The Sangro River War Cemetery
If you find yourself on the via Adriatica coast road on the stretch between Fossacesia Marina and Vasto, just south of the Sangro River, you’ll see a sign going inland to a cimitero inglese. Try and make the detour if you can; it’s only five minutes or so off the main road and you’ll find the experience a rewarding one.
It’s hard to believe now, but Abruzzo was the scene of some particularly savage fighting during the Italian Campaign of 1943/4. The area from the Sangro River up to Ortona formed the eastern edge of the formidable Gustav Line defences, hinging on the mighty Monte Cassino and while the advance northwards on the western side of Italy was largely the responsibility of the US Army, on the east, up through what’s now Puglia, Molise and Abruzzo, it was a campaign spearheaded by the British Eighth Army. But it wasn’t remotely a British-only action and neither is the cimitero inglese – or, more accurately, the Sangro River War Cemetery – in any sense an English, or even British, preserve.
There are just over 2600 graves in this peaceful and beautifully-maintained place. Yes, the majority are British, but honoured too are servicemen from New Zealand, Africa, Canada and what are now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but which all those years ago was simply ‘India’.
As I looked at the headstones of those Indian troops – Muslim and Hindu – and the names of units – the Punjab Regiment; the Rajputana Rifles; the Baluch Regiment – so redolent of those long-gone days of Empire, one in particular stood out.
It was the date that I first noticed. 25 November 1943. Exactly 64 years ago today. And buried here is serviceman F209 Dhondi Shinde. A 29 year-old boot-maker with a famous old Indian regiment – the 5th Mahratta Infantry. The simple inscription on his tombstone – This Hindu soldier of the Indian Army is honoured here – according him the same respect that would be due to the most decorated hero.
Nowadays, ‘hero’ is an overused word. A casual compliment rather than an earned accolade. Act in some way marginally better than the accepted norm – and you’re a hero. Buried at the Sangro River War Cemetery are 2617 heroes, mostly in their 20s – but some much older and some only in their teens – who performed the ultimate act of heroism.
Among them is a young Indian, whose presence here both defies imagination and prompts a rush of unanswerable questions. Who was Dhondi Shinde ? Where in India was he from ? Why was he here ? How did he die ? Does anyone, anywhere still remember him ? Has anyone visited his grave ? It’s his and the 2616 other individual stories here that give the Sangro River War Cemetery its point and its poignancy.
This blog entry’s not about search engines and sales pitches. It’s about one man, a bootmaker, who lies at rest among warriors, every bit their equal in service and sacrifice, in a tranquil couple of acres of Abruzzese countryside. I’m gratified that a small twist of fate has allowed me to keep his memory alive.
Find out more about The Sangro River War Cemetery
(Click on pictures in text for larger images)