Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Part two of the inside story of writing Blood and Bandages - fighting for life in a RAMC Field Ambulance 1940-1946.

I fudged it.
     I couldn't give up scriptwriting. I loved it too much but neither could I ignore my new found obligation. Pragmatism was required, so in my naviety I just added, 'write Bill's book,' to my to-do list.  I determined to give it 100% effort to match that given by those of whom I was writing, notwithstanding my intention to give the same to my scripts. Such impossible goals deserved impossible time frames and I gave myself two years to write a book and an original screenplay. I rolled up my sleeves and instructed my sub-conscious to start on the script while the rest of me worked on the book.
     I had imagined the book in terms of a stone being dropped into a millpond. Bill's story was the stone and each ripple represented context, the closer to the impact, the greater the detail. The first and closest was that of the 214th field ambulance, the next, his sister field ambulance, the next, the Royal Army Medical Corps, then the 56th (London) Division, the Eighth and Fifth Armies and so on with the history of the Second World War being the furthest from the epicentre.
    I wanted to use as much first hand material as possible, so I returned to the National Archives to copy the war diaries of the 167th field ambulance, reports from the 56th (London) Division and any other material which could shed light on Bill's story, however loosely connected. I read out of print books dedicated to the Italian Campaign like, 'The Gothic Line' by Douglas Orgill (1967), 'The Campaign in Italy' by Eric Linklater (1951) and more contemporary ones like, Norman Lewis' 'Naples '44', Matthew Parker's 'Monte Cassino' and Lloyd Clark's 'Anzio.' I constantly renewed Redmond McLaughlin's 'The Royal Army Medical Corps,' and tracked down the wonderful 'RAMC' by Anthony Cotterell (1943/4).  I also began to tackle the big beasts of military history like Max Hastings and the sublime Antony Beevor. I had a voracious appetite for knowledge, most evident in my weekly interviews with Bill.
     Bill was a perfect interviewee. He was bright, thoughtful, honest and generous. He forgave the technical problems with cameras or tape-recorders and my inexperience. Each time I asked him to recount a particuarly horrific event, he took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and answered. The same questions were repeated, not because I was being voyeuristic, but because I was thoughtless. Then I remembered that when I looked out onto the garden I saw the washing line, when Bill looked out, he saw the war.
     One of the events which caused him great distress was the capture of his greatest friend, Frank Allen at Anzio. He described in detail how the Black Cats had landed with the invasion force at Anzio on 22nd January 1944; how they had wasted time building up the bridgehead while the Germans brought in reinforcements and surrounded them; how attempts to breakout had ended in slaughter and how Frank had been captured during a disasterous night mission. It was an oft repeated story but when I checked it against the records I discovered that the Black Cats did not arrive in Anzio until 17th February and Frank had been taken prisoner the previous November. I pieced together the correct version but I couldn't just hand it to Bill to read. I had to tell him face to face that his memory was false. How do you tell a man of 97 years that for the last 50 years or so he's been mistaken? That his subconscious had merged two of his most awful memories into one terrrible event. It took him a while for it to sink in.
      Alongside the research, I was drafting and re-drafting the book. It hit 20 drafts, then 25 and finally 30 before I had set every event in context. It had been a hard graft but I felt confident enough to send it out to two of my most trusted writing buddies for their feedback.  Their response was unanimous; while the book had gained the history, it had lost its heart.
   I was shattered.  As I slowly digested their comments, I realised that I had inadvertently created a second rate history from a first rate story.
     It felt like almost four years of painstaking research, effort and time had been wasted. I was exhausted and wanted to slink into a corner, lick my wounds and chide myself for ever having thought that I could do it.
     I'll tell you what happened next on 10th February in part three of the inside story of Blood and Bandages - fighting for life in a RAMC Field Ambulance 1940 -1946.
     Thanks for dropping by. It's good to be back.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Part one of the inside story of writing Blood and Bandages - fighting for life in the RAMC Field Ambulance 1940-1946

I never meant to write a book.
    In 2009, the year I met William Earl, I was still basking in the glory of graduating from the University of the Arts London with an MA in screenwriting. The MA had awakened a passion for writing original screenplays and within a year of graduating, two of my short films had been made, my first ever play had been performed in Adur Arts Live and I was working with a renowned script editor on a feature film. Life was exciting and I was looking forward to a future in screenwriting.
     I met William on Remembrance Sunday when I popped in to my in-laws to watch the BBC coverage of the commemorations at Whitehall. William was a neighbour for whom they cared and when I arrived, he was reminising about his time in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. As I had featured a war veteran in a previous blog, I identified William as a potential interviewee.
William in 2011 with Tom on Daisy, William's mobility scooter.

