At the outbreak of war in 1915, people went down to the squares of Italy to demonstrate, convinced that it would be an opportunity to change the fortunes of the country for the better. Should they just sit and watch, or take up arms against their former Austro-Hungarian ally in order to recover lost territories and conclude what the Risorgimento wars had left unfinished?
On the faces of the soldiers who first left their families to go east shone a mixture of fear and exaltation; it was finally time to settle the score with the arrogant “imperials,” shake hands with their brothers in Trentino, and bathe their feet in the sea of Trieste. Perhaps many soldiers believed they would be facing great pitched battles as had happened during the wars of independence which, in some ways, were reminiscent of Napoleon’s time.
Glory or death, then, and ready to march on the Karst and the high peaks of the Dolomites where, like silent eagles, the soldiers of the emperor were on guard. This was to be a “glorious” war, dreamed of by many young men from all over Italy. But they soon suffered a major disappointment. After the first few months of relative movement, the whole front became bogged down in the mud and the rocky karst; the fighting stopped, and all were swallowed up by the earth, deep in long trenches that, for many, would become stinking graves.
From 1915 to 1917, man showed the world his most barbarous side; the General Staff, unable to emerge from this situation of immobility, threw thousands of soldiers to their deaths, just to conquer a strip of land in the infamous “no man’s land.” Even the soldiers who died were “nobodies,” simple grey-green dots who nourished the earth with their blood. But something had to change, someone had to raise his head; in a small village in the province of Udine, Sdricca di Manzano, a few men were about to turn the tide of the battle.
A Dagger Between the Teeth
Trench warfare wore the soldiers down, deprived them of their strength, but even worse, compromised the morale and discipline of the units. The battles on the Isonzo proved the inadequacy of the Italian command; General Cadorna was a butcher and his infantry became cannon fodder. The repeated and unnecessary Italian assaults on the line of the Isonzo shattered in the face of Austrian machine-gun fire, and vice versa.
The German and Imperial High Command had already proven their effectiveness in battle using small assault groups which, operating independently of the battalion, could infiltrate enemy lines. Reading the timeless masterpiece of the then Lieutenant Erwin Rommel, Infantry Attack, we can understand how devastating the incursions of these small units of specialized fighters were.
So, at the headquarters of the Second Army, Commander General Capello, General Grazioli, commander of the Lambro brigade, and Lieutenant Colonel Bassi instituted the first assault unit at Sdricca of Manzano, in the province of Udine. Officers needed soldiers to be motivated, courageous, armed and equipped lightly to facilitate mobility but, above all, they needed a few chosen men, gathered in small groups and easy to command. In the infantry there were already special groups composed of men chosen among the most courageous and capable; however, the new units created by Colonel Bassi had something different. Their training, for example, aimed at canalising impetuosity, distancing them from the concept of “passive death” that had now seized their colleagues in the trenches.
Following assaults and yet more assaults, the arditi had to acquire new combat techniques and find new ways to implement weapons. They had to become war “professionals” like their equivalents in the German assault troops. It was important, therefore, for the Italian officers to keep high the morale of these brave fighters to whom so much was given, shielding them from the terrible life in the trenches. The arditi wore different uniforms—a sweater, a jacket, and Alpine trousers—to keep them more comfortable. They didn’t carry backpacks or bulky accoutrements. The black flames on their lapels distinguished them from the other units, and between them a special team spirit began to grow.
The ardito was going into the attack not out of the pure spirit of duty, but because he was strongly determined and supported by a special training that glorified personal initiative and aggressiveness that was, for some, innate. Not surprisingly, some detractors of the corps argued that the violence expressed by the arditi in their attacks derived from many of their members’ criminal pasts. The historian Giorgio Rochat, in his book dedicated to the deeds of the arditi, debunks to some degree the theory that the arditi were largely jailbirds, though among the assault unit of the Second Army, several men did have criminal precedents.
However, it should be remembered that these were almost all various kinds of military offenses; who at that time in the ranks of the army did not have any sin to expiate? Indeed, it is a serious mistake to speak of them as common “delinquents.” Nevertheless, it was true that those who decided to enlist in the ranks of the assault units could take advantage of reduced sentences or amnesty, but only for offenses committed in uniform. A second myth to dispel concerned the exclusive “voluntary” form of enlistment in the arditi; precedence was certainly given to volunteers, otherwise if the numbers languished among the battalions, the responsibility fell on the infantry commanders to coerce the better, or worse, of their men to be sent to Sdricca di Manzano.
Training to the Limits of Death
On 5th July, 1917, the Department of Operations published circular no. 21000 entitled, Training of Assault Troops—a sheet outlining the basic training for Arditi’s detachments.
The military object assigned to the assault unit are: make small and courageous attacks, snatch information and capture prisoners, occupy or damage the enemy defensive lines, lead the assault of the main infantry units, attack and prevent the enemies offensive.”
The training of the Black Flames had to be incessant and intense; all the volunteers were exempt from other work and especially life in trenches since the majority of physical energy was to be reserved for exercises.
