There came grunts from that bearded veteran, a gleam of his even white teeth, and muttered remarks from the others seated about the fire in the dug-out.
"Terrific!" exclaimed Henri. "Absolute murder; yet, what would you?"
"Yes, what would you?" repeated the officer. "It is France, it is liberty, it is the right to live as we wish for which we fight, against the oppression of a people who look upon might as right, and who, if they could, would deprive France and Britain and all the Allies of their liberty. So, murder! Yes, my comrade, but, as you observe, necessary. If the Kaiser, seeking for some great event, casts his hosts of men at us, our duty is plain; not an inch of ground of the sacred soil of France must be rendered up unless absolutely necessary; while the enemy, if they advance, must advance over the corpses of their comrades. But let me proceed. The Bois de Caures was evacuated, and then the southern end of it seized once more by some of our gallant fellows. Then there was fighting on the line to Ornes and at Herbebois, and there, too, the garrisons held their positions, having fought throughout the day and inflicted enormous losses on the Boches. Elsewhere I cannot tell you what the position is, though there is rumour that all is favourable."
Taking it in turns to go on duty, to watch the ground in front of them or to repair their battered trenches, that slender garrison which the policy of the French High Command had placed in the first line of trenches about the salient of Verdun waited with calm confidence for the morrow—for the 22nd February. Nor had they long to wait ere the conflict once more reopened. Guns had boomed throughout the night, and shells had continued to rain about them, but now, as light broke, and they hastily gulped down their breakfast, the bombardment increased in intensity along that northern sector, while presently enemy troops could be seen forcing their way up a ravine which cuts its way between Brabant and Haumont. Poilus in positions there were driven back for a moment by flame-projectors, which were used freely by the enemy—spurts of flaming liquid were scattered over them, and sometimes whole lengths of trenches set burning. Then the torrent of shells which was pouring upon the northern sector was increased, though that had seemed almost impossible, in the neighbourhood of those two places. Brabant and Haumont were shattered, the village of the latter name being flattened out and destroyed utterly. Shells ploughed the ground behind the French front position, so that communication-trenches, which had suffered severely on the previous day, and support- and reserve-trenches were blown to pieces and out of all recognition. Indeed, as the day passed, the slender garrison in that part were forced to abandon whatever protection the ground had previously given, and, retiring before the enemy, to fight a rear-guard action in the open. Some three or four miles of country behind that front line was indeed searched by the enemy guns; some indication of the enormous expenditure of shells indulged in by the Kaiser. The French left, resting on the River Meuse and the centre, was thus forced backward, though the gallant garrison of Herbebois still held on, together with a force of men on a hill just south-west of them. Some success had in fact fallen to the German phalanx attack on the Verdun salient. General von Haeseler, who was nominally in command, though acting under the orders of the ambitious Crown Prince of Germany, had by his smashing artillery-fire, though not by his infantry attacks, forced the French to abandon a portion of their trenches, and had indeed shortened that line to which we have referred previously—that line which formed an imaginary base to the Verdun salient. In fact, he had contrived to narrow the neck of the salient, though not yet very greatly, and thereby had limited the space across which the French troops could retire in the event of the abandonment of the salient being necessary.
Repeating the process on the following day—for by then the French had fallen back to their second line, now badly battered, at Samogneux and Hill 344—these new positions were assailed with such a torrent of shells that by the evening they were absolutely untenable, and a further retirement was essential. Indeed, by the morning of the 24th, the French left, as it lay on the River Meuse, was withdrawn to the famous Pepper Hill, so that the distance between the new first line and the city of Verdun was considerably decreased, while that imaginary base-line, across which the French must retreat if the salient was to be evacuated, was still further shortened. But elsewhere, where artillery-fire had given the enemy less assistance, where, indeed, massed guns could not be spared to blaze a path towards Verdun, desperate fighting held up the advance of the Germans. At Herbebois and Ornes and on to Bezonvaux there was hand-to-hand fighting of the most desperate nature, while at Maucourt—an advance position held by the French—terrific execution was done to the masses of troops hurled forward by the Germans. Here masked French quick-firing guns caught German columns of attack, twenty men abreast and hundreds deep, at close range, and blew them into eternity. Yet the hordes still came on, with a bravery never surpassed, and, in spite of every effort, in spite of a superb display of courage and tenacity, the French were forced to retire up the slopes towards Bezonvaux, and so in the direction of the fortress of Douaumont perched up aloft and looking down upon the scene of this sanguinary conflict. Towards the former of these two places the garrison of Ornes was also compelled to beat a retreat, finding itself at Bezonvaux, at the mouth of a ravine, which ascends the heights leading to that fortress already mentioned, which was to be the scene of a terrible battle in days now near at hand. To portray all that occurred on this eventful 23rd February would be almost impossible, and certainly beyond the scope of these pages; yet one must mention the case of those gallant Zouaves and African sharpshooters, who, to the north of Douaumont, recaptured a wood between Herbebois and Hill 351, which is just to the south-west of it, and lies in front of Beaumont. Here, in spite of an avalanche of shells which was poured upon them, and of murderous attacks launched in their direction, they held out for quite a considerable period, and, having in turn retired upon the Bois de Fosse, were eventually compelled to fall back upon the plateau of Douaumont.
The morning of the 24th, as it dawned, discovered, indeed, a critical change in the positions held by our noble allies. The northern face of the salient had, as we have described, been driven in, and the handful of troops holding it had been forced to retire over some four miles of country, fighting in the open, infantry and gunners fighting a terrific rear-guard action, and doing their utmost—and doing that most gallantly—to hold up a further advance of the enemy. That imaginary base-line which we have mentioned as running across the base of the salient, where the winding River Meuse traces its path amongst the hills, had been dangerously shortened, and already Germans were massing in the neighbourhood of Vacherauville, close down to the river, under the shadow of the Cote du Poivre, where they hoped to drive in their wedge, and to further shorten that line across which French troops must retreat if indeed the salient was to be evacuated. And towards the east, towards the apex of the salient, outlying advance-parties of the French had been driven in by sheer weight of guns and numbers, and were now back on the heights of the Meuse, their line drawn from that held by their comrades in the neighbourhood of Louvemont, close to the Cote du Poivre, round about Douaumont and its village, and so to Vaux and south of it. Here, indeed, we must leave them for a moment, while we return to Henri and Jules and their comrades, entangled in that country to the north which had been ploughed, almost every foot of it, by the torrent of shells poured upon it by the Kaiser's artillery.
Stealthily creeping away from their advanced positions, and leaving these dull-grey lines of German dead stretched out before them—a ghastly indication of their prowess—the troops fell back in clusters, clambering from shell-hole to shell-hole, creeping behind any cover which was to be discovered, and making the utmost use of the darkness.
"And so it is you—you, Jules?" cried Henri, as dawn broke on the early morning of the 23rd and discovered his comrade. "Well, I never!"
It was typical of the gallant and gay Jules that he grinned in the face of his chum, and repeated the observation.
"Well, I never! And what a sight to be sure! We were gentlemen when escaping from Ruhleben compared with our condition now. What a mess to be in, to be sure—and how hungry I am!"
"Hungry, mon garcon?" cried a sergeant near them, one of their own battalion; "then there's good news for you; for if our commanders have not been able to send us reinforcements, they have at least not forgotten that we are living men. There is food close at hand, and our cooks are preparing it."
In the lines which the troops had now gained in those trenches dug some time before, and sweeping across the slopes of Pepper Hill (Cote du Poivre), there were indeed welcome comforts for the men who had so gallantly held up the advance of the Germans, and who had more gallantly still, and with greater fortune, endured the terrible ordeal of that shattering torrent of shells poured for hours now upon them. Back behind the fire-trenches cooks were busy over their braziers, while already kettles of steaming soup and coffee and long rolls of bread were being conveyed to the soldiers. It was a happy, a grimy, and a decidedly confident band of men who sat down that early dawn to prepare once more for the enemy. Dishevelled, their chins covered with dirty bristles, steel helmets lost in numerous cases, clothing torn, and equipment absent, this band of heroes was nevertheless as jovial as it was hungry.
"Better get as much sleep as you can now, my friends," said an officer as he came along the trench. "A few men to keep watch will be quite sufficient, and the rest had better turn in to their dug-outs or lie down here at their posts. It won't be for long, my lads, I can tell you, for the Germans are not likely to rest now they have got us moving. Wait, though; is there a man amongst you not too fatigued to creep forward and reconnoitre?"
"There is, mon Capitaine; I am that man."
"And I also—here; ready and eager."
The two voices were those of Jules and Henri, who happened to be quite close to the officer as he was speaking, and who, leaping to their feet from the fire-bank, at once stood at attention, their eager faces turned towards him.
The officer surveyed them both critically.
