Monte Cassino – Ten Armies In Hell
By Peter Caddick-Adams
Preface Publishing – £25.00
Within the parameters of literary military history, it’s very easy to forget humanistic value, decorum and the everyday continuation of normalcy – even if only for a fleeting moment.
I still remember first reading Antony Beevor’s disturbing, yet ultimately superb Stalingrad (1998); the opening lines of which read: ‘’Saturday, 21 June 1941, produced a perfect summer’s morning. Many Berliner’s took the train out to Potsdam to spend the day in the park of Sans Souci. Others went swimming from the beaches of the Wannasee or the Nikolassee. In cafes, the rich repertoire of jokes about Rudolf Hess’s flight to Britain had given way to stories about an imminent invasion of the Soviet Union […].’’
Such words are a reminder of two things. One, humanity still exists – albeit most of the time, very, very far away from the battlefield. Two, when reading about military confrontation, it’s terribly important not to be fundamentally bogged down within just the confrontation itself.
The reader needs to ultimately be aware of the far bigger picture.
The aforementioned historian is well aware of this, as is Peter Caddick-Adams, whose excellent Monte Cassino – Ten Armies In Hell is at times, far more humane than many might otherwise have initially thought. Especially given the hellish terrain, not to mention the longevity, over which ten armies so valiantly fought over a period of months.
As such, one of the many reasons this book is as refreshing and as good as it ultimately is, lies in the fact that the author writes from the premise of both sides. For instance, already in Chapter One (‘Roads To Cassino’), Caddick-Adams writes from that of a German’s viewpoint: ‘’[…] Senger was a practising Christian, who was known never to have subscribed to Nazism, yet managed to reconcile his own beliefs with service to his country as a talented leader and soldier. Senger thought the carnage and destruction wrought by all sides at Cassino mirrored the intensity of the Great War: ‘Wandering along the path across this battlefield to reach a battalion command post reminded me of the Somme in 1916; the same surface all covered by clods or ploughed by shelling, no wall, no tree unhurt, no human being to be seen, but hell ablaze with the crack of explosions and that particular smell in the air of hot iron and newly turned soil […].’’
The optical representation of ‘’no tree unhurt, no human being to be seen,’’ is as vivid and pronounced an image, as is the flipside of opportunism so efficiently utilised by German propaganda. A fine example of which the author so deftly captures in Chapter Six (‘How To Destroy A Monastery’): ‘’Despite their worldwide campaign of sacking and plundering, the Germans wasted no time decrying the Allies as ‘desecrators of European culture,’ while propaganda leaflets describing the Allies ‘War Against Art’ were widely distributed by the War Department of Mussolini’s miniscule republic is Salo. Iris Origo, an Anglo-American writer married to an Italian nobleman in Tuscany, recalled hearing Abbot Diamare’s broadcast […]. It was terribly moving and I can hardly imagine what the Benedictines from the monastery now scattered all over the world must have felt in hearing that quiet, heartfelt account of the end of that source of civilisation – now, after fourteen centuries of religious life, buried for ever.’’
‘’Fourteen centuries of religious life’’ – or any life for that matter – is almost incomprehensible to imagine. Let alone come to terms with.
To be sure, one doesn’t really want to come to terms with such needless human suffering and destruction; although in hindsight, when compared to the vast death toll and terrible destruction the various German armies wrought on Russia, Monte Cassino (and Italy as a whole), intrinsically pales in comparison.
Moreover, as a successful Coalition Campaign, Monte Cassino is surely like no other battle in World War II history. That nine Allied Armies – the troops of Canada, France, Great Britain, India, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, The United States and South Africa – raged against Germany, is, in and of itself, rather remarkable. As is much of the way their collective stories have so perceptively and enthusiastically been captured within these 283 pages (excluding Notes, Bibliography and Index).
Monte Cassino – Ten Armies In Hell is nothing short of a first-class work. Not only will it stand the test of time, it will in years to come, probably rank alongside the excellent work(s) of such writer/historians as Antony Beever and Vasily Grossman.