|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
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.
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?"
To be continued...