"Henri and Jules—our particular Henri and Jules—mon Capitaine," called out the sergeant who had been speaking to them a little while before, and who, like the regiment, knew our two heroes thoroughly. "Henri and Jules, who joined us from Ruhleben, and preferred to fight in a battle such as this rather than stay in safety—though not in comfort—in Ruhleben."
"Ah! Henri and Jules, of course. And you are ready?" smiled the officer.
"Ready, mon Capitaine!" the two answered.
"Then strip off your packs and equipment, and take only your rifles and bayonets and ammunition; creep down through the trees yonder, and, if you can, let us know what's happening."
Down below, towards the foot of the lower slopes of the Cote du Poivre, overlooking the village of Champneuville and the Cote de Talou, stretched a strip of wooded country, those same evergreens which, towards the north and elsewhere, had given the Germans such tremendous opportunities for completing preparations for their attack upon the salient. Sliding down the hill, diving from one shell-hole to another—for already the German artillery had turned its attention to this new French position—creeping along any fold in the ground which offered even the smallest shelter, Henri and Jules soon gained the woods, and plunged into them.
"It's as likely as not that the Germans have already sent reconnoitring-parties here," said Henri in a whisper, as they crouched at the edge of the wood and gathered breath again after their exertions. "That is a thing which one would anticipate, and of course our commanders will expect that just as we do, so that it seems to me our duty is to steer clear of such parties, as we should do in any case, to push beyond them, and to ascertain what's happening towards the north."
"Quite so! At your orders, Henri," smiled Jules, as full of merriment as ever. Indeed, the fiercer the conflict had grown, the more desperate the efforts of the Germans had become, and the more terrifically the fighting had developed, the higher had this young fellow's spirits risen. Of fear he showed not a trace, though of excitement he showed every evidence. Sparkling with wit, as lively as a cricket, wonderfully cheery, he had stood in the forefront of the battle, not grim like many a comrade, not with teeth set and hands and fingers clenching his rifle, but jovial, smiling, yet with a deadly earnestness masked by his merry manner.
"Lead on, my Henri," he said. "Under your directions we made not such a bad success of that affair in Germany. Let's see now what you can do in this part of France when we have soldiers and not civilians to deal with!"
Plunging on into the wood, it was not long before they heard voices to their left, and, creeping forward, discovered a German officers' patrol sheltering under the trees and munching their breakfast. A dozen yards farther on there were some seven or eight men, while voices still farther to the left demonstrated the fact that there were other parties.
"No matter," said Henri; "we have already said that we expected Germans to be in the wood. What we want to know is where the main force is. Let's push on and do our duty."
For perhaps half an hour Henri and Jules crept through the wood which they had gained from the heights of the Cote de Poivre, turning and twisting here and there as German voices warned them of the proximity of enemy parties, and sometimes stealing past a group of men from whom they were separated by only a few feet of thick undergrowth.
"There's the edge of the wood yonder, the northern edge," said Henri in a little while, stopping and looking upward. "It's lighter in that direction, and without doubt we are now getting down to the road which runs from Beaumont to Vacherauville—a road likely enough to be used by the enemy in his advance on our positions. Look out that we don't expose ourselves at the edge, and let us talk only in whispers."
Jules gripped him a moment later by the sleeve and pulled him down forcibly to the ground, then he shot one hand out and pointed.
"See them," he whispered; "hundreds of men sheltering at the edge of the wood. But why? What's the reason? And listen to those guns! German—eh?"
"No. French 75's, without a question," answered Henri when they had listened for a few moments. "There's nothing else on earth in the artillery line that snaps and barks quite like our soixante-quinze, and it seems to me that they are opened in this direction. Hope to goodness they won't turn their muzzles on this wood, for they would rake it from end to end with shrapnel. Now let's move on a little. I can see the men you have pointed out, and without a doubt they are sheltering under the trees and hiding, I should say, from our gunners. Let's turn from the road a little and push on to the northern point of the wood, for in that direction it almost joins with the Bois des Fosses, and should give us greater opportunities."
They turned slightly to their right, and crept through the mass of trees not yet levelled by the gun-fire of either of the combatants—different, indeed, from the Bois des Caures and the Herbebois, where gigantic German shells had sent trees and earth hurtling skywards, had severed trunks in all directions, and had left but a tangled mass of fallen tree-tops and shattered stumps, smouldering here and there, and masking the trenches and dug-outs and redoubts obliterated during the earlier fighting, masking, too, the bodies of those gallant Frenchmen who had given their lives for the cause, and of the Germans, who had fought to achieve the ambitions of their Kaiser.
Sneaking forward, and keeping well away from the direction of voices, it was not long before Henri and Jules discovered a dell—a deep depression in the ground—heavily wooded and overhung by fir-trees, at the foot of which splashed a stream, which passed from rock to rock, twisting and twining as it flowed towards the Meuse traversing the ground down below.
"Might give us an opportunity of seeing far more than if we went on in the wood," suggested Jules, again catching Henri by the sleeve.
"Why not? Certainly! Why not?" echoed Henri. "Quite a good idea; capital! Let's try it."
"Then down we go! Looks like a splendid place," declared Jules as he gained the stream and splashed into it. "I'll lead, for a change. Suppose we'd better go cautiously?"
There was, indeed, need of caution all the while, for as they traversed that narrow gully, and descended towards the plain which stretches at the foot of the Hill of Poivre, and, crossing the foot of the Cote de Talou, reaches the River Meuse, they found themselves in the midst of a veritable army of Germans—figures in field-grey could be seen in the twilight beneath the trees, sitting on fallen branches or on the ground waiting for orders. There were figures in the same colour to the right and to the left of them in that ravine, and once, as the two halted suddenly and crouched beneath an overhanging bush, they saw a German soldier actually drinking from the stream within a few yards of them; but a guttural voice above, a sharp command, sent the man scrambling up the bank of the ravine to join his company. Then, as they boldly advanced, the voices of German troops grew less distinct, and presently, as the light increased in brightness and they gained the very edge of the wood, it was to discover that they had passed through the enemy's lines, and were, it appeared, alone once more and almost in the open.
Creeping beneath a bush, the two now stared out in every direction, while, taking a pencil from a pocket, and a tattered envelope also, Henri roughly sketched in the situation before him; and, helped by the unobstructed view he could obtain from the opening of the ravine, marked spots in the near distance, where, beneath the shelter of other trees, in folds of the ground, in a farm across the road, he could discern enemy troops hiding.
"There must be thousands of them," he told Jules after a while, "thousands of them; and look over there, to what I believe to be Samogneux, where we were yesterday, and from which the German guns literally blew us, watch the roads there and the edge of the Bois de Caures—what do you see, Jules?"
"See!" exclaimed Jules; "almost hear them, you mean. Thousands of Boches—literally thousands of them, Henri. What's that mean? They are turning in this direction, and though it's hard to make it out quite clearly, I should say that they are waiting for the dusk to fall, fearing our guns across the river. It looks precisely what one would expect it to be—an intended advance on Vacherauville—a descent on a line directly from the north towards Verdun—the city for which they are making."
Without a doubt the two French poilus, sheltering there beneath that bush, had obtained information of more than ordinary importance, though it was likely enough that the movements of the enemy, in some respects at least, were already known by the French staff far behind them. Still, in a case like this, even a morsel of news might help to turn the scale against the Germans; and, having obtained it, the two at once set about the return to their comrades.
"We'll creep up the stream again and keep to the ravine as long as possible," said Henri; "after that we shall have to take our chances in the wood. And, seeing that we were lucky enough to miss the Germans on our way here, I don't see why we shouldn't be successful in returning."
"And if we ain't," declared Jules, with one of those ready smiles of his, "we can't help it; only, of course, a fellow might even then make good his escape by bolting."
An hour later, having very cautiously crept through those men massed just within the wood and out of sight of the French gunners, and having also traversed a long stretch of thickly wooded ground where numerous parties of Germans were resting, the two drew near to that point where they had entered the wood, and behind which open country led to the French positions. By then the shadows beneath the trees had deepened, as dusk had almost fallen, so that it was almost difficult to avoid the trunks of trees, and easy enough to tumble into any person who, like themselves, might be under that cover. Thus, of a sudden, it happened that Henri and Jules plunged into a narrow patch where men were seated, and, stumbling over their legs, were brought up suddenly.
"What's this? Who's this? You clumsy ruffian!" a shrill voice shouted. "Get out with you! But wait! What are you doing here without permission?"
"Stop! My word! The fool's kicked my shin and almost broken my leg. Here, one moment!"
Someone growled an oath, and, shooting out a hand, gripped Henri by the shoulder as he was rising—someone who had rapped out a German oath, let us explain, while the two voices had without a doubt borne the customary guttural accent of the Teuton.
Henri picked himself up like lightning, and, swinging the butt of his rifle round—for the weapon was hanging over his right shoulder—struck the figure he could but dimly see beside him, and heard at once a dull thud as the wooden stock rapped the man's head violently. Then, with a dive, he gained the trees, and, pausing for a moment, shouted for his comrade.
