Grace Harlow - Chapter 14
THE BATTLE OF THE TANKS
Though "Captain" Grace had not been hit, the concussion caused by the explosion of the German shell had barely missed killing her. Of course, being accustomed to terrific concussions made the shock to Grace a little less severe, but the blow was a hard one.
It was a long time before the Overton girl regained consciousness. Even then she was too dazed to think or to act, and it was not until a new sound reached her ears in the din of the battle that she began to collect her thoughts. It was the rumble, the rattle and the staccato exhaust of battle tanks that she heard and that aroused her to action.
"The-the tanks are coming!" she muttered, struggling to get up, but falling back weakly. "I shall be run down."
Grace lay still for some moments, then summoning all her strength sat up and waved her helmet. The effort was too much for her and she sank back unconscious.
A long row of tanks extending almost as-Thy as the eye could reach in the haze stretched out parallel with the line of wire. They were wading on their way to the Hindenburg Line, through the barbed wire, crushing it, flattening it out with as little effort as a man would exert in trampling down a spear of wheat. One tank, headed in her direction, swerved a little. The observer had noted her movement and a machine gun was turned on her, but the gunner, at command of his superior, held his fire.
The tank waded slowly up and halted within a few yards of the unconscious girl, while the officer in command opened the door and peered out at her.
"It's a woman!" he cried, leaping out and bending over her. "An ambulance woman! What's she doing out here?"
He lifted her into the tank.
"She may be killed with us, but she can't live out there, that's certain."
There being no other place to put her, Grace was laid on the floor, the officer's coat under her head, and the huge tank rumbled on, grinding, crushing, jolting, swaying, poking its blunt nose into wide shell craters and creeping groaningly -~ up and out upon the opposite sides.
Under all this racket and jolting Grace Harlowe soon regained consciousness. She sat up
and gazed about her wonderingly at first, then with sudden understanding.
"I'm in a tank!" she exclaimed. "I'm on my way through the Line!"
She realized too that the floor under her was unbearably hot, so she got unsteadily to her feet. No one observed her. All eyes were directed ahead and to the sides. Gunners were at their stations, and the lieutenant in command was peering through the observation slit.
Shells began to break about them. A companion tank was hit, so she heard one of the starboard gunners say. He had barely uttered the words when a German shell exploded so close to the tank she was in that the huge bulk trembled while shrapnel rattled on its deck.
The men in the tank held fast to the rail to prevent being thrown from their feet. After that the going was better for a distance. She was able to keep her footing and, being more sure of herself, edged her way toward the front.
The lieutenant in command wheeled sharply when he felt a light touch on his arm. He looked startled when he saw "Captain" Grace smiling up into his face.
"I see that I have been kidnapped, sir," she announced. "I am fortunate in two ways; the first is that you did not run over me, and the other is that lam having my first ride in a tank."
"You will wish you had been run over before you come to the end of this journey," retorted the lieutenant incisively. "What were you doing out in the wire?"
"Dragging wounded men back to a shell-hole, sir. My ambulance was blown up at the advanced dressing post, so I took the next best thing, and helped to handle a stretcher. My partner was killed, so I remained out and did what I could on the field."
"Humph! What do you think is going to happen to you now?"
"I am sure I don't know, sir. Probably the same thing that will happen to you, whatever that may be."
''Tank blown up by a ~ announced a gunner.
The lieutenant turned away from her to look out over the field to observe the effect of the explosion.
"May I ask how far you expect to go, sir?"
"Until we go through the Hindenburg Line or are blown up," he replied brusquely.
"Thank you," answered Grace quietly. "I presumed that those were your orders."
"You did, eli? Pardon me, I did not intend to be rude. We shall have to take you with us, though I fear you will be killed. When the firing begins you will please keep down. We occa
sionally get small calibre bullets through the observation slits and the gun ports. There is no safe place in a tank in battle, but the floor is the best bet even if it is hot."
Grace thanked him and assured the lieutenant that she felt quite safe in the tank and would continue to feel so until the Huns registered a direct hit on it.
"You will have to pardon me now. I see we are getting along and so we shall soon be opening up."
"The best of luck, sir."
The officer turned to his observation slit, where he remained, moving only as he swayed with the rocking of the car. Now and then he would take a quick glance through the side apertures, occasionally giving a brief, curt command to the man at the steering wheel.
"Enemy tanks coming out, sir," announced Grace in a calm voice. She had been peering through a side aperture on the left of the car, and her quick eyes discovered the tops of other tanks approaching them, just topping a rise of ground.
"What?" demanded the lieutenant.
She pointed a finger in that direction and the lieutenant focused his glass on the point.
"Hold course!" he commanded, lowering the glasses. The approaching enemy tanks, unless
they changed their own course, would not come:
near enough to the big American tank to cause it any inconvenience. It was those big shells that worried the officer more than did the German tanks. He rather hoped the enemy would come out. In that event the Huns would not dare to fire on the American cars for fear of hitting their own. This Grace Harlowe understood also, reasoning that the enemy machines would stand by where they were and await developments.
Behind the American tanks, on either side of them, and in some instances ahead of them, were thin lines of little brown figures, that she knew belonged to advancing American infantry. It was a thrilling sight to Grace Harlowe even though she was in a way hardened to most phases of war. That is, she could observe them calmly and with a clear head for the appreciation of their military values. This scene, however, made her feel like waving her helmet and shouting encouragement to the little brown figures off there.
