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HOME > Short Stories > The Boy Volunteers on the Belgian Front > CHAPTER IX THE FIRST BATTLE
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Thus the boys spent the first day of their journeyings as soldiers. How proud they were. They actually petted the guns. They had no uniforms, of course, and it was the only thing needed to make them supremely happy.

Their joy was so great that they almost forgot home, and when, in the dangers that later came, they thought of their parents, it was with great pride that they were able to be of service to Belgium in her hour of need.

There was another thing which awakened a sense of pleasure. The men realizing that they were only boys treated them like privileged characters. In accordance with the laws they had no right to bear arms; but in war many things are permitted that would not be tolerated in times of peace.

The boys had an early awakening. Ralph, who was first to arise and emerge from the little cove, which was occupied by their squad, rushed back into the enclosure, and cried: "An airship is coming."

Alfred was out in an instant. There, circling97 above them, was an air plane. The officers were viewing it with their glasses.

"What is it, Roland?" asked Alfred.

"It is a German flying machine, of the type called the Taube," he answered.
German Taube Airplane

"What is the difference between the Taube and the monoplane?" asked Ralph.

"The Taube is a monoplane. The word is the German name for dove. That name was given to it on account of its shape. See the broadly-spreading tail, and the peculiar wing-formation of the main planes."

After passing above the quarry the machine flew98 to the south, and then circled around so as to get a view of the tier of forts.

"See, there is another one off to the left," exclaimed Ralph.

In the distance, and in the direction from which the boys had come, in their wanderings, they noticed another ship of the same character. These were used for the purpose of ascertaining the locations, not only of the forts themselves, but to spy out the most convenient elevations in the vicinity of the fortifications.

The most important duty of the airplanes is to watch the movement of troops from one vicinity to the other, and to take particular note of the effect of the shells. In this respect they have an undoubted advantage over any other method ever used in warfare.

Heretofore the only way in which an attacking party could determine whether the shells took effect was indicated by the failure on the part of the fort to answer with their guns. But this was not the most satisfactory thing to judge from, because, in many instances, the forts would purposely cease firing, and thus delude the attackers into the belief that they were silenced by the exploding shells.

There is no mistaking the explosions of shells, as they fall around a fort. The flying machines are usually manned by a military observer, who has powerful glasses. He also has a large flag with a white center, and dark border. With this he can readily signal the effect of the shots to99 the officer at the battery, the latter being provided with field glasses.

The system of signals vary. Obviously, there are only four directions necessary in order to tell the gunners where to shoot. That is, if the shot should, for instance, go over the fort, the flag would be raised far over the head to indicate that fact. If the shot fell short, the flag would be lowered. In like manner, should the shot strike to the right, the flag would be waved in that direction, and so on.

If the shots are properly placed the flag is waved around the head, to show demonstration of approval.

The commander called Antonio, and directed him to take a squad and mount the hill directly to the east, using that as an observation point. Roland was one of the squad, and the boys begged permission to accompany them.

They made a hurried rush across the intervening depression, the entire force numbering fifty-five men. If the officer in command had known that the mission would be a dangerous one he would have denied the boys permission to go along; but it was too late now.

It was well that the commander had taken the precaution, for the moment they gained the crest of the hill they could plainly observe a body of infantry coming up the hill a mile to the east, and this was absolutely unobservable from the quarry position.

Before Antonio had time to consider what to100 do a company of dismounted cavalry appeared at the foot of the hill, evidently with the object of using the elevation as an observation point. The Germans had no idea that it was already occupied.

Antonio quietly gave instructions to the men. "Do not fire until I give the order. Keep cool, and when you fire, shoot low, and aim deliberately."

Alfred and Ralph were now at fever heat. It was the most momentous period of their lives. The excitement was most intense, and what made it still more trying was that they must keep quiet and suppress their feelings.

What emotions must be uppermost in the minds of soldiers when they are about to engage in the first real battle. Gen. Grant describes the feeling that overtook him while leading his company up the hill to meet, for the first time, an enemy, who was waiting to receive him. He said that the sensation was an indescribable one,—that his heart was in his mouth, and a spasm of sickness passed through his frame, which grew in intensity, until he began to think that, probably, the enemy felt just the same as he did, and gradually that terrible agony passed from him.

The enemy crossed the last fence and was now coming forward, fully a hundred men, along the side of the hill, and over obstructions that horses could not have passed.

Onward and upward. Why would not Antonio give the word to fire. The boys saw more than101 one of the men look toward him. The rifles were held ready for the trigger; still Antonio remained cool and impassive.

"Look at Antonio," said Alfred, under his breath. Then when he turned to look at Ralph he saw the gun in his hand trembling, and Alfred for the first time realized that his own hand was not steady, and it might be said that many a gun trembled at the first experience, for, aside from Antonio, few, if any, in that firing line had ever been in actual battle.

"Now, ready," said Antonio. The great suspense was over. Nobody looked toward Antonio now. They were looking toward the enemy. The guns ceased their trembling. All were firmly clasped as they awaited the next word.

"Fire!" The word came like a shriek. There was no necessity for silence now.

Every gun in the column spoke. And now each man, at command, began to fire at will. The boys were so excited that they did not know whether or not they served the guns properly. There was an overweening desire to see what the results of the shots were. Then something occurred which they had overlooked in the intensity of their feelings.

It was the roar of a hundred guns below them. They had momentarily forgotten that the enemy could also shoot. The boys, like the others, were behind a stone fence which ran directly across the hill.<............
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