Laying the Ghosts of War

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Laying the Ghosts of War

Copyright Oggbashan September 2018

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.



A sniper’s bullet struck a sandbag between me and Sergeant-Major Seymour following me. It was about seven o’clock in the morning of the final day of the Great War on the Western Front and I was limping along the front line firing trench. I was bringing the news that the Armistice was real and would happen. At eleven o’clock the guns would fall silent. There were only four hours to survive.

But my order of the day had been not to fire unless the enemy fired first. That single shot had started a furious response from our trenches and retaliation from theirs.

“Cease Fire! Cease Fire!” I shouted over the rattle of rifle fire.

It took at least five minutes before my order took effect. In those five minutes six of our men had been wounded, and three were dead, all caused by a single bullet that had missed me.

Ten minutes later the fire from the opposing trenches stopped. Later we found out that their orders had been similar. They hadn’t heard their sniper’s shot. He was using a rifle. As he had fired the rumble of distant explosions obscured the report in their trenches. The Germans had responded to our fire. They had five dead and eight wounded.

Those eleven dead men and fourteen wounded were on my conscience. If only my order had been simpler, just ‘do not fire today’. Our men could have huddled at the bottom of their trenches and none on either side would have died four hours before the end of the war.


Three years later I was still regretting that order of the day. To me it didn’t matter that many other officers on both sides had issued similar orders for the morning of November 11th. It was my order as a senior Infantry Officer that had killed eleven men and wounded fourteen. Those numbers were engraved on my heart, far more than the thousands of men killed as a result of my orders throughout the whole war. I had survived from the early days of late 1914 as an elderly regular second lieutenant who didn’t know enough to keep myself alive, to an experienced permanent Major promoted temporarily and hostilities-only to Lieutenant-Colonel and acting as a Brigadier. I had reduced the numbers of men in the forward trenches to a bare minimum on the evening of November 10th but the impact of my order had killed too many of those still there.

There had been no firing in our part of the front line since the previous afternoon when the news came that the Armistice might take place at eleven o’clock on the 11th. If only that sniper hadn’t fired, and my order had been different. Nothing could change that now. The knowledge that our six wounded men had recovered fully didn’t help me.

What made it worse was that the German sniper hadn’t aimed at us. He had just fired a warning shot to tell us the war wasn’t yet over. He had demonstrated his long-practised skill by putting his bullet between us.

Every night the faces of the three dead men, Privates Lewis and Owen, and Lance-Corporal Lester, appeared in my dreams sorrowfully reminding me that I had caused them to die so close to the end of the war. Their faces were fixed in my memory when so many other dead men from my troops had faded into oblivion. I knew the names, the hundreds of names, of all those who had died fighting beside me, but the last three were unnecessary deaths.


My wife Elaine tried hard to comfort me. She knew every time that I had the nightmare of ‘What if?’. I thrashed around in bed, moaning in my sleep. She knew the names as well as I did. She tried to comfort me by smothering me between her large soft breasts. Although I enjoyed them they were a real impediment to my breathing. Often I woke up gasping for breath. The nightmare vanished as she stroked my face with a breast, pushed an erect nipple between my lips, and rolled me on my back before she straddled me. She mounted my erection and rode me to a climax. Afterwards she settled down, still holding me with her lower lips, and rested her head on my shoulder. I love her for her concern. I just wish the nightmare would go away.

But it returns, night after night.


Tomorrow will be hard for me. It is the anniversary of November 11th and our town will be dedicating the War Memorial to those who died in the Great War. Although the ceremony will be led by our local Bishop and a retired General, I will be the senior surviving officer of the Regiment raised from our town. The General had never been near the Western Front. He had been fighting in the Middle East, a different war of movement. Only I and the survivors of our Regiment knew what we had experienced, and the names on the War Memorial are casino siteleri those of our friends and comrades. Some of the survivors were related to the dead. Many of the women who will be there had lost husbands and brothers. The children had lost fathers.

The Bishop will read all the names of the dead, in order of date of their deaths. I couldn’t do that. I knew I wouldn’t have been able to say the final three, Lewis, Owen and Lester, killed as a result of my stupid order.

