Last year, at the commemoration of the landings at Salerno, I was the preacher at the ceremony held at the National Memorial in the Westgate Gardens, Canterbury. After the service, I was invited to become the Chaplain of the Kent Branch of the Italy Star Association. However, my connection with the Association goes back to the 1980s when the Canterbury Memorial was dedicated, so it seemed appropriate to accept the privilege offered.
To my surprise, in the summer of this year the Kent Chairman, Frank Horn, suggested that I should go to Italy and conduct the Remembrance Sunday service at Val di Sangro.
Mary Tidy was in contact with an Englishman with a holiday home in the area, John Harvey. He became our contact and my wife and I met him and his wife, Anneli, at Stanstead after the exchange of many Emails. Our hosts in Italy were Terry and Karen Doyle, and the four of us stayed in their beautifully restored farmhouse which is about 20 miles from the Cemetery. We were made wonderfully welcome and had a splendid stay in the glorious autumn weather.
On our first day, the Friday before Remembrance Sunday, we paid our first visit to the Cemetery. Although I had seen the photographs on the website, one’s first impression is a wonderful sense the beauty and serenity of the place. Designed in the shape of a shallow arc, the 2,600-plus graves curve gently across the contours close to the top of a significant hill. A traditional cross dominates the site, and faces an altar-like structure and between them the graves fan out. At the far end is a cenotaph which commemorates the cremation of about 400 Hindu soldiers.
The whole site is excellently cared for; we were to meet briefly one of the local gardeners after the service on the Sunday but, sadly, he was not introduced and language limitations prevented us from properly expressing our thanks to him and his colleagues for the love and attention which is so obviously lavished on the whole site.
On Remembrance Sunday the weather was absolutely glorious with a gently breeze and lovely sunshine. We got there in good time, of course, and gradually others joined us. A local ex-pat website had advertised the service and the congregation eventually numbered just over fifty. As I had prepared only 20 service sheets, having no idea whether numbers of attendees would be large or small, strangers found themselves sharing and this added to the sense of goodwill that abounded. Most of those present were British, with a sprinkling of locals. Some of the British had come from far away. One family had come from Cornwall to lay a wreath on a relative’s grave, and had arrived in the area on the Saturday with no idea that there would be a service. Naturally they were delighted to discover a crowd gathering.
Over the last 40-plus years, I have led many Remembrance Sunday Services in every kind of weather that the English climate can produce. I can remember snow, rain, fog, gales and even autumnal stillness, but never hot sunshine. The Order of Service was based on the British Legion version, but freely adapted to the Italian Campaign circumstances and the the Italy Star Association. One nice touch was that we were able to display prominently at the foot of the Memorial Cross an Italy Star Association Standard which Mary Tidy had posted to me earlier in the hope that we would be able to use it.
The Service went very smoothly and seemed to be very appropriate for the setting; many people found it moving and lots lingered among the graves for quite a while after it had ended. This gave everyone an opportunity to talk, to renew old friendships and to begin new ones.
The occasion ended with about 20 or so moving off to a restaurant about fifteen miles away and lingering over lunch. Eventually only a few were left; with the Harveys and our new Cornish friends, Rex and Pat and their son Paul (sadly I did not learn their surname) adjourned to our Terry and Karen Doyle’s home for tea and more talk. Terry is confident that he will be able to locate the original grave of Rex’s relative from a photograph that the family left with him, so Email addresses were left and the party broke up with genuine expressions of friendship.
However, our visit to Val di Sangro was to have one more element. Our flight back to the UK was not until the evening of Tuesday 11 November. So, after thanking the Doyles for their extremely generous hospitality, we were able to return to the Cemetery in the early afternoon and pay our respects to the Fallen on Remembrance Day itself. This we duly did. As we arrived at the Cemetery, however, an Italian family were just leaving. To my mind, they demonstrated by their visit that the costliness and sacrifice of the Italian Campaign still has a powerful place in the hearts of those who live in the locality.