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.
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.
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.