10 August 2016

Bersaglieri: Italian Light Infantry, On Bicycles

I have written several posts on how armed forces throughout the world have used bicycles and deployed troops on bicycles.  I trust--or at least hope--that no one has inferred from them that I, in any way, wish to endorse--let alone glorify--war.  Rather, I hope that showing how bicycles have been used, both in and out of combat, can highlight their versatility.

Also, as paradoxical as this may seem, the more I oppose war, the more interesting the history of armed conflicts becomes.  But I am not concerned with the "drum and bugle" aspects of military history, or in a mere recounting of battles.  Instead, I am interested in the ways war--as well as preparation for it, whether or not it's actually fought--affects technology, societies, cultures and history.

Ironically, I came to think about the things I've mentioned--actually, I learned of their existence--when I was a cadet in my college's Army ROTC program. (So you thought my life as a guy named Nick was the biggest, dimmest and darkest secret I've shared?  Ha!)  At the same time I was enrolled in  the "leadership seminar", I took a class called "Literature and the Great War", taught by one Paul Fussell.

Now, when I signed up for that course, I knew that Professor Fussell had won the National Book Award a few years earlier for The Great War And Modern Memory.  It's the sort of book that seems not to be written anymore because graduate literature programs don't turn out scholars like Dr. Fussell anymore.  The man was every bit as erudite as I'd hoped he would be, and was an engaging lecturer.  Actually, he didn't lecture so much as he talked about the works we'd read, as well as his own reflections--at least some of which were based, no doubt, on his experiences as a soldier in World War II. (He was wounded in France and won a Purple Heart.)  Best of all, he spoke--and wrote--in plain language, without any jargon.  That would not fly in any graduate school today.

Anyway, I mention him and that class because, from them, I also came to realize that I could appreciate the beauty of poems, stories and images borne of combat, whether experienced or observed.  Moreover, that appreciation was heightened by my realization of the horror and futility of war:  things Paul, as a combat veteran, understood as well as anybody could.  

I don't know whether he ever saw this photo of Bersaglieri (Italian light infantry) on Montozzo Pass in 1915:

From The Great War Blog

Their bikes are probably state-of-the-art, or close to it.  So, no doubt, are their weapons.  But something is totally incongruous:  their headgear.  Military uniforms, with their drab colors and lack of ornamentation (save for medals), were developed during World War I.  But these troops are wearing feathered hats.  

What makes those hats seem even more out-of-place (and their time) is their broad brims.  Trench warfare and the emphasis on greater mobility served to streamline military uniforms.  This brigade may well have been one of the last to wear such wide hats.

What was the purpose of those wide brims?  To ward off cavalry swords.  Yes, you read that right. I imagine they were about as good for that purpose as the old "leather hairnets" were at protecting the heads of cyclists who crashed.

I think that riding fast--which, I'm sure, they could do--probably did more to protect them from cavalry swords, or any other weapons the Austrians could use against them!


  1. Thought that book sounded familiar, usually takes days or more to find a wanted book in this house but I found that one in less than ten seconds! I had forgotten the poignant dedication... Going to add it to my pile of books to reread.

    Twenty years ago a neighbour told me proudly how she had cleared junk out of her attic, including a photograph of her father's bicycle regiment all standing to attention with their bikes somewhere hot. What makes it worse was that she knew that I was interested in both photography and bicycles!

  2. Coline--You have a copy of that book? And you laid your hands on it so quickly? Hmm...You're better than I am! ;-)

    I'm sorry to hear about that photo you missed. As the saying goes, one person's trash is another person's treasure. The problem is, the person who thinks it's trash never realizes that it could be treasure to someone else.

  3. Great picture, although i wish the heargear were clearer. It looks like the brigade is marching in step with their bikes. It gives one pause to think that some military genius though riding a bike under fire was a good idea- not unlike a cavalry charge in the face of machine guns. It's also interesting to note the era of transition from fancy, sometimes garish military headdress to more practical helmets. (IMHO, the Italians had the nattiest uniforms.)

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  5. Mike--I won't disagree that the Italians had the nattiest uniforms. WWI was really the last show, if you will, for flashy or even stylish uniforms.

    I agree that sending troops on bicycle into machine gun fire is not unlike sending animals to a slaughterhouse. It's scary to think that far worse tactical decisions were made during the so-called Great War, and other conflicts.