The Lost Legions

FeaturedThe Lost Legions

“War alone brings up to their highest tension all human energies and imposes the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to make it”.
Benito Mussolini, speech in Rome, 1939.

“Mussolini never killed anyone. Actually, he used to send people on vacation”.
Silvio Berlusconi, interview in “Il Corriere della Sera”, 2005.
“Mussolini was never actually a dictator”.
Silvio Berlusconi, speech in Milan, December 2017.

“Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it”.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarism, 1948.

In the past twenty years, the death of thousands of Italian soldiers in the Russian campaign during the Second World War has gradually disappeared from history books in primary and secondary schools. It is not a case that the process began just after the end of the First Republic and the advent of Berlusconism. With all its flaws, the First Republic was always careful to retain the fear of Fascisms at the centre of Italian political agenda. The Italian constitution itself and the men who sat down in 1946 to write it down, established as one of the principles of the Republic that the ‘apology of Fascism’ should be punished as a crime. The Second Republic started off with winking at organised crime and with using different ways of giving new life to extreme-right thinking.
The subtle revisionist project of rehabilitating Fascism includes deleting from official history all the battles in which Mussolini sent Italian soldiers to die a less then heroic death. For instance, Italian children who started school from the late 1990s onwards never read or studied that almost 100.000 Italian soldiers died in the Russian Campaign because they were sent to fight at polar temperatures in their summer uniforms, ill-equipped and ill-trained.

                                                                                            Nicoletta Peddis, York, November 2017.



The involvement of Italian troops in the Russian campaign was due more to political than to military causes. Just after the beginning of the German attack on Russia, Mussolini asked Hitler if he could send an Italian expeditionary force to the Russian front, with the intention of demonstrating to the Furher the strength of the Fascist troops and their loyalty to Nazi Germany. It was, therefore, a purely symbolic gesture, and, as so often happens with emotional impulses, it was destined to end in disaster.
The Italian Expeditionary Force (CSIR) started to move into the battle area on July 1941. It consisted of 60.000 men, and was sent to the southern part of the front, attached to the German XI Army. Even in this first phase, lack of transport forced the Italian troops to carry out exhausting marches over the muddy Ukrainian roads.

17th August 1941, 5 p.m.

It’s our second week of trekking across what we think is Ukraine. We should be reaching the Don Front in around two weeks, if we haven’t totally lost our way. My men marched the whole day carrying their heavy packs and their low moods. These boys are ordinary folk: peasant farmers, shoemakers, bakers, iron workers. They are the working class which Fascism promised to protect. I have received precise orders of avoiding contact with the enemy, but I can see that the men feel closer to the Ukrainian peasants we encounter on our way than to the Fascist elite who sent them here in their summer uniforms. Ukrainian summer consists of blistering heat in the days and very cold nights, with a temperature excursion of around 20 degrees Celsius between day and night. It feels like an ironic reminder of the fact that we were supposed to fight in Africa. The dust cloud that rises from our tracks while we march reminds me of Africa, too. It mixes with our sweat as we advance and by evening we are unrecognisable. We always arrive dead tired and the boys have to fix something to eat. One of them goes to search for a cabbage, another for a tomato, the luckier ones captured a chicken during the trek.
The local children have learned a few words of Italian. They shout VIVA ITALIA, DARE ACQUA, DARE PASTA (Long live Italy, please give us water, please give us pasta) , when they see us. They are so nice to us and so amusing that I can’t deny the men to interact with them. We try to do everything we can to please them. In exchange they give us the gift of a few moments of family life, which we already miss. I allow my men to fraternise with the enemy, as I can hardly see these children as the enemy, and I can hardly deny my men their share of human contact, after having marched through fields of rye and sunflowers for days, without ever seeing a living soul, apart from themselves.
Lieutenant Corti.

