corner between the Fourth and Fifth Armies, made all the weaker by the pounding of the mysterious Von Hausen army which had marched its way through the Ardennes forests unseen by airmen, rode on, heartsick and despairing. Finding Maubeuge unreachable, he turned his motor-cycle north with a grim determination to try and save the British and bring them back into the fighting diamond. Clear in his mind's eyes lay the situation. The British, the Fourth Army and the Fifth Army must retreat slowly in order, on the fourth army-the reserves near Paris.

He ran into the zone of shell-fire. Now, the boy hardly cared. He was beginning to find himself and the work that he really could do. What if his heart seemed to beat as loudly as the exhaust of the motor-cycle itself? He was going on! A few miles further, the shell-fire slackened. This sector was less furiously attacked. Presently he shot past a farm wagon loaded with hay.

A shout stopped him.

"You're French, aren't you?"

"Yes," answered Horace, not seeing any need for explanations.

"Well, the Germans aren't more than a mile ahead of you, thousands of them. You'll run slap into the middle of them if you go on."

"Then they're on both sides of me."

"And all around," said the farmer, nodding his head warningly.

"Isn't there a footpath, somewhere? I've got to get to Mons."

"With dispatches?"

"Yes."

The wagoner thought for a moment.

"I'll risk it," he said. "Put your machine in the hay and hide in it yourself."

"But if they search you?"

"They did it, only half an hour ago. They ordered me to deliver this hay to their forage depot, beyond Thuin, and said they'd cut my throat if I didn't. And I like my throat better than my hay. But I'm going to try and make them pay for it, just the same!"

"Then you ought to be able to pass," said the boy, with a quick hope.

"Like that! And why not you, too? They won't take the trouble to search twice."

It was the work of only two minutes to lift up the motor-cycle and hide it in the hay. The boy concealed himself also, leaving only the smallest breathing-space.

The farm-wagon rolled into Thuin, the farmer showing the German order that he had received and clamoring for pay. The only response was a threat to cut off his thumbs if he failed to deliver the hay before nightfall. He drove on sulkily.

Near Marchienne, where a small road branched off to the west, the farmer stopped and helped Horace to take down the machine.

"Good luck!" he said quietly and drove on, grumbling, as he went, about the price of his hay.

It was now four o'clock in the afternoon, and Horace sped forward, finding, to his discomfiture, that the little road was tending northward towards Bray. The roar of the battle, muffled at first as he drove through the coal-pit region, grew louder and louder. The woodland country ceased, and in place of fields and trees the landscape became one of shafts, chimneys and piles of débris on which grew a few stunted pines, a landscape which fitted well with the hideous ugliness of war. The motor-cycle throbbed on and presently Horace ran into the lines of an infantry regiment, not dressed in the blue jackets and red trousers of the French[16] nor in the iron-gray of the German, but in the khaki of the English.

"Where's your commander?" he asked, in English, forestalling suspicion.

"Over 'ere!" said a Tommy. "What 'ave you got in yer bonnet?"

"Dispatches," the boy answered, "for headquarters."

He was taken to the ranking officer, a tall man with a quiet, impassive voice and a cold manner.

"Your name?" he asked.

Horace gave it.

"Credentials?"

"I haven't any," said Horace, and he explained the situation.

"I will have the matter duly investigated," the major replied.

"But I want to tell it to Sir John French!" persisted the boy.

The Englishman would not even disturb himself sufficiently to look surprised at the lad's presumption.

"The matter will pass through regular channels," he replied. "I cannot allow you to proceed farther along the British lines. You will remain here, under guard."

"You mean I'm a prisoner!" Horace exploded.

"You will remain here, under guard," the captain repeated, without the slightest variance of inflection in his tone.

"But I'm an American!"

"The matter will be duly investigated."

Horace grew red with anger, and boy-like and untrained in military discipline he burst out,

"Well, if you all get cut up by Germans, it won't be my fault. You've got Von Kluck on your left, Von Buelow on your right and Von Hausen behind. If you stay here, they'll make mincemeat of you."

"We will endeavor to avoid that fate," said the Englishman, stiffly, and motioned for the lad to be led away.

Horace fairly danced with temper.

The Londoner, who had listened to the boy's outburst, grinned broadly as soon as they had left the place.

"You've got cheek, you 'ave," he said, "talkin' to an officer like that."

"He!" exploded Horace, "he's made of wood, head and all!"

"Go slow," said the Tommy, "'e's a proper bit of all right, 'e is, don't you make no mistake. That's 'is way. 'E's just the same under fire, never turns a 'air. 'E was drawlin' 'is orders this mornin' like 'e was on parade. An' it was a tight corner, too."

"Were you attacked this morning?" Horace asked, with sudden interest.

"We fair were! I was through the Boer War, an' the 'ottest fight we 'ad in that was frost-bitten aside o' this mornin'."

"I'm not surprised," the boy retorted. "I could have told that human icicle with the eye-glass-if he'd had the sense to listen-that there are five corps facing your two. Besides, they've reserves ready to jump you any minute."

