Thursday, 28 December 2017

VISITING MONTE CASSINO WITH THE SCOTTISH & NORTH IRISH YEOMANRY - AUGUST 2017

Sikhs in battle in Second World War

One of the first things I have to do before I can create believable characters is to familiarise myself with the world of my story - what the landscape looks like; how things look, smell, feel, sound taste; how people dress and behave, and what their beliefs and attitudes are. Because we are all shaped by  the world we inhabit, by our cultures, our families, and by social attitudes.

So after my first trip to Italy in early July, which familiarised me with the geography and landscape and allowed me to meet Italians and get a sense of the culture, I needed to understand more about the military side of things in order to understand what shapes a soldier. In searching the internet for leads to particular regiments and where they fought, I stumbled across a posting by Sue Hughes about her father who was a British officer with the 3/8 Punjabis. She in turn recommended cassinobattlefields. co.uk, run by retired Lt-Col. Frank de Planta. Frank told me he was taking a group of thirty-five soldiers from a Scottish armoured regiment to Monte Cassino and asked if I would like to join them. Somewhat apprehensively, I agreed.

Frank de Planta in June 2016 explaining the II (PO)
Corps attack on Point 593. Photograph: Guy Stone
I arrived at Rome airport and met Frank and a group of fit young men and women, accompanied by  a few older officers. My apprehensions evaporated as the older officers immediately welcomed me. It took a little longer to break the ice with the soldiers, who, understandably, came from different places in Scotland and Northern Ireland and were more comfortable in their own tightly knit groups. One of the things that became apparent to me quite quickly is the loyalty that is built up within a group of soldiers who have been in combat together. Nevertheless, many of them went out of their way to talk to me and make me feel included.

The tour was arranged like a military operation. Breakfast was at 7.30 every morning and by eight we were out in the coach, being taken to different places and talked through the military planning, its implementation and then how it played out in reality, aided by an impressive pack handed out to each of us, containing maps, battle plans, photographs taken at the time, lists of equipment, and other useful information.

One of the things that became clear early in the tour is how much battles are influenced, not just by the practicalities, but by the political manoeuvring of the various nations involved, by the personal egos of the higher ranks, by miscalculation and outright stupidity (Frank's language became very colourful at these points) and how the price for all these things is paid for with the lives and suffering of the soldiers on the ground. Hearing about this in the presence of soldiers who have been in Afghanistan and Iraq, seeing them nod in recognition, and realising that they have few illusions about war, made me wonder more than ever what motivates people to join the army, but this was a question I didn't feel able to ask. What I did see clearly, and the reason why I think I write about war, is the remarkable ability of people to subsume themselves in the cause of something greater than themselves, and the extraordinary intimacy fostered by facing danger together.

But there is also the human cost of it. At dinner one evening I was sitting next to a soldier who seemed one of the most relaxed and friendly around me, and the conversation led to him telling me about a time in Afghanistan when a friend of his was shot in the neck. "I was trying to find the exit wound, but I just couldn't find it. I was covered in blood and so was he, and I was panicking. In the end I said to him that if he wasn't in a huge amount of pain it must just be a flesh wound. But when I got back to the base I did this." He pulled up the leg of his shorts and pointed to his knee and showed me a smiley face that he had made with a cigarette, "... because sometimes you just have to have a laugh, don't you?"

View of rebuilt Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino from the Polish Cemetery


To be continued...

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