"Jules! Here," he called. "Here!"
"Here!" came the answer from the point which Henri had only just left, and was followed by a somewhat smothered cry and by a heavy fall, which made it appear as though Jules had been detained by the men into whose midst they had stumbled.
What was Henri to do? Desert his friend and turn and fly away to the French positions? Or go back to his friend?
"The former," he told himself. "At any other time I would turn back and do my best for Jules, whatever it cost; but there's information which must be handed over to my Commanding Officer, and I must go. Jules!" he shouted again in one last effort.
A second later he was enfolded in the arms of a man who had crept up behind him, and who, joined by another within an instant, soon forced Henri to the ground, and, taking him by the legs, dragged him to the spot where Jules was already a prisoner.
"Now, strike a light," a gruff voice said, "just a match, Fritz, and let's see whom we have captured. Oh! Oh! French soldiers—eh? Well, there's nothing very wonderful about that, seeing that we've driven them from Brabant and Haumont, and there must be scores of unfortunate beggars hiding up in the hollows and woods between that position and this. Well, you," he continued, breaking into French, "French soldiers—eh? on your way to join your own lines again. You were fighting at Brabant?"
"Yes, at Brabant!" Henri told him.
"Ah! And received a terrible drubbing. Well, now, what shall we do with them?" asked the same voice—a pleasant enough voice now that the owner of it had got over the start which the sudden incursion of Jules and Henri had caused him—the voice, indeed, of an officer; for, as it proved, this was an officers' party into which the two who had made that daring reconnaissance had stumbled.
"Do with them? Do with them?" snapped a voice. "Shoot them! For there are no men here to hand them over to."
The one who had spoken earlier made no reply, but Henri could hear him giggling, as though he were amused at the callous remark made by his comrade, and as though, anxious not to be a party in such disgraceful treatment of prisoners, he was purposely avoiding discussion. But a moment later the other once more interjected a question.
"What, then?" he asked. "Are we to stay, then, with these two on our knees, as it were, and wait till some of our men come along and take them over? Who knows? They might turn upon us at any moment and cut our throats, for there are only four of us. I vote for shooting them out of hand."
It was an unpleasant voice this—a snappy, vixenish, sharp-toned voice, which appeared to come from an individual of rather diminutive size, though it was only his bare outline that was visible in the darkness beneath the trees.
"Nasty little beggar," thought Henri; while Jules, now released, save that one of the German officers still gripped him by the sleeve, stood close to his comrade. "Nasty little beggar! Spiteful little rat! And somehow we seem to have met before, for the voice rings in a familiar way. But, pooh! it's not possible, or, rather, hardly possible."
A moment later there came the grating sound of a match being rubbed against the side of a box, and then a light flared beneath the trees, to be shaded instantly by the huge hand of the individual who held it, and who proved to be the other spokesman—he of the pleasant voice—who had listened to the suggestion of his comrade without answering. The reflection of the flame held in his palm lit up at first a face beaming with health and good humour, heavily moustached, and as red as was Stuart's. There was a cigarette in his mouth, and Henri, attracted by the light, watched as this German officer puffed at the flame and then ejected a cloud of smoke. His own features, too, were illuminated by that reflected light, and those of Jules also beside him, while an instant later the face of that other officer came into view, the one with the sharp, mean voice, who was for shooting his prisoners. Then a sudden exclamation escaped the latter, and, starting forward just as the flame expired, he stared hard at Henri and his comrade.
"What's this? What's this?" he demanded. "Strike another light, Ernst. I have met these fellows before somewhere; I feel sure of it."
Grumblingly the big man who had just lit his cigarette struck another light, and, sheltering the flame between his two broad palms, brought it close to the faces of the prisoners, illuminating at the same time his own features and those of the officer who had last spoken. One glance was sufficient for Henri then, and in a moment his thoughts flew back to Ruhleben, to that little hovel down in the corner of the camp—the tool-house—which the Germans had considered even too good for their unfortunate prisoners. And outside it; to that scene which he and Jules and Stuart had witnessed on that eventful evening when they made their escape. He could see the rotund figure of the Landsturm sentry being heckled; the figure of the blustering sergeant who had cross-examined him so fiercely, and had well-nigh frightened him out of his senses; and before them a third individual—a shorter, shrivelled-up officer, risen from the ranks undoubtedly—that one who had leapt into the tunnel and had gone scrambling along to discover what steps had been taken by the prisoners to break out of the camp. The selfsame individual, indeed, whom Stuart had extricated from the hole behind the entanglements and had dashed backwards into the tunnel. Similarly, in just as few seconds, the German recognized Henri and Jules.
"Those two!" he shouted—"the men who escaped from Ruhleben with an Englishman! Seize them! No, no! Let us shoot them now, for they would certainly be shot on returning to Germany."
The match died down at that instant and was dropped to the ground, leaving the group in utter darkness, and leaving Henri and Jules in the centre wondering what to do, distressed at their discovery, and feeling that the situation was almost hopeless. Then, of a sudden, Henri slid his left hand back and caught Jules by the sleeve; pulling him towards him, he whispered a sentence in his ear; and, a moment later, plunging forward, drove his fist into the face of the officer who had recognized him, and, pushing on over his fallen figure, burst from the group into the wood outside. Following on his heels, Jules cleared a path for himself, and, hearing the crash of undergrowth in front of him, held on in that direction, heedless of the shouts which came from the group of German officers and of the shots which were fired at them. Five minutes later Jules heard panting in front of him, and, stealing forward, gave vent to a gentle whisper.
"Is that you, Henri?" he asked.
"Yes, Jules," came back the panting answer; whereat Jules joined him, and the two sat for a while at the base of a big tree, resting and recovering their breath, and wondering what they were to do now that their presence in the wood had been discovered.
"A pretty kettle of fish," said Henri at last. "But what luck to have escaped from those fellows; and how mad that German officer will be to know that we have twice slipped through his clutches! A nasty little fellow, Jules! The sort of man who would shoot us out of hand if he had the opportunity."
"Then the sooner we get out of this and back to our friends the better. Besides, there's that news we have got for our commander. Let's make tracks now," said Jules. "By creeping along carefully, and listening for voices, we may be able to steer clear of the Germans and reach the open."
"Listen to them!" whispered Henri. "It's evident they've no fear of the French overhearing them, and that they are searching the woods for us. That's all the better for us, Jules, as you suggest, and by listening carefully we ought to be able to creep past them."
As it proved, the attempt to extricate themselves from their awkward position was not by any means easy; for the discovery made by that officer, and the anger it induced, caused him to call up a number of men who were resting in the woods within easy distance. Sentries were at once thrown out, so as to place a barrier between the two French soldiers so recently discovered and the open country lying between the woods and the French positions. Then other soldiers were set to work to search the woods, a few of them even producing lanterns. Yet, by dint of crawling, of hiding in hollows and under brushwood, and by steering a course away from approaching voices, Henri and Jules at length managed to place themselves beyond the barrier of sentries, and, rising then to their feet, ran on through the wood till they gained its edge and emerged into the open.
Then commenced the final stage of their journey. Crawling over the flat plain which swept gently down to the River Meuse, on the far side of which lay the Goose Hill, Caurette Wood, Crow's Wood, the Mort Homme, and Hill 304—positions to win unending fame in this warfare in the neighbourhood of Verdun—they gained at length the ground which ascended on their left towards the Poivre Hill, and beyond that again, giving access to the plateau of Douaumont, a plateau destined to see some of the most tremendous fighting in this conflict. Here, anticipating easy going and a country free from the enemy, the two stood upright—for they had been crouching and creeping along before—and marched rapidly towards their destination. But if that slope had been free of Germans during the daytime—as indeed it was, for the guns of the French lining the crests of Poivre Hill commanded it completely—the darkness which had now fallen and hidden all objects had made a most decided difference.
There was the loud tramp of feet on the road which led from Beaumont to Vacherauville, and, as the two drew nearer to that village, they could hear columns of men approaching along the road from Samogneux. A lull in the terrific bombardment, which had now been going on continuously since the 19th February, allowed them even to hear the voices of the Kaiser's soldiers as they closed in upon the French positions—upon that base-line to which we have referred, the line of the Meuse, beyond which lay the Verdun salient.
"There's not a doubt about it," said Henri in a whisper, as he and Jules shrank into a hole behind a bush and waited for a column of troops to pass along the road, "the enemy is preparing for an attack in force to-morrow, via Vacherauville; and, with what we have already seen in the wood, and what we hear now, we have information of the utmost importance. There must have been hundreds of men in the wood."
"Thousands!" Jules corrected him. "Thousands of them! And there are thousands here, too, marching along this road. Listen, now, to those guns being hauled behind the troops. One can only guess that there are many of them by the noise they make, and it surprises me that our men on the far side of the river haven't heard the sounds and opened fire upon the enemy. Wait! What's that?"