11th November 1941

The Russians are intensifying their night attacks. My men are scared, those same men that were longing for battle during our summer of endless marching and trekking. Russia is cold, and scary, and huge. We have not been engaged in a direct, heroic battle yet, the kind of battle we have read about in the books about World War I as part of the initial training. We have lost hundreds of men simply in trying to defend our position from night attacks. We have not reached the Don yet, and the attacks are directed at precisely keeping us far from the front in which the Nazi troops are trying to conquer Stalingrad. The lack of sleep is making the men nervous and I have to use all of my authority to keep them from fighting over stupid matters. I had to officially forbid the questioning of military decisions. I understand where the soldiers’ disillusionment is coming from, but I can’t allow it to interfere with the course of the battle, bringing the morale further down the drain. The discipline enforcement has clearly annoyed them in the beginning, but after a few days of stricter rules they still look scared but closer together and they march in such an orderly fashion that it reminds me of the 1930’s parades, after the Duce had only just came into power.

“Dear Gerardo,
The winter has started early this year, and the rationing makes it harder. The Duce has appeared on his balcony to declare that we must support the Empire war effort and our fighting men. It made me feel closer to you, my dear, and me and the boys are happy that in giving up some of our food we are allowing our government to send more food to you and the rest of the troops. Vincenzo and Carlo are part of the Balilla youth, and they marched in Milan last week to welcome the Duce, who smiled at the marching boys and proclaimed them ‘the future of the nation’. He also spoke about the heroic effort of the CSIR in Russia, and I was so proud that you were part of those men he was praising. We miss you, but we know that until the Red Army will be defeated, your duty will keep you in Russia.
With all my love,

Can I tell my wife that we have not seen any of that food that is been rationed for us? That my family and the rest of the Italian people are giving up their food in vain? That we still haven’t received new uniforms and we are fighting in Russia with the same uniforms in which we left in the summer? We need people’s support on the war effort, we need to keep strong, and we will. I will hide the truth from my family when necessary, and I will inspect my men’s mail home before it leaves the camp to make sure they are following the orders.

“Dear Lucia,
I am proud that you and the boys are contributing to the nation effort in the building and strengthening of the Empire. Could you send me a picture of Vincenzo and Carlo in the Balilla uniform with your next letter? Russia is cold, but the warmth of your love keeps me company and I am grateful for the food we receive thanks to the sacrifice of the Italian people. It won’t be long until we will destroy the Red Army and I will be back home with you and our sons.
With all my love,
Lieutenant Corti.

After a very hard winter, and a year of offensive and defensive fighting, the CSIR had suffered serious losses, and was incorporated in the VIII Italian Army, which arrived in Russia in July 1942, forming together a united division under the name of ARMIR. The Italian forces in Russia now totalled 230.000 men. They included three divisions of Alpini troops, specially trained for winter warfare. During the summer of 1942 the ARMIR advanced to the Don, and occupied 200 miles of front along the river. A Russian offensive was contained in august 1942, but in November the Russians started operations on a vast scale. On the 11th December the ARMIR was subject to mass attack; retreat began on 19th December. The ARMIR retreated for 300 miles entirely on foot, with no supplies, and at a temperature between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius below zero. Many of the troops, overcome by exhaustion, broke away from the column, others were cut off and captured by the Russians, others lost in the Steppe. The losses of the ARMIR amounted to: 90.000 missing and dead; 45.000 frost-bitten and wounded.

15th July 1942, 8 p.m.

The initial expeditionary mission with which we came to Russia has lost more than half of its men. Last week we have been adjoined to the 8th Italian Army who came in support from Italy with 200.000 soldiers. We now became the ARMIR. After almost a year we managed to reach the Don front, which we were supposed to reach in around 4/5 weeks. I have been assigned to the command of a platoon of Alpini, in addition to the few men I have left from the original expedition. These men are very proud of their mountain origins and are ready to fight, just like we were last summer. Yesterday we managed to conquer 100 metres in the Don front, after almost 24 hours of fighting against the Russians. If I think of the length of the front we are trying to take from the Russian, I feel drained. I can’t even imagine facing anymore day-long battle with the only purpose of gaining a few meters of terrain. We need sleep, and proper food, but the Russian are blocking the whole area around our small front, so we are forced to eat wild leaves and the few berries that are left on the trees around us.

