Monday, July 30, 2012

The War of Greece

It is unfortunate that war ever broke out between Italy and Greece. The two countries share a great deal of history between them. In ancient times, Greece was part of the Roman Empire and many prominent Romans in the time of the republic and many Roman Emperors were greatly attracted to Greek culture and Greek scholars played a significant role in making Imperial Rome as great and advanced as it was. During the era of the Byzantine Empire, Italians were allies as well as antagonists. In the last days of the empire, during the siege of Constantinople, many of those defending the city from the Ottoman Turks were Italian mercenaries from the great city-states. During the Greek War for Independence, many Italians volunteered to fight alongside the Greeks. At one time, King Vittorio Emanuele II hoped that his younger son, the Duke of Aosta, might become the King of Greece to further cement Greco-Italian ties. During the struggle for Crete many Italians volunteered to fight with the Greeks even before all of Italy had been liberated from foreign control. Giuseppe Garibaldi II was only one of the many Italians who fought for Greece in the 1897 war with Turkey over Crete.

Metaxas regime in Greece
However, over the years, tensions had increased between the Greek and Italian kingdoms. During World War I, Greek irregular forces had moved into southern Albania, operating on their own prior to Greek involvement in the war. These forces were driven out by the Royal Italian Army which had long had interest in Albania and which hoped to (and eventually did) establish a broad front across the southern Balkans against the forces of Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary. These tensions increased after the war with nationalist regimes coming to power in both countries; Benito Mussolini in Italy and Ioannis Metaxas in Greece. Relations became even more strained as Great Britain and France became more hostile toward Italy while the Greeks, especially King George II, became more strongly pro-British (Metaxas was pro-German). The Greeks also wished for Italy to turn over the Dodecanese Islands (won by Italy in the 1911 war with Turkey) to be turned over to them but Mussolini refused. Metaxas also began building up the Greek military and building fortifications along the Bulgarian border and Bulgaria, whose queen was the daughter of the King of Italy, was an Italian ally. Following the Italian annexation of Albania, Italy also inherited the border disputes between Albania and Greece over the Northern Epirus region which also added to the troubles.

Generale Tellini
In 1923 the Italian General Enrico Tellini along with three aides were murdered in Greece which greatly outraged public opinion in Italy. When Greece refused to arrest the culprits or pay reparations Mussolini ordered Italian troops to occupy the island of Corfu, which then belonged to Greece but which had previously been Italian as an outpost of the Republic of Venice. Everything became worse with the outbreak of World War II. Italian intelligence reports had warned for some time that Greece was being used as a haven for French and British forces and as a base of operations for subversive activity against the Italian government. With the Greek military build-up there was also a build-up in worry in the Italian military that Greece would attack Albania while Italian strength was concentrated elsewhere. Mussolini may have also thought of using a war against Greece as a way of drawing British forces away from North Africa, weakening them sufficiently for Marshal Rodolfo Graziani and his desert army to take Egypt and close the Suez Canal.

Unfortunately for Rome, Italy was not prepared for a war with Greece. Mussolini eagerly believed those who downplayed the strength of the Greek military and exaggerated the number of Italian warplanes, artillery and munitions. Marshal Pietro Badoglio argued that it would take at least twenty divisions to attack Greece, even with only the minimal goals of some minor gains in the Epirus region, a very rugged area. However, Mussolini listened to his general in Albania who said that the forces already deployed, reinforced by only three extra divisions, would be sufficient to defeat the Greeks. Even when Italian intelligence learned that Greece had a far larger army than previously thought and all concentrated in the mountains near Albania, General Visconti Prasca, failed to pass this information on and continued to assure Mussolini that the Greek army numbered only about 30,000 men who could be easily swept aside by the veteran Italian forces. Nonetheless, Mussolini sent Metaxas an ultimatum demanding that Greece allow Italian forces to occupy key strategic points. Metaxas was a proud nationalist and would never accept such an ultimatum. Additionally, France and Great Britain had already given a war guarantee to Greece which would have discouraged the Greeks from making any concessions for the sake of peace. As Metaxas said, “Well, it is war”.

Primitive transportation
On October 28, 1940 the seven divisions of the Italian IX and XI armies advanced in four columns across the Albanian frontier into Greece. As expected, the British immediately sent support in the form of five RAF squadrons with 400 Wellington bombers and Hurricanes to aid the Greeks. The Greeks themselves were putting of strong and determined resistance and were also helped by the British cracking Italian codes and then passing on information on the Italian plans to the Greeks who were then able to prepare for almost every move the Italian armies made. The Greek army had never been stronger, Metaxas had enlarged their ranks and made them better armed and organized than they had ever been, plus they were fighting a defensive war on their own ground with patriotic fervor. On the other side, the Italian forces were undermanned and badly equipped with most of her weaponry being badly outdated and unreliable. By this time, the Italian military had been worn down by fighting a number of smaller wars, in Libya, in Ethiopia, in Spain and in Albania, all of which were victories but which were draining on the men and equipment nonetheless. The troops on the ground were often outnumbered and outgunned while British and Italian pilots clashed in the skies overhead. The terrain favored the defenders and the weather was terrible. In every way the Greeks had proven the over-confident Mussolini wrong and held every advantage over the Italians.

