The Bersaglieri (Italian pronunciation: [bersaʎˈʎɛːri]) (Marksmen in English) are a corps of the Italian Army originally created by General Alessandro La Marmora on 18 June 1836 to serve in the Piedmontese Army, later to become the Royal Italian Army. They have always been a high-mobility light infantry unit, and can still be recognized by the distinctive wide brimmed hat that they wear (only in dress uniform in modern times), decorated with black capercaillie feathers. The feathers are usually applied to their combat helmets. Another distinctive trait of the Bersaglieri is the fast jog pace they keep on parades, instead of marching.
Origins and history
The relatively poor Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia could not afford large numbers of cavalry, so a quick-moving infantry corps of marksmen was needed. These troops were trained to high physical and marksmanship standards. Like the French chasseurs à pied who inspired their creation, a level of independence and initiative was encouraged so that they could operate in looser formations, in which direct command and control was not required. They fired individually and carried 60 rounds instead of the standard 40 rounds of traditional line infantry. The first uniform was black with brimmed hats, called "vaira". These were intended to defend the head from sabre blows.
The first public appearance of the Bersaglieri was on the occasion of a military parade on 1 July 1836. The First Company marched through Turin with the rapid, high-stepping gait (130 paces/minute) still used by the Bersaglieri in World War II and later. The modern Bersaglieri still run both on parade and even during barracks duty - on penalty of punishment if they do not. The new corps impressed King Charles Albert, who immediately had them integrated as part of the Piedmontese regular army.
Throughout the nineteenth century, under La Marmora’s leadership, the Bersaglieri filled the role of skirmishers, screening the slow-moving line and column formations, but acting as special shock troops if required. They were originally intended to serve as mountain troops, as well; the climber Jean-Antoine Carrel was a Bersagliere. When the Alpini Corps were created in 1872 a strong rivalry arose between the two elite corps.
During the First War of Italian Independence (1848–1849) the Bersaglieri distinguished themselves by storming the bridge at Goito. The most famous action of the Bersaglieri occurred on 20 September 1870, when they entered Rome through the Porta Pia, ending the temporal power of the Pope, and completing the unification of Italy.
The Bersaglieri were deployed abroad for the first time during the Crimean War, by order of Prime Minister Cavour. They were involved in the Battle of the Cernaia, but suffered more casualties due to a cholera epidemic. While in the Crimea the Bersaglieri acquired their undress headdress - a purple/red fez with a blue tassel in imitation of that worn by the French zouaves with whom they served.
When the Armata Sarda became the Regio Esercito (Royal Italian Army) in 1860, the number of Bersaglieri regiments was set at 12. The Bersaglieri served as the light infantry battalions of the brigades and divisions of the new army of united Italy. Army doctrine later in the century called for them to be held back as corps-level reserves.
World War I
During World War I, the 12 regiments of Bersaglieri fought with distinction. Of the 210,000 members of Bersaglieri regiments, 32,000 were killed and 50,000 wounded during the war. Italy's last surviving World War I veteran, Delfino Borroni, served in the 6th Bersaglieri Bologna.
A contingent of Bersaglieri was sent to participate in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign in 1917, when they were attached to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force commanded by General Edmund Allenby. Their "mainly political" role was to assert "hereditary ecclesiastical prerogatives in connection with the Christian churches at Jerusalem and Bethlehem."
After the war, restructuring of the Italian Army reduced the number of Bersaglieri battalions to two per regiment. A new role was seen for the light infantry as part of Italy’s commitment to Mobile Warfare. The post-war Bersaglieri were converted into bicycle troops to fight alongside cavalry in the Celeri (fast) divisions. Elite units with high morale and an aggressive spirit were seen as one way to break such tactical stalemates as the trench warfare of 1915-18. The Bersaglieri gave Italy highly-trained formations suitable for service with both cavalry and tanks. When the armoured divisions were formed in 1939, the link between the Bersaglieri and mobile warfare continued. Each new armoured and motorised division was allocated one Bersaglieri regiment.
World War II
Italy’s Bersaglieri regiments were expanded to three battalions each during the Second World War. However, the Army resisted any temptation to dilute their quality, and recruits continued to be of above-average size and stamina. They endured intense physical training, just as their great-grandfathers had, as well as having to qualify as marksmen.
The Bersaglieri fought in southern France and Greece in 1940. The first Bersaglieri to see combat in North Africa was the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment. They arrived in Libya in early 1941. Later, they were also deployed on the Eastern Front.
During the Cold War the Bersaglieri were exclusively employed as mechanized infantry. The Bersaglieri battalions were part of the armoured or mechanized regiments of the Armys armoured divisions, with the mechanized regiments fielding two Bersaglieri and one Tank battalion, while the tank regiments fielded two Tank and one Bersaglieri battalion. Attached to the motorized division were armoured infantry regiments, which consisted of one Tank and one Bersaglieri battalion. Without exception the Bersaglieri battalions were armed with M113 armoured personnel carriers. The only two active Bersaglieri regiments at that time were the 3rd Bersaglieri and 8th Bersaglieri Regiment in the Centauro Armoured Division respectively the Ariete Armoured Division.
