Sorrow and calm: Visiting New Zealand's war dead in Florence War Cemetery

by David Blaker / 08 July, 2018
A headstone at Florence War Cemetery. Photo/David Blaker

A headstone at Florence War Cemetery. Photo/David Blaker

RelatedArticlesModule - Calm and sorrowful: My visit to New Zealand's war dead in Florence War Cemetery

Gallipoli is seared into our nation’s memory, but many New Zealanders served and died in other campaigns – including the Italian one.

The War Cemetery’s immaculate lawns sweep down to the Arno River. Over fifteen hundred white headstones are aligned in perfect rows, 243 of them engraved with a fern symbol to mark the New Zealanders buried here, all killed in July and August 1944 in a push to evict German forces from their positions south of Florence.

E Karena, age 21. LH Pengelly, Armoured Corps, 26. HK Whareaitu, Infantry, 28. MW Meyer, Engineers, 28. D Greener, Machine Gun Battalion, 21. R Cobden-Cox, 21. Hape Parata, 24. Douglas Crump, Artillery. Hundreds of young lives. Some died not so young. Second Lieutenant CS Reeves, age 33. Lieutenant JBM Coombe, 35. GEC Mayfield, 43. Luck and skill had them survive a year’s fighting up the length of Italy, only to fall at almost the final hurdle.

A young olive tree is growing behind the headstones of Terence Walker and Noel Hosking. Bumblebees scramble amongst graveside flowers, covering themselves in pollen. Children’s voices float across from nearby Girone village. A young woman walks her eager little dog across the lawns. Life goes on.

A workman is painstakingly trimming the already-perfect gravesite edges. I thank him for his excellent work and ask his name. He replies Niccolo, enquires as to my nationality, nods at my reply of Nuova Zelandese. Just out of sight the Arno cascades over a weir, the sound of rushing water providing a background to this peaceful place, a soothing contrast to the tourist mayhem that dominates the packed streets of Florence just a few kilometres to the west.

At the base of the headstone for Gunner KW Telfar a rain-dampened photo is almost obscured by growing flowers. I bend down to read the words printed above the indistinct image of a group of four: "Brother Trevor, Nephews Graham, Ian and Paul". Grey-haired Trevor is sitting down, the middle-aged nephews standing behind. Kevin William Telfar from Taranaki was killed by a booby-trap explosion in a farmhouse, at age 22.

Florence War Cemetery is close to the village of San Jacopo al Girone. It is one of more than 2,500 around the world maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves commission. Photo/David Blaker

Florence War Cemetery is close to the village of San Jacopo al Girone. It is one of more than 2,500 around the world maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves commission. Photo/David Blaker

The headstone of Diana Mary Manning, age 21, tells us she served in the Women’s Transport Service. Records reveal she was killed exactly eight days after her wedding.

This place carries a great burden of grief and loss and remembrance, the enduring pain of families who have struggled for over half a century to recover from the untimely deaths of those they love. Towards the riverbank a stone plinth is engraved with the words Their Name Liveth For Evermore. There are few entries in the visitors’ book, most of them brief. ‘Thank you Uncle Bob’ wrote one.

Soldiers of other nations are also buried here: British, South African, Canadian, Indian, the names of their regiments representing an empire now gone. The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, African Pioneer Corps, King George’s Own Bengal Sappers, Duke of Connaught’s Lancers.

Only four Australian soldiers are buried at Florence cemetery, a reminder that the Italian campaign involved New Zealanders, not Anzac groups. With the looming Japanese threat, most Australian units were withdrawn from Europe and North Africa in 1942 and returned to home defence.

Photo/David Blaker

Most headstones are engraved with a Christian cross, a few with the Star of David. All are identical in size, and almost all bear the same basic information of name, rank, number, unit, age, date. In some cases cruel bad timing intrudes, with New Zealand infantrymen Te Whanau Kaui and Edmund Bradley both killed on 3rd August, the day before enemy forces withdrew from Florence. Perhaps most poignant of all are headstones that carry only the words "A soldier of the 1939-1945 War. Known Unto God".

The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War – all 17 volumes of it – describes each campaign in detail. Footnotes record the hometowns of many Kiwi soldiers and read almost like a catalogue of country life. Kaeo, Kaikoura, Balclutha, Blenheim, Oamaru, Ohakune, Darfield, Hokitika. Occupations of the fallen reveal a curious blend of antiquated and modern. Shepherd, watersider, fellmonger, farmhand, engineer, miner, millhand, shoe salesman, schoolmaster, theology student, medical student.

A search of "killed in action" records turns up dozens of grainy newspaper images of young men in uniform taken before their departure from home shores, none of them ever to return. Some, perhaps fearing the worst, had anxiety written across their faces, while others posed with confident smiles. Henare Kutia of Tolaga Bay, Cecil Murfitt of Kaupokonui, Dixon Tawhaio of Matakana, Athol Garthwaite of Invercargill, Wetini Mio of Torere, Raymond Clark of Onehunga, Robert Hughson, husband of Emily Hughson of Dunedin.

The official history builds vivid pictures of the fighting that raged across the beautiful hill country south of Florence. Place names such as Tavarnelle, San Casciano and la Romola appear repeatedly, with descriptions of attacks, counter-attacks, heavy shelling, intense heat, ambushes, landmines, confusion, running battles, plus encounters with dreaded 60-ton Tiger tanks that completely outgunned our Sherman tanks. During a battle for the village of San Michele, bodies littered cobblestone streets so thickly that advancing vehicles "could not avoid driving over them".

Olive groves, vines and villas. This land between Tavarnelle and Florence was the site fierce battles in July 1944. Photo/David Blaker

Olive groves, vines and villas. This land between Tavarnelle and Florence was the site fierce battles in July 1944. Photo/David Blaker

Not all was death and destruction, as fighting bypassed some places completely. Bob Cotterall, a Wellington solicitor serving with an armoured car unit, describes exploring Castello di Montegufoni, at that time owned by England’s vastly wealthy Sitwell family. Inside he found no defenders and only one "gentle old Italian". Stacked against walls were dozens of artworks, looted from Florence then abandoned by hastily-retreating Germans. The awestruck visitor recognised the biggest among these paintings as the original Primavera by Botticelli. Bob signed the visitors’ book then reported the Botticelli’s whereabouts to his senior officers.

German defences crumbled in the first three days of August and their troops withdrew north of the Arno. Allied units became caught up in a race to be first across the river but with only a few miles to go the Maori Battalion and the 23rd Battalion were ordered to halt their advance, much to their displeasure.

Marvellously, the city of Florence did not become a battleground and its Renaissance wonders were largely spared destruction, perhaps a tribute to the wisdom of both advancing Allies and retreating German forces.

When New Zealand troops were allowed to enter the city a few days later they were given a rapturous welcome in streets packed with wildly enthusiastic Italians, with abundant wine on offer. On August 24, Winston Churchill and General Freyberg led a victory parade through the city. Officers were told to salute while "other ranks" were ordered to cheer, although by several accounts Churchill and Freyberg’s car passed through largely silent non-cheering lines of troops – not out of disrespect, the Official History assures us, but because "Kiwis resent being made to do so".

I catch a bus to Tavarnelle through a lovely land of vines and olive groves and forested hills dotted with villas, but apart from the totally rebuilt town of San Casciano I see few hints of the bitter fighting that took place here decades ago. My northward journey back to Florence takes 40 minutes and costs 3 euro. In 1944 it took a month and cost many thousand lives.

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