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BY ROGER SMITH

Extracts from the book

Flies and worse in the Western Desert
A peculiar addiction to Irish lyrics
Burying the dead — Tebaga Gap
British Army at a minefield near Sfax, Tunisia
The countryside near Sousse, Tunisia
The Padre's tools of trade
A minefield near Takrouna, Tunisia
Kelly in Cairo
Housekeeping in a two-man bivvy in the rain — Sangro, Italy
Falling asleep on duty — Sangro
Kelly dies at the Sangro River
Civilians caught in the frontline — Castel Frantano, Italy
Getting sadness off your chest
Giant drunken zooming fireflies — Alife, Italy
Christmas 1943 — back from the front
Maori Battalion, Trocchio, Italy
Fear, and fear of fear — Cassino, Italy
A break from Cassino
All in a day’s work in the Cassino rubble
There for your mate at the finish — Terelle, Italy

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FEAR AND FEAR OF FEAR CASSINO, ITALY

  Cassinos.jpg (2148 bytes)As the sky paled to the breaking of a steely winter dawn, the signal came. The company shook itself out, platoon by platoon, and we went down to the road that skirted the shoulder behind Cassino. Forward we marched — cold, wet, wary and apprehensive. Rain had fallen during the night and the road was sloshy underfoot. We marched with our shoulders hunched against the raw wind, half crouched with stomachs drawn in to try and compress the disquiet of fear that seemed to knot intestines like a balled fist. Fear, fear of fear, and the shame of feeling afraid. That merciless enemy born of memory and imagination that can twist your mind until your body shrinks with the tingle of apprehension. Your palms sweat. Your arm involuntarily flinches at a remembered vision, flashed on your inner retina, of a gory sleeve with a severed arm beside it, still twitching on the sand. Is any man immune? Can anyone face the imminent danger of violent death or deformity with complacency? To be disembowelled by a clamouring blast of shell fire, to be chopped in half by streaming squirt of Spandau, to be maimed and torn by a bayonet through your groin or grenade between your legs, to be blinded, to be hunted, to be shot at — and to hunt and shoot in return, to suddenly find yourself a raging berserk crouched over a lashing tommy gun, mad with the desire to kill. That is the worst of all — where lies the glory in such horror?

Yet above it all, rising through the agony and terror of slaughter, one can meet men who possess a calm and gentle serenity that brings courage to all about them. Though I make allowances for the fact that I am an arrant coward with an over-fertile imagination, I must assume that others, being mortal, feel as I do. That others also have no wish to have their legs crudely amputated from the navel by an ‘S’ mine. Realising all this, I am the more amazed by great acts of bravery performed in the midst of terror. Acts worthily honoured by the highest decorations in the land, other acts unhonoured and unsung, the glory of which remain as a source of wonder forever. So it seems glory and horror must drive hand-in-hand, as do life and death — the elemental opposites.

 

 

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Copyright Roger Smith, 2000