Nonetheless, the Italians were tenacious fighters as well and their performance during the Greek War is one of the most unfair mischaracterizations in history. Italian troops advanced 40 km into Greece along the coast while battle-groups detached from the Julia Alpini Division overcame rugged terrain and heavy Greek resistance to secure the Metsovon pass while the Littoral Group and Aosta Lancers established a bridgehead across the Kalamas River, enabling the Julia Alpini to fend off heavy Greek counter-attacks by General Papagos who was trying to surround them, holding out until the Bersaglieri arrived to break the Greek ring of fire. Italian forces dug in and waited for re-supply and reinforcements but were slowly pushed back by heavy Greek attacks. Those forces along the coast also came under overwhelming attack and were pushed back, giving ground grudgingly but taking heavy casualties until some Greek forces pushed beyond the border into southern Albania.

MVSN troops on the Albanian front
By January 10, 1941 the Greeks had driven out the Italian forces and captured the vital Klisura Junction. Metaxas, however, let these victories make him overconfident and the Greek and Italian forces switched roles. Metaxas turned down offers of further British assistance, thinking that his army had beaten the Italians, even boasting that the Greek army would soon be marching down the streets of Rome. Just like the over-confident Mussolini the year before, Metaxas was soon proven wrong. Now it was the Greek supply lines that were over-extended and vulnerable and the Italians who were fighting a defensive war with the ground and bad weather in their favor. Winter conditions robbed the Greeks of their air cover, Italian forces inflicted heavy losses on the Greeks and much of their supplies and equipment were lost to Italian counter-attacks. Humbled, King George II had to ask Great Britain to send in reinforcements to assist in holding the line. British assistance poured in and British air and naval attacks on Italian forces and Italy itself increased, sometimes with horrific results as British forces attacked five Italian rescue vessels whose duty was to pluck helpless pilots from the sea. Some of those killed even included British pilots who had been rescued by the Italian boats. More horrible was the British sinking of the Italian hospital ship “California” at Syracuse in August and the hospital ship “Arno” off Tobruk a few weeks later.

Carabinieri on guard in Greece
The Regia Marina provided great service in successfully and safely ferrying over huge amounts of supplies, men and munitions from Italy to Albania during the war with Greece, moving an entire expeditionary force in only 10 days time without losses. Earlier, one Italian troopship had been sunk by a Greek submarine but all but 3 of the 200 men onboard were rescued and the Greek sub was later rammed and sunk by the Italian destroyer “Antares”. Reinforced and re-supplied, the Italians launched a massive counter-attack on the Greek lines, despite still being outnumbered by as much as 2-to-1. Losses were heavy, but the Italian troops pushed ahead, forcing the Greeks back. After a 10-day break the Italian forces advanced again, by this time in coordination with the Germans who were fresh off their victories in Yugoslavia and coming to help. Working in conjunction, they attacked through the Pindus, captured Ioannina and finally forced the Greeks to surrender. Italian troops would later occupy most of Greece and assist in the total conquest and occupation of Yugoslavia.

Alpini at the Parthenon
Because so many have a false impression of the Greek War, it is important to emphasize the point that Germany did not come rushing south to save the Italians from disaster as the situation is often portrayed. By the time the Germans intervened, the worst was over for Italy. They had suffered terrible reverses in the initial invasion of Greece but later stabilized the line, held firm and were starting to push ahead again when the Germans arrived. The Italian forces were in no danger of collapse or defeat. At worse, they were stalemated and at best beginning to make a major comeback once sufficient resources had been committed to the Albanian front. Germany was prompted to get involved in the Balkans, not because the Italians were in dire need of help, but because the pro-Axis ruler of Yugoslavia, the Prince-Regent Paul, had been overthrown and replaced by a pro-Allied government. This posed a threat to the southern flank of Germany which was preparing their massive invasion of the Soviet Union and could afford no distractions to focus all their attention on that massive enemy.