     At my request, my in-laws asked William if he wanted to be interviewed for my blog and a  meeting was scheduled for early 2010. 
     When I arrived, William welcomed me into his tidy old fashioned home and while we looked at his unpolished medals he declared, "I'm a D-Day Dodger and I still hate Mark Clark for what he did at Anzio." I didn't expect that and instantly felt that this wasn't going to be a pale interview full of facts but no fizz. For the next hour, William explained that he had been called-up to join the 214th Field Ambulance, 56th (London) Division in 1940 where he'd learnt the trade of a nursing orderly.  His job was to treat, collect and evacuate the wounded from the front line to the medical units further back. He illustrated their positions with pencil drawings and reeled off where he had seen action, North AfricaSalerno, Monte Cassino, Anzio, and the River Po. Even with my scant knowledge of the Second World War, I recognised the names of these major engagements. William was bursting to continue his story when the hour was up so we agreed to meet again.
     In fact, we met many times after that and gradually he told of more intimate and terrifying experiences. I became conscious of the fact that I was hearing a unique story which deserved a wider audience. I told William that I wanted to tell his story, not in a blog, but in a book. He readily agreed, but what he had in mind was a pamphlet which he could give to his friends. I already knew that his story should be set in the context of his field ambulance and the Italian Campaign so I rejected that idea and instead offered to write his memoir with a view to getting it published.  He agreed and I stepped up a gear.
     Firstly, I had to verify the facts. William's army records were requested and checked. They supported William's dates, role and locations. My husband and I clambered into William's loft and recovered the letters he'd sent home from the front, his love poems to his beloved wife Mary and a stash of war photos. It was an enviable collection of first hand evidence upon which I could base the book. Next thing was to delve into the Italian Campaign to check William's account of various events. They fitted. It was coming together and, at that stage, I still felt that I could write William's story while continuing to feed my passion for scriptwriting. That all changed in 2012.
    Contextualising William's story within World War Two had only taken me so far and I needed to move onto the detail to really test the strength and accuracy of his story. Hence, in February 2012, I paid my first visit to the Museum of Military Medicine at Keogh Barracks, Aldershot. There I was shown all the World War Two RAMC training manuals and as I read who did what and where, William's account of his role started to slot into the wider picture. That said, what struck me most was the fact that the manuals seemed to have been written by those who had served in the First World War for references were made to mistakes made in 1914 -18.  Next stop was the National Archives to read the 214th's war diaries. They ran to hundreds of pages and I painstakingly photographed each one.
     When I got home I started reading them. There was so much material that I split it up into periods of three months, cross referencing each month with William's interview notes, his photographs and his letters home. They confirmed William's version of events. More surprisingly, I found myself being drawn into the world of the 214th and I started to care about the men about whom I was reading.

Officers and sergeants of the 214th Field Ambulance (courtesy of William Earl)

     I laughed at the exasperation of the 214th's first commanding officer who attempted to convert the recalcitrant new recruits, William among them, to army life. I sympathised with Private Sherwood who made the heartbreaking decision to leave his badly injured friend, Private Mustoe, and save a lesser injured soldier. I cried when they found Mustoe's body the following day. I felt the desperation of Major Johnson who repeatedly tried to reach a seriously injured officer before a town was surrounded by Germans. I shared the pain of the officers whose Christmas toast was to an infantry unit that had been decimated the previous autumn.
     As I summarised and catalogued each entry, I felt a growing sense of obligation to tell their story as well as William's. However, to do that I would have to gain:-
1.     a much broader understanding of the Second World War in the west
2.     a detailed understanding of the Italian Campaign and the 56th London Division
3.     an expert level of understanding of the operation of a field ambulance, and most painfully of all,
4.    put my beloved scriptwriting on hold, let my industry leads go cold and allow the MA skills, so  diligently honed over two years, atrophy.
   I had boxed myself into a corner and I now had to choose between passion and obligation.
     I'll tell you what I did in my next blog, due out on 27th January.
     Until then, thanks for dropping by and see you soon. It's great to be back.