Gateway to the Classics: Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by Donald A. Mackenzie
Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by  Donald A. Mackenzie

Brave French Boys

When the great war broke out, all the able-bodied men of France who had received a military training were called upon to join the army to fight against the German invaders. Many French boys then wished they were old enough to assist in defending their native land. In every town and village you could hear them saying one to another: "Our soldiers are sure to beat the 'Boches'." That is the nickname they have given to the Germans. "My father left home this morning," a boy would declare proudly; "he has promised to bring me back a German helmet for a souvenir. I am going to keep watch over the house and protect mother."

"Playing at soldiers "at once became the favourite game everywhere. The young folks stuck little flags in their caps and armed themselves with wooden swords and guns. They drilled very smartly, just like real soldiers, in the playgrounds, and marched through the streets as if they were going to the war, keeping step to the music of their fifes and drums. When they began to fight sham battles they had to pretend, however, that their enemies were hiding somewhere in the woods. None of the French boys would take the part of the 'Boches' even in a game. They all wanted to be soldiers of France, so that they might return home in the evening, shouting proudly: "We have defeated the 'Boches'; they are all running away."

When real soldiers marched through the streets on their way to the battle-field, all the boys and girls of a town or village gathered to cheer them and shout "Vive la France!" The fighting-men waved their hands to them, smiling and well pleased.

Not only did they delight to honour their own countrymen. They also welcomed gladly the brave British soldiers whom they soon learned to love, because these khaki-clad warriors treated the young so kindly, carrying some on their shoulders and grasping others by the hand as they marched along.

At some railway stations the young people stood in crowds on the platforms when they heard that British soldiers were to pass through by train. Loudly they cheered as the engine slowed up to take in water. Sometimes they tried to sing the soldiers' songs, and although they could not understand the words they learned the tunes and rendered them by repeating "La la-la, la-la la-la." They gave the soldiers presents of sweets and fruits, and were thanked with smiles and handshakes. As the train steamed away, the young folks shouted "Goo'neet, goo'neet," thinking that our "good-night" means exactly the same thing as their "au revoir". The young French folks cried out "Goo'neet" whether it was morning, or afternoon, or evening.

Quite a number of stories are told of brave French boys who have taken part in fighting, or shown that they were not afraid of the Germans who invaded their towns. The people of France are very proud of their "little heroes".

One of these is named Gustave Chatain. At the beginning of the war he was just fifteen years old. He was employed as a herd-boy on a farm in north-eastern France, not very far from the River Oise, which flows into the Seine. Most of the farm-workers had been trained as soldiers, and were called up to fight for their country. Gustave envied them greatly. "They are lucky fellows," he said; "I wish I were big enough to go and fight the 'Boches' also."

Day after day he heard thrilling stories of battles in Belgium and along the western frontier. "The 'Boches' are coming nearer," the people began to say; "we have not yet got enough men together to keep them back. Once our armies are at full strength, however, we will defeat them. Besides, the brave British soldiers have come to fight for us."

Gustave fretted to see the women growing more and more alarmed, while Belgian and French refugees hastened westward. It was pitiful to see these poor people as they fled before the Germans along the highways. Old men and women and children had to walk many miles, carrying bundles of clothing and articles of furniture. Some pushed wheelbarrows or perambulators heaped up with the few things they could save, and others had little carts drawn by dogs. When night came on they slept in the fields or in barns, and they were thankful indeed when they reached a village and were taken into houses. They told terrible stories of their sufferings and the cruel deeds performed by the invaders. "Our homes are burned," Gustave heard them say, with tears in their eyes; "many of our friends have been killed; others have died by the wayside. Oh! give us a little food. We are weak with hunger. Our little ones are crying for milk."

Every day the crowds of refugees came along. "The 'Boches' are not far off," they said. "Thousands and thousands of them are hastening through France. They are trying to reach Paris."

At length, on a bright autumn morning, Gustave heard the German guns. Their harsh booming, which sounded like distant thunder, came from the direction of Senlis, a small town not far from the farm, with a beautiful little cathedral and the ruins of an ancient castle in which the kings of France used to reside in times long past.

