My article on the Italian town of Monte Cassino – the site of a famous WWII battle – was published in the Times of India Crest Edition in November 2012.
In a little corner of Italy, far away from the tourist trail, lies a small town with an Indian connection. It’s a place I first heard of a decade ago, and finding myself sick of Rome’s crowds, a visit to Monte Cassino is something I just can’t pass up. As the train sets off from Roma Termini, my thoughts keep coming back to all I’ve heard. Barely a two-hour train ride from the capital, this town is where scores of Indian troops gave their lives pushing back the Germans in one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War.
I’ve always been fascinated by history, and of all the times when human endurance and spirit has been tested, it’s the Second World War that stands out. Not just for the hopelessness and despair that seemed to enshroud our race like a dense fog, but also for remarkable tales of courage and selflessness. And nothing exemplifies this triumph of human spirit over seemingly insurmountable odds more than the Indian troops who fought for freedom thousands of miles away from home. In an alien land, alongside men who, it hurts to say, would have regarded them as less than their equals. Alongside men who professed to defend freedom, as long as the freedom wasn’t for Indians. However, our countrymen came through this dark period with distinction – their showing cementing the Indian soldier’s reputation for gallantry, toughness, and sheer effectiveness.
The train seems empty. There don’t seem to be many people heading in this direction, and watching the Italian countryside flash by, my thoughts turn to what it must have been like 60 years ago. It’s hard to believe that the gorgeous Italian scenery that surrounds us could have been the setting for the deaths of thousands of young men.
At the Cassino station, I’m the only one who gets off. It’s a quiet place indeed. Peaceful. Sleepy. Walking into a café by the station, I ask for what’s become my staple breakfast in Italy: Cappuccino and a croissant. The café owner, who doesn’t speak English all that well, guesses I’m Indian. A grin and a handshake later, he directs me to the museum. There seems to be a unique warmth in his manner – perhaps a certain nod towards the sacrifices my compatriots made helping this beautiful land regain its freedom.
Yes, the world may have forgotten the battles of Cassino, but the town hasn’t. That’s because in the early months of 1944, Cassino was the epicentre of perhaps the hardest-fought battle of the Second World War. Over a nearly five-month period, as the Germans tried to stem the Allied advance to the north, fierce fighting saw most of the town turned into rubble. It was perhaps the town’s misfortune to be placed smack bang on the Gustav Line. The battle for Rome was, in fact, fought here, and by the time peace came, there was so much damage that the few surviving buildings had to be torn down and a new town built. That explains the grid-like layout of post-War Cassino – the American influence is striking, and admittedly, surreal. One doesn’t expect a small Italian town to look this way – the Fiats and Alfa Romeos amidst the grid-like streets and art-deco architecture just add to the cognitive dissonance.
I head past a shady, tree-lined avenue, across a small bridge, and come to the fork in the road that’ll take me to the cemetery. Something catches my eye. Up to my right, through the trees, stands the formidable mountain redoubt of the monastery. Surrounded by towering hills, the rebuilt Benedictine abbey seems like a mute witness to the needless slaughter that took place 60 years ago.
This was where the Germans were said to have taken refuge. Or that’s what the Allied high command feared. A heavy bombardment was ordered and the monastery, origin of the Benedictine order, was destroyed. That decision probably cost the lives of thousands more. For, as was found out later, the Germans had pledged to the monks that they wouldn’t take shelter in the monastery. The fateful decision to destroy the abbey served only to provide the Germans with shelter. The rubble of the monastery gave fantastic cover to the defenders, allowing them to pick off the advancing Allied troops with ease. In hindsight, the bombing was a tactical blunder that the troops – Indian and others – paid for with their lives.
I forge on. It’s a quiet day; the chirping birds and the warm sun beating down on my back are enough to lull me into a semi-trance. I round a corner and come across the Cassino museum. I opt for the tour, and meet my guide – an effervescent Italian woman who’s delighted to have an Indian on the premises. As she explains with a hint of gratitude, it was my countrymen who helped free this town; I cannot but help feel a surge of pride. The museum tour seems to leave me in a complete daze. Audio-visual exhibits, video footage, 3D re-enactments, and war materiel, all combine to transport me to a cruel world.
The souvenir shop sells memorabilia from the combatant units. That the war is still not out of the minds of the staff is obvious when my guide tells me how they stock memorabilia from ‘even the Germans’. The contemptuous look that crosses her face is evidence that this town still bears the scars of war.
Next, I head towards what I’d really come here for – the Commonwealth Cemetery. Over 4,000 soldiers, including a thousand Indians, are buried here. The cemetery lies a mile or two away, off a winding road that stretches into some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever seen. Walking inside, I pass by the Stone of Remembrance, the Cross of Sacrifice, and then, the immaculately maintained graves of Commonwealth troops. The Indians are at the back.
Rows upon rows of neat graves line the grounds, the abbey visible through the trees. Going through the names, it’s almost painful seeing how young some of the soldiers were. Nineteen is no age to die. Never. This is where I’m overcome by a strange mix of sorrow and pride. Pride in my countrymen’s sacrifices and courage, and sadness at the young lives lost in a strange land, far, far away from home. It’s an almost hypnotic mix of emotion that overwhelms me. What’s really uplifting, though, is the way the graves represent India – troopers from all religions, castes, and communities rest in peace here, proof of how the Armed Forces bring us together.
My respects paid to those who gave their lives so that we today could live freely, I head back. A final look over at the monastery up in the hills, and then, back to Rome, the one place that’s living proof of how the past stays with us, even if we aren’t aware of its presence.
Indian units at Monte Cassino
6th Duke of Connaught’s Own Lancers
1st/5th Mahratta Light Infantry
1st/6th Rajputana Rifles
4th/6th Rajputana Rifles
3rd/8th Punjab Regiment
1st/12th Frontier Force Regiment
6th/13th Frontier Force Rifles
3rd/15th Punjab Regiment
4th/16th Punjab Regiment
1st/2nd Gurkha Rifles
1st/5th Gurkha Rifles
1st/7th Gurkha Rifles
1st/9th Gurkha Rifles