It was particularly unfortunate that just about this time the winter issue of a regular rum ration had ceased, and that, immediately before they moved in, a number of the Tearaways had been put under stoppages of pay for an escapade with which this story need have no concern.
Without pay the men, of course, were cut off from even the sour and watery delights of the beer sold in the local estaminets, which abound in the villages where the troops are billeted in reserve some miles behind the firing line. As Sergeant Clancy feelingly remarked:
“They stopped the pay, and that stops the beer; and then they stopped the rum. It’s no pleasure in life they leave us at all, at all. They’ll be afther stopping the fighting next.”
Of that last, however, there was comparatively little fear at the moment. A brisk action had opened some days before the Tearaways were brought up from the reserve, and the forward line which they were now sent in to occupy had been a German trench less than a week before.
The main fighting had died down, but because the British were suspicious of counter-attacks, and the Germans afraid of a continued British movement, the opposing lines were very fully on the alert; the artillery on both sides were indulging in constant dueling, and the infantry were doing everything possible to prevent any sudden advantage being snatched by the other side.
As soon as the Tearaways were established in the new position, the O.C. and the adjutant made a tour of their lines, carefully reconnoitering through their periscopes the open ground which had been pointed out to them on the map as the line of the new trench which they were to commence digging. At this point the forward trench was curved sharply inward, and the new trench was designed to run across and outwards from the ends of the curve, meeting in a wide angle at a point where a hole had been dug and a listening-post established.
It was only possible to reach this listening-post by night, and the half-dozen men in it had to remain there throughout the day, since it was impossible to move across the open between the post and the trenches by daylight. The right-hand portion of the new trench running from the listening-post back to the forward trench had already been sketched out with entrenching tools, but it formed no cover because it was enfiladed by a portion of the German trench.
It was the day when the Tearaways moved into the new position, and the O.C. had been instructed that he was expected to commence digging operations as soon as it was dark that night, the method and manner of digging being left entirely in his own hand. The Major, the Adjutant, and a couple of Captains conferred gloomily over the prospective task. That reputation of a dislike for digging stood in the way of a quick job being made. The stoppage of the rum ration prevented even an inducement in the shape of an “extra tot” being promised for extra good work, and it was well known to all the officers that the stoppage of pay had put the men in a sulky humor, which made them a little hard to handle, and harder to drive than the proverbial pigs. It was decided that nothing should be said to the men of the task ahead of them until it was time to tell off the fatigue party and start them on the work.