The herd-boy listened for a time to the far-off roar of battle, watching with sad eyes the puffs of dark smoke that appeared when shells burst in the air. Then he said to himself: "Although I am only fifteen I am big and strong for my age. I will run off and join the army."

He slipped away without anybody noticing him. The women were gathered together in groups, gazing towards Senlis, and wondering if they would soon have to leave their homes. He walked across the fields as if he were going to look after the cows, until he was out of sight of the farm-house. Then he turned towards the highway and set off, walking as fast as he could, in the direction of Senlis. Ere long he came to a spot where three roads meet, and to his joy he saw marching towards him a company of those hardy French soldiers, the Alpine Chasseurs, who were on their way to the front. Gustave ran after them, and, taking up the pace, went swinging along with manly strides.

"Hallo, boy!" shouted one of the soldiers; "where are you going? You mustn't come this way."

Said Gustave: "I want to march with you to battle."

"You are a plucky little fellow," the soldier told him, "but you are too young. The 'Boches' would swallow you."

"If you will allow me to march with you," Gustave pleaded, "I will run errands and make myself very useful. I am not afraid of the 'Boches'."

Several of the soldiers laughed, and one said: "Come along then. You have a brave heart, and it's a pity you are not a little older."

Gustave was greatly delighted. He marched on, chatting with the soldiers, and at length he said: "I see you have some spare rifles in that cart behind there. I wish I had one."

Again the soldiers laughed, and one said to the other: "He's a real Frenchman. But it would be a shame to take him into the fighting-line. He might get killed."

"I am not afraid to die for France," Gustave told them.

"Give him a rifle," one of the soldiers said.

The boy turned towards the driver of the cart, holding out his right hand and smiling. "Can you shoot?" the man asked.

"I have brought down hundreds of crows," Gustave answered, "so surely I can bring down 'Boches'."

The man hauled out a rifle and handed it to the boy, saying: "You're small, and can easily take cover. Just keep as cool as when you are shooting crows."

"The 'Boches' are so much bigger than crows," Gustave said, "and I'll thin them out. See if I don't."

"Come on, little hero," a soldier called merrily. "Fall in, and don't boast till after you have done something."

Gustave went marching along, feeling very proud of himself, chatting and exchanging jokes with the Chasseurs. But at length an officer saw him and asked: "Who is this boy? He mustn't come with us. Send him home at once."

"Please, sir," said Gustave, saluting, "I wish to fight for France like my father and my brothers. Do let me go with you."

"You are just a child," the officer answered; "you must run away home."

The officer took the rifle from Gustave, and, seeing tears in the boy's eyes, patted him on the back and said: "When you are a big lad come and join the Alpine Chasseurs, and we'll all be proud of you. Au revior."

Gustave had to fall out, and for a time he watched the soldiers marching away in front of him along the dusty highway. But he did not turn towards home. He soon saw the warriors of another famous regiment approaching, and when they came up he fell into step and accompanied them.

"You mustn't follow us, little fellow," a soldier warned him; "we are going to battle."

"I can shoot well," said Gustave, "and I am a splendid walker. I want to fight the 'Boches'."

"Do you hear what he says?" one soldier remarked to another. "He wants to fight, and he's just a boy."

"What would your mother say if she knew?" a soldier asked.

Said Gustave: "She would say she has now four sons at the front instead of three. How proud she would be, too!"

"What is your name?" one of the men asked.

"Gustave Chatain," answered the boy.

"A brave name, indeed," another soldier remarked, as they marched along.

"I will run errands for you. I will be very useful," Gustave assured the men near him. "Besides, I can hide easily, and, as I said, I shoot well."

"If you promise to do what you are told, and keep out of sight," a soldier answered, "you can come with us."

"Thank you very much!" cried the delighted boy. "I hope you have a rifle to spare for me."

"If I gave you my rifle," remarked a smiling soldier, "I should have to sit down and watch you shooting. That would never do. You have promised to do what you are told, so I'll order you to lie down in a trench until we have need of you."

"It would be better to send him home," another soldier declared.

"He has come too far," his companion answered. "It might be dangerous for him to return now. We had better look after him until darkness comes on."