The "that" to which Jules referred proved to be a detachment of German troops from the road along which they had been marching, and presently figures could be seen stealing across the grass, steadily streaming past, between them and their friends, struggling forward to take up a position for an attack on the morrow. Orders were given in low gruff tones by officers accompanying those men, while now and again there came the click of accoutrements and the metallic ring of entrenching-tools carried with the parties. Nor was that all; for presently, when the stream of figures had poured past for some minutes, till hundreds had gone by, in fact, and the last of the column had halted, there came to the ears of Henri and his friend the dull blow of picks, the scrape of spades against flints and stones, and the rattle of earth as it was thrown out of an excavation.
"Digging trenches—digging themselves in! Preparing for our counter-attack to-morrow! And digging themselves in between us and our positions! Now, that's very awkward!" reflected Henri.
"Beastly awkward!" agreed Jules. "But there's one thing about it—it's dark, and, seeing that we have already escaped from the very midst of these same fellows, it seems to me that we may hope to do that again anywhere. Anyway, we must try."
"Certainly, we must try! We must get through them without further delay, for every moment now is of increasing importance."
Stealing forward from the bush, they slowly approached the line which the Germans were then preparing with entrenchments, and could now hear from those portions closest at hand the thud of busy picks and the ring of spades as the men employed them. Here and there a figure was to be seen standing up in the open, while everywhere else that column of men which had filed past them had, as it were, disappeared, or almost so; for already, thanks to the soft nature of the ground and to the rain which had fallen, the men had dug almost two feet down, and were partially hidden.
"Halt! Who are you? Why are you not working in the trenches?"
The question was bellowed at them by one of those figures standing out above the trenches, and, obedient to the order, losing their heads, indeed, for just one brief moment, Henri and Jules halted.
"Run for it!" whispered Henri; "straight through the line and on into the darkness! Come, Jules!"
Without a pause, without venturing to answer the question shouted at them, the two at once took to their heels, and, darting in between the men labouring at the trenches, sped on into the darkness. Nor was there any great attempt to arrest them; for, indeed, the men had already thrown off their tunics and had piled their arms, so that the only individuals carrying weapons were the officers superintending the operations. Half a dozen revolver-shots, therefore, were all that were fired at them, and those went wide in the darkness. Within a few minutes, in fact, the two were secure from all pursuit, and, provided there were no advance-parties thrown out in front of the Germans, might hope to reach their friends without further incident.
"But it is more than likely that pickets will have been posted, so as to avoid a French surprise," said Henri, "and, although I cannot claim much acquaintance with German methods as yet, one can imagine that sentries also have been sent towards our positions. Let's go on in silence, listening every now and again."
Stealing on through the darkness, they passed on more than one occasion a ghostly figure standing erect and motionless, keeping guard against the surprise of his comrades digging those trenches lower down the slope. Once, also, a figure suddenly sprang up before them—the figure of a German scout—a diminutive individual, who, not unnaturally, took them for comrades instantly.
"What now?" he said, standing within five feet of them. "Reliefs, or an advance-party in front of the main force? Surely not that, for it's time for us all to have a little rest, after the fighting we have experienced."
"Reliefs!" Henri told him instantly. "You are to return and report at the trenches. Go now, for we have fed, and no doubt you are hungry."
"Hungry?" The man almost exploded at the words. "Hungry? I am as empty as a drum," he told them. "But there, you have come to relieve me, so good-bye!"
He swung off at once into the darkness, and, waiting till he had gained perhaps a hundred yards, Henri and Jules sped on again towards the French lines, and, clambering up the steeper slopes of the Cote du Poivre, were finally challenged.
"Halte! Qui va la?"
"Friends!" they answered.
"Then advance one—without arms."
It was with a shout of joy that their comrades welcomed them back to the trenches, and almost immediately they were sent along to report to the Commander, receiving his congratulations on their safe return.
"This is information of the greatest importance," he told the two when he had listened to their story; "though, to tell the truth, the movement the enemy are making has been expected and even anticipated. Go and get a meal at once, while I report what is passing. But let me say that you have behaved wonderfully well, my Jules and my Henri, and your Commander will not forget to mention the matter. Adieu! To-morrow we shall see something more of those movements."
Yes, to-morrow! For as the 24th February dawned, and the grey light broke over the slopes of the Cote du Poivre, the Hill of Talou, and the winding Meuse gliding along between the hills which formed the main French positions to the west and to the east of it, the enemy guns, which had not rested for many hours since the outbreak of this gigantic conflict, broke out with terrific energy and commenced to deluge the French positions. Then, down on the lower slopes, on that plain and in the hollows, thousands and thousands of Germans sprang to their feet and dashed forward.
Henri and Jules and their comrades were, indeed, on this day, and upon those which followed, to experience fighting beside which that which had taken place on the 21st, 22nd, and 23rd February had been almost child's play—a grim, furious struggle was about to open, in which hand-to-hand contests were to be almost general, and in which that sturdy handful of poilus were to be called upon to make yet again the most gallant efforts.
"They come! See them, in their thousands! They are breaking from the trees and the hollows!"
"Thousands of them! Hordes of them! Swarms of the Boches!"
Amidst the storm of shells which the German massed guns were pouring upon that narrow front stretching from the Cote du Poivre past the Cote De Talou to the River Meuse, heads popped up from battered trenches, from shell craters, from fissures torn in the ground by high explosives, and hardy, bristly, dirty poilus, stared down the slopes through the wintry light and watched the enemy approaching. That gallant band indeed, sadly thinned since the opening of the Verdun battle—a battle destined to last longer than any recorded in all history—looked on grimly and waited. Waited expectantly, not in fear and terror lest they should be decimated, not even in doubt or trembling, for the desperate conflict which had been waged so far had taught the French one thing very thoroughly—man for man, they were as good as, nay better than the Germans; gun for gun, their own artillery was at least as dexterous and as exact in its ranging, and, so far as it went, gave wonderful support to the infantry. All then that remained was to withstand that terrible torrent of shells, and wait. To discover shelter of some sort which would protect their bodies and allow them to remain alive till that moment when those grey masses down below got within reach of them.
"And then you shall see, my Henri and my Jules," the sergeant who had spoken up for them on the previous day said, smiling grimly. "These shells that fall about us—pooh! What are they?"
At that moment a 15-inch shell plunged into the ground just behind the parapet—into ground already torn and plastered with shell fragments—and, burrowing at least ten feet deep, at last exploded with a muffled roar, setting the earth trembling, shaking in the sides of the battered trench, and sending up tons of soil, which fell in a cascade all round them.
"Poof! What are they?" he said again, saluting in the direction of the exploded shell. "But nothing! But something to snap one's fingers at! To laugh at! To chortle over! Something to avoid, though, my Henri and my Jules! Not that a man is so careful of his body in these days. Though he is anxious to retain his life, yet not for himself only, not that he shall live on to see the end of this warfare and the victory of the Allies. No, no! But so that he shall live to pull a trigger as the enemy draws nearer, and so help to destroy the German effort."
You would have thought, to look at Jules's face, that he was listening to quite a merry conversation; for that young man was smiling broadly, and, though shells still pitched about them, though many a shrapnel-burst high overhead plastered the ground with bullets, even twitted his comrades. But Henri was stern and severe, and even looked a trifle nervous: such was the difference in their characters. Yet Jules knew, the Sergeant knew, all his comrades knew, that when it came to the pinch, when it came to close fighting, there was no one more to be trusted than the sterner of these two young fellows. Ducking now and again, for somehow he could not help it, turning his eyes anxiously every few minutes in the direction of the enemy, his fingers locking themselves about his rifle and toying nervously with the buttons of his tunic, Henri did indeed, at that moment, look ill at ease, to say the least of it. And yet he too smiled as that shell burst, and, turning a moment later, smiled once more as he pointed towards the enemy.
"Wait!" he told Jules and the Sergeant. "They give us shells here in plenty, those Boches, they keep a torrent of them tumbling about our ears both day and night; but wait, I say! For remember what we saw from the forest, Jules! Those masses down below, the village of Vacherauville and the road to it, the slopes of the Cote de Poivre and of the Cote de Talou, are enfiladed by our guns across the river. Wait then! The gunners have not opened yet, but when the word comes, such a storm of shell will be poured upon the Germans that they too will learn what shell-fire really means."
