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How the Arditi Knife Fighters Terrorized the First World War

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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The First World War changed how battles were fought. The shift from 19th century military science and weapons, to modernized warfare created huge casualties on both sides, and opposing armies were forced to rethink their strategies. New threats were emerging. Advancing technology gave birth to weapons like machine guns, tanks and aircrafts, while tactics evolved to deal with them. Traditional military maneuvers like cavalry charges and massed troops no longer applied, and battles descended into trench warfare. It was only in the final years of war when tactics were refined and adapted to the conditions of such battle.

And although the First World War was seen as modern combat, there were cases when fighting resembled medieval melee.

In the confines of trenches, soldiers were forced to fight close. So close that hand-to-hand engagements occurred. Smaller firearms and grenades were favored in these cramped conditions, while weapons resembling savage medieval implements saw wide use, like the trench clubs and trench knives.

Then, there were specialized units trained to storm the trenches and fight up closed. And a certain elite unit were known through their bold prowess with daggers.

The Shock Troops

Stormtroopers Advance Under a Gas Attack. Engraving by Otto Dix.

Stormtroopers Advance Under a Gas Attack. Engraving by Otto Dix.

Shock troops were already in existence way before the First World War, back into the armies of antiquity. These highly trained troops were meant to lead an attack, organized for mobility, and to assault the enemy’s vulnerable areas. And the trench warfare of the Second World War gave rise to new breeds of shock troops.

For infiltration tactics, the Ottoman Empire deployed their Yildirim Army Group, or Thunderbolt Army Group. They will stage their assault in the cover of machine gun fire and artillery and equipped for close-combat. But it was the elite German shock troops that gained the most notoriety.

Germany’s innovative attempt to break the static trench warfare led to the creation of the Sturmtruppen, or the stormtrooper. They could be likened to human tanks, though tactics never relied on brute force. Instead of going head on, the troopers will go for the enemy’s weak spot and overrun the artillery and command post. The frontline troops will then be isolated, before being disseminated by regular troops.

But what the Italian army had sent fear among the enemy ranks. Like their counterparts, they were meant to lead an attack in the most daring of manner. They were known for their signature weapon, which was the dagger and their proficiency in hand-to-hand fighting. They are the Italian shock troops Arditi.


The Italian Dagger-men

Arditi soldiers showing off their daggers.

Arditi soldiers showing off their daggers.

It was sometimes argued that the Arditi was preceded by armored combat engineers Compagnie della morte. These soldiers in medieval style attire and Farina helmet were tasked to clear the area of barbed wires for the incoming infantry. Nevertheless, the Arditi units started as small raiding parties in the army predominantly chosen from the Alpini mountain troops and Bersaglieri light infantry, while the idea of a regiment operating behind enemy ranks dated back in 1914. And it was by July 29, 1917 when the unit was officially sanctioned by King Victor Emmanuel.

The name of the regiment itself, Arditi means “the daring ones” in Italian, and indeed the nature of their jobs required certain degree of daringness. They adopted the shock tactics of the German Stormtroopers, though their tasks were not to clear the way for regular troops. They were trained to completely overran enemy position, and held it until the regular troops arrive. Such task required different specializations and skills; hence these soldiers were trained differently.


Training

Demonstration of knives and grenade fights.

Demonstration of knives and grenade fights.

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At first, a soldier could volunteer to join the regiment, but it was the commanders who would later recommend if a soldier was fit to become an Ardito. They were selected from the best, and since trench assault will be done under the cover of artillery fire, resiliency to huge bangs were needed. Their strengths and skills will be put to the test before recruits will undergo weapons and tactics training. Like all special forces' trainings, Arditi training is realistic and brutal. Men will learn to handle grenades, firearms (including machine guns) and flamethrowers, and deaths occurred due to the splinters caused by their explosives.

But they were known for their prowess with hand-to-hand fighting, particularly with their daggers.

Their style of fighting was based on European martial arts, with techniques coming from a medieval fighting manual “Flower of Battle.” The manuscript teaches edged weapon handling, disarming and wrestling. Hence, Arditi recruits learned knife fighting, swordsmanship and unarmed combat, combined with continuous physical conditioning. But when the Japanese writer Harukichi Shimoi enlisted in the Italian army and became an Ardito, he added his own martial arts to their arsenal, whereas he taught Karate to his fellow soldiers.

Weapons

The Arditi in their gas masks.

The Arditi in their gas masks.

For firearms, the Arditi carry rifles, which is shorter and easily wielded during raids. They could operate a machine gun and shoot flame thrower and light cannons (37 mm and 65 mm cannons). Grenades were an important part of their arsenal, and their choice was the Thevenot grenade. The explosion it caused were relatively weak, but its loud bang caused further chaos in the trench, much like a modern stun grenade. But the weapon that gained them wide notoriety was their fighting knife.

The Arditi knife was a dagger called the pugnale. This militarized version of the medieval weapon was yet to achieve the sophistication of the British Commando Knife in World War II. But it did its job well, and a proven deadly force in the hands of the Arditi. Kept in metal holster and with wooden handle, the dagger blade was made to penetrate deep and kill quicker. And due to lack of resources, the first daggers were bayonets, being cut, shaped and shortened.

Battles

Second Battle of the Piave River.

Second Battle of the Piave River.

It was in the Italian Front where the Arditi came to be tested, fighting against the Austro-Hungarian Empire using the Reparti d’assalto. Careful planning preceded the attack, with speed and surprise being crucial. It all began with artillery barrage, followed by the arrival of the dagger wielding soldiers. Grenades were thrown as they advanced, to further stir up the confusion and to fool the enemy that the artillery attack was still ongoing. In the chaos, the Arditi jumped in and engaged the enemy troops in a furious knife fight. Firearms were rarely used, and bladed hand-to-hand fighting took place. Flamethrowers and light cannons were reserved for pillboxes.

All in all, modern closed quarter doctrine applied in Arditi raids: speed, surprise and violence of action.

The strategy enjoyed great success between 1917 and 1918, but it had downsides. The Arditi motto O la vittoria, o tutti accoppati ("Either victory, or everyone dies") reflected the risks. Because if they blew it, they were dead. The furious display of martial arts skills and knife prowess were not suited for defense; hence they were vulnerable to counter attacks. Casualties were high, with 25% to 30% losses despite of success.

Nevertheless, their fighting prowess contributed victories, like on the on Monte Fratta on the Isonzo Front, their first recorded attack (18 August 1917). More successes followed, and the Arditi contributed greatly to breakthrough on the Piave, which brought the defeat of the Austrian armies.

Yes, life of an Ardito were both perilous, and possibly short. But being a member of special forces had its perks. They were better rewarded, received larger paycheck, and never slept in trenches. They rode trucks when moving around, unlike the marching regular troops. Indeed, it was a fitting benefit for soldiers who risked greater danger jumping into perilous trenches in daring missions, with daggers as their weapons. Their insignia, the skull with dagger between its teeth fits them well.

References

1. "World War I". HISTORY.

2. Griffith, Paddy; Battle Tactics of the Western Front; Yale University Press, New Haven, 1994

3. Grifiths, Jack (02 March, 2016). "The Daring Ones: Italy’s Arditi were the knife-fighting shock troops of World War I". History Answers.

4. Budanovic, Nikola (02 December, 2016). "Elite Italian Shock Troops – The Arditi: We Either Win, Or We All Die!". War History Online.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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