Another point which must be made is that there was never any plan to conquer all of Greece as some seem to imply. Mussolini stated his goals for the war were the annexation of the disputed Epirus region to the Kingdom of Albania, the restoration to Italian rule of those islands which had previously belonged to Venice and the replacement of the Greek government with one more friendly to Italy. Still confident, at that point, of victory over the British, Mussolini also planned to compensate Greece for her losses by giving the Greeks the island of Cyprus. The war was though an unfortunate affair for everyone involved. However, though the Greeks were understandably bitter and being under Italian occupation in most cases, they later realized that being under German occupation was far worse when the King of Italy dismissed Mussolini and Italy withdrew from the Axis pact. We can also highlight the positive cases of when, just like in the old days, the Greeks and Italians fought together instead of against each other such as in the heroic case of the island of Cefalonia where soldiers of the Italian Royal Army fought to defend the island and the local Greek populace from Nazi occupation. It was a courageous and compassionate affair and provides a thankfully positive note to end on.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Word on King Umberto I

It was on this day in 1900 that His Majesty King Umberto I of Italy was assassinated by an anarchist in Monza. It was a cruel and tragic fate for a man known as "the Good" King. His murderer was the Italian-American Gaetano Bresci who said it was done in retaliation for the so-called Bava-Beccaris massacre in Milan in 1898. For those who don't know, there are many claims and counter-claims and accusations about that event but the bottom line is that there were protests which turned to widespread rioting, endangering lives and property, and all of it pushed by the radical socialists. The government sent in the army to restore order under General Fiorenzo Bava-Beccaris who ended the rioting by having his troops fire on the crowd. When King Umberto I later decorated the general for his service to Italy and the House of Savoy this so infuriated Bresci that he immediately left America to return to Italy for the sole purpose of murdering the monarch. Despite the horror of the assassination, many have tried to generate sympathy for the murderer by slandering King Umberto over what happened in Milan. This is not only dishonest, it is grossly hypocritical in most cases.

In the first place, it is dishonest because the King, if he overreacted, did so on the basis of false information. He was being given reports of a revolution, not simply in Milan but threatening the whole country with partisan bands gathering at the Swiss border to launch a major attack on his country. What would any other leader have done in his place with those same reports? Biased sources make it sound as though the army went in with the intention to harm helpless, innocent people, something which really should be considered too ridiculous to take seriously. However, there were in fact many traitors, many republican socialists who were arrested. One of the republican socialists there at that time was none other than a young Benito Mussolini. This is where the hypocritical element comes into play. I am always astounded by those who so vociferously condemn the strict measures taken in response to the socialist riots at Milan, blaming it all on King Umberto I, yet these very same people are also the ones who usually condemn his son and heir King Vittorio Emanuele III for not declaring a state of siege and sending in the army during the "March on Rome" by the Fascist Blackshirts in 1922. One King is condemned for setting the army on "the people" while another King is condemned for not doing exactly that!

I have often wondered (and we can never know) if the memory of how his father was treated over using the army in Milan was going through the mind of Vittorio Emanuele III when he struggled to deal with the Fascists marching on Rome. If a state of siege had been declared, and the army sent in, how many people would have been killed? Would the chattering class feel the same outrage as they did over the events of 1898? I cannot help but wonder. The problem is that, when it comes to public disorders, one never knows how they are going to work out. Some come to nothing while others can grow larger and larger until the entire country is ruined. One thing is certain. Anyone who knows the facts about the life and character of King Umberto I should know that he would never do anything to intentionally harm his people. This was the King who spared the life of the man who tried to murder him shortly after coming to the throne, the King who went in person and gave from his own private funds to help those displaced by the floods in Verona and Venice in 1882 and the man who saved many lives after the earthquake in 1883 by ordering rescue operations to continue five days longer after others said all hope was lost. This was the King who gave generously to help the victims of the cholera epidemic in the south in 1884 and this was the King who, privately, without public notice, paid the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II in the aftermath of Adowa to buy the freedom of the Italian soldiers being held captive.

Umberto I was a "good" King, there should be no doubt, who did the best he could in all circumstances. His assassination was a tragedy for Italy and for the world as well as it was part of a trend of anarchist assassinations. Even for the United States as it was the regicide of Umberto I which inspired the anarchist assassination of U.S. President William McKinley the following year. Additionally, if he is to be criticized for using the troops in Milan in 1898, Vittorio Emanuele III should not be so criticized for not taking the same action in Rome in 1922.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Savoy Kings

Duke Vittorio Amedeo I

King Carlo Felice

King Carlo Alberto

King Carlo Emanuele III

King Carlo Emanuele IV

King Carlo Felice

King Carlo Emanuele IV

King Vittorio Amedeo III

King Vittorio Amedeo III

King Vittorio Emanuele I

King Vittorio Emanuele I

King Vittorio Amedeo II

King Vittorio Emanuele I

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Marshal of Italy Emilio De Bono

