[Previous instalments in the ‘Scarves on Statues’ series can be found here]
Bernard Freyberg led quite a life. After he left high school in Wellington he worked as an assistant dentist around various parts of the provincial North Island before leaving our shores to join the Mexican Revolution, where he became a Captain under Pancho Villa. Upon hearing of the outbreak of World War I, he entered a prizefight to earn himself the money for passage across the Atlantic where upon his arrival he participated in the Allied landing at Gallipolli.
Sporting multiple battle scars, he was declared unfit for service by the British Army in 1937, but this didn’t stop him from eventually becoming a famous World War II General and leading the New Zealand forces into historic battles in Greece, North Africa and Italy.
Arguably Freberg’s most controversial moment arrived in the Italian Campaign on 15 February 1944, when he was instrumental in successfully arguing for the bombing and resultant destruction of an ancient monastery at the German stronghold of Monte Cassino in Southern Lazio.
Due to the historical significance of the landmark, German General Albert Kesselring advised the Vatican and the Allies that it was not and would not be utilised by them. Freyberg and others were nevertheless convinced it was being used as a lookout and insisted upon its destruction. Ironically once it had been destroyed, the rubble provided a better defensive position than the abbey itself had before it and the German forces were able to occupy and hold it for a further three months. Evidence later confirmed that Kesselring had been telling the truth all along.
After four costly allied assaults, the Germans finally retreated and as a result the liberation of Rome was made possible. One of my favourite books about Rome, Christopher Hibbert’s ‘Biography of a City’ paints a beautiful picture of this occasion:
“As bells rang out in the campanili on the morning of 5 June 1944, the American commander of the victorious Fifth Army, Mark Clark, climbed the steps of Michelangelo’s cordonata towards the Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline hill. Here, where Brutus, ‘still hot and eager’ from Caesar’s murder, had come to address the people, where Augustus had made sacrificial offerings in the lovely Temple of Jupiter, where Greek monks had prayed in the church of S. Maria d’Aracoeli in the Dark Ages, where Petrarch had received the poet’s laurel crown, where Cola di Rienzo had fled down the stairway to his death, and where Gibbon had been inspired to write his great history, the leader of men who had delivered Rome from the last of her foreign masters looked down upon the city which the Allies were now to control.”
Categories: Scarves on Statues
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