Italy, too, had launched a new offensive with Trieste as the objective and the driving power of the Italian troops was beginning to tell. It began to appear that the Central powers must before long be placed upon the defensive in all war zones.
The world waited impatiently for the opening of the grand allied offensive that, it was expected, would be delivered simultaneously on all fronts. It was felt that it would not be long coming. There was talk of a new great field gun perfected by Great Britain—a gun that would be more effective than the German 42-centimetres—but so far it had come to play no part in the struggle.
But of all battles, land or sea, that had been fought in the greatest war of history, the battle of Verdun stood head and shoulders as the most important. It was the greatest and bloodiest struggle of all time, up to that period.
And it was in this battle that Hal and Chester, with the friend Anthony Stubbs, war correspondent, and other friends, old and new, were to play important roles. While each realized, as the three made their way to General Petain behind the French officer who had interrupted their wild automobile ride, that an important engagement was about to be fought, neither had, of course, means of knowing that they were to take part in one of the greatest of all battles.
It was with the satisfaction that they had arrived in time to prevent a surprise attack that they made their way to General Petain’s quarters. But, as it transpired, they had arrived a trifle too late. For even as they reached the general’s tent the German guns spoke.
To the soldier the voice of the great guns speaks plainly. Their ears accustomed to the various forms of bombardments, Hal and Chester realized as well as the rest that this was no mere resumption of an artillery duel. It was not a single salvo from a single German position that had been fired. The great guns boomed from north and south; and continued to boom.
The officer who was conducting the three friends to the headquarters of General Petain turned and called a single word over his shoulder:
He broke into a run and the others did likewise. A short turn or two and they brought up before a tent somewhat larger than the rest. This the lads knew was General Petain’s field headquarters.
Even as the French officer approached the entrance, the general himself rushed from the tent, followed by members of his staff. The officer who had conducted the lads there accosted him.
“Sir,” he said, “despatch bearers from General Durand at Marseilles.”
General Petain waved them aside.
“I’ve no time for them now,” he said, and made as if to move on.
Hal stepped forward.
“Sir,” he said, “the despatches we carry have to do with the impending action.”