No Man's Land
A Ghost Story of World War One
by Anne McCosker,
written in the mid - 90s.
Taken from SOMETHING OVER THERE, a collection of ghost stories.
The body lay on a narrow bed, a thin blanket covering it. All around was laughter, talk and cheerful singing. The only smoke a puff of cigarette, no sound of murdering guns.
The body was me and I had arrived here unexpectedly, unable to get further away, my mind drugged my flesh bleeding. Lying here I felt no pain, mateship circled me with warmth. And the songs - I knew them, could sing whole stanzas of some, others a line here or there, none were unfamiliar.
Such laughter there was about me as I lay upon that narrow bed unable to move further, such laughter and jollity, and a sense of peace, a calm almost eerie in its rightness. It astonished me after all that has happened.
Surely I had been here before. It was some time ago but had I not heard these songs sung in the same fashion, joined in the chorus, and felt this same sense of relief and release, exultation and satisfaction. Figures bivouacking, young men in uniform sitting about together, talking, joking, playing the fool. Yes, I had seen them before --- somewhere.
Never mind now when it had been. Two figures were shaking hands close beside me. Then some one called a name as another figure was seen coming slowly towards the group around me, his arms stretched out in front of him as if he was blind. He stumbled, fell, and then there he was standing near me his eyes wide open, laughing, young, intensely alive.
I was in some sort of military camp was close to the Front line. But there was no barbed wire, no mud. And no stretcher bearers passing as they carried the wounded and dying away. Everything was relaxed and merry.
“Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.” I was singing, with the others.
All about me as if across a great plain, in the distance, close at hand, figures were moving. Slowly, silently, some figures were coming towards me, others moving away. Towards me, away from me, they moved, towards other groups, away from other groups. None were hurrying. All appeared to know exactly where they were going. Like well trained dancers on some grand opera house stage seen from the ‘gods’, the gallery, they went their way. A disciplined army choreographed and trained by some master.
A tall form just below the ridge near my bivouac was the man acting as sentry. He was standing a little from the others. He turned to these men called out something, turned back, waved his arm. I think he called a name or perhaps it was a number. A figure was coming slowly towards us from somewhere or other. He drew level with the sentry, tossed his slouched hat into the air. Men jumped up, some cheered. The new arrival moved into the centre of the group and shouted. Such a shout of joy, my heart raced as I lay there on that narrow bed.
This chap threw his arms around one soldier, slapped another on the back, shook another’s hand. Room was made for him amongst several sitting on the remains of a field gun. Only one man of the battery had survived that gun’s destruction. Now they were reunited. The newcomer settled comfortably amongst them and was soon deep in conversation.
Scenes such as this were being repeated all over that great plain. It must certainly be a very big camp. There were dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of small groups scattered about as far as I could see. At each place men, mostly young men sat, talked, laughed, cracked jokes.
Every man was relaxed, intoxicated with happiness.
Perhaps I was dreaming, or delirious. Or dead? If this was death it was great fun. I was not really part of all this celebration though - just an observer. Although I could feel the peace all around me I was not really involved in the action. No one shook my hand or called my name. It was as if I was watching a performance, following the emotions, but not in direct contact with the actors.
Yet I had been here before. When? “It’s a long way to Tipperary, it’s a long way to go”. I cheerfully sang the chorus.
“They must have given you laughing gas” the operation recovery sister said as she wheeled me into the ward. I grinned.
It was a hot afternoon, the ward silent, dreaming in the sun. I was lying on a narrow bed with a thin blanket covering me, happy, no terrible headaches, my limbs free, my mind clear. Opposite my bed was an open window. This window gave me a clear view of the ridge marking the start of Salisbury Plain. Over this large area during the years 1914 to 1918 an Imperial army trained young men to kill, be killed, turned them into soldiers - then waved them off to Flanders.
Mirrored in the open window pane, in front of the ridge, was a tall thin form. At first I thought it the sentry on duty still at the camp. It grew though too tall for him, but I had seen that outline before. Then sunlight catching glass gave better sight. Of course - it was the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. I often wondered at it, glorying in spirits able to create such a thing of grace. Who had I been with when I last saw that spire? And when was that?
Salisbury Plain and the mighty cathedral had been landmarks in the lives, often such short lives, of men who had come from all over the Empire to fight in the war to end all wars. Long before I had been born my kin had been among them, my father, and my mother’s brother. My father a survivor, my uncle killed. Yes I knew much about the place called Salisbury Plain.
And now here I was about it once again.
Many villages surrounded Salisbury and it’s Plain, and here soldiers had wandered before they steamed away. And sometimes too they came back again, wounded, blinded, maimed, to receive a little comfort before they steamed away again.