The Tommy looked at him curiously.

"Not now they won't," he said.

"Why not?"

"They're in a blue funk."

"You mean-scared?"

The soldier nodded mysteriously.

"They'll be driven on, scare or no!" declared the boy. "What did you do to scare them all?"

"Nothin'."

"Then, what?"

"They've got the trembles."

Horace saw that there was something behind the Tommy's evident reluctance to speak, but, little by little, he won him round.

Courtesy of "The War Illustrated."

Saved in a Hail of Shell.

British drummer who dashed into the zone of fire to save a wounded officer. When hit himself, he fell, but hooking his feet under the officer's arms, propelled himself by his elbows backwards into safety.

"There's queer things 'appen in war!" he remarked.

"Very queer," agreed Horace, thinking of Mme. Maubin's prophecy and remembering some of the tales he had heard the French gunners tell.

"Mark what I'm sayin'-if it wasn't for some o' them queer things, I wouldn't be 'ere talkin' to you."

"You saw something?" queried Horace, jumping to a conclusion.

"I saw it? We all saw it. First there was a sort o' yellow mist, sort o' risin' out o' the ground before the Huns as they came to the top of the 'ill, came on like a solid wall, they did-springin' out o' the earth, just solid; no end o' them. I just gave up. It's no use our fightin' the 'ole German race in one day, thinks I. It's all up with us. The next minute, up comes a funny cloud o' light, an' when it clears off-this is gospel truth, I'm tellin'-there's a tall man, with yellow 'air, in gold armor, on a white 'orse, 'oldin' 'is sword up an' 'is mouth open. Then, before you could say 'knife,' the 'Uns 'ad turned an' we was after them, fightin' like ninety."[17]

He stopped, in a shamefaced silence.

"That's queer," said Horace, "I've heard a lot of yarns just like that with the French Army. Only yesterday I was talking with a French cavalryman. He was one of the squad of men sent out by his colonel to find out who were the cavalry acting as rearguard to the retreat. He saw the cavalry, himself. But when he got there, nothing could be seen. Yet that invisible cavalry was keeping the Germans back, just the same."[18]

"We took a prisoner, this mornin'," corroborated the Tommy, "'oo said 'e 'ad seen 'is bullets strike the air an' drop as if there 'ad been a wall there. We 'ad the Fiend on our side, 'e said."

"And I saw a Boche," the boy replied, "one of the Death's Head Hussars, who claimed that we hypnotized their horses by magic so that they couldn't run."

"There's queer things 'appen in war!" the Tommy said, musingly.

The talk passed on to other battle omens and Horace told the story of the "captive Kaiser." He was recounting Mme. Maubin's prophecy when an order came requiring him to go before the English captain.

"A telegraphic dispatch has been received," said the officer, "confirming your information. You are at liberty."

Horace waited, expecting some apology for the detention, but none was forthcoming. Evidently the English officer felt that he had acted exactly according to military regulations.

"What was the dispatch, sir?" the boy asked.

"I was not instructed to announce it," the Englishman replied.

The tone nettled Horace, for he had been trusted by the French officers.

"Thank you, sir!" he said with an irony which was entirely lost on the captain.

There was nothing more to be said and Horace returned to the Tommy. Before he could regain possession of his motor-cycle, however, he was compelled to waste two hours more in the red tape of official procedure, and this, too, while the battle was actually raging a mile away.

This dispatch received from General Joffre was, indeed, sufficiently grave. Received at exactly five o'clock that Sunday evening, it disclosed that, against the 75,000 men of the British force, Von Kluck was hurling 220,000 men. Of these, 150,000 were engaged in a frontal attack, 50,000 men were flanking him to the left and 20,000 cavalry were on his left rear. In addition to that, 100,000 men under Von Buelow threatened his right and Von Hausen's cavalry were closing in on his right rear. A fighting retreat, with a succession of rearguard actions to cover the retiring battalions, was the only tactic possible.

Much has been said in blame of the French staff for the "unaccountable delay" in notifying the British. There was delay, but it was neither unaccountable nor so great as it seemed. It was not until that very Sunday morning that Von Hausen pushed forward in advance of Von Buelow and forced the retreat of the Fifth Army. Even with perfect co?rdination-a thing rarely possible in a disordered retreat-the French General Staff would not know the situation until midway of the morning, and, even then, could not know the size and scope of Von Hausen's army. Then, too, the wires had been cut. There was, undoubtedly, a delay of five or six hours in notifying the British, but not more.

That Sunday night was spent in clearing the roads to the rear of all heavy transport. Sir John French knew that absolute mobility was the only condition of a fighting retreat. He knew, now, his desperate situation, and he knew, too, the crucial nature of his position. The fate of France now hung on the stiffness of his retiring line. For this, however, he had the most marvelous troops in the world for such a purpose, the British regulars. His original position being slightly to the northward of the Fifth French Army, he was more than a day behind in commencing the retreat. He was fighting an army three times as large as his own. He was being attacked on the flank as well as in the rear, yet he was the sole barrier that France possessed against the piercing of its strategic diamond at "third base."

