I never knew my Grandfather for he was killed on active service sometime after the Armistice. I recall my father saying the family had expected him home on leave when the telegram came. That was long before I was born.
Grandmother never spoke of him but his portrait hung on her living room wall. He was a handsome man with bright blue eyes. The portrait along with all grandfather’s personal belongings were destroyed in a house fire. All that was left was a bronze medallion bearing his name and the legend, ‘He died for freedom and honour.’ Now all these years later it occurred to me I ought to discover where he died and his final resting place, but where to start?
I did not know his regiment let alone his service number. A letter to the war office denied his existence. His name wasn’t included on the C.D. listing the fallen. I decided to give up the search and then I began to dream he was calling me. I tried to close my mind against his plaintiff call until surfing the net I felt an urge to post a message. A reply came about a week later - find the birth date - study the census. I tried but apparently he had not been born locally.
Once more I prepared to give up the search but he began calling my name again. I don’t believe in ghosts but the command seemed urgent, ‘Find me!’ The words were delivered as a military command. Worn out by disturbed nights I dozed by the fire. Suddenly I awoke. A shudder ran through me and I was afraid. I wanted to get up but an unseen presence seemed to lock me to the chair. I felt the beads of sweat on my forehead. Somewhere a car back fired or could it have been gunfire?
A name came to mind: Aunt Ethel. I didn’t have an Aunt Ethel. The heat of the fire had given me a headache. I made myself a cup of tea and read until bed time.
Damn Aunt Ethel I said punching my pillow for the umpteenth time as those two words went round and round in my brain. Bleary eyed I rose from my bed in the early morning light. Who on earth was Aunt Ethel?
It was a few days later I remembered Dad telling mother, ‘I stopped off at Aunt Ethel’s. Her arthritis is getting worst.’ One memory came on the heels of another. Aunt Ethel had lived at Ripley.
I had the year of his birth and the names of his parents from Grandma’s marriage certificate. One name was in my favour. Looking for Harry Allen amongst the dead of the first world war might have been a hopeless task except that his father was named Elijah. It was that name that pinpointed my grandfather. Back to the census and there he was. At last I had sufficient information to discover his regiment and service number. Even then it was no simple matter to discover the details of his death but through a chance meeting at a dinner function I had the help of a researcher. At last I held his death certificate in my hand.
‘Accidentally killed (shot by mistake) date of death 29 May 1919.’
No further information save the place of death and the grave number in the war cemetery in Cologne.
No one could tell me who made the mistake, if there was an inquest the records are lost. Oh well, I thought that is that. At least I now know where and when he died. Surely now I would be left in peace. Alas for my hopes the voice began again to call my name and fear again became my bedfellow. Was he calling me to the Lethe River?
I decided to consult my brother. ‘You must visit his grave,’ he said.
‘I can’t fly. I have had an operation on my ear and anyway I have never been further than Calais. It was dreadful, I was sick on the ferry and afterwards I was ill for days.’
My brother had the answer. - the Euro express. He took it upon himself to arrange it all. In the intervening nights there was no room for my Grandfather’s ghost in my dreams. Night after night I was under the ocean with water cascading around me. I felt the train tip, heard the roar of the waves and awoke fighting for breath.
‘I can’t go,’ I told him.
‘The tickets are booked and I am coming with you. There is nothing to be afraid of.’
Nothing to fear? I lived through all the war films featuring torpedoed submarines. I couldn’t go down a cave and now I was committed to going under the sea.
We boarded the Euro train at Waterloo and once on board I swallowed two tablets of paracol. My body tensed as the announcement came, ‘We are now entering the channel tunnel.’
It was utterly weird but for the announcement I would not have known. There was no sensation, nothing different and the journey was far smoother than that on the train from Brussels to Cologne.
At last I stood by my grandfather’s grave. The cemetery was a delightful place of trees and greenery. The headstones gleamed white in the sun. A sense of peace stole over me until my companion destroyed it.
‘He was not alone then?’
I looked at the row of stones, a whole lane bearing the same date. A sudden breeze rustled in the trees. I shuddered as a voice came out of the ether.
‘Were they all shot by mistake?’
Now I wonder whose mistake and whose gun?
There are no such things as ghost I told myself that night as I lay down to sleep.
A masculine voice snorted ‘ha’ and mentally I crossed myself.
Now my sleep is disturbed again. Not one but many voices. I will have no peace until
I discover what happened in Cologne May 1919.