Wednesday, 6 March 2013

At the foot of the Apennine hills

This piece was originally posted way back in 2009 without a prompt and has now found a home in Two Shoes Tuesday for the prompt Sacrifice.

The coach sped along the autostrada. Forty six contented tourists basked in the morning sun. Their tour of Italy was nearly at its end. The drive today would see them back in Rome in the afternoon with just a farewell dinner, a good night's rest and they would go their separate ways again.

What a great tour it had been. Ten days of sights sounds, food and friendship. Each one had a favourite city.

"I loved Venice."

"Oh. No Stresa and the Alps for me."

"Pisa was so spectacular."

"But what about Rome and it's history?"

"The romantic scenery of Capri, you can't beat that."

"Surely the remains at Pompeii?"

And so it went on, everyone's senses had been filled; not one disappointed. The attempts at the language, the fabulous food and wine, the irrepressible humour of the guide, what memories they would take back with them.

The coach slowed down and turned off the main road. The guide explained that the group would now pass the monastery of Monte Cassino. He was less buoyant now. He spoke slower. It was as though he something difficult to say.

"It was destroyed in the war by allied bombs and ground attack...the monastery buildings were rebuilt after the war...many thousands of soldiers died on both sides, attacking and defending it.

He looked away for a moment, then went on.

"Perhaps it was not necessary to do this. Cassino...Cassino, it was not so important." He shrugged his shoulders and sat down again.

As the coach approached the towering structure on the apex of the hill, the sun disappeared from view and the sad edifice cast its shadow over the coach. A village was passed, a turning taken and the coach drew up at a lay-by at the foot of some steps.

The passengers emerged into the sunlight again and were invited to view the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, overlooked by the monastery so high above it. The coach party climbed the steps and were greeted by a crisp cut field of blinding white. There in front of them marked by countless rows of identical marble headstones were the many graves of the fallen allied soldiers who gave their lives in order to take the citadel from their enemy. Not far away we were told there were other cemeteries; American, German, Polish, all giving testament to those few weeks of the war.

But these were not some unkempt graveyards of neglect. This place was fresh and clean and alive with trees and flowers and sound of birdsong.

Tourists became mourners and without words being spoken, they separated and walked singly amongst the dead. It was as though the experience was too personal to share. Row upon row of young lives lost; sons of grieving mothers, husbands of stricken wives, fathers of orphaned children.

There they were, captain and corporal, private and padre, all equal in that part of Italy which was now their home.

Lance Corporal William Scott, Dorset Regiment, Aged 21
Private John Hughes, Middlesex Regiment, Aged 19

Captain Reginald Farrow, Royal Ulster Rifles, Aged 27

Pilot Officer James Riddle, Royal Air Force, Aged 25

On and on went the inscriptions, each one a wound to the heart. More than one tear was shed at this frequent inscription:

A soldier known only to God

Once strangers, they were made brothers and sisters as the names were read. Closer too were they to the guide whose own soil had been soaked by these warriors' blood.

In grieving perhaps all now could see the futility of war. If lives have to be lost in causes not of their own making, there could be no better place to rest in that beautiful and awe inspiring cemetery at the foot of the Apennine hills.

(Photo by the author, names invented for privacy)


  1. Beautiful and sad at the same time. we never learn do we?

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  3. This one took my breath away, Old Egg. It became immediately apparent that your story was being told in first person, that you shared this experience. We could feel it in the emotion of your words. A beautifully written tribute to those whose lives were sacrificed in the name of the insanity that is war. I appreciated you sharing it with us very much.

  4. I always love tourist stories.

  5. O.E, this is a special post for me. I don't think I was ever at that cemetery. We did stop at one American cemetery, either near Rome or Florence. Mrs. Jim probably knows but isn't here right now.

    In 1943 Mrs. Jim's brother was shot down in his P-38 while flying over southern Italy in WWII. He parachuted out but died probably before touching down. An Italian priest recovered his dog tag. A little later the germans came by and buried him.

    His body has been brought to New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S, for its final resting place.

  6. Robin, my father served in the Pacific theater and was lucky enough to make it out alive. He felt strongly, and repeated it no matter who disagreed, that all war was pointless. He hated see so many good men die over greed, whether it be Hitler's or America's. This probably won't be a popular comment, but I'd be doing him a disservice if I didn't say that I honor the dead, support the returning troops, and fight like hell to end the current conflicts. Peace, Amy

  7. Living as I do close to the many war cemeteries of Normandy, I understand only too well the emotion behind your excellent piece.