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WAR CEMETERY
November 13, 2008
 
As part of his duties as rectory cat, Ben terminated the vestry meeting precisely at nine o'clock last evening in the same way he had ended the one the month before, by leaping onto a chair and quacking an adjournment. Ben doesn't hold with long meetings; he thinks that that no meeting should last longer than two hours.

It was a good meeting. Even I thought so, and I think that the only good meeting is a dead one. I cleared away the water glasses and climbed the stairs. It had been a long day, long and dark and rainy. And cold, for here: cold in the courtyard, cold in the little chapel, cold and rainy walking along Borgo Ognissanti. A nice warm bed was a pleasing prospect.

It had been cold in the morning, too, at the war cemetery in via Aretina. It is beautiful, and so carefully kept: the representative from the Comune thanked its custodians, bashful men in blue coveralls standing in the rain with their heads respectfully uncovered, for taking such tender care of those who sleep there. The crowd nodded appreciatively: the rabbi, the English vicar, the Monsignore, the old men in their threadbare Resistance neckerchiefs. There were not many of us: twenty, at most.

The dead outnumbered us. 1,632 are buried there, and another 4,402 in the American cemetery in via Cassia, with 1,409 names inscribed on Tablets of the Missing. Age 25, age 21, age 23, age 29. I laid my white rose on the grave of a soldier who was 18 when he died here.

Ah, me.

They missed so many things. Marriage. Children. The bitterwseet wonder of aging, its growing bemusement at the illusion we call time. A natural death. They didn't have the chance to know any of these things. By now, most of them already would have known the last.

If not for the war.

We get one life, here on the earth. One only. The ones who send the young into battle don't go themselves, as a rule. I hope they understand what they are taking away when they give such an order, but I wonder if they really do. I've often fantasized about the world turning to jousting or fencing as our means of settling international disputes, and letting the heads of state do the dirty work themselves, one on one.

The service was short. We did not sing "O God Our Help in Ages Past," and I wish we had. But I wasn't in charge. I'm not in charge of much; hardly any of us are. We just mark the great events of human history, both the grace notes and the abysmal failures, and then we turn back to the busness of life, walking on through the time given us. Most of that is taken up with meetings, meals, idle talk, sleep, housecleaning and fooling around on Facebook. Many of us -- most, probably -- walk it almost unaware of just how short it really is, until it is over.
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On 3 September 1943 the Allies invaded the Italian mainland, the invasion coinciding with an armistice made with the Italians who then re-entered the war on the Allied side. Following the fall of Rome to the Allies in June 1944, the German retreat became ordered and successive stands were made on a series of defensive positions known as the Trasimene, Arezzo, Arno and Gothic Lines. Florence, which was taken by the Allied forces on 13 August 1944, was the centre of the Arno line and the point from which the attack on the German Gothic Line defences in the Apennines was launched. The site for the war cemetery was selected in November 1944 for burials from the hospitals established in and around Florence but the greater part of those buried here lost their lives in the fighting in this area from July to September 1944. After the war, 83 graves were moved into the cemetery from nearby Arrow Route Cemetery, when it proved impossible to acquire the site in perpetuity. Most of these burials were from the fighting in the Apennines during the winter of 1944-1945. Florence War Cemetery now contains 1,632 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War.
--- Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

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The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial site in Italy covers 70 acres, chiefly on the west side of the Greve "torrente." The wooded hills that frame its west limit rise several hundred feet. Between the two entrance buildings, a bridge leads to the burial area where the headstones of 4,402 of our military dead are arrayed in symmetrical curved rows upon the hillside. They represent 39 percent of the U.S. Fifth Army burials originally made between Rome and the Alps. Most died in the fighting that occurred after the capture of Rome in June 1944. Included among them are casualties of the heavy fighting in the Apennines shortly before the war's end. On May 2, 1945, the enemy troops in northern Italy surrendered.

Above the graves, on the topmost of three broad terraces, stands the memorial marked by a tall pylon surmounted by a large sculptured figure. The memorial has two open atria, or courts, joined by the Tablets of the Missing upon which are inscribed 1,409 names. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. The atrium at the south end of the Tablets of the Missing serves as a forecourt to the chapel, which is decorated with marble and mosaic. The north atrium contains the marble operations maps recording the achievements of the American armed forces in this region.
---American Battle Monuments Commission website

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