The Alpini - Mountain Troops
The "Alpini" are a branch of the Italian Army specializing in mountain operations. They are named after the Alps, Europe's highest mountains, which form Italy's natural northern border, dividing it from France, Switzerland, Austria and 'Yugoslavia. The Italian government decided to establish a special body of men to be assigned to mountain defenses, Subsequently France, Switzerland and Austria created units of the same kind.
The "Alpini" are known as ennemere (Black Feathers) because of the eagle feathers which they wear on their hats. Officers of the rank of Major and above wear a white feather. The wearing of a feather is an old custom among the mountain people of Italy. Like all. mountaineers, the "Alpini" are men of few words and of great tenacity. They have a strong esprit de corps, which derives from the way in which they are recruited and trained, in the Italian Army, in general, an effort is made to mix the draftees from various regions. Italy acquired national unity only in 1861, and military service is conceived as a way of amalgamating and unifying Italians. But the "Alpini" are, in this respect, an exception. They are drawn from either the Alps or the Apennines (the chain of mountains running from the north to the south of the peninsula). Indeed, the original idea, although it is no longer carried out in practice, was to recruit every regiment from a particular province and every battalion from a single valley. The fact that brothers, cousins and schoolmates all belonged to the same unit made for a bond among them.
The nature of mountain warfare requires a long experience of this particular terrain. The "A1pini" have been familiar with the mountains since childhood. They are climbers and skiers, acquainted with the perils of landslides and glaciers, hardened to cold and fatigue. In some cases, the very local character of the units hal a tragic aspect. There were instances when an entire Alpine village was left without men, because a certain battalion bad been wiped out in combat.
The "Alpini" are not used for mountain fighting alone. Their stamina and training have made them effective solders on such far away fronts as the Russian steppes and the North African desert. Their first participation in a major militar operation was during the war in Eritrea in 1896. There for the first time, but not the last, they wore their feather on a cork helmet.
The First World War (1914-18), in which Italy fought with the Allies, was, where Italy was concerned, a "war of the 'Alpini. " The Italian front was in the mountains adjacent to Austria. Day after day, both sides battled for the possession of a peak, which was conquered, lost, and then reconquered. In the winter months, the mountains were straddled by trenches. Infantry, artillery, engineers and other troops all fought bravely. But the "Alpini" were always in the front lines, attacking unassailable Austrian positions. The picture of the Alpine soldier with his faithful mule became the symbol of the war of that generation. The battles in which the "Alpini" distinguished themselves in the First World War are too numerous to be listed here. The statistics of their losses speak for themselves. Out of 240,000 men belonging to the Alpine units, 40,000 died and 85,000 were wounded. Even the Austrians said, "Hats off to the 'Alpini!"
Between the First and Second World Wars, the "Alpini" were once more in Africa. They were actively engaged in the war with Abyssinia in 1936. During the Second War, the "Alpini" fought in Africa, Yugoslavia, Greece and Russia, and ended by taking part in the struggle for liberation. In Abyssinia, far from home and with all supplies blockaded., they defended Italian bases besieged by the British. In the mountains of Yugoslavia and Greece, they fought the type of mountain war they had already fought in 1915-18. And large numbers of them took part in the ill-fated Russian campaign. When Russian tanks advanced over the frozen Don River, the Rumanians and Germans were the first to retreat, leaving the "Alpini" to cover them in the rear.
The "Alpini" continue to carry out their special function, with the addition of their own air and artillery units. Their barracks and encampments are concentrated In the northern mountains, for their task was still that of border defense. Their rugged training in mountain-climbing gives them a kind of discipline that they carry through their whole life. Every Alpine unit has a chorus, and the "Alpini" are famous for their songs. The tempo is slow, like the slugging pace of a mountain-climber, and the strains are often melancholic. The songs are usually anonymous, born of a long march or a sojourn in the trenches, and they form an important category of Italian folk-music. The merits of the training of the "Alpini" are due largely to the Scuola Militare Alpina in Aosta (Piedmont). Here there are special courses for commanding allied officers to be train. ed there or to incorporate features of the Italian training with their own.
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