British expat LIZ COWARD is now living in Singapore. Here she explains the background to her book, a memoir of love and war set in World War II. Blood and Bandages: Fighting for life in the RAMC Field Ambulance 1940-1946 grew from a chance conversation with William Earl in 2009. You can buy the book through her website.
William was 96 years old and a neighbour of my in-laws in the UK. When I popped in to watch the Remembrance Service with them, William was there, tucked up with a cup of tea and reminiscing about his time in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He’d been a nursing orderly with the 214th Field Ambulance, a unit that followed a brigade into battle to collect, treat and evacuate the wounded, usually under fire. I was intrigued and decided it would make an exciting piece for my blog.
We arranged to meet at his home, where I listened intently for an hour to his account of five years in the Field Ambulance. He spoke with passion about his baptism of fire at Enfidaville, landing at Salerno, the sub-human conditions at Monte Cassino and the terror of Anzio. He casually recounted astonishing acts of bravery and hinted at darker memories.
Recording William’s story
Acutely aware of his age, he was keen to have his story recorded before his memory failed. I was a willing listener, so we arranged to meet weekly – with the occasional shopping trip and lunch thrown in. Each time we met, he surprised me with the detail and clarity with which he recounted events of almost 70 years earlier. It soon became apparent that I was being trusted with a unique story, delivered by a compelling witness. Of course, it ticked the boxes for a cracking blog but what I was hearing yearned for a wider audience. That’s when I promised William I’d tell his story. With that, I had accidentally fallen into writing a war memoir.
For the next six years, I filmed William, continued the interviews, devoured military histories, and visited the National Archives and RAMC Museum. As I constantly re-drafted the text, I realised I faced two major problems: how to balance context and memoir, and how to weave in the love story between William and his beloved wife Mary. It was exhausting and I eventually lost confidence in my ability to finish.
I broke the deadlock by seeking a professional assessment of my manuscript to identify its strengths and weaknesses. Encouraged by their report, I made one final push. In April 2016, armed with a complete chapter, and plenty of passion and determination, I attended the London Book Fair. I left with a book deal and a punishing deadline. What became Blood and Bandages was launched a year later, a month shy of William’s 101st birthday.
Facing the challenge
At times, the challenge of writing the book was overwhelming. It was only my promise to William that kept me going. During the process, I acquired new depths of determination, resilience and confidence, qualities that have helped during our unexpected move to Singapore.
A dream job offer for my husband prompted our recent relocation here. We left England in December 2017 and now live in a black-and-white bungalow on a former RAF camp in Singapore – Seletar.
My challenge now is to bring William’s story to a new audience. He recently featured in this documentary by Gary Lineker – on his Grandad’s time in WWII.
Limited signed copies of the book are available for purchase on lizcoward.com
For more great stories, head to our Living in Singapore section.