One of the most senior but actually least involved military leaders of the final years of the Kingdom of Italy was Marshal Emilio De Bono. He was born on March 19, 1866 in Cassano d’Adda in the Province of Milan. His father had been an officer in the Piedmontese army and arrived in Cassano in 1865. He met Emilia Bazzi, the daughter of a pharmacist, married her and Emilio was born soon after. As his father had been a career officer in the royal army it was perfectly natural for Emilio De Bono to choose the military life as well. He first attended the Milano Military College and then went on to the Modena Military Academy, graduating as a lieutenant in 1886. He volunteered for service in Africa and was sent with the III Bersaglieri regiment to the colonial conflict in Eritrea. His dedicated service earned him fairly steady promotion and by the outbreak of the war with Turkey in 1911 he was a lieutenant colonel. During that war De Bono saw his first service in Libya where he organized the naval supply bases at Misurata before being appointed chief of staff of the first special division.

When the Kingdom of Italy entered World War I, Colonel De Bono was chief of staff for the II Army Corps but he soon took a field assignment as the commander of the XV Bersaglieri regiment. The following year he was promoted to command the Trapani Brigade and won high praise for his actions in the capture of Gorizia in August. De Bono was promoted to general and given command of the Savona Brigade and later he was given command of the IX Army Corps which he led to victory at Monte Grappa in 1918, a feat which inspired a popular war song. As he had been at the beginning, General De Bono was there at the end as well, leading his men with reliable skill at the crushing Italian victory of Vittorio Veneto which finally forced Austria to agree to an armistice and exit the war. He was highly decorated for his service and assigned garrison duty in Verona. However, the government handling of the war, the peace settlement and the rise in radical Marxist organizations calling for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Italy pushed General De Bono into sympathy for the National Fascist Party of Benito Mussolini. It is important to note, however, that De Bono was not in favor of what the original Fascist program had been and his support, like that of many others, came after Mussolini considerably moderated his party platform for practical reasons.

General De Bono was always a patriotic Italian and a loyal subject of his King who, unlike Mussolini, believed in the monarchy as the embodiment of the history of Italy. De Bono became very close friends with Prince Emanuele Filiberto, Duke of Aosta who was also, of course, a monarchist but who also supported a more Italian nationalist position to strengthen, unite and embellish the country. De Bono had no experience in politics and no real interest in politics but he gave his support to the Fascists simply because they seemed to be in the best position to save Italy from the Marxist revolutionaries and build a more strong and proud country. Because he was so respected, and a general, the Fascists used De Bono to add respectability to their movement and capitalize on his fame. He was made inspector of the Blackshirt squads but was unimpressed with their discipline. Still, he served as one of the “Quadrumvirs” in the Fascist “March on Rome” on October 28, 1922. After the Fascists took power, De Bono was put in charge of turning the Blackshirts into a part of the national establishment, the result being the formation of the MVSN or National Security Volunteer Militia. This upset some of the older hard-line Fascists as it meant that many army veterans, who were royalists, being put in command of Blackshirt units.

After Mussolini firmly established himself as leader of the government, General De Bono was put in charge of Public Security, as the most senior military man in the Fascist hierarchy, and was appointed to the Italian Senate. In 1925 he was given the post of Governor of Tripolitania in Libya where he had to deal with rebellions by the Senussi Islamic sect. He also promoted the establishment of a modern system of agriculture in Libya, mostly by farmers brought in from southern Italy. He held that post until 1928 and the following year supported the military campaign to permanently end the Bedouin rebellion in the colony. General De Bono continued to devote his time to colonial service and in 1935 was appointed High Commissioner of Italian Africa. He played a key role in the organization of Italian forces for the war against Ethiopia and when the war began was the top Italian commander in the field. He won all of the early battles in the conflict but Mussolini was displeased by the slowness of his advance. General De Bono had planned and was waging a traditional colonial war which meant that he would keep his forces together, advancing slowly, from one defensive position to another and allowing the more numerous Ethiopians to destroy themselves by attacking the Italians with their superior weaponry in protected positions.

This was a cautious, effective strategy intended to save Italian lives. However, the sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations forced a more aggressive approach. Mussolini feared, and the League of Nations hoped, that if the Ethiopians could carry on the war long enough, the Italian people would be crippled by the sanctions and it would not only force them to retreat from Ethiopia but possibly bring down the Fascist government as well. This was a real possibility as most military experts and observers expected the war against Ethiopia to take about two years at minimum to complete. To avoid this, Mussolini replaced De Bono with General Badoglio. It was a blow to the dictator who had planned the Ethiopian War to be carried out primarily by his Blackshirt militia with a Fascist general in charge. Instead, he had to turn it over to a career army man and De Bono was, as the saying goes, “kicked upstairs” with congratulations for the victories he had won and a promotion to Marshal of Italy. A new strategy was adopted and the war that was supposed to last two years ended with the Italian conquest of the Ethiopian Empire in seven months.

