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America Fallen!/Chapter 13

 
 

XIII


THE CAPTURE OF WASHINGTON


At intervals during the morning of March 31st four large German merchant ships, duly consigned to Baltimore for the avowed purpose of rushing to that port certain orders for German goods which had been delayed by the war, passed in through the Capes, reported to the signal station, and proceeded up the Chesapeake. In the upper reaches of the Bay, after sundown, they closed up; and about midnight they anchored well away from the course followed by shipping, and abreast a fine stretch of sandy beach which lines the western shore of the Bay, a few miles below Annapolis. The sky was clouded and the night intensely dark.

Two hours before midnight commenced the debarkation from these ships of a force of 5,000 picked bicycle troops. Accompanying them were several batteries of machine-guns, bicycle-mounted and capable of being quickly assembled. The first company to land was told off to cut all telegraph, telephone, and railway lines leading to Washington. A small detachment from this company, composed of fast riders,—more than one of whom, in past years, had come over for the international races in Madison Square,—pushed on at full speed for Washington, with instructions to mine the tall towers of the Arlington long-distance radio station, lay the wires, and be prepared to wreck the plant as soon as the expeditionary force reached the city.

Except for the machine-guns (each of which was carried between a pair of tandems) the whole force was in the lightest possible marching order, each man carrying only two days' rations and an extra supply of ammunition. As soon as the troops landed, lamps were lit and they moved off silently into the night. By 2:30 A.M. the whole expedition was ashore. Just before daybreak the bulk of the raiding force, assembled on several roads leading into Washington, made its rush for the capture of the city.

Carefully planned though it was, the surprise was not complete. Willard Bronson, a correspondent recently returned from service at the front with the German army, had run out on his motorcycle on the evening of March 31st, to visit an old friend who lived some fifteen miles, or halfway from Washington, on the Annapolis road. There was much to tell; and it was between 2 and 3 A.M. when he left the house and brought his machine around from the stable. He was just about to light up, when he paused, match in hand, as the glare of a hundred lights shone down the road, and the van of the raiding force swept noiselessly by on the other side of the heavy privet hedge separating the lawn from the road.

"German mounted bicycle troops! Impossible; absurd!" But Bronson had been trained to clear thinking and quick action. There flashed into his mind the startling headlines of the afternoon papers, announcing the purchase of St. Thomas.

But this would be war before war was declared. True; yet there was the precedent of Japan's attack on Port Arthur.

Bronson slipped quietly back to the house and burst in upon his astonished host: "Quick, tell me, is there any road by which I can cut around into the main road—any path, cattle-track, anything on which a wheel can turn? Don't stare at me like that, man! Here, come to the window—see those lights sweeping by? It is the German army moving on Washington. I must warn them—the Government—or they will make a bag of the whole Cabinet before dawn!"

"Yes; two fields away—good grassland—you can ride—there is a country road which intersects the main road two miles from here; but you must ride like the very devil!"

With lamp alight he swept across the first field—good; the gate was open. The gate to the road was shut—cruel delay, with the fate of a nation hanging on the chance of a minute!

Again he swung into the saddle, and, thank God, the searchlight beam of his lamp showed, straight and fair, a smooth, though grass-grown, lane. Wide went the throttle, and, ah! how he would have liked to open the muffler too. Thirty, forty, fifty miles an hour. The road swung gently away to the left. Now it swung back again, and there, abreast of him, through the trees and across the fields, he could see the head of the raiding column. The lane and the road were convergent. And now he noticed that the leading lights were stringing out. He was discovered; the purr of his motor and the gleam of his lamp had been noted, and they were sprinting to head him off. Open went his muffler, and, head down, he, the modern Paul Revere, swept into the main road, just one hundred yards ahead of the leading troops. With brake hard down and machine skidding over to the further ditch, fortune favored his desperate dash, and he straightened out for Washington.

Behind, he heard the clash of falling bicycles. "Ah! they have jumped from their machines to take a long shot"—and above the roar of his motor he heard the crackle of rifle fire. Zip, zip, zip, the bullets sang. "I am going a good mile a minute now—they'll never get me—Oh, H——!" Like a blow from a baseball bat it struck him—right leg—in the calf. "Too bad—but I can see the lights of Washington—only a few minutes, and I shall be at the telephone exchange. God, how it stings!" He reached down and his hand felt the gush of the warm blood.

· · · · · · ·

The routine of work for the night force at the central telephone exchange at Washington, D. C., was suddenly broken at 3:30 A.M., April 1st, when the door was laboriously opened and a man, on all fours, crawled into the room, dragging after him a broken leg that left a smear of blood on the floor. Propping himself on his hands, he raised his face, white and twitching, and shouted in a burst of staccato sentences: "The Germans are coming—landed at Annapolis—here in half hour—warn members of Cabinet escape Union Station—tell garage send taxis each house—quick, quick, for the love of our country—the President first, then the——"

And with a groan he crumpled up and lay as though dead before the gaping night force.

