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.

Arditi's arm badge
Arditi’s arm badge

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.