Marshal De Bono continued to serve in colonial posts but became increasingly less enthusiastic about the policies of Mussolini. He disapproved of the way he seemed to be sidelining the King, he disapproved of the German-inspired racial laws of 1938 and the following year reported on the woeful un-preparedness of Italian military forces and infrastructure along the French border. Unfortunately, his findings were ignored, to the detriment of the Italian forces Prince Umberto would lead into battle against the French. Even after the outbreak of World War II, Marshal De Bono remained mostly in positions in which he could review, inspect and recommend but not command. He made a report on the Italian position in Albania pointing out that they were unprepared in terms of modern equipment, weapons and supplies for major offensive operations (which was also ignored) and he had opposed Italian intervention in World War II altogether on the grounds that the military had been exhausted by the campaigns in Africa, Spain and Albania and needed a period of restoration and modernization.

Mussolini would not listen and went to war anyway and even when Marshal De Bono was made commander of the Southern Armies, this was mostly a ceremonial position. The Marshal had disapproved of almost every action taken by Mussolini in the build-up to the war and the Duce had come to view the Marshal as being overly cautious, overly pessimistic and essentially the opposite of everything he wanted to be seen as. Sadly for Italy, Marshal De Bono was proven correct during the course of the war, particularly the crucial year of 1942 when Axis fortunes began to reverse everywhere. When Sicily itself was invaded in 1943 the Fascist Grand Council, of which Marshal De Bono was a member, was called together. De Bono, quite bravely, first proposed that Mussolini hand over the responsibilities for the military and foreign policy to someone else. When Dino Grandi boldly proposed that Mussolini step down altogether Marshal De Bono was among those who voted in favor of the proposal that Mussolini had to go. Nonetheless, he was shocked when Marshal Badoglio, appointed by the King to replace Mussolini, banned the National Fascist Party and disbanded the MVSN.

In the chaotic situation that followed, Marshal De Bono felt there had never been a greater need for the structure of the old Fascist Party with the Allies demanding total subjugation, the Nazis invading from the north and communist partisans taking up arms against their countrymen. Fearful that the communists would take over, he reported for duty in Rome, prepared to help in any way he could. He also harshly criticized the Badoglio regime for ‘screwing the monarchy’. He could neither bring himself to support Mussolini’s republican regime in the north or the Allied-controlled Badoglio government in the south. In any event, he did not have long to remain in limbo. On October 4, 1943 he was arrested by the Axis forces and put on trial for “treason” by a special court organized by the Fascist Republican Party Congress. He appealed the “guilty” verdict only because of the outrageousness of referring to his actions as “treason”. Of course, it was to no avail and Marshal of Italy Emilio De Bono was executed on Mussolini’s orders on January 11, 1944.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia

King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia was the last head of the royal House of Savoy before the foundation of the modern Kingdom of Italy. His reign occurred at a time of great divisions, struggles and opportunities, many of which he would embody in his own life. He was born Prince Carlo Alberto Amedeo on October 2, 1798 in Turin to Prince Carlo Emanuele of Carignano and Princess Maria Cristina of Saxony, the first of their two children. Carlo Alberto was born into the era of the French Revolution and so, along with the traditional education from his family on the glories of the House of Savoy and conservative values, the displacement of the family meant that he also received a very liberal education in Geneva and later in Paris during the first French Empire. This had a lasting impact on him as throughout his life he displayed a commitment to the idea that the House of Savoy must take a leadership role in northern Italian affairs and also a lasting friendship with France, something many in his family, given what they had been through, certainly did not share. Nonetheless, as none of the sons of King Vittorio Amedeo III produced an heir to the throne, there was an early assumption that Carlo Alberto would one day inherit the leadership of the family and the throne of Piedmont-Sardinia.

Toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Prince Carlo Alberto had finished his education and was appointed to the rank of lieutenant of dragoons by Emperor Napoleon I in 1814. After the fall of the French Empire he returned to Turin and the elder members of the family set him on a new educational program intended to rid him of his pro-French and moderate liberal sympathies. They were not entirely successful and throughout his life Carlo Alberto would try to reconcile these two opposing world views he had been raised with. 1817 saw the happy occasion of a royal wedding when Prince Carlo Alberto married Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria, Princess of Tuscany, on September 30 in Florence. She was a great woman, a devoted wife and a woman of very conservative opinions and a deeply sincere Catholic faith. In time three children were born; the future King Vittorio Emanuele II, Prince Ferdinando Duke of Genoa and the little Princess Maria Cristina who sadly died in infancy. Princess Maria Theresa was an excellent wife and mother whose influence was soft but strongly felt in both her husband and in the future reign of her son.

