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India's gamble at Monte Cassino


A memorial at the Cemetery.

In a little corner of Italy, far from the tourist trail, lies a small town with an Indian connection. It's a place I'd first heard about a decade ago, and so when I found myself sick of Rome's crowds, I decided to head to Monte Cassino. As the train set off from Roma Termini, I started to piece together everything I'd heard about the place. 

Barely a two-hour train ride from the capital, this town is where scores of Indian troops gave their lives pushing back the Germans in one of the fiercest battles of World War II. I've always been fascinated by history, and of all the times that human endurance and spirit have been tested, it's World War II that stands out. And nothing exemplifies the triumph of human spirit over insurmountable odds better than Indian troops fighting for freedom thousands of miles away from home, in an alien land alongside men who probably regarded them as less than equal.

The train appears empty;there seem to be few heading in this direction. Watching the Italian countryside flash by, my thoughts turn to what it must have been like 60 years ago. It's hard to believe that this gorgeous Italian landscape could have been the scene of death for thousands of young men.

At the Cassino station, I'm the only one who alights. It is a quiet place, and peaceful. Walking into a cafê by the station, I ask for a cappuccino and croissant - my staple breakfast in Italy. The cafê owner, who isn't fluent in English, guesses I'm Indian. A grin and a handshake later, he directs me to the museum. There seems to be a unique warmth in his manner - perhaps a nod towards the sacrifices of my compatriots.

The world may have forgotten the battles of Cassino, but the town hasn't. That's because in the early months of 1944, Cassino was the epicentre of one of the toughest battles of the Second World War. Over a five-month period, as the Germans tried to stem the Allied advance in the north, fierce fighting saw most of the town turned to rubble. It was perhaps the town's misfortune to be placed smack bang on the Gustav Line (the German defensive line that ran from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Adriatic Sea). The battle for Rome was in fact fought here, and by the time peace came there was so much damage that the few surviving buildings had to be torn down and a new town built.

That explains the gridiron layout of post-War Cassino - the American influence is striking, and admittedly, surreal. One doesn't expect a small Italian town to look this way - the Fiats and Alfa Romeos on the regimental streets and amidst art-deco architecture only add to the cognitive dissonance.

I pass a tree-lined avenue, go over a small bridge, and come to a fork in the road;one way will take me to the Commonwealth cemetery where the Indian soldiers are interred. Something however catches my eye. To my right, through the trees, I spy the formidable mountain redoubt of a monastery. Surrounded by towering hills, the rebuilt Benedictine abbey must have stood mute witness to the slaughter that took place 60 years ago.

This was where the Germans were said to have taken refuge. Or that was what the Allied high command feared. A heavy bombardment was ordered and the monastery, origin of the Benedictine order, was destroyed. That decision probably cost the lives of thousands more. For, as was discovered later, the Germans had pledged to the monks that they wouldn't take shelter in the monastery.

The fateful decision to destroy the abbey served only to provide the Germans with shelter. The rubble of the monastery gave fantastic cover to the defenders, allowing them to pick off the advancing Allied troops with ease. In hindsight, the bombing was a tactical blunder that the troops - Indian and others - paid for with their lives.

I forge on. It's a quiet day;the chirping birds and the warm sun beating down on my back are enough to lull me into a semi-trance. I round a corner and come across the Cassino museum. I opt for the tour, and meet my guide - an effervescent Italian woman who's delighted to have an Indian on the premises. As she explains with a hint of gratitude, it was my countrymen who helped free this town;I cannot but help feel a surge of pride. The museum tour leaves me dazed. Audio-visual exhibits, video footage, 3D re-enactments, and war material, all combine to transport me to a cruel world. 

The souvenir shop sells memorabilia from the combatant units. That the war is still not out of the minds of the staff is obvious when my guide tells me how they stock memorabilia from 'even the Germans'. The contemptuous look that crosses her face is evidence that this town still bears the scars of war.

Next, I head towards what I'd really come here for - the Commonwealth Cemetery. Over 4, 000 soldiers, including a thousand Indians, are buried here. The cemetery lies a mile or two away, off a winding road that stretches into some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever seen. Walking inside, I pass by the Stone of Remembrance, the Cross of Sacrifice, and then, the immaculately maintained graves of Commonwealth troops. The Indians are at the back.

Rows upon rows of neat graves line the grounds, the abbey visible through the trees. Going through the names, it's almost painful to see how young some of the soldiers were. Nineteen is no age to die. This is where I'm overcome by a strange mix of sorrow and pride. Pride in my countrymen's sacrifices and courage, and sadness at the young lives lost in a strange land, far from home. What's really uplifting, though, is the way the graves represent India - troopers from all religions, castes, and communities rest in peace here, proof of how the Armed Forces bring us together.

My respects paid to those who gave their lives so that we today could live freely, I head back. A final look over at the monastery up in the hills, and then, back to Rome - the one place that's living proof of how the past stays with us, even if we aren't aware of its presence.

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