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"It is reported that ... "--EXTRACT FROM OFFICIAL DESPATCH.
The "it" and the "that" which were reported, and which the despatch related in another three or four lines, concerned the position of a forward line of battle, but have really nothing to do with this account, which aims only at relating something of the method by which "it was reported" and the men whose particular work was concerned only with the report as a report, a string of words, a jumble of letters, a huddle of Morse dots and dashes.
The Signaling Company in the forward lines was situated in a very damp and very cold cellar of a half-destroyed house. In it were two or three tables commandeered from upstairs or from some houses around. That one was a rough deal kitchen table, and that another was of polished wood, with beautiful inlaid work and artistic curved and carven legs, the spoils of some drawing-room apparently, was a matter without the faintest interest to the signalers who used them. To them a table was a table, no more and no less, a thing to hold a litter of papers, message forms, telephone gear, and a candle stuck in a bottle. If they had stopped to consider the matter, and had been asked, they would probably have given a dozen of the delicate inlaid tables for one of the rough strong kitchen ones. There were three or four chairs about the place, just as miscellaneous in their appearance as the tables. But beyond the tables and chairs there was no furniture whatever, unless a scanty heap of wet straw in one corner counts as furniture, which indeed it might well do since it counted as a bed.
There were fully a dozen men in the room, most of them orderlies for the carrying of messages to and from the telephonists. These men came and went continually. Outside it had been raining hard for the greater part of the day, and now, getting on towards midnight, the drizzle still held and the trenches and fields about the signalers' quarters were running wet, churned into a mass of gluey chalk-and-clay mud. The orderlies coming in with messages were daubed thick with the wet mud from boot-soles to shoulders, often with their puttees and knees and thighs dripping and running water as if they had just waded through a stream. Those who by the carrying of a message had just completed a turn of duty, reported themselves, handed over a message perhaps, slouched wearily over to the wall farthest from the door, dropped on the stone floor, bundled up a pack or a haversack, or anything else convenient for a pillow, lay down and spread a wet mackintosh over them, wriggled and composed their bodies into the most comfortable, or rather the least uncomfortable possible position, and in a few minutes were dead asleep.
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.
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