His words, indeed, proved to be almost prophetic, for though, for some few minutes longer, the thinned garrison of the French trenches in those parts waited and watched the enemy masses advance, almost unobstructed, yet in a little while, and very soon after the machine-gunners had got into action and rifles were speaking sharply from every direction, there came sudden salvoes from across the river, from Charny Ridge, from the hill of Mort Homme, and from that of 304—high ground, in fact, almost continuous with the Hill of Talou. Taking a bird's-eye view of this particular position of the salient of Verdun, one sees the River Meuse flowing from south to north, winding in big bends through the hills which bound the valley, while, on those same hills to west and east of the river, eminences project which form the positions with which we are dealing. Running almost due east and west, there are Hill 304 and the Mort Homme, with Charny Ridge closer to the river and overlooking it. Then comes a flattened piece of land which is marshy in the winter, and through which the river winds, forming a big bend, and flowing in that part in an east-and-westerly direction. At Vacherauville—lying close to the eastern bank of the river—the next outcrop on the banks of the Meuse is the Cote de Talou, and, still east of it, the Cote du Poivre, while a little farther east, in the neighbourhood of Louvemont, the heights sweep round abruptly to the south to Douaumont, and then to Vaux, towards which those outlying parties of French who had held on so stubbornly to Herbebois, Ornes, and Maucourt, and had retired towards Bezonvaux, were now being driven by the enemy.
A glance at the sketch attached will show at once that the hills we have mentioned to the west or left of the River Meuse, and those to the right, form, as it were, a gateway through which the river passes, entering the gateway at Vacherauville and emerging at Cumieres, where a wood and a village nestle close to the river.
Then let us imagine troops marching along roads running parallel to the river in a southerly direction, with the intention of forcing their way through the gateway we have delineated, or rather of forcing their way up the slopes of the Cote de Talou and on to the Cote du Poivre. The roads which they must follow are clearly under command of the guns posted on Hill 304, the Mort Homme, and Charny Ridge, which enfilade the position.
Such was the condition of affairs on this eventful morning, when, having driven in the northern portion of the salient at Beaumont, and shortened its baseline, the Germans once more threw their masses to the assault in the desperate effort to drive in the wedge they had already inserted, to stampede the French at that position, and, breaking through their lines, to get behind the apex of the salient and entrap the thousands of Frenchmen holding the trenches from Douaumont and Vaux down to the southern portion of the salient.
"A brilliant stroke!" you will say. "The outcome of most able generalship on the part of the Germans." But wait! Clever though the enemy was, thoughtful though the German High Command had proved itself to be, and tremendous though the preparations for this battle were, there was yet something vital lacking in strategy. The Germans had counted on their guns to smash a way through any sort of defence, and though it is true that their plans had miscarried in one respect, and they had discovered already, to their considerable cost, that guns alone were not sufficient, yet guns and men together, they had learnt during the initial stages of this battle, were enough first to pound the enemy trenches, and then to drive out the defenders. Reckoning now upon a similar course of events, and, having already pounded the French position, they launched on this morning hosts of grey-coated infantry at the Hills of Talou and Poivre, above which Henri and Jules were fighting.
Posted on an eminence in the neighbourhood of Samogneux, the German High Command, safe from the rifle-fire of the French, watched through their glasses as those sinister lines of grey swept from the wood in which they had been taking cover, and, marching steadily over the ground, advanced upon their objective. And then they too heard that sudden salvo of guns from across the river, and, turning their glasses, surveyed the Mort Homme and Hill 304, positions to which they had given but little consideration.
And see the result! 75's, machine-guns, howitzers, and rifles, all concealed, all dug in or sheltered, and all amply provided with ammunition, poured a storm of shot and shell and bullets upon those advancing grey masses, sweeping them away, shattering the ranks, treating them to a hail of steel beside which the fire of the defenders of the higher slopes of the hill the Germans were attacking was but as a shower compared with a tornado. German infantry melted away under that terrible storm, masses of grey were levelled like corn at the feet of the reaper, while even the forest, through which Henri and Jules had penetrated on the previous day, was flattened or torn to shreds, was converted into a species of smoking volcano. It was terrific! It was a master-stroke on the part of the French Command, and a shattering misfortune to the enemy. Indeed, it took the sting out of their attack entirely; it sent those of their men who had survived this awful ordeal racing back to cover; and it put a peremptory and sudden stop to the cunning German effort to drive in that wedge they had already inserted along the Meuse and so to shorten dangerously the base of the Verdun salient.
"Fall in, men, fall in! We are going to move from the position, handing it over to others of our comrades. Fall in there, men!"
"A move!" ejaculated Jules. "Then where to?"
Henri shrugged his shoulders.
"Anywhere—who cares?" he declared, with a species of desperation. "There's fighting all round, so one place is neither worse nor better than another. But there's one thing that is quite apparent; men are hardly wanted here any longer, and a thin sprinkling of our soldiers can hold these trenches quite as easily as hosts of them. For the guns yonder, those guns on Mort Homme and 304, command the Cote de Talou and the Cote du Poivre far better than could our rifles; so our commanders, who no doubt want men in other places; are thinning out our lines and are sending us to reinforce another portion of the salient."
Creeping along the battered trenches, crawling across masses of tumbled earth, where communication-trenches had once existed, and, by slow degrees, moving to a part where a fold in the ground gave some shelter, though little enough, from the shells which the German guns still sent, the depleted regiment to which Henri and Jules belonged was finally massed in the hollow, and, having been fed there and rested for a while, was marched to the east, towards the fort of Douaumont. That night, indeed, after darkness had fallen, they once more repeated the process of scrambling along shattered trenches, and when the morning of the 25th dawned—a cold and bitter morning with snow-flakes filling the air and whirling across the landscape—they found themselves looking down the steep slopes of the plateau of Douaumont, towards the German positions, and watching, spellbound almost, another demonstration of the power and skill of the German gunners.
"Yes, my friends, they have been at that for hours past," a comrade lying beside them in the trenches told them, as he pointed a finger at the dull-grey outline of Douaumont fort, lying not so far from them. "Believe me, one would have thought, from the number of shells they have fired at the place, that there were thousands of Frenchmen sheltering there whom they hoped to destroy completely. And so they have dropped shells on the place, big shells—Mon Dieu! as big as I am—middle-sized ones, and small ones—in fact, grandfathers, fathers, and children—till the place has been pounded to atoms.
"And so you have come at last, you fellows," he went on when the three had watched, for a while, more shells hurtling into the ruins of Douaumont fort. "Well, you are wanted, wanted badly, for we've fought our way back from Ornes and Bezonvaux, and there are precious few of us left to do more fighting. You are fresh at the game—eh? my comrades."
"Fresh!" ejaculated Jules, looking quite indignant.
"Bien! But I hardly meant that," the poilu told them. "In appearance you are not fresh. No, certainly not; far from it. But then, who of us can turn out nicely under such circumstances? Look at me, I ask you; a mere mud-heap. And so I have been since the battle commenced. And you?"
"And we," laughed Henri, "we are in a similar sort of position. But what would you?" he declared, shrugging his shoulders in truly French fashion. "For listen, mon ami! Like you, we have fought our way back from Brabant, from the lines stretching along past Herbebois and Ornes. We have been in the thick of the fighting, hiding in caves deep down in the earth, in dug-outs which shook as the enemy shells burst above them, crawling from shot-hole to shell-crater, living in earth battered and shaken all day and all night, and thankful to get an hour's sleep at any time, and a bite and a drink to keep us going. 'Fresh,' did you say? Certainly, mon ami, we are fresh, if by fresh you mean we are willing and ready for more fighting."
The poilu, his mouth wide open in a huge grin, gripped Henri's hand and shook it heartily.
"Mais! Mon Dieu! That is your sort! That is our sort! That is the French sort!" he cried loudly. "It's that kind of spirit which will carry us on, and which will help us to beat these fellows. Then I was right, you are 'fresh' men who have come to reinforce us, and badly do we need your assistance."
Pulling their coats about them, turning up their collars so as to keep out the whirling flakes of snow, beating their arms about their bodies and stumbling up and down the trenches, the troops watching on the heights above Douaumont, dodging the German shells still flung at them, waited as the 25th February grew gradually older, and the light grew stronger. Something in the air seemed to tell them that this was to be a sterner day than any that had preceded it, and yet there was that about the artillery-fire of the enemy which rather contradicted that feeling. For while everything up to the 24th of the month had gone in the favour of Germany, and while she had gained enormous successes—thanks to her long-continued and secretly-made preparations—yet now the elements themselves turned against her—and in all conscience she had had difficulties enough before, considering the terrific resistance shown by those French heroes. It was snowing, banks of snow-clouds filled the heavens, while whirling flakes made artillery-fire a matter of extreme difficulty. True, big guns, long since established on concrete foundations and quite immobile, could still register by the map as accurately as ever, and still poured shells of large dimensions on Fort Douaumont and on other sectors; but the smaller guns, mere babes compared with those 17-inch howitzers, yet guns flinging missiles which pounded the French trenches, could now only fire aimlessly, so that the torrent of shells was reduced and became a mere nothing to that formerly experienced.
"They will not attack," a poilu gave it as his decision, and very decidedly. "These Boches never attack unless they have first cut up the ground and smashed our trenches; therefore I vote for a brazier here, something to cook, and a pipe of good tobacco."
"And perhaps a game of manne, too," laughed another. "Well, a little rest, after what we have gone through, will do us no harm, and will fit us all the more for what is to follow. Who cares! To-day, to-morrow, or even later, we shall fight. If not to-day, well, let us make the most of it."
