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Action Front by Boyd Cable (Ernest Andrew Ewart)

Part 4 out of 4

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motion always remain in the same place. So it was with the German
line--it was pressing furiously forward, but always appeared to remain
stationary or to advance so slowly that it gave no impression of
advancing, but merely of growing bigger. Once, or perhaps twice, the
advancing line disappeared altogether, melted away behind the drifting
smoke, leaving only the mass of dark blotches sprawled on the grass. At
these times the fire died away along a part of our front, and the men
paused to gulp a drink from a water-bottle, to look round and tilt
their caps back and wipe the sweat from their brows, to gasp joyful
remarks to one another about "gettin' a bit of our own back," and "this
pays for the ninth o' May," and then listen to the full, deep roar of
rifle-fire that rolled out from further down the line, and try to peer
through the shifting smoke to see how "the lot next door" was faring.
But these respites were short. A call and a crackle of fire at their
elbows brought them back to business, to the grim business of
purposeful and methodical killing, of wiping out that moving wall that
was coming steadily at them again through the smoke and flame of the
bursting shells. The great bulk of the line came no nearer than a
hundred yards from our line; part pressed in another twenty or thirty
yards, and odd bunches of the dead were found still closer. But none
came to grips--none, indeed, were found within forty yards of our
rifles' wall of fire. A scattered remnant of the attackers ran back,
some whole and some hurt, thousands crawled away wounded, to reach the
safe shelter of their support trenches, some to be struck down by the
shells that still kept pounding down upon the death-swept field. The
counter-attack was smashed--hopelessly and horribly smashed.

A GENERAL ACTION

"_At some points our lines have been slightly advanced and their
position improved_."--EXTRACT FROM DESPATCH

It has to be admitted by all who know him that the average British
soldier has a deep-rooted and emphatic objection to "fatigues," all
trench-digging and pick-and-shovel work being included under that
title. This applies to the New Armies as well as the Old, and when one
remembers the safety conferred by a good deep trench and the fact that
few men are anxious to be killed sooner than is strictly necessary, the
objection is regrettable and very surprising. Still there it is, and
any officer will tell you that his men look on trench-digging with
distaste, have to be constantly persuaded and chivvied into doing
anything like their best at it, and on the whole would apparently much
rather take their chance in a shallow or poorly-constructed trench than
be at the labor of making it deep and safe.

But one piece of trench-digging performed by the Tearaway Rifles must
come pretty near a record for speed.

When the Rifles moved in for their regular spell in the forward line,
their O.C. was instructed that his battalion had to construct a section
of new trench in ground in front of the forward trench.

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.

"It's no good," said the Captain, "leaving them all the afternoon to
chew it over. They'd only be talking themselves into a state that is
first cousin to insubordination."

"I wish," said the other Captain, "they had asked us to go across and
take another slice of the German trench. The men would do it a lot
quicker and surer, and a lot more willing, than they'd dig a new one."

"The men," said the Colonel tartly, "are not going to be asked what
they'd like any more than I've been. I want you each to go down quietly
and have a look over at the new ground, tell the company commanders
what the job is, and have a talk with me after as to what you think is
the best way of setting about it."

That afternoon Lieutenant Riley and Lieutenant Brock took turns in
peering through a periscope at the line of the new trench, and
discussed the problem presented.

"It's all very fine," grumbled Riley, "for the O.C. to say the men must
dig because he says so. You can take a horse to the water where you
can't make it drink, and by the same token you can put a spade in a
man's hand where you can't make him dig, or if he does dig he'll only
do it as slow and gingerly as if it were his own grave and he was to be
buried in it as soon as it was ready."

"Don't talk about burying," retorted Brock. "It isn't a pleasant
subject with so many candidates for a funeral scattered around the
front door."

He sniffed the air, and made an exclamation of disgust:

"They haven't even been chloride-of-limed," he said. "A lot of lazy,
untidy brutes that battalion must have been we have just relieved."

Riley stared again into the periscope: "It's German the most of them
are, anyway," he said, "that's one consolation, although it's small
comfort to a sense of smell. I say, have a look at that man lying over
there, out to the left of the listening-post. His head is towards us,
and his hair is white as driven snow. They must be getting hard up for
men to be using up the grandfathers of that age."

