A hush descended upon the group as we alighted from the bus on a sunny, warm Italian summer’s day. The quiet immediately grabs you. The utter tranquility. You are enveloped by an overwhelming sense of sadness and reverent silence. Sorrowful echoes of the past are felt in the warm breezes that touch your cheek…
As ANZAC day draws near, I wanted to remember our visit to the Cassino War Cemetery, during our journey from Sorrento to Assisi.
The Cassino War Cemetery is a war grave cemetery in the commune of Cassino, Province of Frosinone, 139 kilometres south-east of Rome.
Cassino War Cemetery is the burial site for thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who died during the Italian Campaign in World War Two. Also on the site stands a memorial to those soldiers whose graves are not known.
The Cassino War Cemetery is the second largest Second World War Cemetery in Italy, with over 4200 Commonwealth graves belonging to Australian, New Zealand and Canadian troops. The site was originally chosen for use as a war cemetery in January 1944. It was unable to be used, however, until the fighting in the region had subsided.
The Battle of Monte Cassino was part of the Italian Campaign, which saw Allied landings in Italy in September 1943, followed by rapid progress through the south of the country. Strong German fortifications, known as the Gustav Line, soon blocked the Allied advance.
To progress, the Allies undertook fresh landings at Anzio in January 1944 but again progress proved difficult. After several costly assaults, the town of Cassino – which saw some of the fiercest fighting – was eventually captured and the defences breached.
The Monte Cassino War Cemetery and Memorial remembers the Commonwealth servicemen who died in this costly battle.
When visiting the site, close your eyes and try to imagine the scene of carnage and devastation that would have existed as the Battle of Monte Cassino raged. Sounds of gun-fire, blood-shed and terror are now replaced by birds chirping and the wind whispering gently in the trees. It was sobering to remember that the calm, blue sky above, while peaceful today, had borne witness to some horrendous sights seventy years earlier. The Battle of Monte Cassino saw some of the most ferocious fighting of the Italian Campaign.
Most those buried in the war cemetery died in the four major battles during several months. The inscriptions on the grave-stones showed that most of the fallen were far too young to have lost their life that way. As is indeed the case with all war graves. The sense of tragedy and waste of life is immense as you gaze upon headstone after headstone of servicemen who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The cemetery is immaculately maintained yet the sense of loss is crushing as you see the rows of headstones continuing on as far as the eye can see.
Each one of these graves holds a life cut way too short. Each one of these grave-stones tells the story of someone killed in the prime of their life. Each grave-stone embodies the grief of a mother, father, wife, child, sibling or friend at home who said farewell to someone at a train station or as they sailed away on a ship. They never saw them again and their loved one now lies for all eternity in a foreign land.
I thought of the moving tribute to the ANZACS killed at Gallipoli, which appears at Gallipoli and is also inscribed on the Kemal Ataruk Memorial, Anzac Parade, Canberra.
It says, “… You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
As a mother myself, it was impossible to stop the chill that ran down my spine as I watched my own sons wandering through this sacred site. I made my own silent plea that they never have to face anything like this.
Almost as if the silent voices from the past decided we had stayed long enough, an eerie darkness developed and dark clouds rolled down from atop the hill where the Abbey is perched. Large drops plunked down on us as we dashed to the safety of the bus. Perhaps not rain but tears of thousands of poor brave souls, forever at rest and never to return home. We made for a solemn and respectful group as we continued our journey through the Italian country-side.
It was a deeply moving experience to come here and I wish everyone could come and be affected by the futility of the place. There are stark lessons to be learned and remembered about the horrendousness of war. I only hope that some sense and peace can prevail in the world today as humanity faces enormous struggles with terrorism and even worse, with the frightening prospect of a few mad-men with their fingers on a ‘button’.
Let history teach us to look for a better way. Let the world try to learn from the mistakes of the past so we can move on into the future with peace and prosperity.
As the dark clouds of terrorism and continuing world un-rest gather, the wise words of Albert Einstein should be remembered.
Lest We Forget.
Visit to Cassino War Cemetery and Memeorial took place on Tuesday, July 8th, 2014.
Written by Esther Colavecchio.