Monte Cassino: The Story of the Hardest-fought Battle of World War Two by Matthew Parker
Reviewed by Michele Boglioni and Monica Malpezzi Price
Michele picked up this book on the High Andes ExpeditionPlus! from Expeditioner Bob from Scotland. On long tours the tradition is to pass any finished reading materials to someone in the group so hopefully everyone can get by with bringing just one book. Fought in Italy, this book offers a very accurate portrayal and description of the facts surrounding the most important battle of World War II, recounting the daily life of soldiers through first person sources such as interviews and diaries of British, American and German soldiers. This is not a tale told by generals but by the foot soldiers that lived in the trenches.
A prerequisite to reading this account is an interest in history, including the gruesome details of a war….. Monte Cassino, in south-central Italy, just south of Rome, was the site of the most violent battle in World War II as Italy (before switching sides) and its allies the Nazis tried to hold off an attack on Rome by land. Monte Cassino was home to an important historical monument, the Monastery of Monte Cassino so the Allies initially attempted to gain hold without using heavy artillery which would damage the Monastery. This didn’t last long as the Monte Cassino valley was the only land access to Rome, so was a crucial if the Allies were to have a chance of occupying Italy. In the end just about every structure in the valley was destroyed.
The “hardest-fought” battle, as the title explains, was so hard due to mistakes by leaders on both sides (especially General Clark whose vanity often impeded his ability to make tactical decisions), internal discord between the Allies about invading Italy and bombing historical monuments, difficulty in using heavy artillery such as tanks due to unfavorable terrain, adverse weather conditions and the occasional excellent strategic move by each side which trumped the other. By reading this book, you’re taught the small tricks that a World War II soldier had to learn to survive in impossibly difficult conditions—digging the deepest foxhole, piling extra stones around you and never, ever, raising your head up too far above the ground. The book is a chronological detail of the Monte Cassino battle which relies on first person accounts, as well as historical texts such as army maps and photographs. We enjoyed the (mostly) impartial view of the author and that the book is told in the first person narrative. While the Germans were stationary in the valley, the Allies were marching and moving northward. The book recounts the difficult living conditions and lauds the military prowess of each side. Parker is masterful at making the reader visualize the details (and horrors) of the Second World War.
We have often had tour participants come on tour whose parents or grandparents fought in Italy during the Second World War; one woman on a recent Venice to Pisa tour told us her father fought in the Monte Cassino battle. The memory of battles and wars from WWII are a vital part of Western Europe’s current state so it is important to consider books like Parker’s that painstakingly detail historical events.