We took some of the group to Montecassino Abbey, which is just a short drive away from Atina. Mary Gilmour, Gina Polard and her father Enrico Battaglia had not had the opportunity to visit the abbey before.
Saint Benedict of Norcia founded the ancient Monastery of Montecassino in 529 AD and the order of the Benedictines. The Abbey was built on the ancient ruins of a Roman fortification, and became renowned through the ages as a place of great holiness, culture and art.
During World War II Cassino was a stronghold of the German Gustav line and the abbey was almost completely destroyed by the Allied forces who carpet bombed Cassino and the Abbey, the decimation of this holy bastion gave rise to a massive public outcry. After the war the Abbey was eventually rebuilt according to its original design, and brought back to its former glory.
As you enter the Abbey you first come to a peaceful cloister, and standing in the centre of the garden is a bronze statue depicting Saint Benedict as he is dying, being comforted and supported by two of his Benedictine brothers.
In the cloister is a beautiful and colourful mosaic.
This leads on to the Bramante Cloister.
In the centre there is an octagonal well.
The Monastery’s vineyard
Steps lead up to a higher cloistered area and the facade of the grand Basilica, which has three bronze doors.
As we entered the Abbey the monks were singing verpers.
The inside of the Basilica is incredibly ornate and lavishly decorated.
There are wonderful examples of colourful intricate inlaid marble work.
Another Cloister with a fountain.
More than 30,000 soldiers lost their lives at Cassino and many are buried in the relevant British, French, Polish, German and Italian Military Cemeteries. The Polish Cemetery is positioned on a hillside overlooking the Abbey, a footpath leads down to the entrance which is guarded by two stone eagles. 1,052 Polish soldiers are interred here, each grave is marked by a cross and the graves are laid out on a terraced area. Above the terrace is a hedge, clipped and shaped to form a hollow cross. An inscription, which translated from Polish reads:
“We Polish soldiers for our freedom and yours
Have given our souls to God
Our bodies to the soil of Italy
And our hearts to Poland”.
You can read more about Montecassino and Cassino here at my website:
We then headed for the British Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Cassino, here the individual gravestones stand upright in the landscaped grounds which are meticulously tended in memory of the fallen soldiers. Here in this tranquil sanctuary more than 4,200 brave young Commonwealth servicemen now slumber in eternal peace, overlooked by the abbey from aloft.
I always feel so sad and emotional when I visit these cemeteries. We have another such cemetery not far from here, in Minturno with contains yet another 2,049 Commonwealth graves. So many fine young lives lost – and what for I ask? Paul, my husband, said to me – “Imagine seeing instead of gravestones all these soldiers standing up proud in their uniforms, ready to defend their country / commonwealth. How splendid they would have looked.” We must never forget that each one was a wonderful person, courageous, loving, with a family behind them, who would miss them forever. The same applies to all British soldiers who fought for their country so bravely in wars across the world but didn’t make it back home. We must also remember all those injured and maimed.
May they rest in peace but remain in our hearts and prayers.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
From Laurence Binyon’s poem For the Fallen, written in September 1914
All photos by me © Louise Shapcott
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