In 1975 the Army abolished the regimental level and battalions became independent under newly formed brigades. The Army formed the Goito Mechanized Brigade with the regimental command and units of the 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment and the Garibaldi Mechanized Brigade with the regimental command and units of the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment. Both brigades received one extra Bersaglieri battalion from disbanded armoured infantry regiments and both fielded only personnel - with the exception of the tank crews and artillerists - from the Bersaglieri corps.
When the battalions became independent they received the flags and traditions of disbanded Bersaglieri regiments and each battalions was give an honour name commemorating a significant event it had participated in: e.g. the 3rd Bersaglieri Battalion "Cernaia" received its honour name to commemorate the conduct of the regiment in the Battle of the Chernaya in Crimea during the Crimean War in 1855. In the following list of active Bersaglieri units in 1986 the honour names link to the articles about the historic events they were awarded for:
- 1st Bersaglieri Battalion "La Marmora" in Civitavecchia (Granatieri di Sardegna Mechanized Brigade)
- 2nd Bersaglieri Battalion "Governolo" in Legnano (Legnano Mechanized Brigade)
- 3rd Bersaglieri Battalion "Cernaia" in Pordenone (Garibaldi Mechanized Brigade)
- 6th Bersaglieri Battalion "Palestro" in Turin (Goito Mechanized Brigade)
- 10th Bersaglieri Battalion "Bezzecca" in Solbiate Olona (Goito Mechanized Brigade)
- 11th Bersaglieri Battalion "Caprera" in Orcenico Superiore (Garibaldi Mechanized Brigade)
- 14th Bersaglieri (Training) Battalion "Sernaglia" in Albenga (3rd Army Corps)
- 18th Bersaglieri Battalion "Poggio Scanno" in Milan (Goito Mechanized Brigade)
- 23rd Bersaglieri Battalion "Castel di Borgo" in Tauriano (Mameli Armoured Brigade)
- 26th Bersaglieri Battalion "Castelfidardo" in Maniago (Garibaldi Mechanized Brigade)
- 27th Bersaglieri Battalion "Jamiano" in Aviano (Ariete Armoured Brigade)
- 28th Bersaglieri Battalion "Oslavia" in Bellinzago Novarese (Centauro Armoured Brigade)
- 67th Bersaglieri Battalion "Fagare" in Persano (Pinerolo Mechanized Brigade)
With then end of the Cold War the Italian army began a reduction in personnel and units which also affected the Bersaglieri. On 1 June 1991 the Goito Mechanized Brigade was disbanded, while the Garibaldi Mechanized Brigade moved to the Southern city of Caserta, as the Army had decided to reduce the number of units in the North of Italy. The Garibaldi arrived in Caserta on 1 July 1991 and changed its name to 8th Bersaglieri Brigade Garibaldi. Also in 1991 the battalions of the Army were renamed as regiments without changing composition.
While in the past the mobility of the Bersaglieri was helped by their training in running and by the aid of bicycles, regiments currently in service are all mechanised.
The modern Bersaglieri have served, as part of the Garibaldi Bersaglieri Brigade, as peacekeepers in the Multinational Force in Lebanon, and in Yugoslav and Somali Civil Wars, and were also active in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Bersaglieri traditions are still stressed. The Bersaglieri collar patches are purple-red "flames". Enlisted troops still wear the red fez. Officers wear black berets with their ordinary uniforms, but the feathered "vaira" in ceremonial uniform. They also wear black gloves, while other Italian regiments wear white ones. Each Bersaglieri unit had a band called a "fanfara", who played their instruments at the run while on parade. The "fanfara" does not contain percussion instruments. Today only the Garibaldi Brigade, Ariete Brigade and 7th Bersaglieri regiment retain a "fanfara", although brigade bands play appropriate music at the fast pace for Bersaglieri units integrated into the brigade structure.
- 1st Bersaglieri Regiment with the "La Marmora" battalion in Cosenza as part of the Garibaldi Bersaglieri Brigade
- 3rd Bersaglieri Regiment with the "Poggio Scanno" battalion in Teulada as part of the Sassari Mechanized Brigade
- 6th Bersaglieri Regiment with the "Palestro" battalion in Trapani as part of the Aosta Mechanized Brigade
- 7th Bersaglieri Regiment with the "Bezzecca" battalion in Bari as part of the Pinerolo Mechanized Brigade
- 8th Bersaglieri Regiment with the "Cernaia" battalion in Caserta as part of the Garibaldi Bersaglieri Brigade
- 11th Bersaglieri Regiment with the "Caprera" battalion in Orcenico Superiore as part of the Ariete Armoured Brigade
- Wavell 1968 pp. 90–1
- Wavell, Field Marshal Earl (1968). E.W. Sheppard, ed. The Palestine Campaigns. A Short History of the British Army (3rd ed.). London: Constable & Co. originally published 1933
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