Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Destination Life: Monte Cassino

PHS Editor Michelle Styles explores St Benedict's Abbey.

There are times when things happen and you are suddenly aware of how small the world is. For me, a thread of my life has been with various Benedictine monks appearing. Most recently at a dinner party where the monk in question turn out not only to have stayed at the school where my brother went, but also happened to know the mad Irishman who danced the River-dance for my family when we were in Istanbul. The Benedictines are known for their hospitality and for their love of life and so it has been with every Benedictine monk I've met.

The rule of St Benedict can be traced back to the abbey at Monte Cassino in the early 500s. And it is from the adherence to this rule that the modern Order of St Benedict has sprung. Monte Cassino is one of the few remaining territorial abbeys of the Catholic church. It is from here that the Western tradition of monasteries and convents springs.
St Benedict is the patron saint of Europe as well as students, and it is perhaps ironic (Or fitting in a strange way) that his abbey was destroyed during one of the bloodiest battles in Italy during WW2.

The battle for Monte Cassino was long and bloody and started in mid January 1944. It ended in May 1944 with a Pyrrhic victory for the Allies. Unfortunately, on 17 February, the Allies bombed the Abbey in the mistaken belief that the Germans were using it for cover. For many years, the American in particular tried to justify their stance. In fact such was the inaccuracies of their bombs, they nearly killed US General Clark. At the time of the bombing, the abbey was only occupied by civilians who had fled the fighting, thinking they would be safe in the church.

Several days after the bombing laid waste to the abbey, the Germans did occupy the ruined abbey and the battle to take the area was made that much more difficult. Many regiments lost half their strength in a effort to take the ruins. The battle became one of the more gruesome of the entire war. But it was necessary in order to control supply lines and to push on towards Rome. Without Allied control of Monte Cassino, it would not have been possible to take the Italian Pennisula.

The Battle for Monte Cassino means many things to many different countries. One of the first things you notice when you arrive at the abbey is the gigantic Polish war cemetery. The Poles were the first to raise their flag over the ruined abbey and end the battle. For Poland, Monte Cassino became a symbol of hope but they lost over 200 officers and over 4,000 men. Estimates of the total number of men lost or wounded in the battles number over 130,000. The action paved the way for the liberation of Rome on 4 June 1944, 2 days before the Normandy landings.

Thankfully two German commanders has had the foresight to transfer all the archives including the Keats-Shelley collection to the Vatican in November 1943. They move about 100 trucks of precious books, manuscripts and other religious artifacts.. Thus important and priceless historical documentation survived. Unlike in other areas, no German war crimes were committed.

In 1969, the US government finally removed all references to German occupation of the abbey.
After the war, it was restored back to its former glory at the request of the pope. Monte Cassino was reconsecrated in 1964.

The abbey is now lovely and peaceful (or rather as peaceful as a place can be when it is full of schoolchildren and tourists!) but the graves of the war dead can easily be seen from the windows of the abbey. But within the abbey, it is as it always has been. And it feels right. Germany played a large part in the restoration of the abbey. However, until I went there, I didn't really understand its significance in the development of Western religion and barely understood the immense sacrifice it took to win the battles.

A little ways away in Cassino is the large British Commonwealth Military cemetery. It is heart breaking to see the massive amount of graves and a special sort of hush hangs over the area. Several of our tour group had come to see specific graves and to lay wreaths. I was impressed to see the various nationalities as well as the different religions that are buried there, including the Canadians, Indians, South Africans, Gurkhas as well as the British. The French- Moroccan cemetery is further down the road. The Americans are at Anzio.

It is so easy to forget what happened. Or to even pass over it in favour of the better know D-day landings, but Monte Cassino played a pivotal part in WW2, as well as in the development of Europe in general.

And now when I think of Monte Cassino, it is not just to remember the terrible Battle but also to think about the Benedictine monks and the joy that they have given people through out the world. For me like the Poles who fought there, it has become a symbol of hope and renewal. And I thoroughly reccomend making the time to visit if you are ever in Italy.

Michelle Styles's latest US release is An Impulsive Debutante.

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