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Three Cheers for the British Sergeant

I was reminded recently about the shambles at the NATO press centre in Skopje when the media rushed to get their accreditation of the 1999 “invasion” of Kosovo from neighbouring Macedonia (or as the Greeks insist it must be known The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
The press centre was in a hotel and the conference room, or maybe it was the main dining room, was packed with the “cream” of the war zone reporting set. The public school accents and designer khakis, along with the designer Australian boots, were a dead give-away (OK, slight exaggeration but there were more of those kind of war tourists than I expected). I’d just hitched a ride into Macedonia with the last reinforcement flight for the Canadian contingent and was amongst the last people to arrive at the press centre. The line-up was long, very long, and never seemed to move forward. Eventually, I realised that everyone that arrived after me was going into the queue ahead of me. I seriously doubt that they’d all had to leave the line earlier to make an emergency dash to the toilet.
The queue only started to move when a British sergeant with a thick Brummie accent climbed up on a table and announced that he would break the “f-n legs” of the next person to skip into the line. Two hours of not moving an inch forward suddenly became a 20 minute advance to the accreditation desk. I don’t think the sergeant had anything to gain by putting an end to the nonsense, he was just a decent bloke from the English Midlands.
When people talk about the loss of the cream of Britain’s manhood in the First World War, they are often thinking of the private-school boys who died before they could become leading artists, poets, engineers or lawyers. But the fact is that the British Army had an almost inexhaustible supply of public school boys to make into officers. What the British Army really needed and couldn’t find enough of were experienced Non Commissioned Officers to train and lead the citizen volunteers of 1914-16.  We are frequently reminded of the short life expectancy of an infantry officer on the Western Front. But when did you last read of how long a sergeant could expect to survive?All too often the ordinary bloke is marginalised in popular memory thanks to a vocal and well-connected minority who are allowed to set our historical agenda. It’s not enough to be on the winning side to get to write the history. History is written by the winners amongst the winners.


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