Fontanellato Lunch 2008

The guest speaker at the 2008 Fontanellato luncheon, held at the Royal Overseas Club on 4 November, was Professor Hugo de Burgh, whose father, Lt.Col. Hugo de Burgh, was Senior British Officer at Fontanellato PoW camp.

Among the more than 50 guests present at the luncheon were Col. de Burgh’s widow, Mrs Lucy de Burgh, who worked on the the Allied Screening Commission that rewarded about 70,000 Italians for helping escaping PoWs. Also present was Mrs Wanda Newby, the widow of Eric Newby, a former prisoner at Fontanellato and author of many books including Love and War in the Appenines. The couple first met after Eric’s escape from Fontanellato, with a broken ankle. Grace before luncheon was said by Major Maurice Goddard (Fontanellato) and the Toast of Thanks to the Italian People was given by Ian Laing, an MSMT trustee.

Below is Prof de Burgh’s address to the trustees and guests, entitled “the return of the past and the future of the MSMT”:

“Terrible events have unexpected consequences. They can give us opportunities. Chairman Mao was once asked about the assassination of President Kennedy. “What if,” [his questioner asked] Russia’s President Kruschev had been assassinated instead of Kennedy?” The chairman thought carefully, and replied: “Aristotle Onassis could have married Mrs Kruschev.”

As a teenager I went to the Florentine apartment of an architect called Boldrini. Boldrini had organised escape routes for Allied agents and Jewish refugees in the 1940s. I was excited to find that he had a false wall in his house, false doors camouflaged as bookcases which swung noiselessly open if you knew how. Equipment, disguises, even people had been hidden there. A great deal of clever carpentry had been applied. He said to me:”Danger makes you stretch yourself. Had there been no Nazis I would never have become my own carpenter.”

Had our fathers and grandfathers not been imprisoned you and I would not be here today. I would not have met Gordon Lett, or read Stuart Hood’s novels, or received wonderful letters from Philip Kindersley, Tom Craig, Peter Langrishe, Ian English, Maurice Goddard or many others or done some work with Ian Laing and with Rivers Scott. And Keith Killby would not have set up the MSMT.

The Trust has been the vehicle by which we realise an opportunity: to honour courage, to show gratitude, to admire heroes. These are all good things. But I think that today there is a further opportunity. And I am going to urge your Chairman and your trustees and you to consider it.

It is my mother’s recollections of the war in Italy, and the stories that I heard on that first sentiero which The Trust walked together in 2003 that have moved me. As many of you know my mother was a young British intelligence officer in Italy in the 1940s. She started her army work on the Atrocities File, recording the most vile activities of Himmler’s SS as they slaughtered their way around Europe. Later she went with our invading forces to Italy. She made her office in the Royal Palace of Caserta with Field Marshall Alexander. She witnessed battles, she saw the occupation of Rome by Allied forces. But mostly what she remembers is the poverty and destruction around her; the awful detritus of war. These are some of the things she has said to me:

1. Wherever I went there were beggars, emaciated children without shoes or shirts, crying out for anything to eat. People made fires in the ruins of their homes to try to keep their babies and their grandfathers alive. 2. When we arrived in Rome we gave a reception for the grand people of the city. They arrived in beautiful clothes sagging over hungry bodies. They arrived with large handbags; while the Allied officers fasted and pretended not to see, the snacks we had put out were shovelled into handbags to be taken away to feed families. 3. Every night outside the soldiers’ barracks hundreds of women queued, from teenagers to grandmothers, selling themselves for a meal to keep their loved ones alive.

As a specialist on atrocities, my mother knew very well what the Head of the SS and his associates had done; yet when she was among the captors of Himmler’s wife and daughters, she registered only awed pity. She wrote: ‘Mrs Himmler and her daughter were ragged. I remember most the fear and hunger in their eyes. The Tommies jeered as they made them run to the lavatory. Mrs Himmler was so thin and frightened and so pathetic. She was laughed at and sneered at by our soldiers; when I gave her daughter some biscuits, mother and daughter both wept.’

Why am I telling you all this? Because this kind of suffering is still going on. I am thinking of course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Until recently, many imagined that the differences which make wars possible might be at an end. That in the new, globalised, world everybody is somewhere on the road to becoming like England or the USA. But the last few years, and in particular this year [2008], have put an end to such illusions. Last August there were two particularly dramatic demonstrations of the changes that are taking place in the world order. On the one hand China proved itself in the eyes of ordinary people as a great power [at the Olympic Games]. A great power competing with the USA as a model. We may criticise China’s human rights record as much as we like, but most people in the world pay no attention. After all, they reason, why should the Chinese take lessons from the powers which occupy Iraq and Afghanistan? We can no longer assume that we are going to see every country in the world copying us. The Muslim world is resisting conversion. Many countries want to become like China.

Second, and more ominous, the Russians showed us that the world is not one big happy family but that they intend to assert their interests and their attitudes just as they did in the 19th century. In other words, the past has returned. The past – well understood in 1945 – has returned, in the sense that the globalisation of beliefs and culture so beloved of Tony Blair is receding. When Mr Blair encouraged President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, he posed as a crusader, even a messiah. A new world was being made. The Iraqis and perhaps later the Iranians and Chinese, would be made to have politics just as fabulous as ours and a media almost as brilliant. This year China and Russia have shown that this world will not come about. And that if we try to make it come about, boys from Cardiff and Tyneside and Peckham will die.

In the present conflicts those who suffered most are still suffering: the widows, the orphaned, the maimed; those who lost their homes, their livelihoods and those they loved. It was those things – in another war – that my mother remembers. As did we all when we walked the sentieri. The original purpose of the MSMT was to give thanks to those people who gave succor to British fugitives. The Italians who helped risked their lives and their whole communities.

Today, the message of the Trust is, it seems to me, two-fold. First, war produces heroes, like the people who saved the lives of our fathers and grandfathers. Just as evil must be found and punished, so must the good be celebrated. Terrible events have unexpected consequences. They gave us this opportunity. But second, there is in what Trust does a message of equal significance: it is that war destroys not only soldiers but much more than soldiers. War is not, as men like Mussolini and Rumsfeld and Milosevic and Blair like to believe, a matter of cavalry charges or lightening strikes or screen games.

War is all about what we now call collateral damage. Collateral damage used to be called slaughter of civilians, destruction of civilised life, pillage, torture and unexploded bombs. The generations who have not lived through this – myself included – do not know that this IS war. How can we try to make sure that they ARE less ignorant? That they can imagine the suffering which is called ‘collateral damage’? The Trust knows this – it could teach it. The generations inheriting the Trust could make this an objective for the still new century, sharing the insights of our founders.

Many years ago when I was a boy my mother took me to Genoa to meet Alfredo Bregante. My father and two other British soldiers, fleeing from the Germans, had hidden in Bregante’s barn. The Germans came, searched the barn but did not find the three soldiers. Had they done so they would almost certainly have shot Bregante and his family. I said to Bregante, when I met him: I am afraid my father brought you a lot of danger and worry. I have never forgotten Bregante’s reply. He gave a great grin and laughed, his shoulders shaking. ‘No,’ he said, ‘tuo padre mi ha fatto scoprire che persino io ho abbastanza corragio di aiutare gli altri.’ [‘No,’ he said, ‘he allowed me to discover that even I have a little courage with which to help others.’]

The world has changed since Keith Killby first set up the Trust years ago. I suggest to you –I ask you to consider – that the Trust can have a further function, just as important. Let’s think how we can fulfill it, as a further memorial to those we salute as we meet today. Terrible events have unexpected consequences. Some of them are the opportunities we need.”