"Nothing but dust and smoke": 75 years on from Monte Cassino
This blog includes free access to The Maple Leaf (Italy Edition), vol. 1, no. 33 until 15th April 2019.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the third battle of Monte Cassino; the battle which marked the penultimate stage in the Allies‚Äô attempts to break through the German stronghold in the Gustav line and proceed to Rome.
Interested to see how the battle was reported at the time, I found an article in Service Newspapers of World War Two. The front page of ‚ÄėThe Maple Leaf‚Äô from 16th March 1944 declares ‚ÄúCassino is missing‚ÄĚ in its headline; going on to describe how ‚Äúall hell broke loose‚ÄĚ through ‚Äúthe largest concentration of bombs ever dropped on any one spot in the history of aerial warfare‚ÄĚ. The four assaults on Cassino were some of the most costly and hardest fought in the war, with an estimated 55,000 Allied casualties. (This newspaper is available to access for 30 days here.)
It is easy to be swept up in the grand, global narratives of the war. Resources such as the upcoming America in World War Two, however, make it easier to engage with the individuals whose stories and experiences make up the fabric of the headline-grabbing offensives, the smaller, lesser-known battles which enabled great victories. As the great-granddaughter of a soldier who was killed at Calabritto (a small town taken by the Allies as part of the battle for Monte Camino prior to the breakthrough to Cassino) the stories of individuals involved with the events at Cassino resonate with me.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Cassino ‚Äď a place I am honoured to have visited ‚Äď is unique in that many of the graves feature epitaphs with the names of the fallen soldiers' relatives, those left behind. It is a place dominated by the importance of the individual story, not narratives of nationhood.
Interwoven with the lives of these individuals are the stories of several veterans whose collections feature in America in World War Two. The Joseph William Martin collection features many letters written by Martin to his wife, including one which he sent with a newspaper clipping from ‚ÄėThe Stars and Stripes‚Äô which touches on ‚Äúslight gains‚ÄĚ at Cassino, and another from the 22 January 1944 where he writes ‚ÄúI can thank my lucky stars that I am in the air corps [‚Ä¶] You don‚Äôt just play around over here, everything is playing for keeps‚ÄĚ.
Oral histories are another powerful and valuable resource. America in World War Two includes 300 interviews with veterans about their wartime experiences. Dominic DellaVadova of the 133rd Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division, describes his crossing of the infamous Rapido River and their position near the abbey at Monte Cassino. He criticises the Allied decision to bomb the abbey and town, calling it ‚Äúa fiasco [‚Ä¶] the most stupid thing I ever saw‚ÄĚ. DellaVadova‚Äôs reflections on his own experiences, his part in the battle and subsequent campaign northwards feed into decades of historical record and debate, as do the letters, photographs and newspapers which have passed through generations and are now preserved digitally.
Service Newspapers of World War Two is available now.