The final roll call

The young captain waited silently by the war memorial. He belonged to the ghostly columns of a long dead army, who had passed this way before.

With the black sticky mud from the Broadmeadows Army Camp clinging to their boots and cheering crowds all around them, the battalion had embarked on their great adventure.

In the harbour of Albany, Western Australia, they met up with a convoy of ships from all over Australia and New Zealand. On arrival in Egypt, they camped at Mena, not far from Cairo, and under the gaze of the pyramids, they trained in heat and dust.

Dawn on the 25th April, 1915, saw them less than three miles from shore as they prepared for their date with destiny. The captain was one of the glorious dead. He had survived the mad dash up the steep, scrub covered cliffs of Gallipoli only to be felled when a sniper’s bullet pierced his heart.

In the shadows behind him, the others waited for the last member of the battalion to arrive, so the roll call would be complete. The distant sounds of bagpipes wafted on the air. Giant oaks and poplars guarded this sacred place. The ranks of marches grew thinner year by year, as old warriors joined the ghostly ranks of their long dead comrades.

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This was their final pilgrimage as they waited for the last name on the roll to be called.

The soldiers watching from the shadows were young and fine, the weight of years that had burdened some of them was lifted, as were the hard times of struggling to rebuild a life after war, when people didn’t understand.

The bloody carnage of Lone Pine, Pozieres, where the battalion had been decimated, the mud and horrors of winter on the Somme were shrouded by the mists of time. Limbs torn off, chests and stomachs blown open. Some died quickly, others lingered, calling out to their mothers from no-man’s land, some returned home and became fathers, who in turn gave their sons to yet another war. There were those too who attained fame and riches before they rejoined their comrades in the battalion

A snaking column finally came into view led by mounted infantry. The autumn sun slid out from behind banked up clouds to glisten on campaign medals and to warm the cold limbs of stiff old men. Banners and flags danced and fluttered on the wind, and it took all the strength of the bearers to hold them in place.

Behind the battalion’s colours the lone survivor marched.

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In the flower of his youth Jim Stanton had been tall and lithe as a sapling, and the khaki uniform had suited his reckless good looks. The landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, followed by daring exploits at Lone Pine had won him a bravery award. The poppy strewn fields of France had almost delivered him into the ghostly arms of his waiting comrades, but the time had not yet come for him to rejoin the battalion.

He returned to Australia, one of the conquering heroes, married and had three sons. His eldest boy’s burning plane had plunged into the sea, in a later war that never should have been. Had not the generation watching from the shadows fought a war to end all wars?

The last survivor marched slowly with labouring breath and unsteady gait. He was hunched over, frail and ravaged by age, and even as the spectators clapped him they would have wondered why such an old man would bother marching, when he could have watched it on television in the comfort of his home.

The eternally young of the ghostly battalion waited for the captain to bring their comrade back into the ranks once more.

Old Jim’s breath rasped from his worn out lungs, pain knifed into his chest and his shoulders ached with the strain of struggling to straighten them.

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“Oh, tottery legs don’t let me down now,” he pleaded. “Let’s make a pact. If you get me to the lawn area I won’t ask you to take me up the steps into the shrine forecourt. Heart keep pumping the life blood through my veins for a little longer.”

The family reckoned he was too old, but he had shown them. He almost chuckled but it took all his strength to continue breathing.

Why couldn’t they understand what had driven him. Now Les and Harold were gone, he was the last one left to represent the battalion. At re-unions and marches over the years, the numbers had dwindled until now, there was only him.

He shook his head slightly to clear it of the ringing noises so he could hear the pipers again. They gave him the strength to struggle onward. Not much further now. Victory was close at hand.

He suddenly pictured all those laughing, carefree boys who had given up their youth, and the perfume from the thyme covered ridges of Gallipoli infused his nostrils. If he closed his eyes a little tighter, he could see the poppy strewn fields of France

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Even as the old man stumbled, the young captain stepped forward, reaching out a hand to guide this old warrior to where his comrades were waiting.

A golden haired youth, on a dazzling white steed, sounded the Last Post, and to the sound of muffled drumbeats the battalion marched away.

 

Tomorrow is Remembrance Day….who do you think of on this day? Did this story conjure any memories or thoughts for you? Tell us below.