In 2010 I spoke to the Waverley Waitotara RSA about our trip to Cassino, and the artworks I took with me. As we commemorate ANZAC Day 2020 during lockdown, I’d like to share that talk:
Good morning. Thank you for asking me to speak today. As some of you will know, in 2010 Tony and I travelled to Italy as I was one of 40 New Zealand artists who had works in the Legato exhibition in Cassino Italy. I received generous support from the RSA which I am thankful for.
I took 4 works over, celebrating 4 men. My father, Patea grocer Mansel Barker, otherwise known as Able Seaman Barker. Jack Robinson who served at El Alamein, was a POW, and battled the effects of the desert on his lungs for the rest of his life. Allan McLeod – father of Margaret Prince – who could have been an All Black, but instead came back from Italy an amputee. Roy Lehndorf, who was killed shortly after getting to Italy, leaving behind a pregnant young wife and an 18 year old sister who, as the post girl, had to deliver the telegram to her mother, knowing full well what would be in it.
In 1944 people listened to the news on the BBC, and watched news reels before the movies. Today, images of war are in our living rooms, and on our cell phones, instantly. At the same time, numbers attending ANZAC services are increasing. I worry that as a society, we glamorise death and celebrate war, rather than remembering life and loss. I think of the beautiful, but also wasteful and unnecessary, sea of flowers when HRH the Princess of Wales died, and other instances since, and know that there is nothing beautiful in a sea of bodies in a field.
Cassino was one of the most intense, difficult and costly battles that New Zealand troops were involved in during the Second World War. New Zealand’s casualties at Cassino from February 1 to April 10, 1944, totalled 1,695; 343 killed, 1211 wounded and 42 prisoners of war. Out of 343 New Zealanders killed in action there were a disproportionate number of 28th (Maori) Battalion. In an early attack on the railway in the town, Maori suffered 130 casualties out of the 200 who set out.
So today I want to talk a little about Cassino and Monte Cassino Abbey.
Founded in 529, the Monastery was destroyed by the Longobards in 577, burnt down by the Saracens in 883, and destroyed by an earthquake in 1349. On February 15, 1944 this place of prayer and study, which had become a shelter for hundreds of defenceless citizens, in only 3 hours was reduced to a heap of rubble. Why? Increasingly, some Allied officers felt it was the abbey—and its presumed use as a German artillery observation point—that prevented the breach of the ‘Gustav Line’ and entry to Rome.
I had done some reading before we got to Cassino and could not understand their reasoning but when you see the Abbey it becomes clear; think of the Beehive perched on top of Mt Egmont, affording 360% views. We now know Germans had an agreement with the monks to not use the Abbey for military purposes.
Cassino town also came under fire many times and was completely destroyed. Allied aircraft dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on Cassino, leaving the town so heaped with rubble that tanks could not operate until bulldozers cleared paths for them. For this sacrifice Cassino, which received the honour of Martyr City for peace, is decorated with a Gold Medal for military valour.
The two sides had been stuck in this region for 9 months and the human toll was huge. At the foot of the rebuilt Abbey Montecassino, underneath the flags of the countries of the world, there is graveyard after graveyard. More than 16,000 World War I soldiers and over 107,000 World War II soldiers from 32 nations are buried here. The cemeteries include the Cassino Commonwealth Cemetery which holds 4,265 soldiers. The Italy War Cemetery contains the graves of 975 soldiers and is the only WWII Italian War Cemetery in Italy. The Polish War Cemetery contains the names of more than 1,000 Polish soldiers. It is a truly vast white marble monument that takes up an entire hillside. The inscription reads:
We Polish soldiers,
For our freedom and yours
Have given our souls to God
Our bodies to the soil of Italy
and our hearts to Poland
Who are we missing? Yes, the German soldiers, because their mother’s and father’s cried too. These young men were, like ours, doing what they thought they had to do. They weren’t monstrous mini-Hitlers; they were sons, fiancés, plumbers, farmers, teachers. The German Cemetery at Cassino comprises the graves of 20,027 soldiers.
Someone asked me recently asked me if the war cemeteries are sad. My answer is, mainly, no. I felt personally sad at the incredible loss of life, seeing row after row after row of headstones. But the overarching feeling is one of respect – locals hold these soldiers in high regard, the cemeteries are beautifully cared for and services are held every year commemorating fallen soldiers from all nations. We were fortunate to attend two of these services.
There is also a small RSA memorial stone at Cassino Railway; the locals all know about it and, if they recognise you as Kiwi, take you by the hand and drag you to it, talking the whole way. We got taken there more than once! It’s not as well tended as some, perhaps because there are no headstones associated with it.
The trip had a profound impact on me, and on my art. I have continued to paint the Italian landscape, and to paint works which depict in some way the lives that were touched by WWII. Two of the works which went to Italy have been exhibited here in NZ as well, and newer Italian works have been exhibited in Wellington. Next year, by invitation of the curator, I will have works in Italy for the Legato exhibition which coincides with 70th commemorations.
Bruce Springsteen, in the song War, said “war I despise because it means destruction of innocent lives. War brings tears to thousands of mother’s eyes, when their sons go to fight and lose their lives”. Despising war does not mean lack of respect for lives lost, but it does mean working for peace. Thank you.