"Stand by! Trenches ahead," commanded the lieutenant.
The tank was about to go into action and Grace was to experience a phase of war new to her so far as her own actual participation in it was concerned. In a very few minutes after
that the one-pounder guns of the American tank opened up. Every shot was like a blow in the face to her. The concussion was so great that the Overton girl found herself staffing her lingers in her ears, but, this becoming tiresome, she dropped her hands and took the blows that fell on her eardrums.
The one-pounders had a spiteful kick too, and it was not wise to get too close to them, but this did not prevent her from getting a peep now and then through a port, and occasionally through an observation slit. No one now gave heed to her presence, the tank's crew being too busy.
"Turn machine guns on the trench when we go over 1" was the next order.
"Going over now. Let go!" was the next command.
Both starboard and port sides began firing their machine guns at the same instant. They raked the German trench with a withering fire, and though it had been pretty well emptied by the time the tank reached it, there were still enough Runs left in the trench to make ample fodder for the tank's guns.
Grace's feelings, as she analyzed them afterwards, were sad-sad that human beings must
thus be sacrificed, even if those human beings were unscrupulous enemies. She saw other
tanks resting across the trench over which they had stopped, their guns performing a similar service. Here and there were tanks lying on their sides, others with great gaping holes in them, and still others on their backs, having either turned turtle or been blown over by mines or by exploding shells of large calibre. Those that were left were carrying on steadily, but Grace Harlowe knew full well that not many of them would ever go back.
The tank moved from the trench and lumbered on.
"One-pounder!" ordered the commander, whereupon the larger guns began their steady bang! bang! bang! and the rocking and rolling and groaning of the huge unwieldy instrument of war was resumed.
They had cleared the first enemy trench and were now inside the German lines, while the enemy tanks had deployed to the north, perhaps because of fear of the large fleet of American tanks.
The interior of Grace's place of refuge was growing hotter and hotter. The men in the tank were down to their sleeveless undershirts, their faces blackened from powder and dust, through which ran threads of white made by rivulets of perspiration. Grace herself was perspiring and coughing. The powder fumes
blown back into the machine were, at times, almost overpowering. Her head was aching and her joints were sore, from the shock of the shell explosion that had laid her low out in the wire, and from the jolting she was getting in the wallowing tank.
Grace found her thoughts wandering to Tom Gray. She wondered if he were wishing he were out here, and for the moment she was thankful that he was not.
"No, I don't mean that," she rebuked herself. "I wish he were able to be here. He will be far to the front before we get on German soil, but it is possible that I shall not be here to know about it."
Grace realized her peril and knew that if she got out of the present situation alive it would not be much short of a miracle. Suddenly the tank stalled in a huge shell-crater. German artillerymen, informed of the fact by their observers, were feeling for the range three minutes later.
"Quick work," shouted the lieutenant admiringly. "We've got to get out of here before they make a hit. Warp it!"
The man at the wheel did "warp it," and the machine groaned as it bit into the earth, digging a canal in the bank of the shell-hole at its lowest point.
"She's getting her footing," announced the wheelman.
"There she goes " cried the lieutenant. "Now let Jerry shoot up that shell-crater."
Jerry did. Within five minutes after they had cleared the crater, the German gunners planted a shell right in the middle of it. The lieutenant grinned as he glanced back at the volcano of dirt that was hovering in the air over the place where they had so recently been stalled. It had been a narrow escape. Had their departure from the shell-crater been delayed five minutes longer, not one of that little party would have survived, for the hit was a direct hit. A moving tank is not an easy mark to hit, but when the machine is standing still it presents a fair target.
Things were getting hotter with the moments and the line of tanks was growing thinner and thinner. "Why did they not turn back!" wondered Grace. Surely they could not hope to break the Hindenburg Line unaided, but she realized that it was a battle to the death, and that not a tank would turn back unless a runner overtook it and ordered it back.
Glancing back through the rear observation slit, Grace discovered a line of American troops coming up in open formation. The boys were on the way. She observed also that the tank in
which she was riding was the only one within a mile or more of that particular point, this tank having gradually drawn further to the north. The lieutenant in command supposedly knew where they were going, for the tanks in battle traveled by compass over a course carefully charted at headquarters when the battle plans were formed. There is little guesswork at any stage of the game in modern warfare, as Grace Harlowe thoroughly understood, but what she did not know was that the compass in their tank had become useless under the shocks of the heavy explosions.
Shells were deluging them, but the old machine appeared to bear a charmed life, not a shell having touched it or, with one exception, having struck close enough to it to greatly disturb the occupants. That the shells were coming closer to the tank, however, Grace could see, for she was seeing with the eyes of a trained observer. Now and then the commanding officer would glance at her, scowling with a grimy face, as if he resented her presence there. Grace answered these scowls with the bravest smile she could summon, though she had to admit to herself that there was not a genuine smile left in her.
It was immediately after one of these scowls, followed by a smile, that the big tank met its
fate. A mighty upheaval occurred directly beneath it. The tank rose up until it fairly stood on its tail, then fell back with a ripping crash. The guns were as suddenly silenced and not a voice was raised within the battle cruiser that had met its Waterloo over a German mine trap.