Service of dedication remembers costly Italian battle
Published on 23 June 2023 4 minutes read
One of the hardest fought Allied battles of World War II, Monte Cassino, is to be permanently commemorated at an Edinburgh kirk with the installation of a memorial bench recognising the sacrifice of those lost there and elsewhere in the Italian Campaign.
It also marks the 70-year old link between the battle and Blackhall St Columba's Parish Church, in the north west of the city.
This dates back to 1952 when the then minister, Rev R.W. Watson Mathewson, brought the "Cross of Monte Cassino" to Blackhall St Columba's.
The cross, which is of a simple wooden construction, was made for Mr Mathewson by a member of the Pioneer Corps while he was serving at Monte Cassino as a military chaplain. The cross has been in the sanctuary and part of the worship of Blackhall St Columba's ever since.
Mr Mathewson, who served as a chaplain with the 2nd Battalion of the Scots Guards in Italy and Palestine, wrote later: "When I first saw it, I was disappointed; the crossbar seemed too long and out of proportion.
"Then I realised that this was the only kind of cross the Pioneers were accustomed to make; one to set over the grave of a soldier, the crossbar had to be long enough to accommodate his name, rank and number and unit. So, I left it as it was, a perfect symbol of the comprehensive love of God in Christ for the individual..."
This connection was rekindled when the Monte Cassino Society first became aware of the cross's existence following an article in Life and Work magazine about the refurbishment of the sanctuary at Blackhall St Columba's.
The current minister, Rev Fergus Cook, contacted the society's secretary, Lesley Teasdale, and discovered that the society was unable to meet for its usual Service of Remembrance owing to the pandemic lockdown. This led to Mr Cook offering to conduct a Service of Remembrance which could be livestreamed, allowing its members to mark the capture of Monte Cassino as they normally would each May.
This was the third year that Blackhall St Columba's has held a special Service of Remembrance and to mark the occasion the Monte Cassino Society generously donated a memorial bench to be placed by the Blackhall War Memorial in the grounds of the church overlooking the busy Queensferry Road.
The four-month battle of Monte Cassino was one of the most bitter of the Italian campaign as a multinational Allied force, including troops from Britain, India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA, Poland, France and the Kingdom of Italy, sought to gain control of the strategically vital mountain and its Sixth Century Abbey on the road to Rome.
Monte Cassino finally fell on 18th May 1944, but at a cost of an estimated 55,000 casualties. The German defenders are believed to have lost 20,000 dead or wounded during the battle, with a similar number of Italian civilians killed during the battle or in the air raids which destroyed the abbey and nearby town of Cassino. The town and abbey have since been rebuilt.
The Service of Remembrance, which included the dedication of the bench, reflected the international make-up of the Allied army at Monte Cassino.
Those attending included the Canadian Consul, the New Zealand Consul Scotland, the Consul General of the Republic of Poland and the Indian Consul General, who all laid wreaths.
Wreaths were also laid by official representatives from the Cameron Highlanders, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), the Royal British Legion Scotland, the Monte Cassino Society and the Kirk Session and congregation of Blackhall St Columba's. Many others also attended, some representing other organisations, but many simply to remember relatives who served, fought and, in some cases, gave their lives during the battles.
Mr Cook said: "It can be seen from the varied international representatives that gathered, along with people from all backgrounds, that the struggle against tyranny, oppression and domination is the responsibility of all.
"Our reading during the service, from the prophet Micah, speaks of a time when ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more'. At this time of renewed conflict in Europe, it is particularly important that all come together not only to remember and honour those who have fought before but to recognise the futility and cruelty of war and to work together to prevent, mitigate and stop further conflict."