A few minutes later the soldiers reached a bend in the highway, and someone called out that Uhlans were approaching. An officer shouted a sharp command, and the soldiers spread out and took cover. Gustave crept up an embankment and saw about twenty German cavalrymen riding across a field. His companions opened a brisk fire and the enemy turned and fled, leaving nearly a dozen killed and wounded men behind. It was all over in a few seconds.

Another order was then given, and the French soldiers changed position. A German armed motor-car had come in sight, racing along the highway, and its machine-gun began to sound its "rat-tat-tat" like a blacksmith working very fast with his hammer. Several Frenchmen were killed, but the car was driven away. Gustave picked up from beside a dead soldier a rifle with fixed bayonet and several rounds of ammunition, and, seeing the company he had joined were advancing to a new position, he followed them. No one took any notice of him. In less than twenty minutes he came under fire. His company halted and took cover, keeping up a brisk fusillade towards the east. Gustave saw about 200 "Boches" advancing. They were clad in blue-grey uniforms, and marched close together. A thrill of joy passed through his veins because he had got a chance to fight for his native land, and lying behind a bush he took careful aim and fired several rounds. Before long the invaders began to retreat. As they did so the French soldiers advanced steadily, rushing from bush to bush and mound to mound, and firing briskly. Gustave did likewise. He went on fighting until the "Boches" were out of sight. Then he looked round to see where his company was next to move to. But to his astonishment he found that he was alone. He had been so much concerned about chasing "Boches" that he had not observed the Alpine soldiers taking up a new position. Greatly disappointed he returned to the highway. There he saw a dead soldier who was not much bigger than himself, and took off his uniform and cap and put them on.

"Now everyone will think I am a real soldier," he said to himself. "I will avenge the man whose uniform I am wearing."

He heard firing in front of him and hastened onwards. Evening was coming on, and he joined a regiment which had just arrived at the front.

"I have got lost," he said to one of the soldiers. "I was fighting and advanced too far."

It was observed that the uniform he wore was too big for him, and one of the men said: "If an officer sees you he will put you under arrest."

"But I wish to fight," pleaded the boy. "To-day I have slain many 'Boches'."

"That's more than any one of us has done yet," they told him. "You had better fall in and come with us."

They made room for the brave lad between two men of short stature. "You will never be noticed beside us," one of them said.

If Gustave was pleased before he was more pleased than ever now. He felt that he was a real soldier at last, marching in the midst of brave men.

That night he slept in a trench. His new regiment came into touch with the enemy on the banks of the Marne. He awoke at day-break and made a hurried breakfast of meat-sandwiches and coffee; but he felt little desire for food, because a battle began to be waged with great fury. In front of him the Germans had massed in great strength. They were determined to press on towards Paris, and the strong armies of the French and British were as determined that they would never get there.

The air was filled with the sound of guns of all sorts and sizes. Shrapnel shells exploded overhead, ripping harshly like sheets of metal being torn across by giants' hands. The "rat-tat-tat" of machine-guns was heard on every side, and there was a constant whizzing of rifle bullets that hummed like great bees and went past with lightning speed, or spat with a "zip-zip-zip" as they struck the heaped-up earth in front of the trenches. Occasionally every other noise was drowned for a full moment by the thundering explosion of a tremendous shell from one of the monster guns which the Germans had brought into action. Men fell wounded or dead on every side, yet no one was afraid. Every soldier was cool and determined and busy fighting against the invaders.

Gustave kept firing in front of him until the order came to advance. Then he rose with fixed bayonet and rushed forward with the rest to take up a new position and help to dig trenches. This happened over and over again, and his heart was filled with pride to think that the "Boches" were being driven back.

Before many days went past Gustave was looked upon as one of the pluckiest soldiers in his company. He was given a new uniform which fitted him better, a haversack, leggings, boots, and an overcoat. "When my face is spattered with mud flung up by the shells," he said to a companion, "no one is able to tell my age."

One day when Gustave advanced with the soldiers he reached a German trench. He fought bravely with the bayonet. Describing this charge he has said: "The 'Boches' are cowards. Many of them lie down in their trenches when we advance and pretend to be dead. That's one of their tricks. One has to give each body a little kick to find out whether or not a coward is shamming."