All night the German artillery continued a steady shelling, with intermittent bursts of rifle-fire, as though threatening an advance. The British outposts, firing largely from loopholes in the walls of factories, gave the Germans no hint that the line was preparing to retire.

At four o'clock the entire British force stood to arms and the retreat began. Horace's aversion, the cold and correct captain, led his men in a desperate attack from Harmignies on Binche, and the lad was compelled to admire the officer's inflexible courage and splendid handling of his men. It was true, as the Tommy had said, that the officer was as imperturbable under fire as at his headquarters and he was utterly regardless of personal danger.

Gallant as was the leader, the determination of the troops was no whit less wonderful. There was less dash than among the French, but the dogged strength and power were superb. No matter how thin the line, the Germans could not break through. One battalion stayed at the covering point until only five men remained. It was on this day that a lieutenant, taking up a position in a building which had but one door, and that facing the enemy, when told by his non-commissioned officer that there was no way out, replied:

"There is no need for a way out. We have to stay here for six hours!"

There was no place for Horace with the British, and at sunrise he was on his motor-cycle on his way back to his friends in the Fourth French Army, for he saw that the driving force of the battle was not at any one point, but along the whole line, and he felt he could be of more use where he was already known. The retreat, as he passed through it, was vastly more orderly and methodical than the retreat of the French after Givet and Dinant, but, at the same time, its slow and methodical methods resulted in a heavy loss of life.

The German jaws bit and tore at the English troops. They hurled brigades of men against companies and engulfed them. But they could not break the line.

The German artillery, advancing, deluged the lines with bullet and shell; the British artillery, retreating, necessarily limbered up much of the time for the retreat, could not reply adequately. One hundred shells to one were hurled at what had been called by the Kaiser "Britain's contemptible little army." But they could not break the line.

Clouds of cavalry swept upon the flank, picking off the English by ones and twos, by dozens and by hundreds. They sacrificed themselves valiantly in an attempt to force their way through that khaki-clad resistance. But they could not break the line.

Morning, noon and night, dusk, midnight and dawn, Von Kluck drove the attack, leaving scant time for food, less time for rest and practically no time for sleep, seeking to wear down human resistance by sheer exhaustion and fatigue. But he could not break the line.

Horace found the same terrific pressure on the Fourth Army, forced back by Von Hausen and the Duke of Würtemberg. He had feared to find a rout, remembering the breaking condition in which he had left the army, but he found it reformed, re?nforced, strong as ever and filled with a grim determination to save Paris at all costs. The men of his old battery greeted him with a shout.

"Where have you been?" they cried. "Tell us the news."

Horace told all that he knew, or rather, all that he thought he ought to tell, describing the desperate though resistant condition of the British expeditionary force.

"But they're retreating, too," said a gun-layer, gloomily, "always retreating. Are we going to give those dogs of Boches all of France?"

So it seemed as day after day passed by.

Back, back, and ever back.

Retreat amid the wounded, retreat in hopeless rear-guard actions with dead on every side, retreat on roads crowded with homeless and hopeless refugees fleeing anywhere away from the advancing horror of war, retreat without food, retreat without sleep, retreat in rain, in mud, in blazing heat, in choking thirst, retreat under the reproachful eyes of deserted women, retreat under the stinging shame of defeat, retreat until the heart was as weary as the feet and death would be a boon.

Retreat over a front of 200 miles, with every road, every street, every lane, every by-path surging with misery, crowded with panic.

France, their France, trodden under the heel of the invader!

To see and hear of nothing but ruin and ravage! To be unable to help! To be afraid to advance! To march until the soul cries for peace and the body aches for rest, though neither can be satisfied!

Horrible is the battle, but more horrible by far is the dispiriting agony of the retreat. For twelve long days France saw the flower of her manhood vanquished and thrown back. She saw her armies despondent and dejected. She saw her territory given over to spoliation and destruction.

"Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!"

Almost the heart of France was breaking.

Yet she saw, too, her generals and officers, with grim-set lips and watchful eyes, who knew the mighty strength that lay behind the apparent weakness, in whose minds lurked menace and thrust in the word "Retreat!"

She saw, too, the line traced by a broad thumb across a big scale map as her Commander-in-Chief outlined the Valley of the Marne.

"Retreat!" he said.

Ever and again his generals questioned him, but received only the word.

"Retreat!"

Until, one day, he placed that same broad thumb upon the map.

"There!" he said. "There, they shall not pass!"

* * *

FOOTNOTES:

[15] Vance Thompson, writing from the front, Sept. 13, 1914, said of this: "Some day the story of what was done in Alsace will be written, and the stories of Visé and Aerschot and Onsmael and Louvain will seem pale and negligible; but not now-five generations to come will whisper them in the Vosges."

[16] The horizon-blue uniforms of the French Army were not ready until the year 1915.

[17] Red Cross report. Private of the Lancashire Fusilier Regiment after the battle of Vitry le Fran?ois.

[18] Official report. Lieut. Col. of Hussars, after battle of Le Cateau.

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