The U.S. War Department had different motives: the historians were to inform the soldiers and the nation as a whole, as well as the high command. Their narratives were to be comprehensive, impartial, and sufficiently authoritative to form an important source for the studies of future historians. In the meantime, short histories of operations, later called the American Forces in Action series, were to be published for the men who took part.
It was soon discovered that the type of history desired could not be written from the archives alone, despite prodigious record keeping. The paperwork of one division for a single week would fill a filing cabinet. The trouble was simply that the records constituted truth in parade dress. “On the actual day of battle,” Gen. Sir Ian Hamilton once reflected, “naked truths may be picked up for the asking; by the following morning they have begun to get into their uniforms.” The messages, intelligence summaries, field orders, operations reports, and all the other records still left huge gaps in the story of the action; they were often meaningless or misleading on the most vital questions. As a result, officers and enlisted historians were assigned to the battlefronts to see for themselves and write the first drafts of history on the spot.
In May 1814, Napoleon had abdicated and was in captivity on the island of Elba. King Louis XVIII was on the French throne, and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Peninsular War that did so much to sap Napoleon’s strength the previous six years, was appointed Great Britain’s ambassador to France.
On a trip from Paris to Brussels on 19 May 1814, the Duke and his staff stopped to water their horses, and maybe have a drink or two, at the small Belgian hamlet of La Haye. To the untrained eye, the fields to the west of La Haye were not dissimilar to any others in Belgium or northeastern France. But to Wellington, they formed a perfect killing ground, and at the expense of his trip, the Duke spent several hours surveying the beautiful defensive terrain.
As they approached from the south, those fields formed a shallow gently rolling valley that gradually rose northward to a small escarpment, not even high enough to be called a ridge. The road from Paris to Brussels passed right over it. To the right near a marshy creek, the ten stout stone buildings of La Haye and the walled farm of Papelotte marked the valley’s eastern edge. On the western edge of the valley about two miles away, was the imposing compound and chateau of Hougamont and another marshy creek. Any attacker from the south would not be able to go around either of these obstacles. They would have to go straight up the valley and over the escarpment. And just off the road directly in the center of the valley was the walled farm of La Haye Sainte. These obstructions stood like three great bastions of a fortress. If they were properly held, troops could poor fire into any body of men that tried to pass by. At least one would need to be taken, preferably two, before any attacker could confidently proceed north to attack a main defensive line just behind these three formidable obstacles.
That main defensive line would normally be just below the crest of the escarpment, but to Wellington’s delight the ground sloped down again to a quaint village whose chimney smoke could just barely be seen from La Haye. On this reverse slope, any defending troops would be shielded from the worst effects of an attacker’s artillery, and moreover, any movement of reserves would be unseen behind the escarpment. Those chimney’s belonged to the thirty or so buildings in the village of Mont-Saint-Jean. So if an army did seize two of the bastions, survive any counterattacks, crest the inter-visibility line, survive the grapeshot from the cannon, survive the point blank fusillade from the waiting troops, and after all that then finally break through the solid wall of bayonets, those nice stout houses of Mont-Saint-Jean would be there to cover the defender’s retreat. Truly magnificent ground.
Instead of continuing, Wellington and his staff decided to dine at the inn in the village and discuss the “wonderfully delightful” defensive terrain they were on. Even though they talked for several more hours, it was still all theoretical: Napoleon was on Elba, and King Louis XVIII would never invade Belgium. After the impromptu training exercise and dinner completed, Wellington realized he was late for his engagement in Brussels and they hastily galloped north.
Two miles up the road was a larger town where his chief of staff originally wanted to halt for a bit that afternoon. As the Duke passed through he noticed its sign; it read, “Waterloo”.
He would have to stop there again sometime.
By the evening of the 17 May 1944 it was clear to Field Marshal Kesselring that the Gustav Line had been irreparably breached. He ordered his troops to fall back to the “Hitler Line” at the far north end of the Liri Valley, where he hoped to replicate the tenacious defense of the Gustav Line.
Despite the terrible pounding they were receiving from the Poles on Pt 593, the Fallschirmjaeger initially refused to leave Monastery Hill, a position they had occupied and defended for five months, in conditions and battle that many veterans compared unfavorably to Stalingrad. They wanted to make the Poles storm the Monastery proper, which they were obviously going to do at dawn on the 18th. However, Gen Senger, their corps commander, would have none of it. He needed them on the Hitler Line.
