On the road from Florence to Pontassieve is what Rudyard Kipling described as a city of silence. It’s the Commonwealth cemetery for those who fell in the campaign to liberate the beautiful country of Italy from the scourge of Nazi-Fascism. I visited it last week during my visit to the city of the Lily. Among the English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish there were many from India and Nepal:
King George V said ‘One Could Truly Say that the whole world is surrounded by the tombs of those fallen in war. I’m convinced that even in the years to come there will be no stronger evidence of the need for peace than this multitude of silent witnesses of the desolation brought by war.’
These words never ring truer than today when over half the news we hear daily is about war. At this moment there are twenty conflicts happening the world which are defined as wars according the Uppsala definition (over one thousand deaths per year). Four of the them have caused over ten thousand deaths last year alone with cumulative fatalities of two million in Afghanistan, one million in Iraq and over half a million in Syria so far.
The cemetery near Florence has a particular resonance, not just because of its silent witnesses but because it collects together Commonwealth soldiers from the allied Fifth and the Eighth armies which worked their way up the Italian peninsula in often impossible situations of steep Apennines and bridge-destroyed rivers. My dad was a tank driver in the Eighth army and was lucky enough to survive although so many of his comrades didn’t make it.
Love and War is an oxymoron of strange power. Indeed, out of war for my father came love as he met and married an Italian Red Cross nurse. I would not be writing this otherwise…
Let us meditate in these difficult times on the names of those who died in these places so that we can today travel and enjoy the wondrous loveliness of Italy in tranquillity and happiness. As I spent my time walking by the lines of tombstones, simply but exquisitely carved out of Carrara marble with the names of those who died and their regiment and some whose name was known only unto God, all lined up in a beautiful greensward between the road and the banks of the Arno, I could only wonder at how the senseless and pitiful activity of war can still continue in so much of the world today.
Salt waves shall break but I won’t catch their sound:
the peace that comes to cease all war, all strife
will be a limpid lake in sacred ground
where flowers bud with sempiternal Life.