William Earl, of Feversham Close, Shoreham Beach, retold his experiences to his neighbour, writer Liz Coward, of Falcon Close, over a period of eight years.
Mrs Coward has compiled his recollections into a book titled ‘Blood and Bandages’ – an extract of which is published below.
Born in 1915, Mr Earl was training to be a chemist’s assistant at Boots in London when he was called up to join the Royal Army Medical Corps, aged 25.
Leaving his wife, Mary, and their three-month-old son David in England, he served on the battlefields of North Africa and Europe for three years, recovering wounded soldiers from the front line and carrying back the dead.
Mr Earl said: “People think being in medical is an easy job.
“But we were in the field with the frontline.
“It was very dangerous work that we had to do under extreme circumstances. A lot of my comrades were killed.”
As a medical man- he said his job was never to fight or kill but only to help the injured soldiers.
“The paradox was that we helped them to get back on their feet only to send them back again to be injured or killed,” he said.
Returning home from Italy in 1945, Mr Earl said it took ‘quite a long time to adapt’.
“Thousands and thousands of husbands and boyfriends were killed.
“Those of us who came back, we wanted to pick up where we had left off, but it was a new world.
“I had a wife, I had a boy who looked at me like I was a stranger,” he said.
Mr Earl was demobbed in 1946 and a decade later his family moved to Shoreham, where he became involved in voluntary work, setting up the Shoreham Camera Club, becoming treasurer and then chairman of the Shoreham Community Centre, chairing the Horticultural Society and the Mario Lanzo society.
He said he did not speak about the war much for many years.
“War was a part of my life I didn’t want to think about.
“I never considered myself an army man – I always considered myself a civilian,” he said.
But when he met Mrs Coward, who was very interested in his story, he agreed to talk about his memories.
He hoped that the book preserving his stories would be ‘like a memorial’ to all his comrades who died.
Admitting it had been ‘very emotional’ at times, he said Mrs Coward had done ‘a wonderful job’, adding: “Liz somehow got the memories out of me.
“They were hidden away in my heart and she found those stories.”
He was ‘sorry in a way’ that the book was finished, adding: “I saw terrifying scenes, but it did revive my memory of some of the happier times.
“We weren’t fighting everyday. There were moments where one could enjoy life to a certain extent.
“There were some funny incidents along the line.”
Ahead of Remembrance Sunday, Mr Earl said: “I would like to say that I hope young people will always remember Armistice Day.
“Generations today must never forget that they owe their lives to my comrades that didn’t come back.
“They gave the coming generations peace and freedom.”
On his plans for Sunday, he said: “I will think of my old buddies – some who were killed, some who were taken prisoner – just remember.
“That is what everybody should do.”
Extract from ‘Blood and Bandages: Fighting for life in the RAMC Field Ambulance 1940-1946’ by William Earl and Liz Coward
All I wanted to do was live the life that I wanted. I was in love with Mary and was desperate to start my life with her, but first I had to get through my training, North Africa, Italy and Frank’s capture. That took six years.
I thought I’d struck it lucky when I got my call-up papers. I’d been ordered to join a field ambulance in the Royal Army Medical Corps. I thought I’d be a male nurse and pick people up and carry them about on a stretcher.
Had I known what a field ambulance actually did, I’d have been terribly upset. It was just like being in the infantry but without a rifle.
I reported to Euston railway station on 2nd July 1940. Mary was determined to see me off and it was very emotional when we parted.
It was just after Dunkirk and the Germans were threatening to invade so we went on active service immediately. I trained during the day and at night I camped in a little tent in the middle of a field watching out for German paratroopers. I was armed with a pickaxe handle and a whistle. It was crazy but funny all at once.
Our training was intense. We had lectures on anatomy, physiology and first aid. We were taught to assess injuries, treat broken limbs and deal with shock. We learned how to collect and evacuate casualties. We had to follow our infantry brigade at short notice so we practised how to assemble and disassemble the dressing stations quickly in both darkness and daylight.
Throughout our training it was drilled into us that we were not there to fight. We were there to save the wounded in accordance with the Geneva Convention, so we were never armed. Our only protection was the Red Cross brassards worn on our forearms.
We were told we were going into action in summer 1941, so Mary and I got married in the November and David was born the following May. I only got to see him twice before we left for overseas. We had no idea where we were headed but while at sea I got to know my comrade, Frank Allen, really well. He was like a brother and we became inseparable.
We joined the Eighth Army on the front line at Enfidaville in April 1943. Additional troops were an obvious target so we were trained to hang back from the reinforcements. For some reason, two of our ambulances got mixed up with the infantry and were caught in a shelling zone and the first man to die was a fellow nursing orderly. That foray into action affected a lot of us.
We realised that we were on our own and if we made the slightest mistake we could be killed instantly. No amount of training could prepare us for that. Enfidaville was a baptism of fire and at the end we thought, ah well, we’re battle-hardened now. We can cope with anything. Then, of course, came Italy.
We were assigned to the Anglo-American Fifth Army and we landed at Salerno just after the first assault troops. We had no stretchers or dressing stations, just our own first aid equipment. The moment there was a lull in the fighting we leapt out of our trenches to help the wounded. Some just needed a bit of help to get them up and walking, others had leg wounds and once we applied a tourniquet we’d carried them to safely. Some we couldn’t help at all. It was grim.
After Salerno we advanced towards Naples with an army of bedraggled Italian refugees following behind. I had great sympathy for them and we tried to give them whatever medical help we could. I helped to deliver a baby to an Italian couple hiding in a cave. I shall always treasure that.
As we advanced through the mountains towards the Gustav Line the conditions became inhuman. I caught shingles, made worse by the freezing conditions, and was sent back to hospital. Therefore, I couldn’t join a night mission to rescue some injured men in No Man’s Land.
Frank went out with my replacement and ten other men. None of them returned. I took it very badly indeed and was sent back for a mental rest. I rejoined my unit in time for its unexpected departure to Anzio.
Anzio was terrifying. With the Germans in front and the sea behind, we thought it was another Dunkirk and without Frank, I had no one to help calm my nerves. We lost half our men at Anzio and those of us that survived were never the same again. It was January 1944 but my war was far from finished.
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