About midnight on the night of 17/18 May 1944, the Green Devils of the German 1st Fallschirmjaeger Division reluctantly pulled off of Monastery Hill. Some escaped up the Liri Valley, but many were captured by the British or execueted by the Poles of the Kresowa Division.
Both the British and the Poles intercepted Senger’s heated radio transmissions to the Fallschirmjaeger telling them to abandon the monastery. Suspecting a trap, the Poles ordered the 12th Poldolski Lancers, a cavalry outfit that had left their horses and armored cars at the bottom of the mountain, to recce the monastery before they attacked. In the predawn hours of 18 May 1944, the troopers painstakingly infiltrated their way through the wire, minefields and tortured terrain, where they found the Monastery abandoned. Its only occupants were thirty seriously wounded German soldiers.
The lancers raised a make shift regimental pennant over the abbey followed closely behind by a Polish flag. At 10:15 am, the regimental bugler, Cpl. Emil Czech, sounded the Hejnał Mariacki from the Monastery to signal to the entire valley that it was in Polish hands. The Hejnał Mariacki, or Call of St. Mary, is played every day at dawn, noon, and dusk off the city walls of Krakow. It commemorates the sacrifice of a lone polish trumpeter in the 13th century who spotted a Mongol force trying to sneak into the town. From the bell tower of St Mary’s cathedral, he sounded the Hejnał Mariacki to warn the town of the approaching danger. The call cuts off abruptly because the trumpeter was shot in the throat with an arrow.
The trumpet echoed down the valleys and could be heard as far away as the Eighth Army Headquarters. The horrifying German and Soviet propaganda that the Poles were unwilling to fight the Germans in 1939 was finally laid to rest. That afternoon, the Poles made contact with the British advancing up the Liri Valley.
The Germans continued to fight on for Colle Sant’Angelo and Point 575 on the north wall of the Liri Valley for another two days, mostly because the Poles weren’t taking prisoners. But with the fall of the Abbey, their fate was sealed.
The Fourth, and final, Battle of Monte Cassino was over.
By 16 May 1944, the French Expeditionary Corps had broken the Gustav Line in the Aurunci Mountains and outflanked the Germans in the Liri Valley. But what German soldiers could not do, Italian civilians did. The victorious Goumiers sought out every remote mountain village and plundered and abused the “infidels” as they believed they were entitled to as spoils of war. Over the next four days, the Moroccans raped over 7000 men, women, and children ranging in ages from 11 to 86. 800 Italians were murdered. Italy would remember this as the “Marocchinate” or “The Time of the Moroccans”. Though the Germans were confused by the unexpected French delay, they were appreciative, had the French continued, Monte Cassino would have been isolated.
To the French right but far to their rear at the mouth of the Liri Valley, the entire British 78th Infantry Division of the British XIII Corps was across the Rapido and pushing further up the south wall of the valley. One by one, positions systematically fell to the British, Indians, and Canadians as the Germans looked over their shoulders for the French advancing through the mountains behind them. The British were about to do what had almost never been done before in history: proceed up the Liri Valley with Monte Cassino in hostile hands. But that was because the Germans in the Abbey and its surrounding points had more pressing problems than the valley below them; they were clinging to Monastery Hill by the slimmest of margins.
It took two days, under constant fire, for the Polish II Corps to organize the replacements, assign them to the assault battalions, and clear assault lanes through the Fallschirmjaegers’ newly placed minefields. But on the night of 16 May, the Carpathian Division conclusively overran Pt 593 and the expected German counterattacks were defeated. In the after action review Polish junior officers and NCOs credited its capture to their quadruple issue of grenades. Moreover, the Kresowa Division broke through to the Liri Valley from Monte Cairo north of Monte Cassino, where Juin would have broken through in January had Clark supported him. The Germans on the Monastery Hill were not surrounded, but only just so.
When the sun rose of the 17th, the Poles, like the Benedictine monks before them, began to make the monastery defenders’ lives a living hell from Pt 593.
In 1215, King John of England (the Sheriff of Nottingham’s evil boss in Robin Hood) was forced to sign the Magna Carta after his defeat in the First Baron’s War. The Barons revolted due to King John’s autocratic and tyrannical ways, and judicial favoritism for his supporters. The Magna Carta was a historically critical step towards rule by constitutionally bound parliamentary governments. However, the Magna Carta was just the most famous of a series edicts and documents in medieval England meant to limit the power of the king, and establish the rule of law, instead of rule at the king’s whim.