In 1821 King Vittorio Emanuele I abdicated, leaving the throne to his brother who became King Carlo Felice. However, he was, at that time, in Modena and so it was Prince Carlo Alberto who had to act as regent until he returned. That year a revolutionary movement took up the tricolor and demanded a constitutional monarchy as well as Savoy leadership in a movement to unify the states of Italy into one kingdom. Prince Carlo Alberto was sympathetic to these ideas and granted the first Piedmontese constitution. The very traditional and conservative King Carlo Felice, however, was certainly not and as soon as he returned to Turin he revoked the constitution, cracked down on dissident elements and sent Prince Carlo Alberto to join the French royal forces in Spain that were fighting to restore the absolutist King Fernando VII to his throne, hoping this would help put his priorities in order.

During this campaign, Prince Carlo Alberto won laurels as a champion of the old order. He was recognized for his great skill and bravery at the battle of Trocadero in 1823, defeating the constitutionalists and restoring the absolute monarchy of King Fernando VII. The part Prince Carlo Alberto played in this victory also earned him admiration in the Austrian Empire, which began to take notice of him as a rising star on the European stage. They were eager for a friendly face in Turin as they had been greatly at odds with the ultra-conservative King Carlo Felice. When he died in 1831 his last words to his successor Carlo Alberto were rumored to be, “Hate Austria”. In Piedmont-Sardinia there was joy and optimism upon the succession of the new King known as ‘Carlo Alberto the Magnanimous’. Here was a man who was committed to the glory of the monarchy, a man of vision and yet also a man who throughout his life had been torn by two conflicting world views. King Carlo Alberto would finally make Piedmont-Sardinia a constitutional monarchy, yet who was so traditional and conservative in his own tastes that he once called Prince Metternich a ‘radical’. He would be opposed by the extremes on both sides of the political spectrum yet it was King Carlo Alberto who would lay the foundation for the future Kingdom of Italy.

King Carlo Alberto went to work immediately, tearing down the internal customs borders in his kingdom to advance a free economy. Although sympathetic with some of their nationalist aims, he also suppressed the conspiracy of the adherents of Giuseppe Mazzini because he would not tolerate republicanism or anything which threatened the monarchy. As his later actions would prove, this was not out of any desire for arbitrary power on his part but because King Carlo Alberto (wisely) believed that republicanism would only divide and weaken a country, leaving it vulnerable to attack by more powerful neighbors. He was determined to defend the rights and freedoms of his people but realized that a monarch was necessary to do so rather than placing the freedom of the people at the mercy of self-serving political representatives. Rather, he looked to the examples of the constitutional monarchies of France and Belgium where traditional structures were preserved and individual rights were respected. In his model, however, the role of the monarch would be much more central and carry more authority in the political process.

Another area King Carlo Alberto looked at with concern was the faith of his country and the growing trend toward secularism, pushed by many of the secret societies that wanted the monarchy abolished. In a very poignant letter to His Holiness Pope Pius IX, King Carlo Alberto said, “…we have reached a point so distressing for Religion that I can scarcely bring myself to speak of it. Our country used to pass for a model of piety; Religion was triumphant there; daily she made immense progress” but, the King went on to say, feuding clerics and a lack of enforcement from the hierarchy had allowed decay to set in which the anti-clericals were only too willing and able to exploit. Also blaming the influence of the neighboring French Republic, the King lamented, “…so great is the evil, Most Holy Father, that it is beyond human power to repair it…” This was part of an overall trend across Europe and no place, even the Papal States themselves, were immune from it. We can also detect an implied criticism against the liberalism and optimism that characterized the early years of the reign of Pope Pius IX, a position he would soon radically reverse.

Things came to a head with the Revolutions of 1848. It was in that critical year that King Carlo Alberto earned his “magnanimous” title by enacting the constitution that would serve throughout the remaining years of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia as well as throughout the life of the Kingdom of Italy; the Statuto Albertino. Previously he had remarked that it was his desire for the liberation of Italy that caused him to oppose a constitution but when it became clear to him that this movement was the way of the future, he adeptly got out in front of it and earned the respect and admiration of his people by codifying in law their rights and representation in government while reserving final authority for the King. The Italian tricolor became the new national flag of Piedmont-Sardinia with the arms of the Savoy Royal Family as its central motif. Absolutists from Madrid to St Petersburg condemned the King for taking this action, taking the side of the reformist movement, yet the communist revolutionaries Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels singled out King Carlo Alberto as their greatest enemy. The absolutists, they argued, were discredited but Carlo Alberto had robbed the revolutionaries of their greatest propaganda weapon by making himself the champion of the freedom of his people.

