Cassino: They came from all of India’s major faiths, Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu. Some were as young as 16 years old. Yet all of them died over 60 years ago, fighting in a continent and for a country that wasn’t their own.
These are the 5,782 Indian soldiers who died in Italy during World War II fighting against the Nazis and Italian Fascists.For the first time since 1945, their contribution to the liberation of Italy has been commemorated in a special ceremony.
“”… we want to remember all these acts that led to freedom for other people and the Indian soldiers fight, effort and sacrifice here which led to freedom in Italy,” said Rajiv Dogra.
Dogra was speaking at a ceremony to honor the sacrifice of Indian soldiers last Thursday at the Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in Cassino, about 120 kilometres south of the Italian capital Rome.
Cassino was the site of one of the fiercest battles fought between Allied troops and German forces between 1943 and 1944. Among the 4,000 Allied troops buried at the cemetery are 431 Indian soldiers.
Their tombstones include their names, their religion and their ages. Some have inscriptions in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi.
Others are simply anonymous, referring only to an “A soldier of the Indian army” – testament to the many unknown Indian soldiers killed in the battle at Cassino.
A total of 50,000 Indian troops fought on Italian soil and almost half of them were injured in battle. Of the 20 soldiers who received the former British Empire’s highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross, for combat in Italy, six were given to Sikh Indian soldiers.
The troops from the subcontinent were crucial in the liberation of cities such as Bologna, San Marino, Ferrara, Lucca and Florence.
“Indian soldiers were there in Florence, they were there in the Uffizi Gallery,” said Dogra, referring to the world famous museum in the central Italian city which includes works by Renaissance masters like Michelangelo.
“Otherwise all those artifacts, those precious paintings, those wonderful monuments, they would not have been here for us to appreciate,” he said.
Indian and Italian soldiers laid wreaths at the cemetery last Thursday as a sign of respect for the sacrifice made by the Indian forces over 60 years ago.
The Italian deputy defense minister Emidio Casula as well diplomats from other countries in the British Commonwealth also attended the event.
One special guest was Alessandro Cortese de Bosis, 81, a retired Italian ambassador who served as a liaison officer to the 8th Indian Infantry Division during the war. He was only 18 when he fought alongside the Indian troops.
“I think at this moment when we speak about a clash of civilizations, of a dialogue between religions and various communities and the integration of foreign immigrants in this country, let’s remember that Indian soldiers and Pakistani soldiers, over 20,000 of them were casualties in the war and they fought for the liberation of my country,” de Bosis told us.
De Bosis is an honorary member of The Punjab Frontier Force Association and still maintains contact with many of the Indian veterans of the war, whom he describes as “among the best soldiers”.
While the cemetery at Cassino and four others in Italy are filled with many tales of courage and sacrifice, the deployment of Indian soldiers to Italy in World War II also spawned love stories.
Indian diplomat, Birender Lall, was 28-years-old when he decided to volunteer for the British Indian Army in 1943. He was sent to the southern Italian port city of Naples, where a young Italian woman, Romilda Schettini, spotted him from the balcony of her uncle’s house.
“I fell in love with him and he didn’t even know me. It was love at first sight,” said Schettini as she recalled how her romance began with Lall. A year later, Schettini married the young Indian soldier, first at the British consulate and then at the Naples town hall, wearing a sari.
“Many people have asked me to make a movie,” said Schettini, in an interview with AKI. “It seems common today but in 1944, my case was very rare,” said the 84 year-old, who now goes by the name of Mrs. Lall.
After the wedding the couple moved to India and spent 27 years there, bringing up her three daughters, Ushabella, Mirabella and Tarabella.
The family eventually returned to Italy in 1974 and Birender Lall died four years later. “He was my universe, “ she said. “The marriage changed my life completely.” “Even now that I have been back in Italy since 1974, I feel I am an Indian.”