The allied armies won the great battle of the Marne, and the Germans were compelled to retreat. Gustave's company marched vigorously in pursuit of them with the others, and occasionally captured stragglers. The "Boches" were so tired with hurrying up to reach Paris and then retreating as smartly to escape the French and British bayonets, that many of them fell down by the roadway or in fields, while others crept into barns and houses to snatch a few hours of sleep.

Gustave accompanied an advance party for two days searching for these stragglers, when he came to a farm-house. The soldiers made a hurried search through the rooms, and, not finding anyone, procured some food and sat down to eat. Gustave meanwhile went towards a barn. The door was closed and locked. Through a crack, however, he was able to peer inside. To his joy he saw several haversacks and a good many rounds of ammunition lying beside a heap of straw. "Here's my chance", he said to himself, "to take some prisoners". He never thought of calling for assistance. With the aid of a splinter of wood he pried open the door, making no noise as he did so. Then he entered stealthily, looking about him, but could not see anybody on the ground floor. Listening intently, he heard the sound of heavy snoring coming from the loft above. So he crept softly up the ladder and saw seven "Boches" lying fast asleep on the floor, where they had spread out beds of hay for themselves. The fearless boy brought down the butt-end of his rifle sharply on the floor and awakened them. Then they all sat up suddenly, looking very much alarmed.

Gustave was prepared for them, having fixed his bayonet in case they should show fight; but they threw up their hands above their heads to signify that they surrendered.

"Follow me, one after another," Gustave said to one of the Germans who understood French. Having delivered this order with an air of dignity, he walked down the ladder from the loft and stood with his rifle at his shoulder ready to fire if one dared to act with treachery.

They gave him no trouble, obeying his command readily. One after another the "Boches" walked out of the barn, looking quite relieved. They were all afraid of the brave herd-boy.

Gustave ordered them to stand in a row as if at drill. Then he called to his companions, who were greatly amused and astonished to see seven big German soldiers holding their hands above their heads, while the gallant French boy stood looking at them with a stern, proud face. They raised a cheer for Gustave and called him a hero.

Soon after this Gustave was sent home for a well-deserved rest. Before he left the regiment an officer promised that he would receive a suitable education to equip him for a military career.

Another young hero was Emile Despres, a boy of fourteen, who died the death of a soldier. He did not have an opportunity of fighting like Gustave, but he showed himself to be quite as fearless and bold in the hour of peril. Armed Germans tried to break his courageous spirit. They threatened him with death and then offered to spare his life if he would act the part of a traitor. But Emile preferred to die with honour rather than live a life of shame.

A few weeks after war had been declared a battle was fought in the vicinity of Emile's native village of Lourches, which is situated near Douchy.

The French soldiers displayed great valour, but they were not numerous enough to hold back the hordes of advancing Germans, and were forced to retreat, much against their will. Many wounded soldiers came through the village. Some fell exhausted on the roadway, weak from loss of blood. Women went out and bandaged their wounds, and helped as many as they could to take shelter inside the houses, while boys ran about giving the bleeding soldiers water to quench their thirst. Shrapnel shells burst overhead and splinters flew about, doing much damage. Occasionally bullets spattered on the street like a shower of great hailstones.

At length the Germans entered the village. They burst open doors and smashed windows, searching everywhere for French soldiers, and were exceedingly angry with those women who were acting as nurses. In a miner's cottage lay a non-commissioned officer. He was in great pain, for he had been wounded in the side by a fragment of a shell; his cheeks were white as paper, his eyes half-closed, and his lips parched and dry. The miner's wife was bending over him, doing her best to stop the bleeding and relieve his suffering. He was very weak from loss of blood.

A German officer entered, followed by a few of his men, carrying rifles with fixed bayonets. He pushed aside the woman roughly, and she cried: "Oh, you coward! Would you treat me like this because I am nursing a brave man who is bleeding and in pain?"

The officer swore an oath and struck her, and she screamed helplessly. His brutal behaviour filled the heart of the wounded Frenchman with indignation. It was terrible to him to see one of his countrywomen who had treated him so kindly being bullied and struck by a German. Raising himself on his elbow he seized his revolver and fired. The bullet entered the officer's brain and he fell dead on the floor. Again the woman screamed and covered her eyes with horror.

