Immediately the French officer decided that something must be done. The plans of the Germans, so far as he knew, had not been anticipated. For some reason he did not wish to trust the information to the telegraph wires, and the two lads had volunteered to deliver it in person to General Petain. Their offer had been accepted, which accounts for the fact that we find them upon the last leg of their journey to Verdun at the opening of this story.
Stubbs had elected to accompany them, for, as he said, “I’ve got to get the news.”
The two lads had seen considerable active service. They had fought with the Belgians at Liege; with the British on the Marne; with the Cossacks in Russian Poland and in the Carpathians; with the Montenegrins and Serbians in the Balkans, and with the Italian troops in the Alps.
They had been participants in many a hard blow that had been delivered by the Allies. They had won the confidence of Field Marshall John French, commander of the British forces in France until he was succeeded by General Sir Douglas Haig after the battle of the Champagne, and of General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief.
While they ostensibly were British army officers, their titles were purely honorary, but they held actual lieutenancies in the Belgian army, these having been bestowed upon them by King Albert in recognition of services accomplished in and around Liege in the early days of the war.
The boys had been chums since early childhood. They had been brought up together. They attended school together and were inseparable companions. Each spoke German and French fluently, and service with other armies had given them a knowledge of other tongues. Both were strong and sturdy, crack shots, good with sword and sabre, and particularly handy with their fists. These accomplishments had stood them in good stead in many a tight place. But better than all these accomplishments was the additional fact that each was clear-headed, a quick thinker and very resourceful. They depended upon brains rather than brawn to pull them through ticklish situations, though they did not hesitate to call on the latter force when occasion demanded.
Hal, peering ahead by the glare of the searchlight on the large army car, suddenly slowed down; the car stopped. A group of mounted men rode up. Hal stood up and gave a military salute as one of the group advanced ahead of the others.
“I am from General Durand at Marseilles, sir,” he said. “I have important dispatches for General Petain.”
The French officer returned the salute.
“Follow me,” he said briefly.
Rightly is the fortress of Verdun called the gateway to France. By reason of its strategic position, it is absolutely essential that an invading army have possession of Verdun before thought of a successful advance on Paris can be entertained; and it was upon the capture of Paris that the German emperor laid his hopes, in spite of the collapse of a similar offensive launched in the first days of the war.