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History dissertation project: The Battle for Monte Cassino

As part of my final year Undergrad Degree I am currently undertaking the dreaded dissertation, and for my project I have been looking at the effect of troop morale on the battle of Monte Casssino. For this I have had to listen in great depth to numbers of one to one interviews. The battle for Monte Cassino took place in a four month period from January 1944 to April 1944, and was broken down into 4 main attacks. It was critical in the war for Italy, as it was seen as the last obstacle on the road to Rome and liberation. ‘Mountain Cassino’ was a large mountain which overlooked a wide valley covered with harsh muddy rivers and flood plains.  On top of the mountain was an ancient Monastery which had been occupied by monks for hundreds of years, but the position made it one of key military objective in the area as it commanded such a panoramic viewing post. It made up part of the Gustav line, which was the Germans last and strongest defensive position; it stretched 100 miles from coast to coast of Italy, meaning that it made it very difficult to outmanoeuvre the enemy.  Being that Italy is so narrow and has a spine of high mountains, which made any sort of flanking movements impossible. This is why the battle holds such significance and it is ideal for looking at troop morale, this battle meant that enemies had to take each other on face to face and as a consequence reached a stalemate much the same as the battle of World War One with casualty numbers which also were similar. There was great debate as to whether or not the campaign should have been started at all in the first place, Britain and in particular Winston Churchill saw that an attack through Italy could have made it possible to enter ‘fortress Europe’ up through Austria and into Germany. However the Americans were less reluctant as they could foresee a difficulty in terrain and manoeuvrability of troops all of the way to Germany, seeing that the Italian and Austrian Alps lay in the path to Germany. It was decided however that the benefits of opening up this front would mean that troops would have to be diverted giving the Russians much need assistance and also provided the possibility of a landing in northern France as the lines would be thin. For this reason the Italian campaign became somewhat of a backwater to many and as a consequence the men fighting there became known as the ‘d-day dodgers’. As many in Britain and America thought that this was not an important mission, one MP in the house of commons even suggested that those in Italy were “somewhat having a paid holiday”. This however could not have been further from the truth. The conditions in Italy and in particular in the Battle of Monte Cassino could not have been worse, Italy was suffering one of its worst ever winters and conditions meant that soldiers were constantly cold, wet and hungry. This is where it is critical to look at troop morale, the key question being was that if they knew that they had gained a reputation as being ‘d-day dodgers’, how might have this affected their ability and desire to fight  for a cause they were not being appreciated for? For the moment I have found no mention of the soldiers knowing during the fighting, as it was very difficult for them to gain an understanding as to what opinion was like back in England and it was not until they got home that they realised this. It could be crucial however if any troops had known and so this is where I really need to focus research. There is however a wealth of information surrounding how they felt about the conditions and also the style of fighting which meant that this was possibly one of the hardest fought battles of World War Two. 

 

In accordance with our current lecture I felt it neccessary to add some images, this image shows how the monastery overlooked the area. This was taken shortly after the bombing raid which destroyed the building but in fact made it easier to defend as it became a maze of walls and jagged rocks providing perfect cover.

Here is a more recent picture from the polish war cemetary, after the rebuilding of the religious building.

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