IT was in obedience to a world-wide strategy that the New Zealand Parliament decided in 1943 to leave its 2nd Division in the Mediterranean theatre. The aim of that strategy was to bring some relief to the Russians and to distract the enemy from the Second Front then preparing in north-western Europe by engaging him in Italy.
For the fighting soldier it was a strategy that proved a hard taskmaster: how hard may appear from this account of the Division’s fighting on the Sangro–Orsogna front and at Cassino in the grim winter of 1943–44. It called for attack and renewed attack when mere military prudence would have counselled the defensive; it repaid great effort and high casualties with few visible gains; it implicated the Division in the odium arising from the destruction of a famous religious house; and the grand plan that it served was present to most men of the Division as no more than the doubtful rumour of a guess. Write as one may, the elegiac note keeps breaking in. All this might seem to be a record from which New Zealanders can more easily draw pride than satisfaction. But what is told here is an unfinished story. The days of endurance had their fulfilment, not less in Italy than on battlefields beyond the Alps.
Every historian ought to have a theory of what he is doing. Mine has been a form of the saying that ‘all history is the history of thought’. The discrepancy between what men intend and what they achieve is often gross, and in war this discrepancy is increased many times by physical accident – the untimely shower, the gun that jammed, the bridge that broke. Yet if any order is to be shaped out of the chaos of battle, it can only be by considering what was going on in the minds of the commanders and the destinies of their intentions. I have continually tried to discover the mind at work in the mêlée. ‘It was not the Carthaginian army that crossed the Alps, it was Hannibal’.
This is perhaps unpopular doctrine, and its practice may have a price. I have paid some of that price by writing a book that does less justice than I could have wished to the life of the ordinary soldier, the ranker with a rifle. There is also the danger that too narrow a devotion to command, its plans and their working out will produce in the end not a picture but a map. ‘You shall read this,’ wrote Balzac of a work he projected, ‘as through the smell of
powder, and when the book is read, you shall believe you had seen this with your own eyes and you ought to remember the battle as if you had been present’. This, I suppose, is what every military historian secretly hopes for his own work. But it was a novel that Balzac planned, and it may be that the historian must submit to the limitations of his medium and be content to make his map as informative and as accurate as he can, leaving the novelist to set down those bright disordered patches of physical reality by which the senses report the battle and the military life.
As official history is sometimes suspect, I should like to emphasise that my official status has been almost wholly advantageous. I owe it to an Editor-in-Chief who has been at once exceptionally scrupulous and exceptionally tolerant, and perhaps to myself, to say that this book contains no more than two paragraphs that I might have phrased a little differently had I been writing in another capacity. With this exception, and with the exception of a certain duty to be comprehensive, I am not conscious of having worked under other restraint than that which any historian, official or unofficial, should impose on himself in discussing that most fallible of human activities, the conduct of battle.
One of the pleasures of authorship is the accumulation of friendly debts. My chief debt (it is immeasurably large) is to the staff of the War History Branch. Where all have been courteous and helpful, my only justification for mentioning some by name is that I have made more calls on their time, patience and knowledge. Mr W. D. Dawson wrote the indispensable narrative of events upon which most of my chapters are based and also translated the relevant German documents in the keeping of the Military Documents Section of the United States War Department at Washington. The narrative for most of the very complicated second battle of Cassino was the capable work of Miss Judith A. Hornabrook. In the later stages, the constructive criticism of Mr Ronald Walker helped to remove deficiencies, doubts and errors. Mr W. A. Glue went far beyond the normal duties of a sub-editor and Miss Joan Williams prepared the invaluable index. By giving generously of his own time to look after the photographs, Mr John Pascoe has helped (in the old sense of the word as well as the new) to illustrate this volume. For the maps I am indebted to the Cartographic Branch of the Lands and Survey Department, Wellington.
The British war historians have given willing assistance. Professor J. R. M. Butler permitted me to see the first draft of John Ehrman’s Grand Strategy, August 1943–September 1944. Brigadier H. B. Latham and Major F. Jones, of the Historical Section of the Cabinet
Office, put their facilities freely at my disposal; and Major Jones will recognise in Chapter 9 some of the fruits of his own researches. The excellent grey-bound volumes in the series Operations of British, Indian and Dominion Forces in Italy, prepared about ten years ago by the British Historical Section, Central Mediterranean, have been a constant source of reference.
The personal evidence of many individual participants has been an essential supplement to the official materials. It would be impossible to make acknowledgment to all, but I have had some help which even brevity may not fail to specify. Lord Freyberg in personal discussion and in writing has shown a kindly interest from which I hope I have profited; and Major-General Sir Howard Kippenberger, Major-General G. B. Parkinson and Major-General C. E. Weir have also read the whole or a part of the book in draft and offered valuable comments. For their aid and hospitality I am deeply grateful. On the German side, my questions were readily answered by General F. von Senger und Etterlin, and his personal diary was generously made available by the Chief of Military History, United States Army.
To the Council of Canterbury University College I gladly express my gratitude for the refresher leave which made it possible for me in the early summer of 1955 to revisit some of the Italian battlefields and see others for the first time.
Finally, there are things that only soldiers know. It was my good fortune to learn some of them in Tunisia and Italy with and from the officers and men of 140 Field (later Medium) Regiment, Royal Artillery. Had I not shared this experience with friends from the British homeland, I could never have attempted to write the history of my own countrymen in a land to which the British, whether of the homeland or of the dispersion, can never be indifferent.