He moved towards the new opening that had been made in the wall of the cellar, scrambled up it and disappeared. All the signalers lifted their attention from their instruments at the same moment and sat listening to the fresh note that ran through the renewed and louder clamor and racket. The signaler who was in touch with the rear station called them and began to tell them what was happening.
“We’re about all in, I b’lieve,” he said. “Five minutes ago we passed word to the flanks to fall back in ten minutes. What? Yes, it’s thick. I don’t know how many men we’ve lost hanging on, and I suppose we’ll lose as many again taking back the trench we’re to give up. What’s that? No. I don’t see how reenforcements could be here yet. How long ago you say you passed orders for them to move up? An hour ago! That’s wrong, because the messengers can’t have been back—telephone message? That’s a lot less than an hour ago. I sent it myself no more than half an hour since. Oo-oo! did you get that bump? Dunno, couple o’ big shells or something dropped just outside. I can ’ardly ’ear you. There’s a most almighty row going on all round. They must be charging, I think, or our front line’s fallen back, because the rifles is going nineteen to the dozen, a-a-ah! They’re getting stronger too, and it sounds like a lot more bombs going; hold on, there’s that blighting maxim again.”
He stopped speaking while upstairs the maxim clattered off belt after belt of cartridges. The other signalers were shuffling their feet anxiously and looking about them.
“Are we going to stick it here?” said one. “Didn’t the sergeant say something about ’opping it?”
“If he did,” said the other, “he hasn’t given any orders that I’ve heard. I suppose he’ll come back and do that, and we’ve just got to carry on till then.”
The men had to shout now to make themselves heard to each other above the constant clatter of the maxim and the roar of rifle fire. By now they could hear, too, shouts and cries and the trampling rush of many footsteps. The signaler spoke into his instrument again.
“I think the line’s fallen back,” he said. “I can hear a heap o’ men running about there outside, and now I suppose us here is about due to get it in the neck.”
There was a scuffle, a rush, and a plunge, and the sergeant shot down through the rear opening and out into the cellar.
“The flank trenches!” he shouted. “Quick! Get on to them—right and left flank—tell them they’re to stand fast. Quick, now, give them that first. Stand fast; do not retire.”
The signalers leaped to their instruments, buzzed off the call, and getting through, rattled their messages off.
“Ask them,” said the sergeant anxiously. “Had they commenced to retire.” He breathed a sigh of relief when the answers came. “No,” that the message had just stopped them in time.
“Then,” he said, “you can go ahead now and tell them the order to retire is cancelled, that the reenforcements have arrived, that they’re up in our forward line, and we can hold it good—oh!”