King Carlo Alberto, although he had no ambitions to march down the length of the Italian peninsula, was determined to see Austrian rule removed from the north and when Milan, Venice and neighboring areas rose in rebellion against Austrian rule he stepped forward as their protector and declared war on Austria. In doing so, he beat the republicans to the punch and turned many would-be republicans into ardent supporters of the Savoy monarchy. This was the First Italian War of Independence and Piedmont-Sardinia allied with Tuscany and (for a short time) the Papal States and the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies against the Austrian Empire. At first his armies were successful but on July 24 came the disastrous battle of Custoza which was a decisive Austrian victory and forced the Piedmontese to agree to an armistice. It was his misfortune to face Field Marshal Joseph Graf Radetzky, one of the most capable commanders in the Austrian military. The conditions Austria demanded for peace were so severe that King Carlo Alberto was reluctant to agree to them. However, he had no choice and so accepted all responsibility upon himself for the defeat. On March 23, 1849 he abdicated the throne in favor of his son and went into exile in Portugal. Heartbroken at the loss, he did not survive the year and died in Porto on July 28 at the age of 50.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Anniversary of the Carabinieri

It was on this day in 1814 that His Majesty King Vittorio Emanuele I of Piedmont-Sardinia founded the elite Italian national police force; the Royal Carabinieri. Originally the Carabinieri were divided into divisions for each region of the country and in 1868 the Corazzieri mounted division was formed to act as a guard of honor for the King. What most people recognize immediately about the Carabinieri is their unique tricorn 'lucerna' hat, originally worn at all times but which is today reserved only for more formal occasions. The Carabinieri fought in the Italian Wars for Independence and during the unification of Italy were designated as the "First Force" of the Italian armed forces that were being established. They served with distinction in World War I, even in Africa and the Middle East and they served in World War II in combat, particularly in Yugoslavia where they engaged in numerous battles against the communist partisans of the brutal post-war dictator "Tito".

Before coming to power the Fascist Blackshirts often clashed with the Carabinieri but, of course, that changed when the Fascists became the legal government. However, their first duty was always to the King rather than to any temporary political official. It was the Carabinieri who arrested Mussolini when the King gave the order and the Carabinieri were among those who tried to defend Rome from the forces of Nazi Germany who occupied more than half of Italy. All members of the Carabinieri who were caught behind the lines were arrested by the Nazis since Hitler considered them 'too royalist' to be trusted and they were sent to concentration camps in Germany. After the war, when the monarchy was abolished there was a great break with historical tradition for the Carabinieri but they still serve and have seen action in international operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Now attached to the armed forces, they remain the national police force and the guardians of the President of the Italian Republic.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Elite Italian Bersaglieri

No soldiers are more identifiably “Italian” than the Bersaglieri. Ask anyone what they think of when they picture an Italian soldier and they will probably think of the Bersaglieri with their unique hats or helmets with a bunch of black plumes hanging to the side. For over a hundred years the Italian Bersaglieri have impressed their allies and terrified their foes on battlefields in wars across the globe. The story of the Bersaglieri begins with Captain Alessandro Ferrero De La Marmora of the grenadiers. On June 18, 1836 he approached His Majesty King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia with the idea of creating a new corps of light infantry which would become the Bersaglieri. Other armies, for some time, had been developing rifle companies and light infantry to act as scouts, screen for the main army, act as skirmishers and to use their sharp-shooting skills to weaken the flanks of the enemy during a battle. The captain proposed developing an elite corps of riflemen to perform these same functions. So it was that the Bersaglieri was born, light troops who were trained to be bold, even a bit reckless, disregarding personal danger and, usually, doing their duty with just a little extra dashing flair.

Of course, the single most noticeable aspect the Bersaglieri has always been their unique headgear; a broad-brimmed moretto hat decorated with a flowing bunch of black Grouse/Capercaillie feathers hanging down from the right side. Originally, officers were distinguished by the use of green ostrich feathers but later all used the same black capercaillie feathers. For formal parade dress as many as 400 plumes could decorate each hat but for combat duty this was usually reduced to around 100 plumes. The first time the headgear changed was when the Bersaglieri wore tropical sun helmets while on duty in Africa but still decorated them with the traditional black feathers. This mostly remained the same even when the switch was made to steel helmets for combat duty and, depending on the circumstances and the individuals involved, some Bersaglieri can still be seen even today with their helmets decorated in the traditional fashion. This made the Italian light troops stand out and a similar style was adopted in various ways by other troops around the world.