Elaine knew that I would be worried. When we went to bed she rode me mercilessly until I fell asleep exhausted. Even so, at three in the morning the nightmare returned again. Elaine smothered me with her breasts until I complained that I couldn’t breathe. She rode me again until I went back to sleep.


The morning of November 11th 1921 was cold and frosty. My wife had to call our maid Hazel to help me to get out of bed and get dressed in my parade uniform. The shrapnel I still have in both legs disables me whenever it is cold. Elaine’s ruthless pounding had made my legs worse even though she does most of the work. I lie there wondering how I married such a wonderful wife who supports me so effectively.

Today of all days I can’t be pushed in a bath chair. I have to walk and pretend to be the proud Major of three years ago. I always feel embarrassed when Hazel has to help my wife to get me dress. She may be a decade younger than I am but she flirts with me as if I am a desirable male. She, like my wife Elaine, is an attractive woman. If Elaine isn’t around Hazel will hug me, pressing her breasts against me. If I’m sitting down the back of my head might be cradled in her cleavage. Elaine knows what Hazel does and encourages her. I have two women who love me.

Whenever the two of them are heaving me about I have a natural reaction to the close proximity of two women I love. It embarrasses me. It amuses them and they tease me by hugging and kissing me.

This morning I feel far from amused or even embarrassed. I admit it. I’m frightened, frightened that I will make a scene or react badly when those three names are read aloud. Private Lewis, Private Owen and Lance-Corporal Lester — I’m sorry, really sorry, that you died unnecessarily. The other name that will hurt is that of our only son, Peter, who had been a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. He had lasted a whole six months after joining his squadron in 1916.

There had been nothing I could do to protect him, unlike the troops under my command. His last act, with his broken plane engulfed in flames, had been to crash into a German fighter, wrecking them both. That would have been his fifth kill, making him an ace pilot, but aces had to survive the fifth. His body has never been found but his name will be on the memorial today, as it is on the lists of the missing.

Our chauffeur Vincent is waiting outside the house in my Crossley. We will drive to the railway station to collect the General, to the church for the memorial service and then Vincent will take the General, the Bishop and I to the War Memorial to await the parade. At least we can sit in the Crossley until we are required to give the speeches.

Afterwards we will go to the Assembly Rooms for a buffet lunch for everyone with ample supplies of beer, and soft drinks for the women and children. I am dreading that as much as the ceremony at the War Memorial. I will meet the widows and orphans. I know that Mrs Lewis, Mrs Owen and Mrs Lester will be there and I will have to talk to them. Why should I dread it? I have met and spoken to those three before, as I have done to almost every widow from our Regiment.


The Memorial Service was predictable and well organised. The Church of England does formal events well. It was comparatively short to allow time for the parade to reach the War Memorial before the two minute silence. The Bishop spoke about the pain and sacrifice of war, remembrance not only of the dead, but the wounded and those left widowed and orphaned. As expected there were some tears and sobbing but I was able to control myself.

As the parade formed up the road outside the three of us, and my wife Elaine, took our seats in the Crossley. Vincent drove us sedately to the War Memorial and parked behind it. As we waited we discussed the weather and the architecture of the Memorial. It had been designed by a local architect whose son had died with the Regiment.

“Major Thomas?” The General spoke to me.

“Yes, Sir,” I replied.

“You should be proud of yourself today.”

“Proud, Sir? The names on the Memorial are mainly of my Regiment. I am sad that there are so many.”

“If it hadn’t been for you, Major Thomas, there would have been many more. I have been to several of these dedications. Most have much more significant losses. You made yourself very unpopular with your commanders to prevent your men’s lives being wasted…”

“Is that true, General?” My wife interrupted unexpectedly.

“Very slot oyna true, Mrs Thomas. In 1917 your husband was nearly court-martialled for disobeying an order that could have decimated his regiment. He argued that the situation at the front line was worse than his superiors thought. At the time he was ordered to advance to support the French alongside his troops. Your husband’s refusal to attack was seen as almost treasonable but he was right. If he had ordered the attack his troops would have been exposed to flanking fire. The French had already retreated. The Regiment held its position and outflanked the Germans giving the French time to recover. If he hadn’t been right?”

