Evacuating Monte Cassino, 1944

From The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Volume Two of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2007), Kindle pp. 398-399:

THE holy road up Monte Cassino made seven hairpin turns, each sharper than the one before. Hillside tombs and a Roman amphitheater stood below the first bend, along with remnants of Augustan prosperity from the ancient market town called Casinum….

Rounding the last bend, fifteen hundred feet above the valley floor, the great abbey abruptly loomed on the pinnacle, trapezoidal and majestic, seven acres of Travertino stone with a façade twice as long as that of Buckingham Palace. On this acropolis, in an abandoned Roman tower, a wandering hermit named Benedict had arrived in A.D. 529. Born into a patrician family, the young cleric had fled licentious Rome, avoiding a poisoned chalice offered by rival monks and settling on this rocky knob with a desire only “to be agreeable to the Lord.” Benedict’s Rule gave form to Western monasticism by stressing piety, humility, and the gleaming “armor of obedience.” Black-robed Benedictines not only spread the Gospel to flatland pagans, but also helped preserve Western culture through the crepuscular centuries ahead. It was said that Benedict died raising his arms to heaven in the spring of 547, entering paradise “on a bright street strewn with carpets.” His bones and those of his twin sister, St. Scholastica, slept in a crypt hewn from his mountain eyrie. Over the span of fifteen centuries, the abbey had been demolished repeatedly—by Lombards, Saracens, earthquakes, and, in 1799, Napoleonic scoundrels—but it was always rebuilt in keeping with the motto “Succisa Virescit”: “Struck down, it comes to new life.” After a visit to Monte Cassino, the poet Longfellow described the abbey as a place “where this world and the next world were at strife.”

Never more than in February 1944. The town below had first been bombed on September 10, and within weeks more than a thousand refugees sheltered in the abbey with seventy monks. “To befoul the abbey,” complained the abbot, Dom Gregorio Diamare, “was a poor way of showing gratitude.” As the war drew nearer and wells ran dry, most civilians decamped for the hills or cities in the north. An Austrian lieutenant colonel, Julius Schlegel, who before the war had been an art historian and librarian, persuaded Diamarea to remove the abbey’s art treasures for safekeeping. Throughout the late fall Wehrmacht trucks rolled up Highway 6 to the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, hauling treasures in packing cases cobbled together from wood found in an abandoned factory. The swag was breathtaking: Leonardo’s Leda; vases and sculptures from ancient Pompeii; eighty thousand volumes and scrolls, including writings by Horace, Ovid, Virgil, and Seneca; oblong metal boxes containing manuscripts by Keats and Shelley; oils by Titian, Raphael, and Tintoretto; priestly vestments and sacramental vessels made by master goldsmiths; even the remains of Desiderius of Bertharius, murdered by Saracens in the eighth century. An immense thirteenth-century Sienese cross was “so large that it could only be carried diagonally across a lorry.” The major bones of Benedict and Scholastica remained in their monastery crypt, but silk-clad reliquaries holding mortal fragments of the saints also went to Rome after a special blessing by the abbot. Two monks rode with every truck to keep the Germans honest; even so, fifteen crates went missing and later turned up in the Hermann Göring Division headquarters outside Berlin.

As the evacuation concluded, Monte Cassino on Hitler’s orders became the linchpin of the Gustav Line. Kesselring in mid-December promised the Catholic hierarchy that no German soldier would enter the abbey, and an exclusion zone was traced around the building’s outer walls. But day by day both the town and surrounding slopes became more heavily fortified. A Tenth Army order directed that “allein das Gebäude auszusparen ist”—only the building itself was to be spared—and Hitler in late December ordered that “the best reserves must stand on the mountain massif. In no circumstances may this be lost.”

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Filed under art, Britain, education, France, Germany, Italy, military, religion, U.S., war

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