Cheery groups collected in the trenches all along the line, men who hardly took the trouble to peer out over the parapets and watch for the coming of the enemy. It looked, indeed, as if this 25th February was to be a day of rest—one sorely needed by our allies. And then, of a sudden, an alarm spread along the trenches; men sprang to their arms and gripped their rifles, while machine-gunners dived into cunning approaches to hidden pieces out in the open, and, scuttling along, manned those instruments which were to send death into the ranks of the Kaiser.
For the enemy were not to be denied, were not to be put off even though the elements were against them. Realizing now that guns alone were insufficient, that losses must be sustained if they desired to capture Verdun and its salient, they had hardened their hearts, and, determined to risk all in this venture (for part of their success, if they captured Verdun, would consist in the rapidity of such capture), now launched the Brandenburg Corps against the Douaumont position, convinced that if only they could capture what remained of the shattered fort, and set foot on this upland plateau, they would command the French positions along the heights of the Meuse, would command, indeed, those guns, posted on Mort Homme and Hill 304, which had assailed them so severely on the previous day, and would thereby easily smash up further French resistance and gain their objective.
"Stand to your arms! Watch the ravines! For we have news that the enemy are advancing up them. Hold your ground at all cost, no matter what your losses, for these are the orders."
Without haste, without excitement, with that grim, steady courage which had stood the French poilu in such good stead already, the men gripped their rifles and made ready for another German onslaught.
"Hold on, whatever the cost!" one man repeated to another.
"Till death, if need be," came the answer.
Frenchmen and Brandenburgers
Forbidding and grey, shell-marked and shattered and battered out of all recognition, yet of such a substantial nature that even the high explosives and the ponderous shells dropped upon it by the German gunners could not entirely demolish it, the fort of Douaumont stood up, cold and black, on that morning of Friday, the 25th February, seeming even to overshadow the trench, or the apology for a trench—for here, too, shells had done their work—in which Henri and his friend were lying. Out beyond them the shell-marked ground, across which flakes of snow were drifting, descended abruptly to the plain of the Woevre; and struggling up its slopes came, at that moment, the 5th Division of the 3rd Brandenburg Corps—a corps retired from the fighting-ranks months ago, specially fed, specially trained and armed, and prepared particularly for this Verdun fighting. Its 6th Division was, at the moment, invisible, for it was creeping up the ravine of La Voche, which sheltered it from the fire of the French defenders.
There is no need for us to repeat the tale of terrific fighting, of the stubbornness and gallantry of the Germans, and of the heroic resistance of that thin band of French poilus who still held the main outposts of the Verdun salient. Let us but say that they had been driven in four miles from the northern posts they had held, and on the east had been forced to fall back via Bezonvaux. But those positions had been but flimsily held, but indifferently fortified, when compared with the main defensive positions arranged by our allies. They were back upon that main defensive line now, where it swept from Vacherauville, on the River Meuse, opposite the Mort Homme and Hill 304, across the hill of Talou and Pepper Hill—ominous names already to the enemy—past Louvemont, and so to Douaumont and Damloup, where the trenches had now descended to the plain of the Woevre, and they held to it till they clambered once more up the slopes, and so to the other end of the base of the salient.
Checked on their right, where the 5th Division was advancing, the Brandenburgers were swept from the face of the earth by a tempest of shot and shell; but their 6th Division, advancing up the ravine in front of the shattered fortress, finally burst from cover, and, supported by a torrent of projectiles from the German guns, hurled itself from a close point upon the French defences, and, in spite of the heroic resistance of these soldiers, forced them back.
It was at that particular period that Henri and Jules and a dozen or more of their comrades found themselves in a portion of the fire-trench cut off from their comrades, who had retreated, and already almost surrounded by Germans.
"It's all up! We are surrounded! We are captured! Vive la France!" shouted one of their number; while others looked about them, at first doubtfully, and then with grim resignation.
"Yes, captured! Better lie down in the trench till we are discovered, or else those Huns will fire into us," counselled another of the men.
"And give in like that!" shouted Jules indignantly. "Give in without trying to crawl back to our people?"
"Crawl back!" a corporal answered him hotly. "As if we shouldn't do that if it were possible. Look for yourself, man; you've eyes in your head. See the lines of Brandenburgers between us and our people!"
As a matter of fact, just at the moment when he was pointing to a thick though somewhat scattered line of grey-coated infantry which had now swept on beyond them, a gust of wind came whirling round the corner of the shattered fortress, singing and whistling over the summit, and bringing with it heavier flakes of snow which obliterated the scene about them and made vision almost impossible.
"Well, then!" added the heated Corporal. "Even snow won't help us; for we don't belong to the Flying Corps, and can't, therefore, very well ascend and drop beyond them."
"But——" exclaimed Henri, who had been using his wits and his eyes all this time, and, though bound to feel somewhat helpless, seeing the position in which he and his comrades found themselves, was yet not quite resigned to the idea of becoming a prisoner. ("Not much!" he told himself. "I've had some!—as they say in America. Ruhleben was a lesson which has taught me that the lot of a prisoner is hardly inviting.") "But——" he called out.
"But——" shouted the Corporal back at him, standing quite close to Henri, and bellowing in his ear; for, indeed, the little fellow was very excited. "But you would like to call us cowards next, because we will not charge after the Germans."
"One moment," Henri said, patting him on the shoulder, "one little moment, mon cher ami! Neither you nor I wish to be prisoners, eh?"
"Vraiment!" the little fellow answered, a trifle mollified, his anger oozing out at the tips of his fingers. "But then—— Ah! It is Henri, eh? I did not recognize you earlier. Then what do you advise, Henri—you, who have tasted prison life in Germany?"
"Yes, yes! Let Henri tell us," called a number of the others; for already our hero had won no small reputation amongst his fellows.
Let us advance the story just a little and explain that already that officer to whom Henri and Jules had given a report of their reconnaissance had urged upon his colonel that they should be promoted instantly, and even then, as the conflict raged about Fort Douaumont, their names were in Regimental Orders. They were to be "non-commissioned" officers.
"What then?" the little Corporal asked again, eagerly peering up at Henri, for he was some inches shorter.
"I believe you, my dear fellow," exclaimed Henri. "Not being a bird, or, as you rightly observed, not belonging to the Flying Corps, we cannot very well get back to our fellows, that is, not yet. But—and that is just where you chipped in and prevented my saying what was in my mind—but we fellows might manage to hold out if we had some sort of decent cover."
"Aye! Cover—that's it! Out here we should be shot to rags," exclaimed a veteran. "Now, Henri, let's have your decision, and quickly, too, for the snow may stop at any moment."
"Then here it is: take up every cartridge you can find—boxes of ammunition if you can hit on them—get as much food from the haversacks of the killed as you can carry, and then let's creep towards the fort. There's a gateway on this side, for I noticed it in the early hours of the morning. Let's get behind those concrete and stone walls and search for a spot where we can hold out and stand a siege till our fellows counter-attack and relieve us."
The veteran poilu of the party smote his hands together and tilted his steel helmet backward.
"Mon Dieu," he cried, "but that is it! Our Henri has thought of a splendid thing for us. Ecoutez! Then I will tell you, I who have been of the Verdun garrison, not only during this war, but in peace times, I who helped to remove the big guns when the Kaiser showed us that guns behind a fort were no longer useful. There are caverns underneath that masonry, my boys, big galleries, and fortified chambers, to which even a big shell will hardly descend. Yes, there are rooms down below in the bowels of the earth which will shelter us, and hundreds beside us. It is a magnificent plan. I, who know the place, can lead you; and, of a truth, we will find a spot where men such as we are, fighting for France, can hold up a hundred of the enemy. Be busy, then! Pick up cartridges, seek for food and water."
"Yes—and water!" shouted Jules, darting from the trench and stooping over the nearest figure. All about them were the battered trenches of that thin force of noble Frenchmen who had fought hand to hand with the Brandenburgers. There were the bodies of the slain—of friend and foe—lying in every sort of posture, some half in and half out of the trenches; some, alas! unrecognizable, for such is the effect of high explosives; and others, yet again, almost buried already by upheavals of earth as shells burst close beside them. There were not a few wounded, too, who lay waiting the succour which might come some hours hence, and which, it was quite possible, might never come, for in a little while, no doubt, French fire would command the ground on which they lay, and neither troops nor hospital bearers could cross it.
Very eagerly, then, for every one of the men in Henri's party was anxious to escape capture, and eager to rejoin the French forces and again fight the Germans, the poilus scrambled about in the battered trench, or closely adjacent to it, taking up cartridges, despoiling the dead of their haversacks, from which they ejected all but the food contents, while every man loaded himself with as many water-bottles as he could conveniently carry.
"It's still snowing hard," said Henri, when some ten minutes had passed and the band was again collected. "Don't let us get into a flurry, or spoil our chances by being too hurried. Let's number off, and see how many we are."
