The Hardest-Fought Battle of World War II
By Matthew Parker. Doubleday. 414 pp. $27.50 Those who have been persuaded by Tom Brokaw, Stephen Ambrose, Hollywood screenwriters and other facile popularizers to a romantic, sentimental view of World War II as the "good war" fought by "the greatest generation" are advised to spend a few hours with Matthew Parker's grim depiction of the six-month battle in 1943-44 to gain control of Monte Cassino in central Italy. It is, as Parker says, "an extraordinary story of ordinary soldiers tested to the limits under conditions more typical of the horrors of the First World War," a story of "incompetence, hubris and politics redeemed at dreadful cost by the bravery, sacrifice and humanity of the ordinary soldiers."
Parker's Monte Cassino is a useful curative, or corrective, and it comes at the right moment: the ruffles and flourishes attendant to the 60th anniversary of D-Day, and the dedication of Friedrich St. Florian's ghastly World War II Memorial on the National Mall. The country is awash in self-congratulation and dewy-eyed nostalgia for a war that never was. Certainly World War II was necessary, and the cause for which the Allies fought was just, but there was nothing pretty about it. Its toll in human lives was measured in tens of millions, many or perhaps most of them innocent civilians, and for many of those in uniform it was agony beyond imagination. Early in the battle for Monte Cassino, the eminent photographer Margaret Bourke-White saw a few of these being trucked away from the front:
"I knew from the division emblem they wore on their sleeves that these men had been up in the mountains around Cassino. . . . I thought I had never seen such tired faces. It was more than the stubble of beard that told the story; it was the blank, staring eyes. The men were so tired it was like a living death. They had come from such a depth of weariness that I wondered if they would ever be able quite to make the return to the lives and thoughts they had known."
The objective for which they had been fighting was an ancient monastery south of Rome atop a forbidding mountain surrounded by other mountains and swift rivers. For Allied troops that had invaded southern Italy, "Cassino was the last natural [German] defensive position before Rome, and the fall of Rome would mean the fall of central Italy." Whether approaching Rome from the south was militarily wise was debated then (the Allied commanders were deeply, at times bitterly, divided on this and other issues) and is debated now, but "compromise and indecision" led to that course of action, with dire consequences for just about everyone involved.
To Winston Churchill the Mediterranean was the "soft underbelly of Europe," while the American command was focused on plans to invade Europe from the north. Churchill prevailed. Following the surrender of Italy in the late summer of 1943, the American 5th Army (under the vain, publicity-hungry Gen. Mark Clark) and the British 8th Army (under the capable but bull-headed Gen. Sir Bernard Montgomery) headed north from Naples toward Rome. The expectation was that it would be an easy ride. It turned out to be a nightmare.
The Germans were brilliantly prepared. The Gustav Line, "based on the Rapido and Garigliano Rivers and at Monte Cassino," was formidable: "There had been a large-scale concentration of German troops behind the two rivers, gun pits were being blasted out of solid rock, the banks were being cleared to create fields of fire, and antitank ditches, mines and barbed wire were being readied everywhere. If the lines in front of Cassino would be defended firmly enough, the Gustav Line, it seemed, the Germans intended to hold. All the Allies could do was try to reach this lethal killing field as quickly as possible. Effectively, they were being sucked into a tactical trap."
That they emerged from it victorious was due largely to an immense advantage in manpower and materiel. The multinational Allied force (which included Indian Gurkhas, New Zealanders, Moroccans, Poles and many others along with the Americans and British) was huge, and many of its commanders had no scruples about sending men to certain death. This was especially true of the Americans. While the British were possessed by "a grim determination not to repeat the mistakes and carnage of the First World War, but instead to do everything possible to minimize casualties," the Americans "had had a less traumatic experience" in that conflict, which "led their generals to be far quicker in ordering men forward to the attack, whatever the casualties."
One of those who fought, and whose writings Parker relies on significantly in his account of the battle's early stages, was a 25-year-old British artilleryman, Terence Milligan, who after the war became internationally known by his nickname, Spike; along with Peter Sellers and others, he was a founder of the comedy troupe known as the Goons, forebear of Monty Python's Flying Circus. In January 1944 Milligan wrote in his diary: "I had a terrible foreboding of death. I'd never had it before. We hang around all day. The waiting is the worst part. I oil my Tommy gun, I don't know why, it's already oiled." He also wrote: "God made gentle people as well as strong ones. Alas for the war effort, I was a gentle one."
Milligan became a victim of "battle fatigue," weeping uncontrollably. He was stripped of his lance corporal's rank and sent to a psychiatric hospital. It was a common experience in those terrible six months. Another soldier wrote to his wife: "We sat in holes and trembled. Hicky cracked the day before, now Gordon did. . . he scrambled in head first, crying 'I can't stand it, I can't stand it. My head, my head.' And he clutched his head and wept. I wiped his forehead, neck and ears with a wet handkerchief and sang to him. . . . When, when, when is this insanity going to stop?" Parker writes:
"With hindsight, it is astonishing that even more men did not break down at Cassino. As the fighting grew more static, it was possible for young American psychiatrists to visit the front line for the first time. What they found there amazed them: Nearly all the troops, even those thought to be the strongest in their unit, had most of the symptoms -- the shakes, nightmares, sweats -- they had been treating on the mental wards back at their base hospitals. A psychiatrist sent from Washington visited exhaustion centers around Cassino in early 1944. His report destroyed the idea that it was only the weak or cowardly who broke down. . . . As one much-decorated Canadian veteran warned, 'Persons who are not exposed to the bullets and shells in a slit trench situation or having to advance over open ground against a determined enemy should be very careful of using the words "cowardice," "yellow," and "malingerer." Sooner or later, in these circumstances, we would all break down.' "
The end came on May 18, 1944, when "a tattered white flag was hoisted over what remained of the monastery of Monte Cassino." More than 60,000 Allied and German men were dead, and many thousands of others had been wounded, visibly or otherwise. The destruction of the monastery three months earlier by Allied bombers, Parker writes, had "reverberated around the world as the culmination of the pity, stupidity and barbarism of war." Exactly the same can be said of the battle of Monte Cassino. Parker leaves not a scintilla of doubt about that in this exemplary, heartbreaking book. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.