In 1264, King Henry III was the latest Anglo-Norman king to spread his chicken wings and ignore his agreements. In 1258, he and his barons signed the Provisions of Oxford. The Provisions established a permanent Privy Council of baronial and royal advisors for administration of the kingdom, and more importantly, a thrice yearly baronial council to parley with the king (a “parliament” in French) regarding all financial matters. True to form of most tyrants, King Henry III reneged on the agreement at the first opportunity. In 1263, King Henry III unilaterally raised taxes because he wanted to purchase the Kingdom of Sicily (long story). And again, his barons had to force him to comply by force of arms. The Second Baron’s War began when Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester, rallied the barons to force the king’s compliance with the Provisions of Oxford.
On 14 May 1264, Henry III and his son Prince Edward (the future King Edward “Longshanks”) met the barons outside of Lewes castle in Sussex, England. Henry III outnumbered the barons three to one, and Prince Edward was initially very successful leading the first charge which scattered the baronial cavalry from London on the far left of the line. However, Edward’s pursuit of the broken knights left his father uncovered. Forced to assault the baronial line unsupported, Henry’s army broke when Montford’s reserve smashed into Henry’s flank. Upon seeing the assault, the baronial yeomen and levy charged off the hill they were defending, routed the remainder of the King’s army, and seized the king. When Prince Edward’s victorious, but exhausted, forces returned to the battlefield, they were promptly defeated.
King Henry III was forced to sign the Edict of Lewes reaffirming the Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford. Prince Edward was held as a hostage to assure compliance and the battle led to the first session of the newly established parliament. However, Edward escaped later in the year and Henry III immediately tore up the Edict of Lewes, and vowed never to call a parliament again. Through Edward’s prowess, Henry III eventually fought the Barons to a negotiated settlement after a costly three years of war. But the barons fought on far longer than Henry assumed possible. This wasn’t lost on the young Edward.
Though successful, the Second Baron’s War taught Edward the hard lesson that he needed his subjects’ input in governing the kingdom. This was especially true if he was going to expand into Wales and Scotland, and retain Plantagenet lands in France. When he was crowned in 1272, King Edward I permanently established the English Parliament, in effect giving more than what the barons demanded, and fought for, during the war.
The Germans were caught completely by surprise with Operation Diadem. They believed the Allies were going to make an amphibious landing north of Rome, and they positioned their reserves accordingly. Subsequently, many key commanders and staff officers from units on the Gustav Line were in Rome on pass. Both Gens. Vietengoff and Senger, the repective German army and corps commanders at Cassino, were receiving medals from Hitler when the battle started. In fact, all of the German preparations on the Italian peninsula were in accordance with Allied intentions, as per their deception plan, Operation Nonton. Even worse, German planners made a critical assumption that turned out to be grossly naive: that if the Allies attacked the Gustav Line, they would only attack at Monte Cassino. Much to their later consternation, the Germans reinforced the area around the Monastety at the expense of the rest of the front.
That one bad assumption played right into the strengths of the various national armies. Along the coast, American tenacity and firepower, in the form of massed artillery, close air support, and naval gunfire, steadily reduced the strongpoints blocking their way. In the Auruncii Mountains, mountain expertise and espirit de corps allowed the Frenchmen, in particular the Goumiers, to negotiate terrain that no German ever considered passable. Entire platoons of Goumiers free climbed cliffs, draws, and stream banks, and they did it with 25kg packs. German positions were consistently outflanked and French troops seemed materialize out of the ground.
Along the Rapido River, the British penchant for preparation and organization to be “just so” was exactly what was needed for that most demanding and exacting of offensive operations: contested river crossings. By the night of 13 May, the 8th Indian Division had a solid bridgehead across the Rapido at San Angelo, in almost the exact same spot where the Texans of the US 36th Division were massacred four months before. That night they would pass a Canadian armored brigade over the river. It would soon push into the Liri Valley: treading where no Ally had treaded before.
Along Snakeshead Ridge, the Poles took horrendous casualties attacking the prepared and reinforced Fallschirmjaeger positions. They recklessly threw themselves into “the amphitheater” formed by the imposing heights that formed its rim: Point 593, Albaneta Farm and the Monastery. Despite neither cover nor concealment, they made great gains, on both slopes of Monstery Hill. They captured Cassino town and almost reached the Liri Valley north of the Abbey. The 3rd Carpathian Division even captured Pt 593, several times. However, most Polish maneuver battalions were at 50% strength by the end of the second day of fighting. Pt 593 needed to be consolidated to prevent its recapture, but unfortunately, the Green Devils immediately recognized the nature and importance of the Poles’ main objective and continued to feed its defense. A desperate final counterattack on the night of 13 May of just 14 remaining able bodied troops, led by the remaining instructors from the German parachute school, regained the crucial objective from its final seven Polish defenders.