Brock examined the white head carefully. "He's a pretty old stager," he
said, "unless he's a young 'un whose hair has turned white in a night
like they do in novels; or, maybe he's a General."

"A General!" said Riley, and stopped abruptly. "Man, now, wait a
minute. A General!" he continued musingly, and then suddenly burst into
chuckles, and nudged Brock in the ribs. "I have a great notion," he
said, "gr-r-reat notion, Brockie. What'll you bet I don't get the men
coming to us before night with a petition to be allowed to do some
digging?"

Brock stared at him. "You're out of your senses," he said. "I'd as soon
expect them to come with a petition to be allowed to sign the pledge."

"Well, now listen," said Riley, "and we'll try it, anyway."

He explained swiftly, while over Brock's face a gentle smile beamed and
widened into subdued chucklings.

"Here's Sergeant Clancy coming along the trench," said Riley. "You have
the notion now, so play up to me, and make sure Clancy hears every word
you say."

"I want to see that General of theirs the Bosche prisoner spoke about,"
said Riley, as Clancy came well within earshot. "An old man, the Bosche
said he was, with a head of hair as white and shining as a gull's
wing."

"I'm not so interested in his shining head," said Brock, "as I am in
the shining gold he carries on him. Doesn't it seem sinful waste for
all that good money to be lying out there?"

Out of the tail of his eye Riley saw the sergeant halt and stiffen into
an attitude of listening. He turned round.

"Was it me you wanted to see, Clancy?" he said.

"No, sorr--yes, sorr," said Clancy hurriedly, and then more slowly, in
neat adoption of the remarks he had just heard: "Leastways, sorr, I was
just afther wondering if you had heard anything of this tale of a
German Gineral lying out there on the ground beyanst."

"You mean the one that was shot last week?" said Riley.

"Him with the five thousand francs in his breeches pocket, and the
diamond-studded gold watch on his wrist?" said Brock.

"The same, sorr, the same!" said Clancy eagerly, and with his eyes
glistening. "And have you made out which of them he is, sorr?"

"No," said Riley shortly. "And remember, Sergeant, there are to be no
men going over the parapet this night without orders. The last
battalion in here lost a big handful of men trying to get hold of that
General, but the Germans were watching too close, and they've got a
machine-gun trained to cover him. See to it, Clancy! That's all now."

Sergeant Clancy moved off, but he went reluctantly.

"Why didn't you give him a bit more?" asked Brock.

"Because I know Clancy," said Riley, whispering. "If we had said more
now, he might have suspected a plant. As it is, he's got enough to
tickle his curiosity, and you can be sure it won't be long before a
gentle pumping performance is in operation."

Sergeant Clancy came in sight round the traverse again, moving briskly,
but obviously slowing down as he passed them, and very obviously
straining to hear anything they were saying. But they both kept silent,
and when he had disappeared round the next traverse, Riley grinned and
winked at his companion.

"He's hooked, Brockie," he said exultantly.

"Now you wait and--" He stopped as a rifle-man moved round the corner
and took up a position on the firing step near them.

"I'll bet," said Riley delightedly, "Clancy has put him there to listen
to anything he can catch us saying."

He turned to the man, who was clipping a tiny mirror on to his bayonet
and hoisting it to use as a periscope.

"Are you on the look-out?" he asked. "And who posted you there?"

"It was Sergeant Clancy, sir," answered the man. "He said I could hear
better--I mean, see better," he corrected himself, "from here."

Riley abruptly turned to their own periscope and apparently resumed the
conversation.

"I'm almost sure that's him with the white head," said Riley. "Out
there, about forty or fifty yards from the German parapet, and about a
hundred yards ten o'clock from our listening-post. Have a look."

He handed the periscope over to Brock, and at the same time noticed how
eagerly the sentry was also having a look into his own periscope.

"I've got him," said Brock. "Yes, I believe that's the man."

"What makes it more certain," said Riley, "is that hen's scratch of a
trench the other battalion started to dig out to the listening-post.
They couldn't crawl out in the open to get to the General, and it's my
belief they meant to drive a sap out to the listening-post, and then
out to the General, and yank him in, so they could go through his
pockets."

"It's a good bit of work to get at a dead man," said Brock
reflectively.

