Deciding to review the Battle of Monte Casino with a World War 2 historian may not be everyone’s way of starting a summer break. It is what I chose to do for three days in the company of a small number of MPs and Peers who take an interest in defence. Understanding the decisions of military commanders and their outcomes is important and as ever, history has much to teach us.
The Battle of Monte Casino broke two cardinal rules of warfare. Don’t fight north to south and do not start a campaign in winter. The allies felt they had no option to break the rules but a heavy price was paid with over 105,000 killed in four campaigns lasting from December 1943 to May 1944.
The Monastery of Monte Casino was built in 529 and held a commanding view over the surrounding countryside. In December 1943 the Germans made an agreement with the Vatican that the monastery would not be occupied by their troops. The allies did not believe such a commanding position would not be used and bombed it several times in February 1944. The Germans then moved into the rubble which gave cover and protection from which to attack the valley below, most effectively with sniper fire.
We talk of coalition war fare a great deal today but we have always fought in coalitions. Divisions from New Zealand, India, Gurkha’s from Nepal, Canadians, Americans, South Africa, France, Morocco, Italy, Poland and the UK fought in the long and bloody battle through bitter cold, snow, driving rain and with virtually no shelter. Some divisions had losses as high as 80%.
There are so many lessons to be learned from this one battle. Talking to an old man who as a small boy had hidden in the caves nearby as the battle raged around them, highlighted the horrors faced by starving civilians. The old man’s village was destroyed as part of the fighting and is now preserved as a memorial to the war and the battle for the monastery.
Descriptions of the fighting conditions are stark. Soldiers unable to move a muscle as they crouched behind inadequate cover for days, for fear of sniper attacks, were sometimes so locked into their positon they had to be stretchered down the mountain as they were unable to stand. They watched as friends who moved died and could offer no help. There was little thought or understanding of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 1945 when armies were dispersed. Regimental and campaign associations were the main sources of help and support as the trauma left many to battle mental and physical ill health for years after peace was declared.
Awareness of the impact of war on civilians and military personnel is growing but sadly individuals still fall though the net. The number of veterans seeking support as the struggle with life as a civilian has grown locally. This weekend Bridgend hosted a Police and community event on Newbridge Fields and there I met with a number of organisations campaigning for greater access to mental health support for veterans.
We have come a long way from the lack of support after Monte Casino but still too many veterans struggle to access the help they need when a crisis hits. Organisations such as Hafal, http://forcesforchange.wales/ Help for Heroes www.helpforheroes.org.uk and Change Step www.changestepwales.co.uk are here locally to help. All three are campaigning raise awareness of the support available to military veterans and those who served in the emergency services.
This seems an apt place to ask readers to think about who they admire and which organisations are making a huge difference in their community. The Welsh Diversity Awards, are an opportunity for individuals to recognise unsung amazing positive role models, community organisations and iconic figures in their communities.
Nominations are now open, in a variety of categories including: Positive Role Model Award, Community Organisation Award, Welsh Cultural Icon Award, Diverse Company of the Year Award, Sports Personality of the Year Award and Lifetime Achiever Award, amongst many others.
I don’t know if Justin Hostettler-Davies is an iconic figure but he terrifies me every year with his latest test of endurance. Justin has been raising money for Motor Neuron Disease for a number of years. Each summer he finds a more gruelling test of stamina and fitness. This year’s challenge to raise awareness of MND was- Stadium2Stadium4MND - a 100km walk from Parc Y Scarlets in Llanelli to Rodney Parade in Newport (via Swansea, Bridgend, Pontypridd and Cardiff). All nonstop through the night. The group of about 60 started at 1pm from Llanelli and finish sometime on the Sunday afternoon in Newport. Locally the determined participnts stopped for 15-20 minutes at about 11pm at Pyle Cross and then about 1.30am at the MacDonald’s outlet in Bridgend before heading off towards Pontypridd. (Please could someone cut the brambles back on the footpath along past Stormy Down)
I'm told that only 7 people survived the entire journey. Justin was there as was Simon Green who pushed his wheel chair through the gruelling 67 miles of the challenge. Well done all of those who took part for both raising awareness and money for MND. I'm told that late into the night a man stopped his car to ask what the event was for and handed over a donation of £50. Well done that man. You can still donate via https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/stadium2stadium4mnd.