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.

5 comments:

  1. The Bersaglieri are an awesome military force, indeed. But I, personally, will always favor l'Arma dei Carabinieri. The Carabinieri have a very prestigious and honorable history. My fellow Italians, of all stripes, have the utmost respect for the Carabinieri, which is ironic among democrat and republican Italians since the Carabinieri were created by King Vittorio Emanuele I. Il re ed i Carabinieri!

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    1. And today is the anniversary of the Carabinieri. All the iconic Italian military forces have royal roots and seeing them defaced by republican insignia seems almost like theft to me. The Carabinieri have a noble history behind them and at the end of World War II suffered a great deal for being loyal to the King rather than Mussolini. They fought a hopeless battle trying to keep the Germans from taking over and many were sent to concentration camps because Hitler deemed them too royalist to be trusted. Something they can be proud of.

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  2. Theft? I would say dishonorable or disgrace to my country's monarchical heritage and history. The democrats and republicans are very hypocritical. For example. Look at any provincia or comune and you will see monarchical insignia and heraldry . Look at my hometown, Salerno (http://www.provincia.salerno.it/ - http://www.comune.salerno.it/), and you will find a crown. The democrats and republicans despise monarchy. Yet they want to keep its insignia "to preserve" our history. The democrats and republicans do not want the Italian monarchy restored, but they will keep its monarchical insignia and heraldry elsewhere in my country.

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  3. So glad to have found your site. My Italian relatives come from the Piedmont region (near Turin, a small town called Volpiano) and I know there are still many there. My great-grandfather came to America in 1908. I found your site, though, by looking up the Bersaglieri. I am writing a book on the POW camps of Nebraska during WW2. Italian POWs were kept in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and according to an article I found from 1943, they were Bersaglieri. I didn't even know about these crack Italian units, but to know they are from my home region makes it even more interesting, especially since my grandfather used to bring those Italian POWs out to my great-grandfather's farm to work.

    Looking forward to delving more into this site and learning about this region of Italy.

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    1. Sorry for my late response. Good luck in your book. There were some Italians held prisoner not far from where I live as well, unfortunately, they were Italian-American citizens rather than soldiers. It was one of the major "internment camps" that FDR set up and, contrary to what some people believe, it was not only Japanese-Americans who were sent there (though they were the majority) but German and Italian-Americans as well. Again, good luck on your book.

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