FORTY-SIX Southland soldiers are buried at Cassino in Italy, but they are not forgotten.
In 2004, Southland photojournalist Maree Frewen-Wilks joined 69 2nd NZEF veterans as they returned to Italy for the 60th commemorations of the Battle of Monte Cassino.
The result, 13 years later, is the self-published book Return to Monte Cassino, which documents their pilgrimage.
Also included is a historical perspective written by Matthew Wright, archival photos from 1943-1945 from Southland veterans, in particular Frank Bulling and Warren Warburton, photographs which were supplied by the family of the official war photographer Henry Caughey, poems, and the profiles, photos and interviews of the 69 veterans from throughout New Zealand, 11 of whom were from Southland, who returned to Cassino.
The four assaults which made up the Battle of Monte Cassino were some of the most costly during World War 2, resulting in 55,000 Allied casualties and an estimated 20,000 Germans who were killed or wounded. Also known as the Battle for Rome, the Allies wanted to break through the “Winter Line” in Italy, held by the German and Italian forces, to reach Rome, according to Wikipedia.
The distinctive, historic abbey on the mount, which was founded in 529AD, overlooked the town of Cassino and the entrances to the Liri and Rapido valleys. It had been in a protected historic zone and was thought to be unoccupied by the Germans. However, there were doubts by the Allied commanders, and as a result American bombers dropped 1400 tons of high explosives on the abbey and surrounding area. Unfortunately the raid failed to achieve its objective to displace the Germans as German paratroopers occupied the rubble and defensive positions were set up among the ruins.
The Germans were eventually driven out from their positions, but the cost in human life was high.
Ms Frewen-Wilks said she had applied to go on the commemorative tour after hearing fellow Southlander Ann-Maree Thomas on the radio asking for funds to help the veterans go to Cassino for the 60th commemorations of the battle. She was surprised when she found out she had been selected.
“I was chosen because I use black and white film in the true era of the war, and I had also studied Robert Capa, a famous war-time photographer.
“I had 10 days’ notice to go.”
On each of the 15 days away, she took photos of almost everything – including ceremonial and private moments – she said. “It was my daily dairy.”
Ms Frewen-Wilks said the sojourn “was an extremely emotionally draining trip” which let her see the veterans’ journey through her camera lens – it was something she would never forget… the raw emotion.
“I am grateful to the veterans for allowing me a glimpse into their past when once they were young.”
While touring with the veterans, she said many asked her for copies of the photographs she was taking, which is where the idea of a book began.
She had also been asked to put together an exhibition for the Southland Museum & Art Gallery, which also toured around New Zealand for eight years, then at Cassino for the 70th commemorations in 2014.
The book also lists the New Zealand casualties, courtesy of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, in the Cassino War Cemetery.
“Our contingent went to each grave and said the ode to every Southlander, all 46, and placed a Spirit of Southland flag on each grave,” she said.