THE MORO RIVER CEMETERY
By Stan Scislowski
Stan Scislowski was born in 1923 and enlisted in the Canadian infantry shortly after his 19th birthday. He did basic training at Stratford, Ontario, went to Camp Ipperwash for advanced training and boarded the troop ship Andes on 10th May 1943. After arrival in England, he was posted to No 3 Canadian Infantry Training Unit in Aldershot and went with a draft to the Perth Regiment on 5th August 1943. Stan served in Italy and Belgium until the end of the war, and was wounded in the Gothic Line fighting.
The author of his memoirs in Italy, Not All Of Us Were Brave (available from Chapters.ca) , Stan lives in Windsor, Ontario. During the 1970s he went on several pilgrimages to the battlefields, and the account below describes a visit to the Moro War Cemetery in 1975.
Thanks to Stan for allowing me to feature it here.
Situated on a flat plateau, the cemetery overlooks the Adriatic Sea near the mouth of the Moro River. The site is not nearly as impressive as that of Cassino War Cemetery. The land is quite flat except for the gullies and shallow river valleys that cut their way through the farmlands. Fifty kilometres to the southwest rises the great white crowned Monte Maiella. It was this majestic mountain that looked down on the winter front battlefields stretching from tiny Guardiagrele at its base, through Orsogna, thence northeastwards past Poggiofiorito into the valley of the Arielli at Crecchio and on to the Adriatic near the mouth of the Riccio River. Those of us who 'did time' on this misery saturated winter front have long remembered this mountain and the battle ravaged
countryside over which it stood sentinel.
Work on the Moro River Cemetery began shortly after the enemy pulled back from Ortona but it wasn't until the war ended that all the bodies were exhumed from the many individual regimental plots and isolated grave sites and were brought together and reburied here. Of the 1615 graves, 1375 are Canadian, due to the fact that the area in the vicinity of Ortona right through to
Orsogna at the southern extremity of the Orsogna/Ortona lateral road had been largely a Canadian battlefield. As the years went by improvements were continually made till it reached its present state of unaffected attractiveness.
The visitors enter through an arch that is actually a part of the tiny Church of San Donato. The church is little more than a roadside shrine. As at Cassino, the moment our eyes fall upon the wide spread of white headstones in perfect alignment, we are immediately moved by the memories of those who lie beneath them. White pergolas draped with wisteria and cloaked in vines catch our attention, but only for a moment, as our eyes are drawn instead to those mute stones standing in long rows, stark in the sunshine of the mid afternoon. Flowers and small shrubs bright with colour grow at the base of each stone, while along the seaward side tall and slender Lombardy poplars serve to break the openness of the cemetery.
As it's stated in the book, Silent Witnesses, a Canadian War Museum publication, the designers, in a stroke of thoughtfulness, included in the plan two gnarled olive trees which grow near the entrance. How many olive trees had we slept under, or hung our underwear and other clothing on to dry? Or how many olive groves was it that we had to fight our way through? These questions
come to mind. And how many of our boys last saw the light of day beneath the spreading branches of an olive tree? Too many.
An uncommonly cool wind blowing in from off the Adriatic sighed through the leaves of the poplar trees bordering the Cemetery as the Service of Remembrance was about to begin. I remember much colder winds blowing through these same fields way back then when 1st Div. wallowed about in the mud here in the constant cold and gray rainy days of November and December 1943. And later when 5th Div. joined their brothers-in-arms, I can never forget how we all shivered and shook in the frigid snow and sleet gales of January and February. At that time, low in spirit, always cold and patrol weary to the point of dropping, we couldn't but help wonder if the weather and not Jerry was the greater enemy.
The Service was a carbon copy of the one held at Cassino except for the different Italian officials and personalities taking part. The address as given by the Hon. Daniel MacDonald, covered the feelings, I am sure, of all the Campaign veterans in the Pilgrimage who had taken part in the epic battles that began at the Moro, swept through the gullies on the approaches to Ortona,
and built to a climax in the vicious house to house, street to street, block to block fighting that went on for a full week in the seaside town. His talk also evoked memories of the many, but no less fierce battalion and company size engagements that almost daily scourged the river valleys and the farmyards all along that winter front; of the nightly patrols and the ambushes; of the constant threat of shell and mortar fire: of standing on guard in soggy slit trenches for hours on end; and finally, of the misery of living day to endless day in the bleak conditions of weather, land, and personal discomfort.
The Veterans Affairs Minister, a platoon commander with the Cape Breton Highlanders at that time, did not forget to mention the overall friendship and trust that grew between the Canadians and the Italian farmers or 'paisanos' and their families on whose land the battles were fought. It was only right that he should have, for we remembered how, more often than not, the hungry people shared what little pasta or rock-hard bread and uovas (eggs) they had in their meagre larders, with the Canadians who had come into their midst. They shared it with these strangers who had come to live with them for a time in the presence of death and mutual adversity. And, we Canadians likewise shared with them what we had in the way of rations. We gave them our beloved(?) bullybeef, our tasty(??) margarine, and our mouth-watering(???) mutton stew and steak & kidney pudding. Whatever we could manage to scrounge through barter or outright theft we exchanged with these impoverished people for the far more palatable eggs, or pasta, or sausage to supplement the bland mishmash of rations the company cooks tried to or were forced to palm off on us.
Once again, as the lingering, last notes of the Lament died on the brisk breeze blowing across the cemetery we began our melancholy walk along the rows of headstones. I soon came to the stone marking Joe Gallant's grave. Joe came from Prince Edward Island, and everyone of us in the platoon felt strongly that Joe should have been given a job somewhere in the back areas or at least in echelon because he was too old to go into battle. He's the kind of guy you find in every outfit, and they always get hung with the moniker "Pop". I stood close by the stone, head bowed in silence as memory took me back to that grim morning of our first day in battle. Joe, was the oldest man in the platoon.
And he was the first to die.