The German soldiers pounced at once on the wounded Frenchman and dragged him from the couch. "He will die for this," they said.

Emile Despres had been watching the Germans entering house after house, and, like other boys, was wishing he were big and strong enough to fight them, when he heard the woman's scream and the report of the revolver. He ran into the miner's house and there saw a terrible sight. The dead officer lay on the floor in a pool of blood, in a corner crouched the terrified woman, while the German soldiers struggled with the wounded man. Emile looked on helplessly. What could he do? He was only a boy, and the enemies of his country were armed with deadly weapons.

After a few moments the French non-commissioned officer ceased struggling with his captors, and, leaning against the wall, panting with exhaustion and pain, whispered hoarsely to Emile: "Water, water! give me a drink of water!" His tongue was parched with thirst.

The Germans did not understand what he said, and, having bound his arms, turned away from him. Then Emile crept forward with a cup of cold water and held it to the mouth of the wounded man, who drank it up with great thankfulness. The boy's action greatly enraged the Germans. They seized Emile and pounded him with their fists, threw him on the floor, and kicked him. But although he suffered greatly he neither wept nor uttered a cry. Another officer who had been sent for had entered the house just as the soldier was being given the water to drink, and when he saw how brave this boy was he said: "Shoot him also."

The Germans bandaged the eyes of both the French soldier and Emile and marched them out to the village street so that all the people might see them being executed. Both stood up bravely. There was no sign of fear in the boy's bearing. He was prepared to die for his country.

The German officer was ill pleased when he saw how Emile behaved. No doubt he felt that he was displaying the spirit which moved all France to resist the invader. So he thought he would put him to shame and tempt him with his life to act the part of a coward.

"Take the bandage from the boy's eyes," he commanded, "and bring him here".

A German private walked forward, snatched off the bandage which blinded Emile, and pushed him over to the spot where the officer stood. The boy looked up with astonishment, wondering what was to happen next. But he never flinched; he was so brave and unafraid.

The officer thrust a rifle into the boy's hands, and, pointing to the French soldier, who stood blindfolded, waiting to die, spoke in French and said: "I will spare your life if you will shoot that man." He smiled grimly, and one or two of the German soldiers laughed.

Emile made no reply. At first he looked with disdain at the officer, then a smile crossed his pale face.

"When you shoot, you can run away home," the officer told him. As he spoke he walked backwards a couple of paces.

Emile raised the rifle to his shoulder as if he were about to do as he was commanded. He laid his finger on the trigger and the Germans waited. But little did they understand the spirit of the French boy. Suddenly Emile wheeled round, aimed point-blank at his cowardly tempter, and fired. The officer fell dead at his feet. It all happened in the twinkling of an eye.

The German soldiers who were standing near at once sprang upon the boy. Two thrust their bayonets through him and others discharged their rifles. Emile died ere he sank to the ground. But while the villagers who looked on mourned the boy's sad fate, they rejoiced in their hearts that he died the death of a hero. Emile Despres was a true son of France. His name will be remembered to the glory of his country and the shame of his country's enemies.


Indian Gallantry at the Front
A sergeant of Sikhs guarding a wounded man of his regiment from Germans advancing in single file between two cornstacks.

In some of the towns and villages on the line of battle the women and children had to conceal themselves for many days in the cellars of houses. Not a few were buried alive when the walls crumbled down before exploding shells. Great sufferings were endured in all war-stricken localities. Those who escaped death were often without food and water for several days. Stirring stories are told of brave boys who boldly ventured forth from hiding to procure supplies, so that their mothers and brothers and sisters might not die of starvation.

At a farm-house near Reims a little boy about ten years old used to go and fetch food for his mother every morning when the opposing armies were fighting fiercely for long weeks on end in the neighbourhood. He was always accompanied by two dogs, and walked a distance of 4 miles to a village to purchase food. The British soldiers often watched him from their trenches. When a shrapnel shell burst overhead he ran to take cover. It was wonderful to see how fearless he was. Fortunately he never suffered any injury. In time the British advanced beyond the farm-house, and the plucky boy had no longer to risk his life to run his mother's errands.

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