‘A miniature Verdun’. ‘The site of the bloodiest battle of WW2 for the Western Allies’. Compared by the German side to their ordeals at Stalingrad.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was an appalling, four-month long bloodbath fought over intractable terrain and in terrible weather in the first few months of 1944 some fifty miles north of Napes. Poor preparations, inadequate Allied generalship, a lack of cover, fierce, well prepared and brave German resistance and the tactical challenge of the pummelled Benedictine monastery, a natural fortress on top of a steep mountain, combined into a grim, attritional slog which claimed the lives of 75,000 and wounded perhaps another 200,000 on both sides. This part of Italy was no ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe in Churchill’s ill chosen words.
Today the monastery and town of Cassino are rebuilt and the fallen lie in military cemeteries around the area. On Monday at the British Cemetery in Cassino, where some 4,000 Commonwealth war dead of many different different faiths lie, I was proud to attend the official UK commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Battle, along with Prince Harry, Ministers, ambassadors, Italian and UK dignitaries, locals and many UK, NZ and many veterans and their families. The Italian campaign has been called a forgotten side show by historians. Monte Cassino was remembered properly this week.
The number of veterans of the Battle itself is naturally decreasing year on year but the ones who made it paid tribute to their mates who did not return home. The cemetery itself is at the foot of the monastery mountain and beautifully kept, a tranquil English garden in a foreign field. Courage, leadership, bravery, reconciliation between nations and the high cost of the peace and freedoms we enjoy today in Europe were spoken of during the ceremony.
The soldiers’ graves, row on row, truly are ‘the greatest preachers of peace’. They have thrown from failing hands the torch of liberty, do we hold it high?