Italy Volume I: The Sangro to Cassino
I: History and Policy
I: History and Policy
‘BERNARDUS valles, colles Benedictus amabat’. Thus the poet celebrated the founders of great religious orders. ‘St. Benedict loved the hills’; and upon the hill of Montecassino, a site already historic, he established about the year 529 not, indeed, his first monastery but that which was destined to become the mother house and model of his order. Here, and for this abbey, he wrote the Rule that first adapted monasticism, an Eastern institution, to the Western mind. In the decay of Roman municipal life, the gradual spread of communities of black-robed Benedictines helped to save the rural west for Christianity, and in the wild Gothic centuries that followed they offered at their uncorrupted best a haven for religion, learning, industry, and the arts of peace. In the direct transmission of ancient culture to the modern world, the order of St. Benedict holds a unique place, both on its own account and as the exemplar of later monastic orders. At Montecassino many masterpieces of classical literature were transcribed and preserved for a grateful posterity, and its archives alone would warrant the abbey's renown.
1 Gerald de Gaury: The Grand Captain, pp. 94–5.
Its buildings arose more splendid, if not more beautiful, from these successive devastations. A young English nobleman, making the Grand Tour in 1779, found the abbey ‘very ugly and only remarkable on account of its immensity’.1 As the buildings stood in 1944, they were, except for a nucleus formed by the traditional cell of the founder, largely modern, dating from the sixteenth century and thereafter. The whole range of buildings, with the chapel and refectory, the library and college, the courts, cloisters and cells, presented a massive front to the outside world. It had, in fact, been converted into a fortress in the early nineteenth century. In particular, the girdling walls would impress the military eye, now as in the past. They were loopholed, unscaleable and of vast dimensions, and they rose sheer from the rock to a height nowhere less than 15 feet.
Ironical though it now seems, Montecassino was first regarded in the Second World War as St. Benedict had regarded it – as a refuge. In December 1942 manuscripts of Keats and Shelley were removed from Rome and deposited there for safe keeping by a member of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Committee; and immediately upon the Salerno landing, 187 cases of art objects were taken there from Naples by order of the Italian Ministry. Later in 1943 the German command ordered the latter deposit, as well as the art treasures and precious manuscripts belonging to the abbey, to be transferred to the Vatican. By accident or design, however, this mission was entrusted to a formation which took its name from a notorious connoisseur – the Hermann Goering Division – and it was only after many vicissitudes, and then not in its entirety, that the consignment reached its destination.2 Thanks to an ingenious deception by the Rector of the State Archives at Montecassino, the manuscripts of the two English poets were returned to Rome by, but without the cognisance of, the Hermann Goering troops and found their way back to the custody of the Keats-Shelley Memorial.
1 Ed. Lord Herbert: Henry, Elizabeth and George, p. 256.
2 Osborne to Foreign Office, 7 November 1943.
3 Osborne to Foreign Office, 11 February 1944. The emphasis is Osborne's.
4 Quoted in message from Combined Chiefs of Staff to General Wilson, 22 January 1944.
5 General Senger in a letter to the author, 11 November 1954; and also in his war diary, p. 80.
Meanwhile, Allied commanders in the field had been ordered to avoid unnecessary damage to works of religious, historical and artistic importance, and on 4 November 1943 AFHQ initiated a list of ‘protected works’, with Castel Gandolfo (the Pope's summer residence in the Alban Hills) and Montecassino Abbey as the first two serials. But it was made quite clear that protective measures must defer to military necessity. The Allied mind was perhaps best represented by the directive which General Eisenhower addressed from AFHQ to all commanders on 29 December, shortly before he left the theatre for the United Kingdom. Since they form a touchstone by which to try much that follows, the first two paragraphs of his directive may be quoted in full:
To-day we are fighting in a country which has contributed a great deal to our cultural inheritance, a country rich in monuments which by their creation helped and now in their old age illustrate the growth of the civilisation which is ours. We are bound to respect those monuments as far as war allows.
If we have to choose between destroying a famous building and sacrificing our own men, then our men's lives count infinitely more and the buildings must go. But the choice is not always so clear-cut as that. In many cases the monuments can be spared without any detriment to operational needs. Nothing can stand against the argument of military necessity. That is an accepted principle. But the phrase ‘military necessity’ is sometimes used where it would be more truthful to speak of military convenience or even of personal convenience. I do not want it to cloak slackness or indifference.
A test of the Allied attitude towards this dilemma occurred early in February, when Allied bombs dropped in and near the papal estate at Castel Gandolfo, causing casualties and damage. The estate lay in an important area of communications for the German forces besieging the Anzio bridgehead. Lieutenant-General Ira C. Eaker, Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, acting on his interpretation of earlier instructions, gave Major-General J. K. Cannon, commanding the Tactical Air Force, freedom to attack papal property when in his own and General Alexander's opinion it was absolutely necessary to do so. Eisenhower's successor as Supreme Allied Commander, Mediterranean, General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, concurred, and both on this occasion and later, when further raids on the papal estate prompted diplomatic complaints, he received the support of the British Foreign Office and the Combined Chiefs of Staff. Though Castel Gandolfo was papal property, and Montecassino Abbey Benedictine, the treatment of the first constituted a valid precedent for the treatment of the second.