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The Bersaglieri

There is a story about the origin of the "Bersaglieri", probably embellished, but indicative of the romantic place they hold in the hearts of the Italian people. In 1831, Italy was a conglomeration of small states and Turin was the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia, which included not only this island but also the regions of Piedmont and Liguria, which occupy the northwestern part of the peninsula, The Kingdom of Sardinia had a small but efficient army.

Captain Alessandro Lamarmora, who was interested in problems of strategy, had the idea that mass infantry formations were doomed to be snowed down by the heavy guns of the rapidly developing artillery. He wanted to develop a corps of expert marksmen, skilled in individual combat, moving rapidly from one point to another and taking advantage of the terrain to lie in ambush for the enemy troops, confuse them and then attack, with bayonets, at close quarters. He went to study the maneuvers of the Austrian Schiftzen, the English Rifles, the German Kaiserjaeger and other European light-infantry formations and, upon his return, set up a project for the creation of a similar unit in the army of the Kingdom of Sardinia.

He thought of a name and uniform in order to set it apart and make it attractive. The soldiers were to be called Bersaglieri. (expert marks-men); they would wear cock feathers on their caps and march, on parade with a running step, led by buglers, who would also be running. Lamarmora's project was turned down by the general staff as the idea of a hothead and might well have been filed and forgotten. But when King Carlo Alberto of Savoy decided, in 1836, to reorganize the army, Lamarmora brought up the project again and was authorized to experiment on a small scale with the creation of two companies of "Bersaglieri". "Two companies and no more," the King admonished him. In June of the same year, two companies were presented to the King for review in Turin and so pleased him that he invited Lamarmora to dinner at his hunting lodge at Stupinigi.

Lamarmora gave some orders to his men and got into the royal carriage. The horses trotted through the green countryside while the two men chatted amicably together. When they arrived at the lodge, the King was astounded to find the "Bersaglieri" drawn up in the courtyard. "Two companies, I said, Lamarmora!" he protested. "Your Majesty," Lamarmora answered, "these are the two companies which you reviewed earlier in the day," In other words, the "Bersaglieri" had out-paced the King's horses. Needless to say, the King was so impressed that he allowed Lamarmora to organize as many companies of "Bersaglieri" as he wanted.

The "Bersaglieri" went into combat for the first time in 1848. At this time the Italians, whose country was still divided into small states, began to pursue the aim of creating a united nation and, in the north especially, to shake off Austrian domination. The King of Sardinia led the movement for unification and the "Bersaglieri" covered themselves with glory in the battle of Goito, fought in the Spring of 1848 against the Austrian Ublans. The movement of revolt ended, however, with an Austrian victory in 1849.

The Kingdom of Sardinia began to seek an alliance with England and Prance. It sent an expeditionary force, half of which was composed of "Bersaglieri," to fight with them against the Russians in the Crimea War in 1855. On August 18 of that year, the "Bersaglieri," with a bugler sounding the charge, crossed the Chernaja River at the side of the French Zouaves. The Kingdom of Sardinia, by their merit, won English and French sympathy for his movement of liberation.

In1859 Lombardy was freed. The "Bersaglieri" distinguished themselves at the battle of Magenta on June 4 of that year. In 1861, the Kingdom of Italy came into being. Italy was free and united. But Rome was still the Pope's domain. When, in 1870, Rome joined the new nation, the. "Bersaglieri" were the first to enter the Eternal City. In 1888 and 1896, the "Bersaglieri" took part in the colonial campaigns in Eritrea.

During the First World War (1914) when Italy was one of the Allies, the Italian front was a semi-circle in the north-eastern part of the country, on the Austrian frontier. The "Bersaglieri" were in the front lines and made a name for themselves on many occasions. One of their number - Enrico Toti - was a particular hero. Enrico Toti, a railroad worker, had lost a leg in an accident, but he managed to enlist as a cyclist in the "Bersaglieri" and took part in an infantry attack with a crutch under his arm. Although twice hit, he staggered as far as the enemy trenches and, before dying, tossed up his crutch in a last gesture of defiance.

The "Bersaglieri" took part in the Abyssinian war, in which their name is especially linked with the battle of Lake Tana in the spring of 1939. In the Second World War (1940-45) they fought in Cyrenaica, Greece and Russia. In Montenegro they compassionately allowed five thousand Jews to cross the lines in order to save them from the Nazis. Subsequently they fought alongside the Allies in the struggle for liberation. The battered Italian people wept with joy to see the familiar feathered caps of their beloved "Bersaglieri".

In the army of today the "Bersaglieri" form special fast-moving units. Equipped with armored vehicles, they seem very different from their predecessors of a hundred years ago. Their new technical training qualifies them to be not only sharpshooters but also to man cannons and machine-guns, to serve as scouts, engineers, radio men and mechanics. Only in military parades, in which they traditionally bring up the rear, are they immediately recognizable. When they advance, at a running step, with their cap-feathers waving, the onlookers immediately respond to the old romantic glamour.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:00:45 ZULU