"One! Two! Three!"——
Without a word of command the man on the left started, and Henri, at the far end of the line, announced his own number. It was twenty.
"Good!" he told them. "More than I thought. Twenty resolute men fighting for France, for la belle France, my comrades——"
"Ah! For la belle France, for home, for victory!" the veteran shouted.
"Yes, for victory. And listen, my friends; we may help towards it," Henri told them. "Resolute men, if they can reach some strong position in that fort, may well assist our friends battling farther back on the plateau. Well, now, there are twenty of us, and I see that there are half a dozen or more ammunition-boxes."
"Ten," the veteran corrected him instantly; "ten, Monsieur Henri"—it had come to "Monsieur" now, such was the veteran's opinion of our hero.
"Good! Ten boxes of cartridges is it? Ten thousand rounds. Now let's see to the water-bottles. How many are there?"
The men, on returning to the spot where Henri stood, had at once deposited their finds at the bottom of the trench, so that there was no difficulty in making an inventory; and now a mere glance discovered the fact that there were more than two water-bottles per man, all filled, as Henri was assured, and all big ones.
"One bottle will last a careful man, say, two days, eh?" he asked.
"In the dungeons of the fort, three days, Monsieur Henri," the veteran replied; "and, besides, it's bitterly cold weather, when a man does not need to drink so much."
"And food? Well, we must guess at that; but it appears from the number of haversacks, and from the way in which some of them are bulging, that there will be sufficient for some days."
"One mo'!" called Jules at that instant. "Each man's got his rifle and bayonet, that's understood; there's ammunition, say, for a four-days' fight, and water and food also. Why not a machine-gun? Here's one abandoned by our fellows when they were forced backward."
Some of the men almost burst into a cheer, while two of them dashed forward, and, dismantling the gun, shouldered the tripod and the barrel.
"Good idea!" Henri told him. "The difficulty, though, will be to carry in sufficient ammunition. But listen to this, you fellows; let's make tracks for the fort at once, decide upon a spot to hold, and deposit our belongings; then, if the snow continues and the Germans keep away, we'll creep out again and look for further ammunition."
They began to move off along the trench at once, the veteran and Henri leading, and Jules and the stout little corporal bringing up the rear. Staggering along, loaded with ammunition and water and food which they had collected, bending as low as possible and holding to the trench so long as it continued, the little band were soon directly under the walls of the fort, and though they peered anxiously about them, looking for the enemy, whose shouts, indeed, they could hear in all directions—even from the fort itself—yet not once did one of the Kaiser's soldiers approach them, while all the time the snow fell silently upon the fort and its surroundings. Then the gate seemed suddenly to open in front of them, and marching in—staggering in, indeed, for they were very heavily laden—they followed the veteran into a shattered courtyard, and from it down a flight of steps to a gallery beneath—a wide gallery with earth roof and cemented floor, along which ran steel rails. Indeed, there was a trolley on those rails, over which Henri stumbled.
"A trolley to run the ammunition round to the guns," the veteran exclaimed, "but useless now, my Henri, quite useless," he chuckled. "For, you see, the guns are behind the fort, and have already sent some of their shells into the enemy."
"That being so, this trolley will do to carry our produce. Pile your ammunition here. That's it. Those ammunition-boxes will weigh less heavily on you when stacked on this trolley. Now, my friend, which way? We are in a deep gallery which seems to be lighted by tunnels running to the outside. Do we turn left or right, or whither?"
The veteran turned to his right without a word, while Henri and one of the men followed, pushing the trolley. Following the gallery, which ran straight on for some fifty yards, they came to a point where the inside walls had been rounded, and the rail swept in a gentle curve round the corner and into the extension of the gallery.
"Halt!" shouted the veteran suddenly. "This is the spot that I have aimed for. Now look! On our left is a wide opening which enters the hall in which the garrison could take their meals and sleep, and which can accommodate, perhaps, at a squeeze, a thousand of them. Right opposite this entrance there is a stairway, and at its top another room—one of a series of gun emplacements now empty. It will do for us, my Henri, I believe. Let us ascend."
Taking up the ammunition-boxes at once, and leaving the trolley at the foot of the stairs, the party scrambled upwards till they found themselves in a square chamber lit by an embrasure in the wall, through which the wintry rays percolated. Standing just at the entrance, and turning round, Henri discovered that, thanks to the height of the opening into the big hall beneath the fort, he was able to look directly into it, though the far end was hidden from view by the stonework at the top. A swift glance round the chamber which they had reached showed him thick masonry all about, steel beams above, and iron rails of circular pattern on the floor, on which the guns had been wont to revolve.
"Well, then?" asked the veteran.
"It will do," Henri told him. "But what we shall want is someone to discover something with which to barricade the top of these stairs. Let us divide ourselves into three parties. Jules, you will command one, our friend the corporal another, and this bearded chum of ours the third. Now, listen."
"Yes, listen to him, to our Henri," cried the veteran. "For it's agreed, is it not, my comrades, that he shall command us?"
"Certainly!" they all shouted.
"Then, here is the plan: our bearded friend stays here and sends a portion of his command about the place to discover sacks of grain, blocks of stone or of timber, anything, in fact, which will allow us to build a wall across the top of the stairs. Jules and his men will descend the stairs and hunt round the fort, while our corporal and his party will retrace their footsteps, pushing the trolley with them, and will bring in to us as much food and as much small-arm ammunition as they can find, and then boxes of ammunition for our machine-gun."
The band of resolute poilus, whose eyes were now sparkling with excitement, for but a little while before they had resigned themselves to capture by the enemy, now separated, each man bustling about; while the veteran amongst them, Jules, and the corporal, snapped out orders, barked them, indeed, and sent their willing men flying. As for Henri, he went hither and thither, first watching one lot of men and then another; and, as they worked, as the veteran and his men sought for obstacles, and by lucky chance found them—for it happened that the French had stored sacks of grain for their transport animals in one of the chambers—while Jules and his men reconnoitred their surroundings, and the corporal, moving very swiftly and with intelligence, returned more than once laden with supplies from outside, the snow-flakes still whirled about the place, still enveloped the fort of Douaumont, to obtain which the Germans had now spent so many lives—spent the lives of their men indeed like water—and which they now almost surrounded.
Shells shrieked overhead, sent from those guns long since embedded in concrete, down under shelter of the evergreen fir-trees surrounding the salient of Verdun, while other shells, smaller missiles, shrieked and exploded as they hurled their way hither and thither, cast at random now, for the thick weather made shooting almost impossible. There came, too, through that embrasure, or through the gateway of the fort, every now and again, the rattle of rifles, the sharp tap-tap of machine-guns, and the snap and bark of the soixante-quinze as the French sent their curtain-fire out beyond the plateau. There was fighting still to the left and to the right of the fort, in the neighbourhood of Thiaumont farm and the village of Douaumont, while to the right, towards Vaux, the flash of weapons was sometimes visible. More than that, voices could be heard near at hand, the shouts of Frenchmen somewhere, either in the fort or closely adjacent to it, and presently the calls, the loud commands, of Germans.
It was, indeed, only half an hour later, when, thanks to the time given to them, Henri's little command had stacked the chamber with an ample supply of food and water, and procured such quantities of ammunition that they might fire it almost all day long and yet have sufficient for a week, that a terrific explosion shook the fortress, a huge German shell having burst almost within it. The far wall of that hall into which Henri had looked, and which faced the bottom of the stairs giving access to their chamber, fell in with a crash and clatter, the semi-darkness existing there being made denser at once by the dust and debris shot out by the explosion. Then figures raced across the hall, the figures of Frenchmen, coming from some point beyond, where Jules and his party had failed to discover them, while, quickly following them, could be seen German infantry—men of the Brandenburg Corps.
"Up here, up here!" shouted Henri, dashing down the stairs at once, and calling to the men running towards him. "Here are friends; come up the stairs and join us."
In rapid succession those men dashed through the opening of the hall, leapt up the stairs three at a time, and were dragged over the parapet which the veteran poilu had had erected. Then Henri retreated slowly, and, having rejoined his friends, sat down, rifle in hand, to see what would happen.
"Tell me," he asked one of the men who had just joined their ranks, and who was gasping for breath near him, "what has happened?"
"What has happened? Ah! They have driven our folks back from the fort, which is now isolated. We were holding on—I and perhaps a hundred of my comrades—near the eastern end, and then the Germans, having blasted the corner of the fort to pieces with that last shot, charged from some trenches in which they were lying, within a hundred metres perhaps, and burst their way into the place. We could not hold on any longer. It was a case of flight, or death, or capture."
"And so you chose flight! Good!" said Henri. "We chose the same. Here we are, snug in this place, with plenty of ammunition, and ready and eager to continue fighting. If any of you men understand a machine-gun, get to the one we have, at once, and man it; the rest, who have no rifles, can assist in any way that appeals to them. Ah! Watch those fellows. They are streaming into the hall. There are fifty—more—perhaps a hundred of them."
