Apr/May 2004  •   Spotlight

Gas Gangrene

by Vanessa Gebbie

(To all the young soldiers buried at Tyn Cot cemetery.)

The bacteria genus clostridium are rod-shaped and found largely in soil. Among these germs are those that can cause some of the most deadly diseases in man, such as tetanus (clostridium tetani), botulism (clostridium botulinum), and gas gangrene, the deadly killer of wounded soldiers in the trench warfare of the first world war.

It's a sick joke, looking back. You people think gas gangrene was some sort of bloating, a passing blackening of the lungs, a momentary seizing up, that it went as the clouds dispersed. You have no idea. No effing idea. You go to your medicine cabinets, your little Tupperware boxes of aspirin, supply of little pink plasters, tubes of Germolene, white bandages nicely sealed and sterilized, some new American beauty of a panacea—ointment for burns, cuts, anything—sachets of Dioralyte in case some poor baby has the trots for a while. You sit back and watch telly while your kids are sick, knowing, maybe not consciously, but KNOWING that there's a hospital, a doctor, an effing BRAIN at the end of a teensy telephone call if things turn out bad.

Gas gangrene.

The double of the double whammy you talk about nowadays. Little soldiers in the soil, better than any bloody Germans. Making their way under cover of darkness, damp and cold, under your wraps, into a sore place. So easy matey, blowing it up better than any mines under front lines planted by sappers, miners, tunnelling for days, weeks in the dark.

You know those guys, they came all the way from Wales to tunnel Flanders mud? They dug so quietly, they could hear the voices of the men tunneling the opposite direction—guttural noises through a mud wall. It was a game, a race, to lay the mines quickest. To set the fuses, like those little soldiers marching up your tissues, bloating, huffing and puffing round ankle bones until your feet—my feet—were so swollen your boots split, but you didn't notice until they fell apart and someone shouted, Christ, Earnest, your bloody FOOT, and it wasn‘t a foot, it was something else—slimy, slippery, a substance no one had made a word for.

We were nineteen soldiers. Then we were sixteen, and I cried my guts out. Then twelve, and I shook all day until someone gave me their rum ration. Eleven, and I'd asked him to be my Best Man, if—eight, and it didn't matter. It was a parlour game, Catch as Catch Can, who's effing next, save the tea in the mugs, Skip, I'll be back at bath time. Seven, and he didn't have the decency to die out there, was shot through the head when he stood up for a piss, stayed propped against the wall, holding his willy, just looking a bit surprised.

Nearly ninety years later, and the young men are—what? Eating out, drinking out, head-banging, is that what they still call it? In discos, or clubs, or raves? Disgusting, some of the things they get up to. Don't even know—Passchendaele, The Somme, Ypres? Forget it. Someone said they were teaching them cookery now.

Frank went a bit funny, started shouting for his mum. He was only eighteen, shouting he was scared, wanted to go home, see his brother, and WE shot him. Six.

And you know, I can't remember the other two. But we are three soldiers, all that's left. Been dying for ninety years, mate. Gas gangrene. Can't leave the place. Watch your coachloads gawping at shell holes, watch bored little girls trailing round new museums, watch older men standing (at least heads bowed) under the arch at Ypres, listening to the Last Post, and I can FEEL the guilt, feel the RELIEF—we don't have to go through this, and this, this this and fucking this—and they'll go back on the ferry, the plastic beery ferry, with its orange seats, its kiddies shouting and swearing, young blokes like us bored shitless, reading magazines with pictures that no self respecting man would show to a lady in my day—and I think it's gas gangrene. Not just my foot, my leg, my bloody guts spilling into the mud. It's everywhere.

It's—not what we fought for, mate. That's all.