"It is," said Riley, "but it isn't often you can drive a sap with five
thousand francs at the end of it."

"To say nothing of a diamond-studded gold watch," said Brock.

"Well, well," said Riley, "I suppose the Germans won't be leaving him
lying out there much longer. I hear the last battalion bagged quite a
bunch that tried to creep out at night to get him in; but I suppose our
fellows, not knowing about it, won't watch him so carefully."

They turned the conversation to other and more casual things, and
shortly afterwards moved off.

The first-fruits of their sowing showed within the hour, when some of
the officers were having tea together in a corner of a ruined cottage,
which had been converted into a keep.

The servant who was preparing tea had placed a battered pot on the half
of a broken door, which served for a mess table; had laid out a loaf of
bread, tin pots of jam, a cake, and a flattened box of flattened
chocolates, and these offices having been fully performed he should
have retired. Instead, however, he fidgeted to and fro, offered to pour
the tea from the dented coffee-pot, asked if anything more was wanted,
pushed the loaf over to the Captain, apologizing at length for the
impossibility of getting a scrape of butter these days; hovered round
the table, and generally made it plain that he had something he wished
to say, or that he supposed they had something to say he wished to
hear.

"What are you dodging about there for, man?" the Captain asked
irritably at last. "Is it anything you want?"

"Nothing, sorr," said the man, "only I was just wondering if you had
heard annything of a Gineral with fifty thousand francs in his pocket,
lying out there beyond the trench."

"Five thousand francs," corrected Riley gently.

"'Twas fifty thousand I heard, sorr," said the man eagerly; "but ye
have heard, then, sorr?"

"What's this about a General?" demanded the Captain.

"Yes!" said Riley quickly. "What is it? We have heard nothing of the
General."

"Ah!" said the messman, eyeing him thoughtfully, "I thought maybe ye
had heard."

"We have heard nothing," said Riley. "What is it you are talking
about?"

"About them fifty thousand francs, sorr," said the messman, cunningly,
"or five thousand, was it?"

"What's this?" said the Captain, and the others making no attempt to
answer his question, left the messman to tell a voluble tale of a
German General ("though 'twas a Field-Marshal some said it was, and
others went the length of Von Kluck himself") who had been killed some
days before, and lay out in the open with five thousand, or fifty
thousand, francs in his breeches pocket, a diamond-studded gold watch
on his wrist, diamond rings on his fingers, and his breast covered with
Iron Crosses and jeweled Orders.

That both Riley and Brock, as well as the Captain, professed their
profound ignorance of the tale only served, as they well knew, to
strengthen the Tearaways Rifles' belief in it, and after the man had
gone they imparted their plan with huge delight and joyful anticipation
to the Captain.

When they had finished tea and left the keep to return to their own
posts, they were met by Sergeant Clancy.

"I just wanted to speak wid you a moment, sorr," he said. "I have been
looking at that listening-post, and thinking to myself wouldn't it be
as well if we ran a sap out to it; it would save the crawling out
across the open at night, and keeping the men--and some wounded among
them maybe--cooped up the whole day."

"There's something in that," said the Captain, pretending to reflect.
"And I see the last battalion had made something of a beginning to dig
a trench out to the post."

"And they must have been thinking with their boots when they dug it
there," said Riley. "A trench on that side is open to enfilade fire. It
should have been dug out from the left corner of that curve instead of
the right."

"If you would speak to the O.C. about it, sorr," said Clancy, "he might
be willing to let us dig it. The men is fresh, too, and won't harm for
a bit of exercise."

"Very well," said the Captain carelessly, "we'll see about it
to-morrow."

"Begging your pardon, sorr," said Clancy, "I was thinking it would be a
good night tonight, seein' there's a strong wind blowing that would
deaden the sound of the digging."

"That's true enough," the Captain said slowly. "I think it's an
excellent idea, Clancy, and I'll speak to the O.C., and tell him you
suggested it."

A few minutes after, an orderly brought a message that the O.C. was
coming round the trenches to see the company commanders. The company
commanders found him with rather a sharp edge to his temper, and
Captain Conroy, to whom Riley and Brock had confided the secret of
their plans, concluded the moment was not a happy one for explaining
the ruse to the O.C. He, therefore, merely took his instructions for
the detailing of a working party from his company, and the hour at
which they were to commence.

