Gli Alpini – part 1 Posted by on Jul 29, 2010 in Culture

As I wrote in my last article ‘Al Passo dei Due Santi’, last Sunday my husband, my parents and I went to hear a concert given by the local Alpini choir. Gli Alpini (the Alpines) are an Italian military corps and the oldest active mountain infantry in the world. They are very popular in Italy, seeming in many ways to represent the spirit of the country, so I thought I’d write a few words about them.

Gli Alpini were founded in 1872, just after the unification of Italy, with the aim of defending Italy’s land borders, which more or less follow the natural barrier formed by the Alps. At the time the main danger for the newly formed Italian Kingdom came from France and Austria. In May 1872 Captain Giuseppe Domenico Perrucchetti published an article in the Rivista Militare (Military Magazine), in which he suggested entrusting the defense of the Italian borders to soldiers recruited locally. He argued that these soldiers would be familiar with the terrain and accustomed to the weather, fit for fighting in the mountains, and, because of their connection with the area, more motivated to defend it. Five months after the publication of this article the first 15 alpine units were formed, becoming active on the 15th of October 1872. (we can be organized at times, us Italians!)

Comunque, gli Alpini, per uno di quegli strani scherzi del destino, ebbero il loro battesimo del fuoco in Africa durante la campagna di Eritrea nel 1887! (However, thanks to one of those strange quirks of fate, the Alpini had their baptism of fire in Africa, during the campaign in Eritrea in 1887!) A few years later, in 1911, they took part in the war to capture Libya from the Turks. Their most important action however, took place during La Prima Guerra Mondiale (The First World War), due to the fact that most of the 600 km long Italian frontline ran through the highest peaks of the Alps, the terrain which they were originally trained to defend. Many of the walkways and railroads built by the Alpini during WWI along the steepest cliffs collectively known as la via ferrata (the iron road), are still visited today by climbing enthusiasts.

During La Seconda Guerra Mondiale (The Second World War) the Alpini saw combat as part of the Axis army in France, Africa, Albania, Russia, Yugoslavia and Greece and, of course,  Italy. Their most terrible ordeal took place in Russia, where they were ordered to defend the front on the plains of the Don River. This they held until 1943, when they were encircled by the Soviet Army. At this point, Il Corpo d’Armata Alpino was forced to break the encirclement and to retreat towards the new frontline fighting, along the way, many epic battles, the most famous of which was La Battaglia di Nikolayevka (The Battle of Nikolayevka).

During this campaign and retreat the Alpini suffered horrendous losses with only a small fraction of the troops from the Tridentina, Julia, and Cuneense divisions surviving. For more details see this page: Alpini – Battle of Nikolayevka. Today in Rossosc, the 1942 headquarters of the Corpo d’Armata Alpino, stands a kindergarten which was built by the Alpini  to commemorate their comrades who lost their lives during the Russian campaign, and to promote solidarity between different countries.

to be continued……..

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  1. Uncle Joe:

    I found your article just after we’d written one on the Alpini, too. We also included a piece on their “anthem” if you like, “Stelutis alpinis” which always makes my wife cry!

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