After my journey to an Italian war cemetery, Remembrance Day will never feel the same
Bill came home; Arch did not. My visit to my great-uncle's grave has transformed me
We drove over the Sangro in a split second; this couldn't possibly be the same river that took the Allies weeks to cross, costing more than 2,500 lives?
Circling back, I checked Google Maps to make sure we were in the right place.
The meandering, chalky stream below us was no wider and a fair bit calmer than Rennie's River in St. John's, where it flows under a bridge on Elizabeth Avenue.
It was difficult to imagine the Sangro as a raging river, but in November 1943, there were heavy rains and the Germans opened upstream reservoirs, flooding this wide flat valley, turning earth into hip-deep mud.
Battle plans were delayed and bridges abandoned as the water rose and the river spread.
The Sangro anchored the Eastern side of the Germans' Gustav Line, a series of natural and man-made fortifications protecting their hold on Rome and preventing the Allies from advancing north.
It would be the first major battle for the Allies on the Adriatic side of Italy, and it would cost them a lot of lives. General Bernard Montgomery rallied the British, Indian and New Zealand troops by claiming it would represent a "colossal crack" in the enemy's defences.
Two and half years would pass before the enemy surrendered.
I'm here in Italy, to find the Sangro River War Cemetery and the grave of my great-uncle, Archibald Fisher.
He and Gunner Ron White were the first two Newfoundland casualties in the Italian campaign.
I will be the first member of my immediate family to pay respects at the gravesite.
Motivated to go to war
Arch was 28 when he joined up. His mother, Caroline, ran the Victory Tea Room in Windsor, Newfoundland. Family lore has it that when Arch announced he was going to war, Caroline asked his older brother Bill to go along and "look after him."
Bill came home. Arch didn't.
The 166th Royal Newfoundland Artillery landed on "the boot" of Italy in October 1943 via the port of Taranto. On their way from North Africa, they stopped for a swim in Malta Harbour (they were denied shore leave) and sailed past a smoking Vesuvius to land in a country that had just declared war on Nazi Germany, their former Axis partners.
They were in Italy for less than a month when they arrived at the Sangro.
Someone recently sent me a worn copy of a newspaper clipping with a photo of Bill Fisher, leaning on a truck waiting for word from his younger brother Arch. The cutline places the date of the image as Nov. 29, the day Arch died. It reads:
"Sergeant Cec Morgan of St. John's, Driver W. Fisher of Grand Falls, Signalman G. Wakely of St. John's, Signalman Bill Hammond of Bell Island, all members of the 166th Newfoundland Regiment resting before they cross the River Sangro, Italy, under incessant shell fire to lay a line for the advanced Observation Post. (Driver Fisher's brother Signalman A. Fisher was killed in action on the same day this photo was taken in November, 1943, while carrying wireless for advanced Observation Post across the River Sangro.)"
Questions, and the answers I'll never know
Did Bill suspect his brother wouldn't come back from the enemy side of the river? Was he told of Arch's death hours, days or minutes after this picture was snapped?
Unfortunately, I never had a chance to ask Bill those questions.
Listed as gunners, Arch Fisher and Ron White would've been among the very first Allied soldiers to cross the swaying pontoon bridge.
Sent to the enemy side as signallers, they would've crossed under heavy German fire. Their mission was to lay telephone lines so German targets could be communicated to the regiment's guns.
Arch and Ron would've crossed on foot, or with mules, and struggled through deep mud in complete darkness. They would've been looking for safe places to string the telephone line, places where the wire wouldn't be cut by enemy fire or trampled by tanks.
They were, no doubt, feeling their way along an unfamiliar route that was heavily mined by the enemy. The Germans has been waiting for the Allied attack for weeks and were well dug in and protected by concrete pillboxes.
They had very experienced Panzer divisions and the support of the Luftwaffe waiting for the Allies.
The rich colours of the countryside
This October, the Sangro Valley was a riot of greens, not army colours, but chartreuse grape vines and sugar cane, silver olives, jade citrus, almonds and cacti.
Standing on the valley floor looking up at Mozzagrogna, I wonder where exactly Arch Fisher and Ron White died. Harold Lake mentions their deaths in his wartime memoir, Maybe They Left Us Up There.
"Ron White, an old school friend of mine, and Arch Fisher lost their lives near Mozzagrogna. The next day the Royal Engineers used a bulldozer to clear the road of dead bodies of Germans and Indian soldiers and a dozen donkeys that were caught in the shellfire. We were saddened to see the Newfoundland shoulder flashes amongst the dead."
The Sangro River War Cemetery may be the second-largest Allied cemetery after Cassino, but it's certainly not a place you'd stumble upon.
We see a small marker, the kind you'd find on the East Coast Trail, that says "cimitero inglese." We follow the sign, pulling in behind a tractor, passing a roadside prayer niche and climbing a hill through a farmyard. Geese, mules and chickens watch us drive past.
The tractor turns off and we bump along a single-track road through olive groves, backyards and small groupings of stucco houses until we're on the ridge overlooking the valley with an clear blue view of the Adriatic coast.
We're about to turn back, thinking we've taken a wrong turn, when I glimpse the curving rows of marble gravestones set against an emerald lawn. There are more than 2,500 graves here for soldiers from England, Scotland, Ireland, India, Pakistan, Nepal, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
Sixteen Newfoundlanders from the 166th Artillery Regiment are buried here: Archibald Fisher, Ron White, E. Williams, W.E.G. Hopkins, J. Murray, E.L. Bowen, J.J. Veitch, J.C. Conway, S. Moore, J.P. Kent. L.G. Burton, H. Greenhalgh, H.M. Thistle, R.G. Childs, R. Bursey and J. J. Hanlon.
That they are buried together as a regiment is, somehow, a comfort.
An incredibly quiet place
Although not all of the men died in the 1943 battle to cross the river below, they all died during the Second World War on this area of Italy, south of Ortona and east of Cassino.
The cemetery is meticulously kept, the grassy expanse of graves is surrounded by a massive manicured hedge and tall oak trees.
There are swooping marble walkways and monuments and it's incredibly quiet place in the centre of a sweeping olive grove.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is responsible for the upkeep on land gifted by the Italian people.
It was an incredibly moving experience to visit Arch's grave, connecting me to my family history. I felt a special connection there to my late father who, as a child, was devastated by his favourite uncle's death.
But the experience of seeing the battle site and and the thousands of graves here also gave new substance to the abstract sentiment of loss I've formerly felt on Remembrance Days past.
This Nov. 11, my sadness for Archibald Fisher's loss is mixed with profound pride in my family's connection to the 166th (Newfoundland) Royal Artillery Regiment and to the many brave men from all the nations who gathered here to fight fascism.