Pilgrimage to Cassino

This article appeared in the April 1986 The Battalion Remembers II booklet.       

PILGRIMAGE TO CASSINO by HENARE TE UA - son of Sgt Whiu Te Purei "C" Coy

It took a little over two hours for the superb express train carrying my friend and me, to reach Cassino from Rome. The journey south is in itself a lesson in geography and history. We pass areas of intensive horticulture - sunflowers, corn, beet and the ubiquitous vine, vying for attention with age-old villages nestled among low hills. We see an ancient Roman aqueduct, parts of it crumbling, but still retaining an ancient majesty. The train stops briefly at small stations each boasting neatly kept gardens.

We eventually reach Cassino railway station, the scene of bitter battle as the allies advanced north during 1944. New Zealand forces played a key role here. The railway lines are crossed by wooden ramps at rail level. In the station forecourt a cluster of taxis wait for business.

Our taxi driver can't speak English, nor we, Italian. However, he soon understands our wish to be taken the two kilometres to the war cemetery. He does this and promises to return later in the afternoon to take us to the Abbey of Monte Cassino on its nearby commanding mountain, which 44 years ago, was the centre of the Battle of Cassino.

Before leaving New Zealand the War Graves' section of the Department of Internal Affairs supplied me with plans of the cemetery and details of the branch of the Commonwealth forces and nationality of the 4,265 men buried there. Almost 10% are New Zealanders. They lie beside Canadians, South Africans, Australians, Nepalese, Indians and Britons. Amongst them is a lone Russian, two war correspondents (one British, the other Australian) and one sailor from the Royal Navy.

Each grave is marked with a white marble memorial stone carrying appropriate inscriptions. In the centre of the cemetery is the Cassino Memorial which is in the form of a towering plinth and radiating from this on two sides are 12 enormous slab sided black marble memorials on which are inscribed the names of the Regiments and those who served in them during the battles in southern Italy and who have no known grave.

So, I had more than a broad idea of what to expect. What I didn't expect and caused me to wonder whether I was at the right place, was the sheer beauty of the cemetery. Shade from large oak trees shelters many of the graves. The grass berms appear to be manicured and would be the envy of the most fastidious lawn fancier. Hedges on three sides of the perimeter are neatly trimmed.

But the most stunning impact for me, are the flowers. The memorial stones in each row are joined together by a metre-wide cultivated strip in which is a profusion of flowers. Roses, dahlias, flowering oxalis, to name a few. And blending with this beauty, are rural sounds. A hen cackles the arrival of a new egg. A rooster crows and another answers. Birds sing. Cicadas buzz somnolently.  I hear the chimes of the monastery bell and the distant klaxon-type hoot of a train. This is no stark, somber, spooky place. Death's presence has been softened, has almost been made friendly.

I find the plots of our New Zealanders and am saddened by their youthfulness. The youngest is 18, the oldest in his mid 30s, but the majority are in the early 20s. Each memorial stone carries a regimental number and name. Under these is an inscribed cross in which is the fern and the words, "New Zealand". Men from the New Zealand Infantry Regiment, the Armoured Corps, the Machine Gun Battalion, the Artillery and Engineers. Troopers and sappers, lieutenants and sergeants, privates and corporals, Maori and Pakeha.

Eight memorials are poignantly inscribed, "A soldier of the 1939-1945 war. Known unto God." In front of some of these I place a poppy. But I soon run out of the meager supply which I brought with me. There are poppies already in front of many memorials.

I find one particular grave and memorial which for me, has very special significance. My tears well up as I pay my respects to my father.

Many families in New Zealand have asked me to look for the graves of loves ones and I do this, paying their respects and photographing the memorial stones.

There is a small roofed shelter on one side of the cemetery. In here are the Cemetery Registers and Visitors' book. Each of these books is well thumbed but not defaced or torn. There is no graffiti and no vandalism. I notice names of people from Gore, Opotiki, Fielding, Ngaruawahia and Auckland in the visitors' book.

Almost three hours have slipped by quickly and I'm conscious of the taxi returning soon. I stroll again among the New Zealanders, spreading an air of home among them.

Near the cemetery entrance, a group of Italian youths lie on the grass playing chess. Two young lovers, arms entwined and giggling, pass by. I murmur a prayer and leave the living with the dead.

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