Drifting round my senses I lay now in a silent ward and looked at window images. Surely there was the sentry again calling to his mates. I heard him or some one else, call my name I smiled. Perhaps I had been gassed and somehow it made me laugh not vomit. Many strange, unexpected things happened in war. There was never usually any laughter though when the clouds of gas approached the lines. Death could quickly come to strong bodies. Perhaps I was simply shell shocked or badly wounded. I could not though feel sad. I wanted only to sing lying there on my narrow bed looking at the ridge marking the start of that vast Plain and the familiar outline guarding it.
And then I remembered. I had been in this camp before, this camp where young men waited, carousing around Time. It was when my father died.
Yes Death brought me to this circle of waiting soldiery, my father’s death. I felt his joy amongst them, a young man with his mates, watched him swap tales, shake hands and sing, oh how he sang. He sat and joked here, easy with his comrades from the battle fields of Flanders. I had no part in it, yet for a space in time I had been within their sphere.
He who had not been killed in battle had yet died with them, as they had lived a worldly life in him. Nothing of those years ever left my father. Memory of his mates, battle—place names, dates of every battle, remained alive within him. The young men he‘d seen shattered into fragments round his feet never left him. And he never let himself become part of the surly, mean-spirited world that grew upon their blood. Nothing ever replaced his love for them, the men he fought beside, nothing. They were his youth, his innocence, himself. He came straight here as soon as he was able.
Had my father, every soldier, known about this place? Perhaps some nights when the moon was high and the guns silent over Flanders, recovery parties on fatigues had seen their dead mates sitting, chattering to each other, and spread the word around.... Or perhaps my father one day saw, a figure, helmet and rifle on the ground, leaning about a wooden cross. He knew the figure’s face, the man had died some months ago, blown to bits by a shell. “It’s all right mate” the man had said. We’re waiting here in turns until Time weaves the present into a past, and we’ll all be re-united.”
Yes, I had returned to that bivouac of the slaughtered, been back to No Man’s Land. I had returned to that place where brigade after brigade, regiment upon regiment, battalion, company, platoon, waited in good order, waited for their own. Legion upon legion, they were ghosting out a century, waiting patiently. Here in this place, in No Man’s Land, they all for a time after death, just waited. At first it was only the young soldiers killed in battle, then the wounded dead came. All through the years of peace, death remade civilians into soldiers, and to No Man’s Land they came. Sometimes one, or two or three, sometimes a dozen together, they came. And here they laughed and sang and waited.
“We’ll hang out the washing on the Siegfried line, if the Siegfried line’s still there” I sang to a nurse leaning over my bed.
Movement across the sun, a sentry stamped his feet, turned his head towards the outlined ridge above the plain, looked sharply into nothing, then called back to his mates. “He’s coming now.” Vaguely through the hazy of heat the watchers saw a form crawl carefully beneath the barbed wire. It rolled down the slope, stood up and cheered. “I’m here, I’ve got here!”
The sentry ticked a name off his list, put the crumpled paper in his pocket. All present and correct. No more left now. They were re-united. His duty here would end.
He’d heard some regiments were having a bit of trouble. A few stragglers, one or two very old men lost, confused by drugs from a life full of pain, and there were some so determined to make sure their country never, never forgot about their mates they lived on and on. It was good of course in one way.
Perhaps they might have one last parade, a great army form across the plain, a march in No Man’s Land. Every one would be there, every single soldier stand up and shout his name.
The gaps left through the years by the living would be filled and everything put in order. What a grand day that would be, a march right across No Man’s Land. Then, all of them, could move and march away, leave it neat and clean. Perhaps one or two might remain on duty after the army disappeared as they did after ‘ordinary’ wars, just in case something unnatural happened.
“Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile, what’s the use of worrying it never was worth while.”
Over Salisbury Plain the afternoon slipped by, a peaceful time of dreams - skylarks instead of shrapnel, a field of fragrant flowers, England in high summer, no fighting anywhere.
Yes, I HAD stood in No Man’s Land, hearing dead men sing. And now I watched a window pane alive with images. Young men dressed for battle were waiting by a spire as the setting sun etched every one out of the grave again.
A sigh near me. I turned to see a face, a face I once knew very well lean in towards me. My great aunt, wearing her red Australian army nursing cape, must be doing the rounds tonight. Did she not work in a field hospital behind the lines in Flanders? She sighed again then slowly drew the curtains round my bed.
© Anne McCosker, 1996.
This story arose from an experience of mine after a minor operation under general anaesthetic in Salisbury Hospital in 1993, and an earlier one that followed my father's (Gunner Stan McCosker) death in 1971.
Has this great company now departed after the death of the last trench Tommy in 2009, or are a few men on guard still watching, waiting?