The Battle of Monte Cassino project

July 19, 2018

The Second World War battle at Cassino occurred between December 1943 and May 1944. At times it involved over 30 different nationalities in a struggle that has been likened to Stalingrad in its ferocity.

 

The battleground encompasses three modern regione – Lazio, Campania and Molise (in 1944, the Abruzzi). Cassino and its celebrated monastery, Monte Cassino, are in Lazio. They occupy the footprint of ancient sites – a massive, walled Samnite sanctuary in the case of the monastery, and a small Roman town in the case of Cassino. But the battle was far greater than the town and monastery.

 

The Allies reached the outer reaches of Cassino in December 1943 after the infamous rearguard fight between the Germans and US Rangers in S. Pietro Infine, made famous by John Huston’s remarkably vivid film made for the US Department of Defense. Four huge battles followed in an attempt to puncture the line at Cassino. The first in January 1944 when the Rangers were massacred crossing the Rapido river. The second in February 1944 when the British army attempted an assault through the town and up the monastery hill. The third was facilitated by a rock-cut tank road behind the monastery in March 1944. Finally, in May 1944 the Allies broke through from the sea to the high mountains above Molise, pushing the Germans back past Rome by early June.

 

 

 

The six-month battle encompassed the first Italian (Alpine) assault on the Germans at Monte Lungo (near S. Pietro) partially filmed, the infamous bombing of Monte Cassino in February 1944, the fatal bombing of French troops at Venafro, and the Italian frontal assault on Monte Mare in May 1944.

 

The battlefield includes the museum at Monte Lungo and the accompanying memorial, the “preserved” ruined village of S. Pietro Infine, the many cemeteries including the Polish cemetery at Monte Cassino, the reconstructed abbey of Monte Cassino itself with its archaeology museum and extraordinarily important archive as well as its celebrated murals by Pietro Annigoni, the track cut for the battle of March 1944, and many monuments to executed partisans caught up in the struggle.

 

 

Numerous major personalities were involved in the battles: Alexander, Clark, Freyberg and Montgomery, as well as Kesselring. Numerous war reporters documented the battles including Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White. From this there is a great literature as well as remarkable largely uncatalogued photographic archives.

  1. The project needs to define the battlefield and the vast scope of the cultural resources: from archives to monuments.
     

  2. The project needs to work with local government to leverage the potential impact of presenting the battlefield as a cultural heritage resource (as for example the Battle of Normandy is used as a resource). Currently about a million people visit the Abbey of Monte Cassino and the Polish cemetery, but most of these other elements of the battlefield are unknown. Even the museum at Monte Lungo has low visitorship.

The project needs to involve all disciplines and be as international in scope as the participating forces involved in the battle (ie Americans, British, Italian and Germans, but also French Algerians and Moroccans, as well as Indians and New Zealanders. Sub-projects might include, for example,  the archaeology of the battlefield, the architectural post-war rebirth of these places, the visual narrative of the monuments, the place of the ethnic cemeteries, the extraordinary archives of Capa and Bourke White, the potential for creating trials, bicycle paths, networked villages all connected by the narrative of this huge battle. These are just some of the many aspects inherent in defining and developing an understanding of the huge historical significance of this battle and its aftermath.

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