To the Glory of Those Days!

80th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino

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Centuries and years will pass,
Traces of those days will remain...

— Feliks Konarski, "Red Poppies on Monte Cassino"

In 2024, two important anniversaries for Poles coincide: 80 years since the victorious battle of the 2nd Polish Corps for Monte Cassino and the 50th anniversary of the death of the one thanks to whom the heroism of the soldiers of General Władysław Anders was recorded with journalistic reliability for future generations.

When choosing Melchior Wańkowicz from among 10 candidates as patrons of 2024, members of the Sejm of the Republic of Poland justified it as follows: "He perfectly fulfilled what constitutes a journalist's mission: by reliably describing reality, to serve the community." Wańkowicz erected the greatest monument to the heroism of Polish soldiers in his three-volume work "The Battle of Monte Cassino". When writing "The Battle of Monte Cassino", he was aware that he was doing it for both his contemporaries and future generations.

Melchior Wańkowicz (Source: Wikipedia)

These two anniversaries emphasize the writer's place in the pantheon of Polish authors and the glory of heroic Polish soldiers who always fought for the most important values ​​of the individual and the nation - honor and freedom.

Melchior Wańkowicz was born in the eastern borderlands of Poland, near Minsk (today Belarus) on January 10, 1892. He was named Melchior after his father, a January 1863 insurgent. He attended high school in Warsaw, where he became involved in independence activities early on. In 1905, he took part in a school strike and later edited the illegal magazine "Wici". He continued his studies in law and political science at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. During his studies, he was keenly interested in politics and actively participated in the underground activities of academic youth.

The personality of the future writer was ultimately shaped by the years of World War I. As a soldier of General Józef Dawbor-Muśnicki's corps, he took part in battles in Ukraine. In 1919, he became a war correspondent of "Gazeta Warszawska". From then on, he associated his professional life with journalism, work as a writer and publisher. In 1923, he started working as the head of the Press Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A year later, in 1924, he founded the Publishing Society "Rój", of which he was co-owner and editor-in-chief until 1939.

He published reports and series of correspondence from Poland and abroad in the press. His correspondence from the trip to Mexico made in 1926-27 was published in "Kurier Warszawski". He was also the author of two of the shortest and most famous Polish advertising slogans: "Sugar strengthens" and "It's closer by LOT" (the Polish airline - Ed.). From 1930, Wańkowicz was a member of the Polish PEN Club. In 1936, the writer was honored with the Silver Laurel of the Polish Academy of Literature. The award was granted primarily for travel reports written in a colorful style that attracted readers.

At the outbreak of World War II, Wańkowicz was in Poland. Even before the capitulation of Warsaw, on September 24, 1939, he managed to leave for Romania.

In the summer of 1940, he got to southern Europe, and in September of that year, together with other Poles, he was evacuated by the English to Cyprus, from where he left for Palestine in 1941. His main occupation was as a writer, reporter and publicist. He wrote under the pseudonym Jerzy Łużyc in "Dziennik Żołnierza", "Wiadomości Polskie" and "Głos Polski".

From 1943, Melchior Wańkowicz was a war correspondent of the 2nd Corps. He traveled around the Middle East. In May 1944, he participated in the Battle of Monte Cassino. For this battle he received the Cross of Valor, and left a three-volume reportage "The Battle of Monte Cassino" for posterity.

During my school years, this battle was not talked about, it was not allowed. The song "Red Poppies on Monte Cassino" was banned. After the political thaw that took place after 1956, Wańkowicz came to the country for a short time and spoke about the Battle of Monte Cassino at meetings with readers. The very shortened "Sketches from Monte Cassino" were also published at that time. On the eightieth anniversary of this battle, which falls this year, it is necessary and worth remembering its meaning and value. All the more so because there are attempts to question its importance again, and it was a victorious battle, just like the Battle of Grunwald. Historians refer to it as the largest land battle of the Western Front, the true Battle of the Nations.

