Battlefield archaeology in Italy?

Battlefield archaeology is not an Italian thing. With the exception of the First World War forts in the autonomous region of the Alto Adige, it leaves modern military archaeology to martial countries like France, Great Britain and the USA. Italy has more than enough archaeological sites, churches and palaces. How can it cope with modern archaeology?

Then again, some battlefield archaeology is exceptional as the Alto Adige recognizes in its promotion of First World War forts and trails. Could the same happen at Monte Cassino, a five month conflict encompassing four battles fought over a vast terrain?

Of all the battlefield remains at Monte Cassino, one remarkable piece of archaeology stands out: Cavendish Road.

Cavendish Road

In March 1944 the third battle involved a frontal assault through Cassino town as far as Castle Hill (Rocca Janula) while a road – the Cavendish Road – was cut by engineers around the contours behind the monastery to facilitate an armoured assault. This pincer movement – Operation Dickens - lasted between 15-24 March. Maori tank crews in single file advanced up the steep track. Terrified at first, the German defenders realized the Sherman tanks were without infantry. Boldly, the defenders knocked out the leading tanks, and soon paralyzed a dozen or so in their rear.

Monte Cassino

To find the hiking path today, take the SS 509 to Santa Elia Fiumerapido Sora from the centre of Cassino and after 3 kilometres immediately after crossing a river turn left on the Via Orsala and follow the narrow lane to a sign that marks the beginning of the Cavendish Road. It is a 3-hour round walk to Monte Cassino monastery, clearly flagged the whole way.

The climb is steep and the track has been worn to rubble for the first two kilometres. But the views of the Mainarde mountains to the east are peerless. The path then passes through abandoned fields now colonized by thick, low woodland. Press on because at the far end is memorable piece of archaeology: a Sherman tank transformed into a memorial to the Polish 4th “Scorpio” Armoured Regiment who took the road in May 1944. When I arrived here two local men were metal-detecting around it. Proudly they showed me bits of tank tracks, a bullet and fragments of a radio, ‘small things forgotten’ by the troops who had passed this way.

Sherman tank - Polish Scorpio regiment

Beyond is a farm where today the monastery makes its own beer. Here, too, are the still formidable remains of the monastery of Santa Maria dell Albaneta. Founded in the 10th century, it was essentially an overspill monastery for Monte Cassino at its apogee. Young Benedictines like Thomas Aquinas were first initiated in this serene spot. Abandoned American trucks from the battle occupy where its cloister once was. The path is now a road, graced with stone memorials to the Poles. Fittingly the Cavendish Road trail terminates at the Polish cemetery in the shadow of the gleaming monastery.

The tank in 1944

Today the cemetery is closed. Two dogs wantonly abandoned by their owners scavenge for food, and groups of young men tee off drones. It is a discomforting encounter after following in the footsteps of heroes whose engineering is a minor marvel. But Italy, while it prizes the past, enjoys the present and, just possibly, battlefield archaeology, especially of recent times, brings back bitter memories best left to foreigners to explore.

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