"And remember," said the O.C. sharply, "you will stand no nonsense over
this work. If you think any man is loafing or not doing his full share,
make him a prisoner, or do anything else you think fit. I'll back you
in it, whatever it is."

Conroy murmured a "Very good, sir," and left it at that. When he
returned to his company he made arrangements for the working party,
implying subtly to Sergeant Clancy that the trench was to be started as
the result of his, the sergeant's, arguments.

Clancy went back to the men in high feather:

"I suppose now," he said complacently, "there's some would be like to
laugh if they were told that a blessed sergeant could be saying where
and when he'd be having this trench or that trench dug or not dug; but
there's more ways of killing a cat than choking it with butter, and
Ould Prickles can take a hint as good as the next man when it's put to
him right."

"Prickles," be it noted, being the fitting, if somewhat disrespectful,
name which the O.C. carried in the Rifles.

"It's yourself has the tongue on ye," admitted Rifleman McRory
admiringly, "though I'm wonnering how'll you be schamin' to get another
trench dug from the listening-post out to the Gineral."

"'Twill take some scheming," agreed another rifleman, "but maybe we can
get round the officer that's in the listening-post to-night to let us
drive a sap out."

"It's not him ye'll be getting round," said McRory, "for it's the
Little Lad himself that's in it. But sure the Little Lad will be that
glad to see me offer to take a pick in my hand that I believe he'd be
willing to let me dig up his own grandfather's grave."

"We'll find some way when the time comes, never fear," said Sergeant
Clancy, and the men willingly agreed to leave the matter in his capable
hands.

Immediately after dark, the Little Lad, otherwise Lieutenant Riley, led
his party at a careful crawl and in wide-spaced single file out to the
listening-post, while Brock and the Captain crawled out with a couple
of men, a white tape, and a handful of pegs apiece to mark out the line
of the new trenches converging from the outside ends of the curved main
trench to the listening-post.

When they returned and reported their job complete, the working parties
crawled cautiously out. There were plenty of flares being thrown up
from the German lines and a more or less erratic rifle fire was
crackling up and down the trenches on both sides, the Tearaways taking
care to keep their bullets clear of the working party, to fire no more
than enough to allay any German suspicions of a job being in hand, and
not to provoke any extra hostility.

The working party crept out one by one, carrying their rifles and their
trenching tools, dropping flat and still in the long grass every time a
light flared, rising and crawling rapidly forward in the intervals of
darkness. When at last they were strung out at distances of less than a
man's length, they stealthily commenced operations. A line of filled
sandbags was handed out from the main trench and passed along the chain
of men until each had been provided with one.

Making the sand-bag a foundation for head cover, the men began
cautiously to cut and scoop the soft ground and pile it up in front of
them. The grass was long and rank, and in the shifting light the work
went on unobserved for over an hour. The men, cramped and
uncomfortable, with every muscle aching from head to foot, worked
doggedly, knowing each five minutes' work, each handful of earth
scooped out and thrown up, meant an extra point off the odds on a
bullet reaching them when the Germans discovered their operations and
opened fire on the working party.

They still worked only in the dark intervals between the flares, and,
of course, in as deep a silence as they possibly could. Brock and the
Captain crawled at intervals up and down the line with a word of praise
or a reproach dropped here and there as it was needed. At the end of
one trip, Brock crept into the listening-post and conversed in whispers
with Riley, his fellow-conspirator.

"They're working like beavers," he said, "and, if the Boche doesn't
twig the game for another half-hour, we'll have enough cover scooped
out to go on without losing too many men from their fire."

Riley chuckled. "It's working fine," he said. "I'm only hoping that
some ruffian doesn't spoil the game by crawling out and finding our
General is no more than a false alarm."

"That would queer the pitch," agreed Brock, "but I don't fancy any one
will try it. They all know the working party is liable to be discovered
at any minute, and any one out in the open when that comes off, is
going to be in a tight corner."

"There's a good many here," said Riley, "that would chance a few tight
corners if they knew five thousand francs was at the other side of it;
but I took the precaution to hint gently to Clancy that our machine gun
was going to keep on spraying lead round the General all night, to
discourage any private enterprise."

