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This week, First Person shares readers’ stories about war and remembrance.
On Italy’s Abruzzo coast, the town of Ortona, the site of a Canadian battle in the Second World War, looms forebodingly a couple of hundred feet above its port and train station.
Through the good graces of my hotel, a local driver, Mario, meets me punctually at the train station at 8:30. His rudimentary English and my non-existent Italian make for an interesting introduction.
“My name is Craig.”
“Yes,” he replies. “Daniel Craig.”
I smile: “Yes, James Bond.”
The drive south to Moro River Canadian War Cemetery from the train station is brief, no more than six to seven minutes, but I’m glad I didn’t attempt to walk, for I can tell it’s confusing.
My middle-aged, pony-tailed guide tells me to take as much time as I need. “Grazie, Mario,” I say and with fingers, I indicate no more than 10 to 15 minutes. While he digs out his rolling papers and tobacco, I dig out my iPad.
I have been to dozens of Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemeteries, but Moro River hits me like a hammer blow.
Perhaps it is its remoteness. Perhaps it is the sea of Maple Leafs. Perhaps it’s the ages on the headstones: so many teenagers.
I have to catch myself. I involuntarily gulp and blink several times, not wishing to fall apart in front of my Italian host or the two gardeners who are doing their thing.
“Do you have someone here, a relative, perhaps?” Mario asks. “No,” I reply, “but a great-grandfather, a casualty of the Great War, lies in northern France.”
Perhaps it is my uneasiness about such pilgrimages, a feeling which has intensified over the decades.
There’s something morally complex, to my mind, about vacationing, generally enjoying oneself, as I was and countless others do, yet making solemn diversions, no matter how well-intentioned, to such sites. They are, I would argue, close kin with “dark tourism,” usually associated with visits to places of natural or human-made disaster to witness the spaces of suffering, death and destruction first-hand. Think Pompeii, Auschwitz, Chernobyl, lower Manhattan, Alcatraz, Cambodia’s killing fields.
I console myself with a reminder that I do have academic and family interests in military history.
Yet while I’ve always found CWGC cemeteries remarkably comforting, quiet and grounding places, for reasons that it would likely take a team of psychologists to unpack, on this occasion, the olive groves, the infinite Mediterranean sky and the Adriatic just beyond – an artist’s dream – enhance the melancholy.
These casualties, this cemetery, have become, literally, a part of the ancient landscape they had fought so doggedly and at such cost to help liberate.
Derided by other Allied troops as “D-Day dodgers,” the troops who spearheaded the allied offensives in Italy came to know all too well just how difficult it was to crack German defensive positions, buttressed by veteran troops, demolitions, rugged terrain and booby traps.
One such troop, Lieutenant Farley Mowat, learnt first-hand just how soul-destroying, morale-sapping and bloody the Italian campaign could be. He broke down. His book And No Birds Sang has become synonymous with the toll of Canada’s Italian campaign, both psychological and physical.
A primarily Canadian battle fought in December, 1943, Ortona was one of these nasty, marginal affairs – dubbed “Little Stalingrad” for the ferociousness of its fighting – peripheral in the grand scheme of things – an allied assault on the Bernhard Line – except of course to those involved.
From building to building, room to room, street to street, the Canadians confronted and eventually overcame determined resistance by German paratroopers. By Dec. 28, the town – what was left of it – was in Canadian hands. But at what cost? On top of Canadian and German casualties, over 1,000 Italian civilians are thought to have died.
All cemeteries are history lessons, military cemeteries, especially those cared for by CWGC, even more so, and I spend far longer than the 15 minutes I’d anticipated, snapping multiple images and making mental notes as I walk, row upon row.
Scores of Loyal Edmonton, Royal 22e Régiment, Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment casualties – Mowat’s own unit – amongst others, catch my eye.
Some headstones stand out, like that of a 24-year-old Major, Donald Brain. Just how many 24-year-olds in the Canadian Army achieved such exulted rank at such a young age? I ask myself. Not many, I answer.
Later we drive into town. We visit the medieval fort overlooking the sea first, then he drives to the central piazza. There are flags, a fountain, a statue and a street named in honour of the Canadians who played such an important role in liberating the town.
Feeling rather sheepish, I’m encouraged by Mario to pose for a few images, the nearby café denizens undoubtedly smirking, “Oh, another Canadian.”
In retrospect, I hope they forgave me, and indeed all Canadians who make the pilgrimage. It puts things in perspective. At this time in history, perspective is something we all need.
I offer Mario 40 euros for his efforts; he accepts only 20. Since he can’t stay for a drink, we shake hands.
With a 40-minute wait for my train, I settle on the station café patio with a local beer. It’s a bit early to drink, but it propels me to record my thoughts in words.
While I end up toasting the folks whose graves I’d just visited, I’m loathe to admit the fact for the simple reason that this cavalier mixing of pleasure and commemoration is the very thing that complicates the experience, to my mind, rendering it morally ambiguous.
Back in Rome, mere days before I return to Canada, I exit Piramide Metro stop, and the Pyramid of Cestius, dating from the time of Christ, greets me – so many treasures in Rome, so many thousands of years of history. But that’s not what I’m here for.
Within a short stroll of Piramide is Rome War Cemetery, another CWGC cemetery, which seamlessly negotiates thousands of years of history, while fitting into a chaotic and modern urban environment at the same time. It’s perfect.
And the perfection begins and ends with an inscription above the domed entrance: “These soldiers of the British Commonwealth gave their lives to preserve liberty and by their sacrifice restored the freedom of Italy and the ancient friendship of the Italian and British peoples 1939 1945.”
After Ortona, after Moro River, after a less-than-expected Airbnb, after hearing in the news how, back in Ottawa, protestors disrespected the National War Memorial and grotesquely compared themselves to war veterans – all of this collectively exhausted me. So it was heartening to see those words inscribed for all to read, for as long as there are people who wish to read them.
I write in the registry: “Not forgotten.”
Craig Gibson lives in Thornhill, Ont.