Montecassino Commemorative Address, Cassino War Cemetery

Standing here in Cassino War Cemetery, among the graves looking up at the beautiful Abbey of Montecassino, it is hard to imagine the utter devastation left behind by the battles which ended here in May 1944. Hundreds of thousands of shells and bombs of every description left nothing but piled rubble, broken riverbanks and shredded tree trunks.

The ferocity of the fighting here had few parallels during the Second World War. Around 20,000 men, including 343 New Zealanders, were killed during the four months of the battles, and twice that many were wounded.

The 28 (Māori) Battalion, which was awarded the battle honour “Monastery Hill” for its brave attempts to capture the Railway Station, suffered heavy losses. Of the 209 who began the attack on the Railway Station, 128 were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

Losses such as these were carried because of what was at stake; the liberation of Italy and, ultimately, the success of the planned Normandy Landings, which were fast approaching.

The New Zealand soldiers who served here, alongside their Commonwealth, French, Polish and American allies, fought for a common purpose and made a common sacrifice. They knew full well what the risks were and yet those brave men, such as Sir Robert “Bom” Gillies – the last surviving member of the 28 (Māori) Battalion – showed up for their country time and again.

Sir Robert, it really is an honour to be here with you today.

Two thousand Italian civilians also lost their lives during the battle, which was something greatly lamented by the troops. Many more were wounded or lost their homes and livelihoods. The Italian people were doing everything they could to liberate their country. As one of the New Zealand battalion historians recorded, beyond the immediate battle zone:

[The Italian people] still occupied the houses … despite shelling and mortaring. They were almost destitute – the Germans had robbed them of their livestock and food – but they gave freely of what they had.

Today, the landscape around us is peaceful. Soldiers of the Commonwealth lie here side by side cared for by the Italian people and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission – you honour them with your dedication and we thank you for this.

We should also acknowledge the courage of our then enemy, and how today we have become staunch allies in the pursuit of peace. Sadly, peace continues to elude many, and our world is still ravaged by war - in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Today let us all think about the continuing need to stand up to those who believe might is right and who have no regard for human rights or international law. We should also consider what we can all do in the ongoing struggle for a better, peaceful world.

In paying tribute to the New Zealand forces who served here at Cassino so many years ago, it is important to recall that the vast majority of them, until very recently, had also been civilians. They were farmers, factory workers, apprentices, public servants and teachers. Casualty replacement and an urgent need to relieve those who had already fought the hard campaigns in mainland Greece, Crete and North Africa had brought this about.

My own father, the late Percy Collins, went from being a King Country dairy farmer with his first baby on the way to being a sapper in 5 Field Park Company and fought here at Cassino.

He was one of the lucky ones. He came home. But the reality is no one who fights in war – or who is a civilian in a country at war – is lucky.

Over the years, I have read extensively about the battles of Cassino, and my father would sometimes talk about it. None of the memories were fond. Once he got back to New Zealand after the war, he said that he would never leave again.

He was but one of the remarkable men who brought a very different spirit with them. Although the battles here and later in the war impacted them, and frequently very severely, this did not necessarily define them. When the survivors returned to New Zealand, to cheers, smiles and tears of relief, what concerned them most were their families, communities and building a better New Zealand.

Although they held fiercely to the memory of their fallen comrades, there was little appetite for statues or war memorials. If there was money to be spent, they wanted it invested in community halls, swimming pools, parks and sports grounds.

Today, 80 years later, this generation has almost left us, but we, their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, will never forget them and that extraordinarily generous and democratic spirit that remains at the core of everything we value.

We will remember them.