Monte Cassino - location on the map of Italy (Source: Wikipedia)

The range of mountains crossing the Italian Peninsula with the Monte Cassino Monastery has a special place in the history of Europe. From time immemorial this was an area where the defenders of Italy blocked the way of the invaders coming from the south. In this place, the mountains piled up from sea to sea, leaving only a narrow strip of the Liri river valley, through which the road to Rome led. This valley is dominated by the steep mountain (516 meters above sea level) of Monte Cassino. Conquering it opened the way to the eternal city - Rome. The passage, which was barricaded with several lines of fortifications (Gustav Line, Hitler Line, ...), was defended by the best of the best German units: parachute division, mountain infantry, panzer grenadiers.

The Battle of Monte Cassino lasted 4 months - from January to May 1944.

The Americans stormed it first, on January 2. After two days of a dramatic assault in the Liri marshes, they suffered a severe defeat - they lost 48 officers, 1,002 non-commissioned officers and soldiers.

The French were next to attack. The Tunisian Rifle Regiment was trapped. Within five days it lost 23 officers, 162 non-commissioned officers and 1,300 private soldiers. The assault ended in an even greater disaster.

On January 15, the Allies bombed the monastery. 255 bombers dropped 351 tons of bombs. Then the English tried to storm Hill 593 and were defeated again. They left 12 officers and 130 soldiers dead in the ruins. Their place was taken by the Indian Rifle Regiment, which was completely annihilated. At that time, the New Zealanders attacking the Liri Valley became stuck in the marshes. Again - another - defeat.

On March 5, the third and bloodiest attack took place. After a week of fighting, the 2nd New Zealand Division with 6 battalions had lost 55 officers and 665 other men, and the 4th Indian Division had lost 3,000 soldiers. This defeat was the last.

English, Canadians, Indians, French, Moroccans, Tunisians, New Zealanders, Gurkas. All excellent soldiers shed their blood here and experienced defeat. The decisive role in this battle in the fourth attack was played by the Poles - the 2nd Corps under the command of General Władysław Anders.

The soldiers of this corps are escapees from internment camps in Romania and Hungary, escapees across the green borders, and Siberians - inhabitants of the borderlands of the Second Polish Republic occupied after September 17. Released from the labor camps under the agreement signed on August 14, 1941 between the Government of London and the Government of the USSR and under the "amnesty" they were able to join the Polish army under the command of General Władysław Anders, they were later evacuated to Iran. Before they stood in front of the monastery mountain of Monte Cassino, they marked the battlefields of Narvik, Tobruk, Egypt, Palestine, and the desert sands of Africa with their blood, but they were going to Poland. They seemed to be getting closer and closer.

Melchior Wańkowicz at Monte Cassino (Source: Wikipedia)

In the face of three tragic assaults, General Oliver Leese, commander of the 8th Army, suggested to General Anders that the Poles conquer the monastery hill (593). The Polish commander realized that this would be a difficult task, but that it would contribute to strengthening Poland's position among the Allies. He wrote about this decision in the book "Without the Last Chapter": "Completing this task (...) would be the best response to Soviet propaganda, which claimed that Poles did not want to fight the Germans. It would sustain the spirit of the fighting country's resistance. It would bring great glory to the Polish army."

Melchior Wańkowicz describes the battle area seen from a reconnaissance plane as follows:

It was a mountain range through which the German defensive lines ran. They flowed down from the 1,669-meter-high snowy peak of Monte Cairo, ran through a series of hills, ending at 516-meter-high Monte Cassino. It was four kilometers by the air from the tip of Monte Cairo to the monastery. (…) the actual fight will take place over a distance of two kilometers - a maelstrom of mountains and ravines. The area looked like the Colosseum. In its center lay Hill 593 and Phantom Ridge like an arena. Upon entering these objects, the entire amphitheater - all the hills - were drawn together, bound by fire.

