It was nothing to them that every now and again the house above them shook and quivered to the shock of a heavy shell exploding somewhere on the ground round the house, that the rattle of rifle fire dwindled away at times to separate and scattered shots, brisked up again and rose to a long roll, the devil’s tattoo of the machine guns rattling through it with exactly the sound a boy makes running a stick rapidly along a railing. The bursting shells and scourging rifle fire, sweeping machine guns, banging grenades and bombs were all affairs with which the Signaling Company in the cellar had no connection. For the time being the men in a row along the wall were as unconcerned in the progress of the battle as if they were safely and comfortably asleep in London. Presently any or all of them might be waked and sent out into the flying death and dangers of the battlefield, but in the meantime their immediate and only interest was in getting what sleep they could. Every once in a while the signalers’ sergeant would shout for a man, go across to the line and rouse one of the sleepers; then the awakened man would sit up and blink, rise and listen to his instructions, nod and say, “Yes, Sergeant! All right, Sergeant!” when these were completed, pouch his message, hitch his damp mackintosh about him and button it close, drag heavily across the stone floor and vanish into the darkness of the stone-staired passage.
His journey might be a long or a short one, he might only have to find a company commander in the trenches one or two hundred yards away, he might on the other hand have a several hours’ long trudge ahead of him, a bewildering way to pick through the darkness across a maze of fields and a net-work of trenches, over and between the rubble heaps that represented the remains of a village, along roads pitted with all sorts of blind traps in the way of shell holes, strings of barbed wire, overturned carts, broken branches of trees, flung stones and beams; and always, whether his journey was a short one or a long, he would move in an atmosphere of risk, with sudden death or searing pain passing him by at every step, and waiting for him, as he well knew, at the next step and the next and every other one to his journey’s end.