“What if he hadn’t been right?” My wife asked.

“A court-martial. He would have been found guilty because he had blatantly refused an order…”

“And?” My wife persisted.

“Disgraced, dismissed the service, or at worst — shot, Mrs Thomas.”

“It didn’t come to that,” I protested.

“But you came very close and it wasn’t your first offence, was it?”

“How do you know, Sir?” I asked.

“I was well away from the Western Front, you mean, fighting a very different war. Yes. I was. But my cousin was a Brigadier near your Regiment. He told me what you did. He admired you but thought you were sailing too close to the wind with your superiors too often. At the divisional headquarters your name was rarely said without expletives. You survived only because your troops were efficient and effective in defence. They survived because you would refuse to order a suicidal attack even if that refusal cost you promotion after promotion. Second Lieutenant to Major in four years of fighting is snail-like progress, Major Thomas.”

“But I didn’t care…”

“I know you didn’t. It’s admirable but the official disapproval follows you still. You should have been a General by the Armistice, not a Major.”

“But those promotions would have been bought with the lives of my men, General.”

“And as you just said, you didn’t care. The parade is approaching. We should meet them. When we do, Major Thomas, remember just how many of those in that parade would be listed as names on the Memorial — but for you. Thank you, Major.”

My wife looked at me as the General and Bishop climbed out of the car.

“I didn’t know,” Elaine said slowly. “You never said. I wondered when other officers were promoted before you, but…”

“I never saw rank as important, Elaine.”

“And I love you for it, Arthur.”

Elaine’s hand pressed on my arm. She would be standing behind me as I made my speech, ready to prop me up if my legs started to fail.

The parade was forming up. I was surprised to see the General talking to Sergeant-Major Seymour. It was only four minutes before the silence.

The General rejoined us on the steps of the War Memorial. He looked at his watch. Sergeant-Major Seymour checked his before nodding to the bugler. The bugle sounded just as the Town Hall clock started to strike eleven o’clock. We all stood to attention. I could sense Elaine ready behind me if I swayed. Standing to attention is difficult for me. I survived the two minutes without her help but was relieved when the bugle sounded again.

The General gave the order to ‘Stand Easy’. He stood forward and gave his speech before the Bishop followed him, formally dedicating the War Memorial to ‘The Glorious Dead’ and leading the assembly through prayers and a hymn.

The Bishop then began to read the names of those on the Memorial. Elaine stood beside me with her hand tucked into my arm. Her hand squeezed gently as the name of our son was mentioned. She squeezed harder for the last three names, Private Lewis, Private Owen and Lance-Corporal Lester.

I stood forward and gave my speech. I thanked the men of my Regiment, living and dead, for their service for King and Country. I said that I was proud to have served with them but regretted that so many had paid the ultimate sacrifice. I stood back as the Bishop gave the nunc dimittis.

I was surprised that no one moved. Sergeant-Major Seymour came to stand at the foot of the War Memorial’s steps. In his familiar parade ground voice he spoke on behalf of the Regiment. He ended by saying:

“Major Thomas said that he regretted that so many are named on this Memorial. We soldiers all know that but for Major Thomas the list of the dead would be much longer. Although wounded he returned to the Regiment when he could have retired back to England. We know why. He wanted to preserve as many men from this town as he could. He regrets that there are so many. But the reality is that thanks to him the list is of so few. Three cheers for Major Thomas.”

The cheers were deafening. Elaine really had to prop me up because my legs were like jelly. I hadn’t expected this.

“Parade? Dismiss!” Sergeant-Major Seymour ordered before I could compose myself to make a coherent reply.

The General canlı casino siteleri came back to stand beside us.

“Your work, General?” I asked.

“No. Sergeant-Major Seymour asked me if he could. All I had asked him to do was to formally dismiss the parade. We couldn’t have it done by a Bishop. A Bishop can’t issue an order to a military parade.”

