Mountain fighting was hell for Italy’s elite WWI shock troops
World War I's western front stretched from the English Channel to the Adriatic Sea and passed through the Italian Alps. The soldiers there were miserable and the conflict was characterized by long, bloody deadlock.
Life for soldiers of the Italian Army was no different. They were poorly equipped and trained, which was even worse horrible when combined with the incompetence of many high-ranking officers. This lack of leadership and equipment is a key reason Austro-Hungarian troops were able to invade the northeast part of Italy.
Soldiers on WWI's Italian front fought enemies, frostbite, and avalanches.
In 1915, a sudden breakthrough came for the Italians in the form of a special operations unit. Some Italian officers and enlisted men volunteered to go behind enemy lines to gather information and create confusion among their enemies. These volunteers took the name of "Esploratori Arditi" – or "hardy explorers."
These men were noted for their bravery and initiative and, by the end of the year, the first companies of Arditi were ready for action. Many of their fellow soldiers called them "Companies of the Death" because of the high number of casualties they both suffered and inflicted.
The Arditi led several attacks into the enemy trenches, quite often armed only with grenades and knives. One of their actions is described in the official records relative to the Silver Medal of Honor granted to Capt. Cristoforo Baseggio.
Arditi were issued unique equipment, like this diamond visor.
In 1916, Baseggio led an isolated column of 1500 men — about 200 Arditi and the rest mountain troopers. He ordered an attack on two enemy strongholds at Saint Osvaldo, one at an elevation of 1100 meters and the second at 1440. Even though it was April, there was still snow on the mountains. Soldiers climbed their way up, sliding and falling along the way. Their hands were covered in cuts etched in by frozen crags. Donkeys followed behind, pulling the artillery pieces.
Once they arrived, the soldiers spent the night digging trenches and foxholes. Between 5am and 9am, the Beech trees that hid the Austrians became a hell of flames and metal.
Two companies of mountain troops were sent to the right and to the left sides of the Austrian trenches. The Arditi were ready to attack the center just as soon as artillery blew away the barbed wires. They engaged the enemy in furious hand-to-hand combat, forcing the defenders to fall back, inward to the second line of trenches that encircled the mountain like a crown.
From their higher position, the Austrians managed to trap the Italians in the very trenches they conquered. The first two companies sent by Capt. Baseggio should have joined the action, attacking the enemy from the sides, but never showed up. The captain decided to go look for them himself. He ran through the snow, dodging bullets and hopping over corpses.
Soon, he found the two companies of Arditi pinned down by enemy fire. By all practical measures, his pincer maneuver had failed, so he decided to return to the central section with more of his men. While the reinforcements couldn't get close enough to the Arditi, the sight of their captain gave the the Hardy Explorers strength enough to push forward again and recapture the trench
Fighting on the Italian Front was particularly brutal.
The two Austrian companies on higher up the hill managed to hold the attackers for a time, but without reinforcements, they were not able to hold it for very long. As was typical of World War I, the Italians gained and lost the trench several times — each advance cost them dearly. On a third attack, the Italians reached the second trench, fighting over piles of corpses made up of troops of both armies. From the nearby high ground, an Italian Lieutenant could see the battle. He wrote,
"The fight on the other side of the valley intensifies more and more, it will soon involve me and my men. I'm separated from my comrades by four hours of rough march. It has been 36 hours that we have not eaten, but we will join our brothers in arms."
The shocking thunders of artillery were interspersed with moments of silence, during which the men fought each other with knives and bayonets. A mountain trooper named Turin used all of his grenades to clean a trench in the highest position. Then, he jumped in to find an Austrian who had stood his ground in face of the bombardment. Turin's rifle jammed and the Austrian managed to rip off part of the Italian trooper's skull.
His comrades arrived and killed the Austrian. Turin wanted to continue the attack, even with his face covered by a horrible mask of blood. He couldn't stand properly because of the shock. Only the resolute order of his superior convinced him to retreat — but not before cursing the now-dead Austrian one last time.
Arditi became known for their knife-fighting skills.
Forced to step back, the Italians retreated downhill once more, the last of them was a Lt. Rabaioli, who ran back smiling — holding six rifles stolen from the enemy.
After two days of battle and with the reinforcements of Lt. Bongiovanni, Capt. Baseggio took the first of the two strongholds — and went immediately on to recon the second, which was defended by an Austrian battalion. He spent the entire next day attacking this position, using his advantage of artillery in higher position to rain hell on the enemy.
By the end of the day, only a quarter of his company of Arditi — about 50 men — were still able to fight. Exhausted, he gathered and aligned the remaining Arditi in the open and inspected the weapons. Then, they all started marching in a parade in front of the enemy, who, astonished, ceased the fire and abandoned the position.