Over the years I’ve seen a fair number of TV programmes either dedicated to the fighting at Monte Cassino in 1944 or giving a good amount of time to the fearsome battle and the tragic, self-defeating destruction of the ancient Abbey. (In brief – the Abbey was not being used by the Germans; the Allies though it was; they destroyed it; then the Germans made good use of the ruins.)
Some have been better than others. All, however, have been missing something which did not strike me until my own recent visit.
Here is the view I had from my hotel window:
Despite my amateur photography, several things are immediately clear.
Looking up at the hill you realise just how high up the restored Abbey is and how it completely dominated the landscape.
Second, you can see the extremely steep slope up from the bottom right to the ruin on the smaller hill in front of Monte Cassino (Castle Hill). It was up this slope that a remarkably difficult yet successful attack was made. Again, looking at the geography makes the reality of what the battle was about much clearer.
Now look over to the hillock protruding on the left (Hangman’s Hill). One of the planned attacks was to switch troops from Castle Hill on the right, marching them across the face of the main Monte Cassino slopes over to Hangman’s Hill on the left, so that they could then subsequently make a frontal attack on the Abbey up the less steep final slopes from it to the summit. Again, seeing the ground makes what was done that much clearer.
It would be tough enough doing that walk today, in daylight. Imagine trying to do it at night, weighed down by military equipment and under heavy fire from the top of slope across which you have to make your way diagonally. Brave, foolhardy even, difficult. Pick your words. Whatever they are, seeing the steepness and difficulty of the climb brings what was done to life.
And yet, and yet… I’ve never seen footage of the modern hill used to illustrate those documentaries. You can just imagine the presenter scrambling up the steeps slopes or trying part of that diagonal traverse in the style of many similar documentaries which see historians clambering around in fields. Imagine is all you can do, at least for those I’ve seen.
Which makes me think that, having seen at first hand how appropriately photogenic the scene is, the only reason it is left out from those documentaries is that all of them were made by teams who never set foot in Italy.
Perhaps that does not matter too much if it is only now I start to suspect that; more likely the example of the view from my hotel room shows the dangers of making documentaries from afar.