The Bishop joined the group of Anglican priests and walked away towards the church. The General, Elaine and I went to the waiting car. As Vincent drove us to the Assembly Rooms the General spoke to me again.

“Sergeant-Major Seymour was right, Arthur. You should be proud of your record in preserving your men.”

“He still regrets the three who died on the day of the Armistice,” Elaine said.

“Three! The British forces lost over eight hundred that day. The Americans lost over three thousand. Three is a tiny number. It happened. There was nothing you could have done, Arthur,” The General said.

“I could have issued an order saying ‘Don’t fire’,” I said.

“And risk yet other court-martial? The war didn’t end until eleven o’clock. Which reminds me. Mrs Thomas? You should have been thanked too. You set up the Regimental Wives in 1914. It has done good work and is still doing it. Other regiments have followed but yours was the first, and from the start it was for all ranks. Some still aren’t. The Army often ignores the impact on women. The war has made so many widows who often suffer alone. Yours don’t. They have support whether their men were killed, injured or are survivors. Some of us notice even if the Army Council doesn’t.”

We arrived at the Assembly Rooms. I turned back to speak to Vincent.

“Take the car home, Vincent. Join us in the Assembly Rooms. I won’t need the car again today. The General will be travelling with the Bishop. You can drink as much as you like. I won’t need you or the car until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Thank you, Major Thomas.”

I walked into the Assembly Rooms with my wife Elaine holding my arm. I knew she was worried that my legs would fail me. She guided me to the side of the room where several of the Regimental Wives were sitting. They had kept chairs for us. I stumbled. Three of the women were the widows of Private Lewis, Private Owen and Lance-Corporal Lester. Those three stood up as we approached. I didn’t know what to expect or what to say.

They didn’t give me an opportunity to say anything. One by one those three women kissed me full on the lips as the other two hugged me fiercely as if they didn’t want to let me go.

Still holding on to me they pushed me to a settee I hadn’t seen. They lowered me to it before sitting one either side of me. Mrs Lester stood behind the settee. The other women stood between me and the people in the Assembly Rooms. My wife Elaine was directly in front of me.

“Arthur,” she said, “the purpose of the Regimental Wives is to support the women of the Regiment and their men. We work to help our men to recover from their wounds and experiences. These three are here for you.”

“For me?” I queried.

“Yes. For you, because you are haunted by the deaths of their husbands. You blame yourself. These three widows don’t. They, like all of us, know you did more than most to preserve their menfolk. You couldn’t save all of them but you did far more than your duty. They want to express their personal thanks and those of the rest of the Regimental Wives. I’ll turn my back.”

Elaine did. Mrs Lester gently pulled my head back into her cleavage. Mrs Owen kissed me until Mrs Lewis pushed her aside. Mrs Owen’s cleavage replaced Mrs Lester’s so the third widow could kiss me too. After several minutes my head was in Mrs Lewis’s cleavage. The other two women had their heads pressed against the sides of my cheeks.

“We’ve said it before, Arthur,” Mrs Lewis said from behind me, “We don’t blame you for our husbands’ deaths. It was war, the terrible war, even if it was the last day. Our hugs and kisses are to tell you what our words don’t seem to have done. We are grateful to you that our husbands survived as long as they did. We are sorry that they died, of course we are, but they died like all those on the War Memorial, fighting for King and Country. We don’t blame you. Our husbands wouldn’t have blamed you. We love you for what you did.”

Elaine turned around and dropped to her knees. She kissed me. I was surrounded by four women who were demonstrating what I needed to know. The ghosts of Private Lewis, Private Owen and Lance-Corporal Lester were raised by my own regrets. These women wanted me to lay those ghosts in the honoured graves where they belong.

It worked. I never had that nightmare again. But those three widows wouldn’t let me forget that they had forgiven me. Whenever I met any of them I would be hugged in public whether Elaine was by my side or not.

Their action seemed to be infectious. Almost all the Regimental Wives would hug me in the street even if their husband was beside them. It was awkward and embarrassing but the husbands didn’t seem to object. When the wife let me go, the husband would shake my hand.

Laying the ghosts of war was made possible by the love of women.

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