Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Italy's Elite Bersaglieri

The story of the Bersaglieri begins with Captain Alessandro Ferrero De La Marmora of the grenadiers. On 18 June 1836 he approached His Majesty King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia with the idea of creating a new corps of light infantry which would become the Bersaglieri. Other armies, for some time, had been developing rifle companies and light infantry to act as scouts, screen for the main army, act as skirmishers and to use their sharpshooting skills to weaken the flanks of the enemy during a battle. The captain proposed developing an elite corps of riflemen to perform these same functions. So it was that the Bersaglieri was born, light troops who were trained to be bold, even a bit reckless, disregarding personal danger and, usually, doing their duty with just a little extra dashing flair.

The single most noticeable aspect the Bersaglieri has always been their unique headgear, a broad-brimmed moretto hat decorated with a flowing bunch of black grouse/capercaillie feathers hanging down from the right side. Originally, officers were distinguished by the use of green ostrich feathers , but later all used the same black capercaillie feathers. For formal parade dress as many as 400 plumes could decorate each hat, but for combat duty this was usually reduced to around 100 plumes. The first time the headgear changed was when the Bersaglieri wore tropical sun helmets while on duty in Africa but still decorated them with the traditional black feathers. This mostly remained the same even when the switch was made to steel helmets for combat duty and, depending on the circumstances and the individuals involved, some Bersaglieri can still be seen even today with their helmets decorated in the traditional fashion. This made the Italian light troops stand out and a similar style was adopted in various ways by other troops around the world. In the United States, during the American Civil War, Italian-American units in both the Union and Confederate armies wore feather-decorated hats in imitation of the famous Bersaglieri.

In the Dolomites During WWI
The Bersaglieri also adopted the fez after serving alongside French Zouaves in the Crimean War. The Bersaglieri were also issued with special greased, unpolished brown boots, similar to those worn by the elite Alpine troops. Many also adopted daggers for close-combat assaults. Traditionally, they were always on the run, including their accompanying drum and bugle corps. As light infantry, their speed and mobility was always prized, and by World War I this meant that several companies of each Bersaglieri battalion were mounted on bicycles.

During the First World War, the 12 regiments of Bersaglieri distinguished themselves, especially the four regiments grouped together in the 47th Infantry Division. Of the 210,000 men who served in Bersaglieri regiments, 32,000 were killed and 50,000 wounded. Probably the most notable Bersaglieri veteran of the war was Benito Mussolini, who was discharged after a grenade accident while serving along the Isonzo Front.

The Bersaglieri continue to serve Italy today.

Sources:  The Italian Monarchist and La Grande Guerra


  1. Wonderful. When seen in person they are impressive. When on parade they trot you can imagine those luxurious feathers bouncing....ah, only in Italia......bravisimo.