Two divisions of the 2nd Corps - Carpathian and Bordelands - will fight for this place, so vividly described by the participant of the fight, so small in the world, and so important for its and our history. The rest of the Corps - quartermasters, sanitary services, communications will support and secure the path to victory.

Commanders realize the gravity of the task they undertake, and soldiers feel its importance. Preparations begin on March 21. First, the quartermaster services enter the action, gathering supplies of food, water, ammunition and various types of auxiliary equipment for the Corps (about 50,000 soldiers). Sappers carve out marching routes for 1,200 mules transporting supplies, for sanitary services, and build command headquarters. The communications specialists connect all this into the Corps' nervous system.

Although the preparatory movements take place at night, the number of dead and wounded each day ranges from 30 to 60. M. Wańkowicz describes the mood of those days as follows:

May came and the uncultivated land was covered with poppies. Red poppies covered every corner of the ground. At night the nightingales screamed like crazy. Swarms of fireflies covered the yard with burning threads. Higher up, bolts of light decorated the sky. Corpses and poppies, nightingales and the howling of Nebelwerfers, fireflies and light projectiles - they created a mystery in which death walked over the soft-bodied beings stuck in the boulders...

For now she was just walking. She will really come into action on the night of May 11/12. After a huge artillery preparation, during which everything was shaking, it was clear as day that the newspapers could be read, the Carpathian Division launched the attack. It attacked the Sacrificial Hill marked with the number 593. Counterattacked from all sides, massacred in six assaults, it withdrew without commanders, without equipment.

A similar thing happened with the Kresowa Division, which was melting down on a hill called Specter. The assault failed and the goal was not achieved.

Ruins after the Battle of Monte Cassino, a hill with a monastery visible in the distance (Source: Wikipedia)

Poles do not give up. They regroup the severely weakened ranks and prepare for the next assault. On May 17, at seven in the morning, another attack begins. Radio stations will report from the Specter, the Hill of Sacrifice, the Hill of Death, the Throat, the Serpent's Head, and the Sappers' Road. Everyone is very exhausted, some units have not had supplies for 36 hours. They don't feel hungry or exhausted. It is similar with German units. The fight is similar to that in the ring. The winner will be the one who survives or will deal the last blow.

It was achieved by Poles. On May 18, around ten o'clock in the morning, a patrol of the 12th Podolian Uhlan Regiment reached the ruins of the Benedictine monastery and planted its pennant there as a sign of victory. In a short moment, the Polish white and red flag was hung there, and a little later the British one. At noon, Polish soldier Emil Czech played the bugle call of St. Mary's. During the night, the poet Feliks Konarski (Ref-Ren) wrote the lyrics, and the composer Alfred Schutz composed the music of the song "Red Poppies on Monte Cassino".

923 Polish soldiers died in the battle, 2,931 were wounded, 345 were reported missing. The Allies took the open road to Rome, the Poles collected their fallen, built a cemetery to bury them with dignity.

Polish war cemetery at Monte Cassino (Source: Wikipedia)

Each soldier fighting for Monte Cassino is part of a collective hecatomb, a separate story, cut off halfway, halfway through a litany. M. Wańkowicz in the report "The Battle of Monte Cassino" will tell future generations about them:

They will be soldiers from Monte Cassino for the rest of their lives. In addition, they will remember each of the circumstances of their lives. That he was at Monte Cassino will be written on this soldier's tombstone if a tombstone is found for him. The fact that he was at Monte Cassino will be recorded in the family chronicles, if there is any family.

Indeed, the soldiers who survived the battles for Monte Cassino will live with these memories for the rest of their lives. I know this, I fondly remember meetings with one of the heroes - reserve communications lieutenant colonel Leonard Jędrzejczak. I treasure the book "The Battle of Monte Cassino" given to me from the first edition with the author's dedication. Will the world, or at least Europe, honor the memory of the heroes of those days with a minute of silence on the 80th anniversary of this battle?!

Translation from Polish by Andrew Woźniewicz.





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