In the United States, during the American Civil War, Italian-American units in both the Union and Confederate armies wore feather-decorated hats in imitation of the famous Bersaglieri. Even the headgear of the Royal Guard of the Kingdom of Norway was influenced by the unique style of the Bersaglieri. Believe it or not though, the plumes were originally not meant to be purely decorative but to serve a number of practical purposes (in addition to looking super cool of course). The feathers were always worn on the right side of the hat (or later helmets) to shade the shooting eye of the soldier when taking aim. They were also useful to distinguish the soldiers at a glance. Also, because most military units wore such decoration on the left side, by putting them on the right, the Bersaglieri could confuse an enemy into thinking they were moving in the opposite direction. They also helped break up the profile of the rifleman and serve as an early sort of camouflage when in overgrown terrain. Ultimately, of course, they were one of the many unique distinctions that encouraged esprit de corps amongst the men, a proud tradition that set them apart and was a badge of honor for the Italian light infantry.

There were other, less noticeable items of uniform that set the Bersaglieri apart from regular infantrymen. On their collars they wore double-tailed “flame” patches with the Savoy star, meant to symbolize the flame of “Eternal Rome”. When in camp they wore a red fez with a long, blue tassel. This was actually fairly widespread as North African fashions had become very popular following the French campaigns in Algeria and armies from the United States to the army of the Pope adopted this Zouave style to varying degrees, often including a fez, sometimes even a small turban. The Bersaglieri adopted the fez after serving alongside French Zouaves in the Crimean War. The Bersaglieri were also issued with special greased, unpolished brown boots, similar to those worn by the elite Alpine troops. Many also adopted daggers for close-combat assaults. As light infantry, speed and mobility was always prized and by World War I this meant that several companies of each Bersaglieri battalion were mounted on bicycles. Eventually these were traded-in for motorcycles which saw widespread use in World War II. During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War Bersaglieri troops mounted on both bicycles and motorcycles were grouped together with cavalry and motorized units to form ‘Celere’ mobile (or fast) divisions and such units saw service throughout the Second World War as well.

The Bersaglieri have participated in virtually every front of every war throughout the life of the modern, united Italy. Elements served in the expeditionary force sent by the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia to Russia during the Crimean War. They led the way in breaching the walls of Rome in 1870 and served in colonial campaigns in Africa, mostly in Libya. During World War I most saw service on the front with Austria but a contingent also served in the Middle East. It was during World War I that the steel helmet was first introduced for use by Italian troops (originally the French Adrian pattern) and the Bersaglieri were without their distinctive headgear. Such devices were considered too conspicuous for the rigors of trench warfare, however, this resulted in such a decline in morale among the men that the following year the order was withdrawn and the Bersaglieri attached their plumes to their steel helmets and there they remained. During World War II in North Africa and in Russia the Bersaglieri were often grouped into armored divisions to provide a fast-moving infantry support for the tanks, a function in which they performed heroically and often took very heavy casualties carrying out.

During World War I the old limit of 12 Bersaglieri regiments was maintained but after the war their dispersal was reduced to two battalions per regiment. When mechanization came one Bersaglieri regiment was attached to each armored division and their courage and fighting spirit became legendary. The famous German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (“the Desert Fox”) remarked that, “The German soldier has impressed the world, however, the Italian Bersagliere soldier has impressed the German soldier.” He was a man often critical of his superiors as well as his subordinates but praised the Bersaglieri on numerous occasions, such as the heroic actions of the 7th Bersaglieri Regiment in the victory over the Americans at the battle of Kasserine Pass. Their contribution was also absolutely vital to one of Rommel’s most significant victories at Mersa Matruh. After the dismissal of Mussolini in 1943 and the Italian declaration of war against Germany (which had occupied half the peninsula) the “Army of the South” was formed from Italian units loyal to the King which fought alongside the Allies. Many of these wore British battledress and British steel helmets but, even then, the Bersaglieri could still be distinguished by their plumes on the Mk II British steel helmets. Light units that served with the forces of the rival Italian Social Republic also maintained Bersaglieri traditions, though they replaced the Savoy star on their collar patches with the Roman sword and wreath of the Fascist regime.

Of course, as with all of the great, historic military units of the Royal Army of Italy, the link with the foundation of the Bersaglieri during the reign of King Carlo Alberto was broken with the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the Italian Republic. All historic royal units suddenly had to undergo a republican ‘makeover’. Nonetheless, the Bersaglieri continue still today to distinguish themselves in action on behalf of the Italian nation. The richly feathered moretto is now worn only on parade for ceremonial occasions and officers in the field wear a black beret. However, enlisted men still often wear the red fez as a tribute to their forefathers in the elite corps. The Bersaglieri are now entirely mechanized and have seen action in Lebanon, Yugoslavia (Bosnia and Kosovo), Somalia (during the civil war), Iraq and Afghanistan with the Garibaldi Bersaglieri Brigade based out of Caserta. Despite the change in government they continue to do their duty in the dashing, daring style of those that have gone before them and are continuing the tradition which began centuries ago in Piedmont under the House of Savoy.