"Anyhow," said Brock, "I suppose the whole regiment's in it, and
flatter themselves this trifle of digging is for the special benefit of
their pockets. But what are those fellows of ours supposed to be
digging at in the corner there!"

"That," whispered the Little Lad, grinning, "is merely an improving of
the amenities of the listening-post and the beginning of a dugout
shelter from bombs; at least, that's Clancy's suggestion, though I have
a suspicion there will be no hurry to roof-in the dug-out and that its
back-door will travel an unusual length out."

"Well, so long," said Brock; "I must sneak along again and have a look
at the digging."

It was when he was half-way back to the main trench that it became
apparent the German suspicions were aroused, and that something--a
movement after a light flared, perhaps, or the line of a parapet
beginning to show above the grass--had drawn their attention to the
work.

Light after light commenced to toss in an unbroken stream from their
parapet in the direction of the working party, and a score of bullets,
obviously aimed at them, hissed close overhead.

"Glory be!" said Rifleman McRory, flattening himself to the ground.
"It's a good foot and a half I have of head-cover, and I'm thinking
it's soon we will be needing it, and all the rest we can get."

The flaring lights ceased again for a moment, and the men plied their
tools in feverish haste to strengthen their scanty shelter against the
storm they knew must soon fall upon them.

It came within a couple of minutes; again the lights streamed upward,
and flares burst and floated down in dazzling balls of fierce white
light, while the rifle-fire from the German parapet grew heavier and
heavier. Concealment was no longer possible, and the word was passed to
get along with the work in light or dark; and so, still lying flat upon
their faces, and with the bullets hissing and whistling above them,
slapping into the low parapet and into the bare ground beside them, the
working party scooped and buried and scraped, knowing that every inch
they could sink themselves or heighten their parapet added to their
chance of life.

The work they had done gave them a certain amount of cover, at least
for the vital parts of head and shoulders, but in the next half-hour
there were many casualties, and man after man worked on with blood
oozing through the hastily-applied bandage of a first field-dressing or
crawled in under the scanty parapet and crouched there helplessly.

It was little use at that stage trying to bring in the wounded. To do
so only meant exposing them to almost a certainty of another wound and
of further casualties amongst the stretcher-bearers. One or two men
were killed.

Lieutenant Riley, dragging himself along the line, found Rifleman
McRory hard at work behind the shelter of a body rolled up on top of
his parapet.

"It's killed he is," said McRory in answer to a question--"killed to
the bone. He won't be feeling any more bullets that hit him, and it's
himself would be the one to have said to use him this way."

Riley admitted the force of the argument and crept on. Work moved
faster now that there was no need to wait for the periods between the
lights; but the German fire also grew faster, and a machine gun began
to pelt its bullets up and down the length of the growing parapet.

By now, fortunately, the separate chain of pits dug by each man were
practically all connected up into a long, twisting, shallow trench.
Down this trench the wounded were passed, and a fresh working party
relieved the cramped and tired batch who had commenced the work.

In the main trench men had been hard at work filling sand-bags, and now
these were passed out, dragged along from man to man, and piled up on
the parapet, doubling the security of the workers and allowing them the
greater freedom of rising to their knees to dig.

The rifles and maxims of the Tearaways had from the main trench kept up
a steady volume of fire on the German parapet, in an endeavor to keep
down its fire. They shot from the main trench in comparative safety,
because the German fire was directed almost exclusively on the new
trench.

Now that the new parapet had been heightened and strengthened, the
casualties behind it had almost ceased, and the Tearaways were quite
reasonably flattering themselves on the worst of the work being done
and the worst of the dangers over. It appeared to them that the trench
now provided quite sufficient shelter to fulfill both its ostensible
object of allowing relief parties to move to and from the
listening-post, and also their own private undertaking of attaining the
dead General; but the O.C. and company commanders did not look on it in
that light.

The order was to construct a firing trench, and that meant a good deal
more work than had been done, so reliefs were kept going and the work
progressed steadily all night, a good deal of impetus being given to it
by some light German field-guns which commenced to scatter
high-explosive shrapnel over the open ground.

The shooting, fortunately, was not very accurate, no doubt because, by
the light of the flares, it was difficult for the German observers to
direct their fire. But the hint was enough for the Tearaways, and they
knew that daybreak would bring more accurate and more constant
artillery fire upon the new position.