Regulation no. 21000 recommended training focused on bodily exercise (running, hand-to-hand fighting, jumping obstacles such as ditches, trenches, walls, or barbed wire) and use of all types of weapons (bombs, grenade launchers, and machine guns, including German and Austrian weapons). Obviously, firearms used during the maneuvers were loaded with lethal ammunition; there was no time for simulations, everything had to be as real as possible.
The Arditi of the 9th Detachment
The baptism by fire of the arditi units happened during the bloody battle of Bainsizza, where the first company (led by Captain Radicati) and the second company (Captain Porcari) of the first assault unit were involved. Thanks to the courage of these few men—it is important to remember the small size of the unit—they managed to take by storm three lines of enemy trenches, but without the possibility for the bulk of the infantry to follow, since they were blocked by Imperial artillery fire.
Indeed, the first use of the arditi was very limited compared to the expectations that the unit had raised. At a tactical level, the use of Colonel Bassi’s men was surprising and innovative—a few brave fighters were able to dislodge a much larger number of enemy infantry. But at the strategic level, the fury of the Black Flames did not bring the desired results. In the first place, the speed of action of the arditi prevented the slower and more cumbersome infantry from immediately being able to exploit their successes. Secondly, because the action of the arditi was so swift, they avoided enemy artillery fire while the infantry following behind remained exposed to the deadly blows of the Austro-Hungarian cannons.
Coordination between infantry and assault troops was lacking, and therefore diminished the valuable results obtained by the “few” of Colonel Bassi. The defeat at Caporetto marked a watershed moment in the history of the Italian army. In regard to the behaviour of the arditi, it is certain that they carried on to the limit of their strength. But in the final stages, they too gave in to the general despair that seized all of the units. After the hell of 1917, the time had come for decisive reorganisation of the various Italian brigades, including the arditi units. The new organisation of the army temporarily took the Black Flames out of the forefront. The enhancement of the overall quality of the infantry and the formation of arditi platoons within the army regiments had reduced some of their usefulness.
The battalions regularly received new equipment and heavier weapons, but they also began seeing harder and better-structured training brought on by the strong prejudice harboured by some of the Italian General Staff against these “non-formal” and typically rebellious soldiers. In the new reorganisation desired by General Armando Diaz, the arditi were to be structured into three 150-strong companies armed with rifles, three machine-gun sections, six sections with repeater pistols, and six sections of flamethrowers, making a total of around 600 men.
This complete reorganisation of the forces led to the formation of new units. For example: the 6th unit—part of the 4th army—brought together two other contingents and was then assigned to the 9th Corps and renumbered. To the newly formed 9th detachment came a prominent army figure, Major Giovanni Messe, who won the confidence of his superiors and reorganised the training of the new body of arditi.
The month of June, 1918, was the most difficult test for the 9th unit: Major Messe’s men, with daggers and machine guns, conquered Austrian positions on the Fenilon and Col Moschin (supported by the infantry brigade “Basilicata”). In a few hours, the Black Flames took prisoner 350 men and 25 officers of the 85th KuK Regiment. Meanwhile, the advance of the Bari and Cremona Brigades stopped any attempt at Austrian resistance. The 9th unit continued its heroic deeds during the Grappa offensive, in particular on the mountain of Asolone and the Col della Berretta—where the fearsome Bosnian soldiers and infantrymen of the 44th Hungarian Assault Battalion were annihilated. The end of the war coincided with the dissolution of the 9th unit which, in the last days of fighting, had its headquarters in Risano (Udine).
“The 9th Assault Unit must be dissolved. Even if as a battalion it will no longer exist in reality, it will always exist for the 9th Corps, because it will always be associated with the most splendid deeds of the struggle that ended in the annihilation of the enemy.
There is no stone from Anzini Rock to Asolone and Col Bonato which does not know your strength. I salute you on behalf of the entire Corps, proud that you will remain among the arditi units of my glorious infantry regiments. There you will add new vigour and will keep intact the heroic traditions of your historic unit.” —General De Bono
This letter from the Italian general certainly did not mark the end of the arditi, who were reconstituted in 1919. To talk about the years that followed would lead us to subjects more suited to a historical essay than a simple article dedicated to these fearless young men who did so much for the unity of Italy. It would be too easy to sink into rhetoric or, even worse, into political equivocation which would certainly please the detractors who still, unfortunately, want to give our army a “political” label. So much for change! In the 1920s, the “pure and simple” patriotic idealism of these young men, who returned home after years of hard and bloody war, became an object of manipulation, turning it into a deadly political weapon.
Giorgio Rochat, Gli Arditi della Grande Guerra (1981, Milan).
Alberto Businelli, ‘Gli Arditi del IX’ (re-released in 2007, Milan).
Bepi Magrin – Luciano Favero, Arditi Col Moschin. L’operazione Radetzki (Schio Venice, 2011).
B. di Martino – F. Cappello, I reparti d’assalto italiani nella grande Guerra (1915-1918) (Rome, 2007).