Mustard gas for the social media age…

TWO soldiers prop themselves against the muddy wall of a trench. Dawn is just around the corner. They have been told to stand-to in readiness for possible enemy attack.

‘Soon be rum time,’ the first soldier says, shivering.

‘Best bit of the day,’ says his companion.

Their feet stand in slopping mud and there is a terrible smell. The latrine has overflowed into the trench again. All along the line other soldiers stand in readiness or as ready as they’ll ever manage.

‘Sometimes,’ says the first soldier, ‘you forget what life was like – you know, before all this shit.’

‘Aye,’ says his companion, ‘but one day we’ll go back, and even if we don’t make it back, someone will.’

‘Do you think one day people will remember us?’

‘What, you and me?’

‘No – all of us, remember all of us?’

The other soldier starts and swears. ‘One of them rats,’ he says. ‘Big as a cat it was, a muddy horrible cat.’

‘All of what we doing, for King and country and that, it’ll be worth it if they remember us.’

‘Happen. God my head is itching.’

The soldier removes his helmet for a scratch, and his dirty fingers scrabble through his sore scalp. He finds a louse and crushes it between the muddied nails of two fingers.

‘Got the bastard.’

The first soldier smiles at the second. ‘Always a good feeling that. All I hope is that when this is over and men gather to remember us that they learn how to bow properly.’

‘You what?’

Before the second soldier can say anything further, a bullet furrows through his itchy scalp and he drops dead into the mud. His friend screams…

What a lot of fuss and nonsense yesterday about whether or not Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn bowed sufficiently while laying a wreath for Remembrance Sunday. Poisonous stuff – mustard gas for the social media age, a toxic waft of bitchiness.

You surely don’t have to be a supporter of Mr Corybn to think this. I count myself as a puzzled observer, a leftie more or less for ever, yet someone still trying to work out the new Labour leader. But really – this was virulent. And in itself hugely disrespectful.

What better way to honour our war dead than to ruffle through the book of etiquette. Just what is the right degree of back inclination when laying a wreath? My God we can get carried away in this country sometimes. What a gap there was between the importance of this sombre occasion and the spite of those claiming that Mr Corbyn didn’t convey sufficient respect.

Today’s Daily Telegraph really has consulted an etiquette expert, one William Hanson, who says that Mr Corbyn’s “slight tip forward” was not up to the occasion and should have “gone down around 45 degrees from the waist”.

There is a gruesome comedy to such rules, in which there is a correct tilt of the back to mark the millions of men who have died in wars. If you look at photographs of the offending gesture, Jeremy Corbyn looks suitably sombre and his bow is solemn but undemonstrative. What’s wrong with that?

There is something morally queasy anyway about the way that honouring the dead of many wars now takes the shape of a contest to see which of our politicians is the most suitably sombre. Are David Cameron’s florid roast-beef features more fully set in sorrow than the ascetic bearded chops of Jeremy Corbyn?

All of this is like attending the funeral of a loved elderly relative and spending the entire time looking at people’s feet to see who has shown respect by cleaning their shoes  – and in doing so quite forgetting to honour the life of the deceased.

But back to our surviving soldier.

The fresh tears have dried on his face now, along with all the other tears. This soldier lives while his friend has died, even if inside he feels blank and dead.

Getting the last pull of smoke from his cigarette, he tells himself: ‘Perhaps if they ever to assemble to remember us, they should just tell the politicians to stay away. Fair to say that them bastards got us into this mess, ain’t it?’

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