Then the spell broke—they rushed to the fallen man. "Why, it's Bronson, the war correspondent," said Murphy, "and if Bronson says the Germans are coming, coming they are. For God's sake get busy."

And they did so to such good effect that, as the enemy swept into the city in the early dawn, there pulled out of the Union Station, for Philadelphia, an express train, bearing the members of the Cabinet and their families, together with the ranking official in the Departments of War, the Navy, and Finance.

The seizure of the city was accomplished with characteristic precision and dispatch. Every company and detachment had its objective. The advance force, 1,200 strong, with 20 machine-guns, pushed on to the Aqueduct bridge, crossed the Potomac, and advanced on Fort Myer from the north.

Another force of equal strength made for the Long Bridge, crossed, and approached the fort from the southeast.

Meanwhile the balance of the expedition as it reached the city took possession of the principal Government buildings. Five companies seized the Treasury; five companies the State, War, and Navy building; three companies took possession of the Capitol; and a detachment seized the Armory, capturing several machine-guns. Other detachments seized the banks, the Union Station, the Telephone Exchange, and the offices of the Postal Telegraph and Western Union. The balance of the troops, 1,000 strong, moved on the Washington Barracks.

Among the warnings sent out when Bronson, the war correspondent, crawled into the Telephone Exchange, were two to the garrisons at Fort Myer and Washington Barracks.

At the former the force consisted of 400 cavalry and 400 field artillery with several batteries of field-guns. The garrison of Washington Barracks consisted of about 600 men. The commanders of each post decided to unite their forces on the left bank of the Potomac, and the Fort Myer garrison at once moved out, a cavalry screen being thrown forward to seize the Long Bridge. About a mile from the bridge they ran into a strong skirmish line of the second German force, and fell back on their main body, which hastily entrenched itself, the field batteries moving to take up a position to the rear. While the batteries were taking position, and before all the guns were unlimbered, the first German force, which, finding Fort Myer evacuated, had pushed on with all speed, came up in the rear and opened a murderous machine-gun and rifle fire.

The cavalry wheeled and charged straight at the guns. Such was the impetus of their onrush, that those who survived that decimating fire, some 200 in all, broke through the first and second line before they were brought down. Those of the guns which could be brought into action swept the enemy with shrapnel at close range. Such an unequal contest could have but one issue. The gun detachments withered under the pitiless hail of German bullets, and when the enemy charged home, not a man was on his feet to dispute possession of the guns.

Leaving their own and the American wounded to be cared for by the stretcher-bearers of Fort Myer garrison, the Germans, now some 2,000 strong, mounted and moved back to the city. Here, on learning from dispatch riders that the force sent to the Washington Barracks was heavily engaged with the garrison in the neighborhood of the steamboat wharves, they swung around to the south and took the enemy on the right flank and rear.

An hour later the Barracks and the Army War College were captured, and by noon of April 1st, the small American forces having been annihilated or captured, Washington passed into the hands of the Germans.

At dawn of the same day, the German submarines, having passed in through the Capes by night, sank or destroyed every warship in the Norfolk yards, and at the yards of the Newport News Shipbuilding Company. Before the Germans had taken possession of Washington, the news was flashed from Philadelphia that a similar submarine raid had resulted in the sinking of the South Carolina and of the seven battleships in reserve and in ordinary, at the League Island Yard, namely, the Alabama, Illinois, Kearsarge, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.

At noon, April 1st, the signal stations at Cape Charles and Cape Henry reported that a fleet of transports, flying the German flag, was converging on the entrance.

The rifle and mortar batteries at Fort Monroe were instantly manned, and to the amazement of all but the few who knew the limitations of range, the fleet, in line ahead, steamed boldly for that forbidden ground, the main entrance to the Chesapeake, lying to the south of the middle shoal. As the fleet reached the entrance it slowed down, and using the lead, crept in, hugging closely the southerly edge of the shoal.

And then Fort Monroe spoke. From her batteries there roared forth a salvo, which, twenty seconds later, struck the water 13,000 yards away, sending up huge geysers of water. The projectiles, ricochetting in great sweeping arcs, finally died down into the water some thousands of yards beyond.

Then came the mortar-battery salvo. Lifting their stubby barrels to an angle of 45 degrees they shot their 12-inch shells skyward. Several miles they rose, and just one minute after the discharge four columns of water rose about 1,000 yards from the ships.

"I knew it," said the captain of the leading troopship, an officer of the German naval reserve; "18,000 yards is the extreme range of those bateries, and a study of the chart convinced me that we could just squeeze through."

And next day, April 3d, 5,000 German infantry, together with the proper quota of engineer corps, field batteries, signal and medical corps, and the full equipment for a force of 10,000 men, were landed below Annapolis and moved on to Washington.

And on April 3d two events of the first magnitude occurred: the President of the United States announced that, acting on the advice of his military advisers, he had directed that the seat of Government be moved to Pittsburg; and to Pittsburg came a proposal from Germany to cease all military operations, upon the agreement by the United States to pay an indemnity of twelve billion dollars, an advance payment of one billion dollars in gold to be made on the day the indemnity bond was signed.