The British gunners had been warned not to open fire unless called
upon, because a working party was in the open; but now the batteries
were telephoned to with a request for shrapnel on the German parapets
to keep down some of the heavy rifle fire.

Since the gunners had already registered the target of the German
trench, their fire was just as accurate by night as it would be by day,
and shell after shell burst over the German parapet, sweeping their
trench with showers of shrapnel.

While all this was going on the men at the listening-post had tackled
the job of driving their sap out to the German General. This work was
done in a different fashion from the digging of the new trench.

The listening-post was merely a pit in the ground, originally a large
shell crater, and deepened and widened until it was sufficiently large
to hold half-a-dozen men. At one side of the pit the men commenced with
pick and spade to hack out an opening like a very narrow doorway.

As the earth was broken down and shoveled back, the doorway gradually
grew to be a passage. In this two men at a time worked in turn, the one
on the right-hand side making a narrow cut that barely gave him
shoulder-play, the second man on the left working a few paces in the
rear and widening the passage.

Necessarily it was slow work, because only these two men could reach
the face of the cut, and because it had to be of sufficient depth to
allow a man to work upright without his head showing above the ground.
But because they worked in short reliefs and put every ounce of energy
into their task, they made surprising and unusual progress.

Lieutenant Riley, who was in command of the listening-post for that
night, left the workers to themselves, both because it was necessary
for him to keep a sharp look-out in order to give warning of any
attempt to rush the working party, and because officially he was not
supposed to know anything of any sap to an officially unrecognized dead
German General.

When he was relieved after daybreak, Riley told the joke and explained
the position to the subaltern who took over from him, and that
subaltern in turn looked with a merely unofficial eye on the work of
the sapping party. As the day and the work went on, it was quite
obvious that a good many more men were working on the new trench than
had been told off to it.

In the sap several fresh men were constantly awaiting their turn at the
face with pick and shovel. The diggers did no more than five minutes'
work, hacking and spading at top speed, yielding their tools to the
next comer and retiring, panting and blowing and mopping their
streaming brows.

A fairly constant fire was maintained by the artillery on both sides,
the shells splashing and crashing on the open ground about the new
trench and the German parapet. There was little wind, and as a result
the smoke of the shell-bursts hung heavily and trailed slowly over the
open space between the trenches, veiling to some extent the sapping
operations and the new trench. On the latter a tendency was quickly
displayed to slacken work and to treat the job as being sufficiently
complete, but when it came to Lieutenant Riley's turn to take charge of
a fresh relief of workers on the new trench, he very quickly succeeded
in brisking up operations.

Arrived at the listening-post, he found Sergeant Clancy and spoke a few
words to him.

"Clancy," he said gently, "the work along that new trench is going a
great deal too slow."

"'Tis hard work, sorr," replied Clancy excusingly, "and you'll be
remembering the boys have been at it all night."

"Quite so, Clancy," said Riley smoothly, "and since it has to be dug a
good six foot deep, I am just thinking the best thing to do will be to
take this other party off the sap and turn 'em along to help on the
trench. I'm not denying, Clancy, that I've a notion what the sap is
for, although I'm supposed to know nothing of it; but I don't care if
the sap is made, and I do care that the trench is. Now do you think I
had better stop them on the sap, or can the party in the trench put a
bit more ginger into it?"

"I'll just step along the trench again, sorr," said Clancy anxiously,
"and I don't think you'll be having need to grumble again."

He stepped along the trench, and he left an extraordinary increase of
energy behind him as he went.

"And what use might it be to make it any deeper?" grumbled McRory.
"Sure it's deep enough for all we need it."

"May be," said Sergeant Clancy, with bitter sarcasm, "it's yourself
that'll just be stepping up to the Colonel and saying friendly like to
him: 'Prickles, me lad, it's deep enough we've dug to lave us get out
to our German Gineral. 'Tisn't for you we're digging this trench,'
you'll be saying, ''tis for our own pleasure entirely.' You might just
let me know what the Colonel says to that."

"There's some talk," he said, a little further down the line, "of our
being relieved from here to-morrow afternoon. I've told you what the
Little Lad was saying about turning the sap party in to help here. It's
pretty you'd look clearing out to-morrow and leaving another battalion
to come in to take over your new trench and your new sap and your
German Gineral and the gold in his britches pocket together." And with
that parting shaft he moved on.

