Arditi: The Italian WW1 Special Forces - History Key

Arditi: The Italian WW1 Special Forces

The ”Special Forces” has always been a big interest subject, but usually concentrated only around some famous examples, mostly presented in movies. We thought it would be useful to start a little collection of articles related to the less known special forces, just in order to increase your knowledge of the subject.

When it comes to special forces, almost every time, the story seems to start from WW2 and Vietnam War, with the Green Berets and so on. In fact, the concept of special units having as task special missions is rooted earlier than WW1. More exactly since ancient times.

In this article History Key will unlock for you the story of the “Arditi”, the Italian elite special force from WW1.

Arditi in 1918
Arditi in 1918 © Wikipedia

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Their name comes from the Italian verb “ardire” which is translated as “The Daring Ones”. They were embedded in the “Reparti d’Assalto” units, and they represented the Assault Units of the Royal Italian Army. The Italian Assault Units were formed in 1917 by Colonel Giuseppe Alberto Bassi, who designed the units’ activity around the concept of ferocious assaults and hand-to-hand combat while occupying the enemy’s positions.

The Arditi were special on many levels. They didn’t belong to any infantry division, being considered a separate arm. Their uniform was a custom one, the food was better and also the permissions. But we must keep in mind that also the actions of these men were above any others.

Their mission was only to overrun the enemy positions. Usually, the volunteers “insensitive” to really loud noises were chosen for the mission, and of course the willing ones. Despite the fact that they were masters of hand-to-hand combat, they were sent to the front only with a dagger and hand grenades.


Arditi with daggers
Arditi with daggers © Pinterest

Volunteering to win or to die

Having as a motto “O la Vittoria, O Tutti Accoppati” (We either win, or we all die) they were involved in the most dangerous missions, often considered suicidal. While the enemy positions were bombarded by Italian artillery, the Arditi would start their attack, approaching the enemy lines to enter the trenches when the artillery fire was ceased. The tactic of surprise the enemy through a direct attack turned out to be very effective.

Most of the Arditi didn’t use a rifle. Considering that their target was to infiltrate the enemy trenches and take them out through very close combat, a rifle would have been cumbersome for such limited space of action. Usually, they launched their attack having as equipment only the dagger and a bag with grenades.

Their dagger became their trademark, also because, during the assault, they had to keep the dagger between teeth, in order to have free hands for the grenades. A unit was usually formed by 13 officers and 400 soldiers, all accepted as volunteers.

Group of Arditi showing their combat daggers
Group of Arditi showing their combat daggers © Pinterest

The Arditi units came after the German Stormtroopers, who were the first to adopt tactics related to shock assaults. Many Arditi fought in the area of the Piave River, where they faced the advance of the Austro-Hungarian units. In that occasion, the Arditi crossed the Piave River holding the dagger between their teeth, going towards enemy positions. The men involved in that action came to be known as “Caimani del Piave”  (the Caimans of the Piave).

The Arditi’s involvement played a decisive role in the breakthrough on the Piave, leading to the final victory over Austrian armies.


“Caimani del Piave”
“Caimani del Piave” ©

Fascism and Arditi

Besides the offensive grenades, the Arditi used the Thevenot hand grenade, which was what today is intended as a flashbang. The Thevenot wasn’t deadly, virtually harmless, having the role of confusing the enemy moments before the Arditi assault inside the trenches.

If in the first phase, volunteers formed the Arditi. But after a while, the acceptance in the special unit was based on strict requirements. Before entering the unit, the recruits had to endure hard strength, nerve and skill training. A number of them died during training because everything was done using real grenades.

Their dagger was made from a surplus stock of Vetterli bayonets; each bayonet was cut in a half, resulting from enough material for manufacturing two Arditi daggers.

A strong sense of comradeship defined the Arditi, rituals, and songs fortified their bonding, and songs like “Giovinezza” became not only their hymn but also one of the most adopted by the next fascist regime. Many Arditi joined the fascist party, but not all of them. Even if a smaller part of them formed into “Arditi del Popolo”, who were factions leaning to the maximalist wing of socialism; the majority of them followed Mussolini.

Arditi veteran
Arditi veteran ©

The design of the Arditi badges was eventually adopted by the fascist regime. The skull with the dagger kept between the teeth was directly coming from the Arditi.

In January 1920 the Arditi units were disbanded. Today, the Italian commando frogmen named “Arditi Incursori” are considered the heirs of the Arditi of the First World War.

Arditi from Bologna
Arditi from Bologna ©

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