There were indeed considerably more of the Brandenburgers to be seen when the dust from that shattered wall had subsided. They came streaming in to the darkened hall, dishevelled, their Pickelhaubes gone in many cases, their rifles missing, their grey clothing now a mass of caked mud, and their hands and faces of the same colour. Shouting and bellowing their triumph, they massed in the room till an officer made himself apparent.
"Those men? Those Frenchmen who passed before us?" he asked in the arrogant manner of the Prussian; "you killed them—eh?"
"No! They went on ahead of us, up those stairs yonder," one of the men answered.
"Then no doubt they are cut off, like rats in a trap. Go in and kill them."
Henri turned and whispered to his friends.
"You heard that?" he asked them. "But perhaps you do not speak German. Then I will translate; they say they have us here like rats in a trap, and the order has been passed to come and kill us. Well, personally, I have a great objection to being killed, and I have every wish indeed to kill our enemies. Get ready! Load! Two hundred Germans shan't turn us out of these quarters."
Rats in a Trap
Douaumont Fort was captured. But for that handful of men who had nominated Henri as their leader, and who crouched behind the parapet of grain-bags at the summit of the narrow flight of steps within the fort, not a Frenchman remained to defend it. The "pillar of the defence of Verdun", as the Kaiser and his War Staff had termed it, was in their hands, and at once the news was flashed broadcast across the States of Germany and to every neutral country.
"Douaumont has fallen. We hold the fortress firmly in our hands. The resistance of the French before Verdun is almost broken, and in a short time we shall capture that city."
That was the gist of the communique issued to the world—a communique which set the people of Germany, at this time rendered anxious and despondent by the position in which they found themselves, rejoicing and flying flags. For, indeed, they needed some sort of encouragement. To east and west, and on the seas in all directions, the Central Empires were hemmed in by a line of soldiers, steadily growing stronger, and by ships of the British Fleet which daunted those of the Germans. True, at this date, looking at the map of Europe, the Kaiser might crow and ask his people to behold the conquests their troops and those of Austria and Bulgaria had gained for them. There was the greater part of Belgium, all but that thin strip running from Ypres to Dunkirk; there was Luxembourg, that little State which had been captured without even protest; there were the north-eastern provinces of France, rich in iron ore and coal and iron industries; and to the east there was the whole of Serbia; while all Poland and a respectable slice of the Tsar's dominions were in his possession.
"See how we have succeeded! Behold our conquests; won for us by the blood and bravery of our soldiers!" the Kaiser had often called to his people.
And yet that was only one side of the picture. Territorial gains had no doubt been obtained—territorial gains of no mean dimensions; but, as we have inferred, and as the War Staffs of Austria and Germany knew well enough, the troops of the Allied Powers were unbeaten, were getting stronger every day, while those of the Central Powers were becoming less numerous; and more than that—far more perhaps—was the fact that trade for the Central Powers had ceased altogether. Nothing might come to either of these countries that did not first pass inspection by the ships of the British fleet; and, as a consequence, food-stuffs, raw material, everything, in fact, had practically ceased to enter the country. Thus food was short: bread was hardly obtainable, though a substitute had been invented; while meat was a luxury to be enjoyed only by the richest. Yes, the condition of affairs in Germany and Austria was none too exhilarating, and Austrians and Germans alike needed some stimulus—something to hearten them, to keep up their spirits and their courage. And here was stimulus indeed. The fort of Douaumont was captured—that fort which they had been led to believe was heavily armed, was deemed impregnable indeed, and the capture of which was a feat almost impossible of achievement, had fallen to the valour of the Germans, to the valour indeed of the Brandenburgers. What then could prevent the fall of Verdun itself? That indeed would compensate them for the hunger they suffered, and for the cruel losses the French were inflicting upon their soldiers.
And but for Henri's little band, as we have said, the fortress of Douaumont was captured.
"See them down in the hall, Henri, mon garcon," said the bearded veteran, who crouched beside our hero, and who, indeed, seemed to have taken him under his own particular protection—not that Henri needed much protection from anyone, for at that moment as he sat there in command of his detachment, he looked as resolute and capable a young fellow as one might wish to meet.
"Yes, they are there, mon ami," he replied. "I see them, and, moreover, they too see us. We shall hear from them shortly."
And hear from the Brandenburgers Henri and his party presently did. For an officer dragged a much-soiled handkerchief from his pocket and picked his way, over the tumbled masses of masonry littering the floor of the hall beyond, towards the exit which gave access to the stairs. Dapper and smart to a certain extent, though somewhat dishevelled by the charge in which he had taken a share; arrogant, like the majority of German officers, and bearing about his figure something which seemed familiar to Henri, he stopped at that exit, and, looking up the stairway, peered hard at the enemy.
"Above, there!" he called, and Henri and Jules instantly recognized his voice.
"Our friend of Ruhleben—the fellow who was so anxious to shoot us the other day when we tumbled into his bivouac in the forest. Well, the shooting will not be all on one side now," grinned Jules, his lips close to Henri's ear, as they both peered over the top of the barricade.
"Above, there!" the German officer snapped again. "Ah! You will not answer, then; though I know well enough that Frenchmen are there. Well, let it be so! But don't say that I have not warned you. I give you one minute to come down and surrender—after that, I will blow you to pieces."
"How very violent!" laughed Jules, and his voice, reaching the ear of that German officer, sent the blood flushing to his cheeks and his feet stamping with rage. "How very violent! 'Pon my word, Henri, this fellow needs a lesson, for every time we've listened to him he's been going to do something desperate—something desperate, that is, to other people. Shall we answer the beggar?"
"Yes. We'll do the square thing. A moment ago I had a mind to remain quite still and silent, and let the fellow find out for himself what sort of a place we had got; but we'll be quite fair with him, and then there can't be any complaints. Hallo, below there!" he called; "stand where you are, and don't move forward or one of my men will shoot you. You ask us to surrender, eh?"
"Ask you!" came the arrogant answer. "Not at all—I command you!"
"And we take commands only from our own people. Come and take us," Henri told him delightedly. "Come and take us, if you can, but I warn you to look out for the consequences."
The man below turned about with that precision to be found in the ranks of the Kaiser's armies, and strutted back across the hall, his figure lit up by the beams of light entering through shafts by which the chamber was ventilated. In less than a minute he had rejoined his men, and for a while Henri and his friends watched as a consultation was held. Then, of a sudden, the men dispersed and were lost to view for quite five minutes.
It was perhaps five minutes later when first one and then, perhaps, a couple of dozen grey-coated figures slipped into view from behind the tumbled masonry at the far end of the hall, and, darting to right or to left or down the centre, flopped down behind masses of stone and cement with which the floor was littered.
"Now keep down," Henri told his friends; "or, better still, keep right away from the barricade, and report instantly if bullets contrive to penetrate the sacks. Personally, I don't think they will, for we've piled them up two deep, and a bag of grain affords tremendous opposition even to a sharp-pointed bullet. Ah! There goes the first! Well, has it gone through?"
"No. Nor will any others," the veteran told him, with a chuckle. "We are safe—safer, indeed, behind these bags, than if we had a stone wall before us. For, mon garcon, you understand there will be no ricochetting, no splintering of bullets, no splashes of lead about us."
In a few minutes, as the firing from the hall down below became more general, and thuds on the outer face of the wall of sacks became almost continuous, it was borne in upon Henri and his gallant little band that even bullets discharged at such point-blank range had for the moment little danger for them.
"Then we'll line our wall," said Henri. "It's not more than twelve feet across, so that six men lying flat on their faces will be sufficient for the purpose; six more will kneel down behind them, so as to be ready to fire over the top of the barricade in case of a rush; and our machine-gun man must squeeze himself into the midst of them. Now, man the loopholes!"
It was a canny suggestion of the bearded veteran which had caused the men assisting him to build the barricade to leave loopholes for the rifles of the defenders, not only along the top of this improvised wall, with bags placed so that the heads of those who fired would be protected, but to leave apertures also just a foot from the bottom through which men lying flat on their faces might fire down into the hall. As for the machine-gun, it was piled round with bags, just the bare tip of the muzzle protruding, and, indeed, thanks to the dusk which occluded the top of the stairs, giving no indication of its presence to the enemy. Thus, with the wall manned, and the remainder of his little party squatting on the stone floor of the gun-chamber ready to support their comrades, Henri and his men waited for perhaps half an hour, during which time the fusillade from the men of the 24th Brandenburg Regiment sent a hail of bullets in their direction. They thudded against the bags continuously, while often enough a missile would strike the concrete ceiling of the chamber, and, ricochetting from it, would mushroom against the opposite wall; some even struck the walls limiting the stairway on either side, and, breaking off at a tangent and exploding from the impact, scattered strips of nickel and lead over the heads of the garrison.