READER Chris Ruffle has sent this publication a short story for Remembrance Sunday, which is about his great-uncle Fred who was a Kendal man and soldier in World War One. It is titled The Last Casualty. 

Rumours of a ceasefire had been circulating for a while. A ceasefire, more commonly expressed as “When will this bleeding war ever end?”, was a regular topic of conversation whenever two or more soldiers sat around a fire. This time, however, the story seemed to have legs. More urgency. More hope. Fred could see that it had started to affect men’s behaviour. There was greater caution. A more meticulous checking of kit. Have I got my gas mask? A damned nuisance, but yes, just in case…Trenching tool, yes. Helmet secured. Of course, there was a limit to what you could do when, at any moment, death could descend suddenly from the sky. Or a sniper would somehow find you in his sights. All the men were well used to keeping their heads down. And also keeping their hands down when volunteers were requested. Apart from those new to the front. Or the occasional lucky idiot, who thought himself immune to bombs and bullets

Fred was no fresh recruit. He had his long-service medal. He had survived the mud and blood and rain for three years already. But even he found himself thinking more often of home. Of his wife and his son. At 33, he was considered old amongst his team. They called him “Old Timer”, the cheeky bastards. And that was to his face. What they said behind his back was doubtless worse. His work in the slate mine outside Kendal had not been a “protected profession” so he had been amongst the first to be conscripted. He was still only “Gunner Frederick Robinson Blenkharn”. The Royal Field Artillery seemed to appreciate his muscles well enough, but did not like his lip – “insubordination” they called it. Not officer material. So he still hefted shells into “A” Battery’s 18 pounders

Just because he was not in the front trenches didn’t mean that there was any less bloody digging. Counter-battery fire was a constant danger, so the guns were forever being hitched up to the horse teams and dragged to a new position, which would have to be prepared – revetments to be dug and trees cut down. There were less German planes now, but camouflage was still necessary, and took ages to rig up. They still made fun of his accent, but he pulled his weight, and they seemed to appreciate well enough the mint cake in those parcels from home.

It was very early in the day when the news came though. The kettle had barely boiled. The men were still wiping sleep from their eyes, scratching the latest lice bites, and stamping against the cold, when the major told them. The cease fire would start at 11 o’clock. The reaction was not what he expected. Yes, there was the normal skeptical exclamations of “Really?”. Afterall, the sounds of war continued. It was perhaps slightly quieter than normal, but Fred had put that down to the weather – it was, once more, absolutely pissing it down. But there was no celebration. No hurrahs. Instead a kind of collective sigh went round the group, as they cradled mugs of tea or used it to dunk that morning’s hard tack. Like someone who has been sucking in his belly then lets it go, a collective exhaustion suddenly was let show. The youngest recruit asked the question on everyone’s lips “So, when can we go home, Sir?”

“Not so fast, Stevenson” said the major, wiping a drip from his moustache. “There are still millions of Huns dug in front of us” An explosion sounded. ”As you can hear. I am sure our lords and masters will still have uses for the Royal Field Artillery yet. But, if I was you, I’d start practicing your German.” “Vurst is sausage” confided Stevenson to his neighbour.

“Thank you for that valuable contribution” said the Major, turning on his heel, and leaving the dug out, vainly pulling down his cap against the downpour. To break the silence that followed someone said “Well, that’s it then. Blighty for us.”

Fred thought of his brother, Tommy. Actually he was a step brother. His widowed mother had remarried; Thomas was one of her new husband’s first family. But he had seemed a nice chap, friendly and funny. Much younger, unattached, which is probably why he had been swept up in the enthusiasm of the war’s start and gone off with his mates to volunteer for the Border Regiment. His photograph in uniform stood proudly on the mantlepiece. Some pointed remarks had been made about patriotism before the full horror of what was happening became evident despite the carefully censored letters from the front, and before Fred himself had got rounded up to serve king and country. Tommy had not made it. Killed at Gallipoli. Well, his body had never been found, so the official wording was “Missing in action”. So his step-father clung on to the hope that Tommy was somehow a prisoner of the Turks, though eye-witness accounts left precious little for this hope to cling onto.

Despite the dire predictions of the battery’s pessimists, the cease-fire did go into effect and did hold. Not that the optimists gained much succor from the dreary advance across old battlefields towards the Rhine. The battery advanced along water-logged roads through destroyed towns wrecked further by the retreating Germans. There were no cheering crowds to throw flowers at their liberators. There was still little to eat and, with the first morning frost, the team’s spavined horse looked even more skeletal. In the 251st Brigade to which his team was attached, many men were now down with an illness which some wit had called “Spanish Flu”.

Fred found time to write back to his mother, whose latest letter had been filled with excitement at the war’s end and all that it promised. He explained that his Brigade were being sent to occupy Cologne, one of three bridgeheads across the Rhine under the terms of the surrender. He was not sure when he would be demobilized, but hoped that it would be soon. Surely, if there was any delay, he would be able to get some over-due leave and, with Beatrice and Keith, he would be able to eat that roast goose dinner she had promised in her last letter. Maybe his leave would coincide with Christmas. Perhaps she could help him think of suitable presents for his son. Keith had doubtless grown up so much whilst he was away, he was not sure what he would like now.

Fred laid down his pen, coughed and wiped his nose. Perhaps an early night would help him to shake off this cold. 

My great uncle, Gunner Frederick Robinson Blenkharn, died on 21 st November 1918, just 10 days after the Armistice was signed. He is buried in Cologne’s Southern cemetery. Private Thomas Blenkharn is commemorated on the Hellas Memorial in Gallipoli.