On 11th November, the BBC broadcast a moving and important documentary called Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War.
It had been commissioned from Wall to Wall Media and told the story of Gary Lineker‘s grandad, Stanley Abbs, who had served as a nursing orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Italy in World War Two (WW2). Abbs, like many other veterans, never shared his wartime experiences. Gary, therefore, embarked on a quest to unearth what his grandad had done. On his way, he met military historians, like expert Peter Caddick-Adams and veterans of the Italian Campaign.
By sheer coincidence, 104 year-old William Earl, hero of Blood and Bandages, had done the same job, at the same time and in the same place as Abbs. Although in different field ambulances, William’s experiences were so similar to those of Abbs, that in March I was approached by Hannah Richards, a producer with Wall to Wall, for permission to use Blood and Bandages in the documentary. As soon as she became aware that William was fit, well and articulate, plans were made for William to appear instead. So, on 14th August, William and I found ourselves at Gatwick Airport at the start of an adventure that would take us to Monte Camino, the Abbey of Montecassino and one of Italy’s WW2 cemeteries.
We had been booked to film for half a day and William, although exhausted from the previous day’s journey, was determined to be at his best. Hence, at 8.00am the following day, Willliam appeared on time, fresh and focussed, ready for the mountain drive to Monte Camino. In 1943, Camino had earned the gruesome nickname Murder Mountain, so high were the Allied losses during the first attempt to subdue this hostile elevation.
Gary had arrived before us, but their meeting was postponed until the start of filming. It started with some light-hearted football banter before it descended into the grim reality of the role of a nursing orderly. A role which forced these compassionate men to make the agonising decision on who should live and who should die on the battlefield.
They talked for hours. William constantly referring Gary to Blood and Bandages to give a fuller explanation of the the expections, endurance and courage required of men like him. So keen was he to share his story, that William dedicated his own copy to Gary. Gary was delighted and moved.
The warmth of their affection was clear and Gary was generous in his admiration of William. After moving from the cafe to a WW2 jeep, our role was done and Gary, Hannah and the film crew returned to the UK leaving William to rest and me to ponder the landscape.
I was surprised by my irrational hostility towards the mountains. I was totally incapable of appreciating their beauty. My minds eye deprived me of sight and in place of lush vegetation, I imagined makeshift wooden crosses everywhere. For me, there was no serenity here. It was a place of unimaginable suffering. No, for me, this valley will forever be bloodstained.
Visiting the manicured Commonwealth War Cemetery at Cassino, just reinforced this view, for there in the distance stood Monte Cassino, untouched and unyeiding whilst those beneath the ground had returned to dust.
William’s feelings were more transparent. He exploded when we mounted the top step and saw countless rows of white headstones. He raged against Hitler, “the madman who had wanted to rule the world and for that 1000s of men had died”. After he calmed down, I left him with his thoughts and wandered haphazardly amongst the graves, shedding tears and, as an ex-pat, pitying those who had died thousands of miles from home in a hostile land, with a hostile climate and surrounded by those they could not understand. While I mourned the loss of a generation, William mourned the loss of his friends.
It was our last stop before returning home from our four day trip to Italy.
We were delighted to have been invited to take part in the documentary and to that emotion was added pride when we saw it.
When I had briefly spoken to Gary, he mentioned that he had a bigger agenda than completing a family history. He wanted to draw attention to the men who had fought in the Italian Campaign. A campaign which had been relegated to a backwater after the Normandy invasion in June 1944 and those who fought in it forever tarnished by the soubriquet, D-Day Dodgers.
When we saw the documentary, we knew that Gary had fulfilled his ambition. He repeatedly extended the scope of the documentary from his family to all the Allies involved. He was their champion and his grandad’s story became their story, and by assocation, their documentary. And it connected with those whose family had served in Italy. Gary had such an overwhelming response to the film on twitter that he set up a separate account just to deal with it. Countless people proudly tweeted photos of family members who, just like Stanley Abbs and William, had been D-Day Dodgers. The Museum of Military Medicine saw a surge in enquiries relating to family members who were involved in the campaign. William was also delighted. Indeed, he tweeted to Gary, “Thank you from the bottom of my heart for, at last, putting the Italian campaign on the map. You’ve done a great service to all the men who fought in Italy. Well done.” I second that most whole-heartedly.
As Christmas is just around the corner, I’d like to wish you a very Happy Christmas and a wonderful 2020 and I hope to see much more of you next year. Thank you for reading this post. Ta-ra for now.