For the rest of that day and all that night work moved at speed, and
when the O.C. made his tour of inspection the following morning he was
as delighted as he was amazed at the work done--and that, as he told
the Adjutant, was saying something. Up to now he had known nothing of
the sap, merely expressing satisfaction--again mingled with
amazement--when he saw the entrance to the sap, lightly roofed in with
boards for a couple of yards and shut off beyond that by a curtain of
sacking, and was told that the men were amusing themselves making a
bomb-proof dug-out.

But on this last morning, when the sap had approached to within twenty
or thirty feet of the white head which was its objective, the Colonel's
attention was directed to the matter somewhat forcibly. He heard the
roar of exploding heavy shells, and as the "_crump, crump,_" continued
steadily, he telephoned from the headquarters dug-out in rear of the
support line to ask the forward trenches what was happening.

While he waited an answer, a message came from the Brigade saying that
the artillery had reported heavy German shelling on a sap-head, and
demanding to know what, where, and why was the sap-head referred to.
While the Colonel was puzzling over this mysterious message and vainly
trying to recall any sap-head within his sector of line, the regimental
Padre came into the dug-out.

"I've just come from the dressing station," he said, "and there's a boy
there, McRory, that has me fair bewildered with his ravings. He's
wounded in the head with a shrapnel splinter, and, although he seems
sane and sensible enough in other ways, he's been begging me and the
doctor not to send him back to the hospital. Did ever ye hear the like,
and him with a lump as big as the palm of my hand cut from his head to
the bare bone, and bleeding like a stuck pig in an apoplexy?"

The Colonel looked at him vacantly, his mind between this and the other
problem of the Brigade's message.

"And that's not all that's in it," went on the Padre. "The doctor was
telling me that there's been a round dozen of the past two days'
casualties begging that same thing--not to be sent away till we come
out of the trenches. And to beat all, McRory, when he was told he was
going just the minute the ambulance came, had a confab with the
stretcher bearers, and I heard him arguing with them about 'his share,'
and 'when they got the Gineral,' and 'my bit o' the fifty thousand
francs.' It has me beat completely."

By now the Colonel was completely bewildered, and he began to wonder
whether he or his battalion were hopelessly mad. It was extraordinary
enough that the men should have dug so willingly and well, and without
a grumble being heard or a complaint made.

It was still more extraordinary that more or less severely wounded men
should not be ardently desirous of the safety and comfort and feeding
of the hospitals; and on the top of all was this mysterious message of
a sap apparently being made by his men voluntarily and without any
sanction, much less the usual required pressure.

A message came from Captain Conroy, in the forward trench, to say that
Riley was coming up to headquarters and would explain matters.

Riley and the explanation duly arrived. "Ould Prickles," inclined at
first to be mightily wroth at the unauthorized digging of the sap,
caught a twinkle in the Padre's eye; and a modest hint from the Little
Lad reminding him of the speed and excellence of the new trenches,
construction turned the scale. He burst into a roar of laughter, and
the Padre joined him heartily, while the Little Lad stood beaming and
chuckling complacently.

"I must tell the Brigadier this," gasped the O.C. at last. "He might
have had a cross word or two to say about a sap being dug without
orders, but, thank heaven, he's an Irishman, and a poorer joke would
excuse a worse crime with him. But I'm wondering what's going to happen
when they reach their General and find no francs, and no watch, and not
even a General; and mind you, Riley, the sap must be stopped at once. I
can't be having good men casualtied on an unofficial job. Will you see
to that right away?"

The Little Lad's chuckling rose to open giggling.

"It's stopped now, sir," he said--"just before I came up here. And
what's more, the General won't need explaining; the German gunners
spied our sap, and, trying to drop a heavy shell on it--well, they
dropped one on to the General. So now there isn't a General, only a
hole in the ground where he was."

Ould Prickles' and the Padre's laughter bellowed again.

"I must tell that to the Brigadier, too," said the O.C.; "that finish
to the joke will completely satisfy him."

"And I must go," said the Padre, rising, "and tell McRory, though I'm
not just sure whether it will be after satisfying him quite so
completely."

AT LAST

"WHEN WE BEGIN TO PUSH"

"Here we are," said the Colonel, halting his horse. "Fine view one gets
from here."

