Cassino – into the front line in the mountain snow

Men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, during bayonet practice, November 1939.

Men of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, during bayonet practice, November 1939.

Men of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, Millbosche, 7 June 1940.

Men of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, Millbosche, 7 June 1940.

Men of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, Millbosche, 7 June 1940.

Men of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, Millbosche, 7 June 1940.

World War II is often thought of as quite different from the First World War, a more mobile war, a war of blitzkrieg, replacing the grinding attrition of the static front lines of the trenches. Yet long periods of static warfare were experienced on much of the Eastern Front. For the Allies the campaign in Italy for the first half of 1944 was also a relentless slugging match where the frontline hardly moved.

Tens of thousands of men lived in conditions that would have been very familiar to their fathers fighting in the earlier war. Because of the mountainous nature of Italy, conditions and the supply situation, were often much worse than in the trenches of France.

The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had an illustrious history stretching back long before the First World War, where it won dozens of battle honours. Since 1940 the 1st Battalion had fought all the way across Africa and on into Sicily before arriving on the Italian mainland. Now they went into the line again. Ray Ward was young officer keeping a detailed dairy from which he later wrote his memoirs:

At dawn on 8 March, an overcast, cold, wet and miserable day, we moved to the front line, initially to relieve the 1st Royal Fusiliers (17 Brigade). Because of the atrocious weather the front was static, except for nightly patrols by both sides to contest no-man’s-land.

The battalion set off at 1000 hours, companies at 20-minute intervals on the eight-kilometre approach march to the Fusiliers’ positions, crossing the Moro river and up a narrow, muddy track near the village of Poggiofiorito. We were burdened with full kit – shovels, steel helmets, weapons and ammo, – and wore gas capes to protect us from the rain.

We reached our assembly area, a slippery, rocky hillside. There we sat or lay flat out, exhausted, until fortified by a hot meal and a tot of rum. Then the battalion dispersed across a couple of square kilometres of hills. ‘A’ Company moved off to its frontline positions, centred on a scattering of isolated farm buildings much knocked about by shellfire. The pouring rain turned to snow. The relief was completed by 2245.

As company second-in-command I was left behind with a section of Jocks to bring up rations, water, ammo and other stores by mule train. Over the next few hours, this task was accomplished in pitch darkness, lit sporadically by flashes of star shells, artillery explosions, and tracer fire.

Our progress was punctuated by the rattle of Jerrycans and ammo boxes carried by the mules and by the curses of the muleteers as we climbed. When we reached Company HQ, I found a scene of confusion. Our positions were hardly a line, more an inter-connected series of strongpoints facing a similar one on the German side.

The takeover from the Fusiliers had not gone smoothly and nobody seemed to know exactly where they were or what they were doing. To make matters worse the Fusiliers had left mines and booby traps scattered around the area, unmarked. And there was snow on the ground.

We started unloading the mules which, typically, refused to stand still. I grabbed one by the leash. It snorted and shied back … A sudden flash and an almighty bang and I found myself lying on my back, semi-conscious in the mud and snow, feeling as if the mule had kicked me. It had trodden on a booby-trapped grenade, taken the full force of the blast, and now lay whimpering and dying in a heap of boxes.

Anything within 20 yards of a grenade exploding will be hit, and I was closer than that. ‘What a pathetic way to go’, was what went through my mind as I shivered in shock. Then I heard voices coming near. Lieutenant W. A. Dunn, one of A Company’s platoon commanders, appeared out of the gloom and peered at me closely through a swirl of snowflakes.

He helped me up and we staggered through the blanketed entrance of Company HQ, where I collapsed at the feet of my horrified company commander. It was a bad start to the night’s operation for him. A worse one for me.

Two Jocks had also been wounded and were sitting in the snow moaning.

The other casualties were three bottles of whisky I had brought up for Lossock and his subalterns. ‘Sorry we can’t give you a dram,’ Dunn said, after establishing that I would live. I’d been hit by shrapnel in the upper and lower left leg. I raised myself on my elbow and stared at him. He nodded. ‘All gone. Blown to buggery.’

See Ray Ward: The Mirror of Monte Cavallara

A veterinary officer inspects the leg of a mule at a mobile veterinary section, 9 February 1944.

A veterinary officer inspects the leg of a mule at a mobile veterinary section, 9 February 1944.

Porters of an Indian Mule Company transporting supplies to troops in the mountains.

Porters of an Indian Mule Company transporting supplies to troops in the mountains.

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