The battle was coming down to whose mules could feed the battalions in the assault zones the fastest. The critical logistics calculus was changed not by the Poles, but by the British advance. Their bridgehead across the Rapido and into the Liri Valley allowed artillery to fire onto the hitherto protected German assembly areas and “forming up points” on the reverse slopes of the Albaneta Massif and Monte Calvario. For the first time in the battle, the Germans on Monte Cassino were receiving fire from directions and in areas they had not previously experienced. The limited German reserves were thrown at the Canadians and Indians pushing up the Liri Valley to fix their fires and protect their concentrations.
But the Germans also knew they would not hold Point 593 for long if the Poles held the gains they made. The Polish assault battalions were within meters of cutting off the star fort. They were temporarily spent and their gains exposed, but the Polish sense of duty and resilience would see them through. They burrowed into the shattered terrain and four months of dead bodies and awaited their mules and comrades. Gen Anders himself went to his support units for volunteers. Thousands put down their wrenches, typewriters, and ladles, picked up their rifles, and headed up the mountain. Even Private First Class Wotjek, the ursine ammo handler of 22 Artillery Company and II Polish Corps’ mascot, followed his comrades up the hill after they volunteered to fight as infantry. One way or another, the next attack would be the last.
At 2230 on 11 May 1944, 1667 artillery pieces opened fire on German positions along a 20 mile front stretching from the Tyrrhenian Sea to the Abbey at Monte Cassino. The Germans were shocked and did not suspect an Allied attack, much less the largest offensive by the Western Allies so far in the Second World War. Thirty miles to the north, the Brits, Canadians, and Americans of the US 5th Army began near suicidal fixing attacks to tie down German troops at the Anzio/Nettuno beachhead. More night attacks all along the Gustav line followed immediately behind the two hour artillery barrage. The National Guardsmen of the US II Corps attacked across the open fields of the Tyrrhenian coastal plain. The British XIII Corps began a series on contested river crossings over the Rapido and its tributaries. In the Aurunnci Mountains, Moroccan goumiers and Tunisian tirailleurs pushed up narrow passes, or used grappling hooks, ladders, and free climbed their way up and forward into the German defenses.
All of these attacks were expected to fail.
But even in failure, they would accomplish their mission in drawing German reinforcements away from the decisive operation: the Polish II Corps’ assault into the minefields, barbed wire and devastated terrain of Monastery Hill, Cassino town and, most importantly, over Snakeshead Ridge at Monte Calvario, better known to Allied planners as Point 593.
On 7 May, 1824 Ludvig Van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Opus 125 was performed for the first time in Vienna, Austria. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was his last full symphony and is the first example of a symphony that uses a chorus and vocalists. The Symphony used Frederich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” as the basis for the vocal and choral presentations in the final movement. Beethoven’s Ninth was popularized for modern audiences as a Christmas song in America (by its inclusion as the basis of the score for the Greatest Christmas Movie of All Time, Die Hard?) and was coopted by the European Union for its anthem.
In the spring of 1999, NATO began the first combat operations since its formation in 1949 by conducting an air campaign against Serbian militias and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) troops in Kosovo in order to try and stop the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Albanians there. After weeks of fruitless bombing in uncontested air space, the Milosevic regime refused to come to the negotiating table, and even accelerated their program of ethnic cleansing.
Despite being another historical example of air power failing to win a war by itself, NATO doubled down on failure and expanded their air campaign to include targets inside Serbia and Montenegro. On 7 May 1999, while attacking infrastructure targets in Belgrade, NATO accidently bombed the Chinese Embassy, killing three Chinese diplomatic workers, wounding 30 more, and created a massive international incident. In June, only the threat of NATO land power brought the Slobodan Milosevic and the FRY govt to the negotiating table after his Russian backers offered no counter. In June, the UN authorized peacekeepers to the region, to include Russian and NATO troops, to stop the ethnic cleansing and allow the return of refugees.
Since 1988, two former Soviet Republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought over the Nagorno-Karabakh region in the Lesser Caucuses Mountains after the Armenian population voted to secede from Azerbaijan and join Armenia. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought through the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. On 5 May 1994, Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a cease fire agreement in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, temporarily halting their destructive war. The agreement left the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh as the defacto ruling government of the area as neither Armenia could annex the region nor Azerbaijan control it.