"Rather a treat to be able to see over a bit of country again, after so
many months of the flat," said, the Adjutant, reining up beside the
other. They were halted on the top of a hill, or, father, the corner of
an edge on a wide plateau. On two sides of them the ground fell away
abruptly, the road they were on dipping sharply over the edge and
sweeping round and downward in a well-graded slope along the face of
the hill to the wide flats below. Over these flats they could see for
many miles, miles of cultivated fields, of little woods, of gentle
slopes. They could count the buildings of many farms, the roofs of half
a dozen villages, the spires of twice as many churches, the tall
chimneys and gaunt frame towers of scattered pit-heads. It had been
raining all day, but now in the late afternoon the clouds had broken
and the light of the low sun was tinging the landscape with a mellow
golden glow.

"There's going to be a beautiful sunset presently," said the Colonel,
"with all those heavy broken clouds about. Let's dismount and wait for
a bit."

Both dismounted and handed their reins to the orderly, who, riding
behind them, had halted when they did, but now at a sign came forward.

"We'll just stroll to that rise on the left," the Colonel said. "The
best view should be from there."

The Adjutant lingered a moment. "Take their bits out, Trumpeter," he
said, "and let them pick a mouthful of grass along the roadside."

A rough country track ran to the left off the main road, and the two
walked along it a couple of hundred yards to where it plunged over the
crest and ran steeply down the hillside. Another main road ran along
the flat parallel with the hill foot, and along this crawled a long
khaki column.

"Look at the light on those hills over there," said the Colonel. "Fine,
isn't it?"

The Adjutant was busily engaged with the field-glasses he had taken
from the case slung over his shoulder and was focusing them on the road
below.

"I say," he remarked suddenly, "those are the Canadians. I didn't know
the ----th Division was so far south. Moving up front, too." The
Colonel dropped his gaze to the road a moment and then swept it slowly
over the country-side. "Yes," he said, "and this area is pretty well
crowded with troops when you look closely."

The light on the distant hills was growing more golden and beautiful,
the clouds were beginning to catch the first tints of the sunset, but
neither men for the moment noticed these things, searching with their
gaze the landscape below, sifting it over and picking out a battery of
artillery camped in a big chalk-pit by the roadside, the slow-rising
and drifting columns of blue smoke that curled up from a distant wood
and told of the regiment encamped there, the long strings of horses
converging on a big mine building for the afternoon watering, the lines
of transport wagons parked on the outskirts of a village, the shifting
khaki figures that stirred about every farm building in sight, the row
of gray-painted motor-omnibuses, drawn up in a long line on a side
road. The countryside that under a first look slept peacefully in the
afternoon sunlight, that drowsed calmly in the easy quiet of an
uneventful field and farm existence, proved under the closer searching
look to be a teeming hive of activity, a close-packed camp of
well-armed fighting men, a widespread net and chain of men and guns and
horses. The peaceful countryside was overflowing with men and bristling
with bayonets; every village was a crammed-full military cantonment,
every barn stuffed with soldiers like an overfilled barracks.

The Adjutant whistled softly. "This," he said, and nodded again and
again to the plain below, "this looks like business--at last."

"Yes," said the Colonel, "at last. It's going to be a very different
story this time, when we begin to push things."

"Hark at the guns," said the Adjutant, and both stood silent a moment
listening to the long, deep, rolling thunder that boomed steady and
unbroken as surf on a distant beach. "And they're our guns too,
mostly," went on the Adjutant. "I suppose we're firing more shells in
an ordinary trench-war-routine day now than we dared fire in a month
this time last year. Last year we were short of shells, the year before
we were short of guns and shells and men. Now hear the guns and look
down there at a few of the men."

Through the still air rose from below them the shrill crow of a
farmyard rooster, the placid mooing of a cow, the calls and laughter of
some romping children.

But the two on the hillside had no ear for these sounds of peace. They
heard only that distant sullen boom of the rumbling guns, the throbbing
foot-beats of the marching battalions below them, the plop-plopping
hoofs and rattling wheels of wagons passing on their way up to the
firing line with food for the guns.

"Our turn coming," said the Adjutant--"at last."

"Yes," the Colonel said, and repeated grimly--"at last."

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