“Dear Lucia,
Our front on the Don is getting stronger and stronger, and the end of the Red Army is near. We received new troops from Italy in support of the last effort and I am now in command of a division of Alpini. The Fascist Army is stronger and prouder than ever, and my men are fighting with the honour that is expected from them. I will be back with you and with our sons soon, my dear.
With all my love,
Lieutenant Corti.

12th December 1942, 9 p.m.

We were all right in our strongpoint for a few days after we arrived, before the Russians started to attack. Our strongpoint was in a fishing village by the Don, the gun-positions and trenches were cut out of a slope which hung over the frozen river. I could look around and I knew exactly were the rest of the ARMIR was: beyond a flat stretch to the right was Morbegno’s strongpoint; beyond another on the left, Lieutenant Cenci, between us and Cenci, Sergeant Garrone’s section in a crumbling house. And facing us, less than fifty yards away on the other side of the Don, the Russian strongpoint. And then, The Red Army finally showed its deadly power, after days of continued skirmishes and light bombing, and yesterday we were destroyed. We have lost contact with the rest of the ARMIR and with hundred men left in my platoon, I have no idea what our next moves will be. I have managed to keep my confident mask on because I believe that is what my men need, after having assisted to the butchering of thousands of the men with which they spent every day of their lives for the past few months, and having seen the rest scattering in the snow with no order, and none of the pride that is expected from the great Fascists army. I look at my 100 men and see fear in them, and a rage that worries me. The rage that should be directed to Russians, in order for us to survive this massacre, is directed to whoever sent them here ill-equipped and ill-trained. I am beginning to feel like them every now and then. I am exhausted for what we have endured and for what I have seen, but I have no time to rest, I have to keep the moral high in my men until we receive our next orders. I need to keep my last men alive and to bring them back to their families. Private Rossi approached me when we were setting up camps… Lu, sior, cosa femo de quealtri omini ca mori’ la note passata? (Lieutenant, Sir, what are we going to do with those men who died last night?) How could I explain to him that we had no anymore and I had received order not to stop in the battlefields to bury the corpses of my soldiers? I did though, I told him that we couldn’t bury them, that their corpses were going to rot in the snow for direct order of the Duce. Until one day someone was going to discover fields and fields of frozen Italian skeletons. The fascist youth. The courageous army that made our Duce so proud, was succumbing under the weight of Mussolini’s sense of inferiority towards the Furher.
Lieutenant Corti.

15th December 1942, 8 p.m.

Last night the order came to prepare to leave. This morning we still don’t know who is going to relieve us, nor do we know where we are going… to the Caucasus… to Stalingrad… to Italy… we have no idea where the rest of the ARMIR is… if they are all dead… captured… lost in the Steppe. I have found a useful way for the boys to spend the waiting hours. I have 100 men left, with only four axes between them. They are the greatest woodcutters in world though, and I praised them for that. They murmured in assent when I reminded them of the greatness of the Alpini Corps, so I pressed on and explained them my plan of building sleighs to go wherever the hell they were sending us. We entered the forest in single files. The man at the head of each line chopped the trunk of a tree three times, in just the right places. Then he passed the axe to the next man in line and moved to the back of the line. When we gathered enough wood, I divided the men into three groups: the first one hammered nails into two large wooden bars to connect them and make the bases of the sleighs, the second group’s assignment was to build the top point to attach to the base; the last group built very roughly shaped seats to place on the top part of our sleighs. By 7 p.m. we still had no idea when we were going and where on earth we were going, but as the proud and hard-working Alpini that we were, we had 20 sleighs ready and the boys sat in the cold, waiting for the order to arrive. They are mountain men, but this cold is nowhere near anything we have experienced before. I am missing the Ukrainian fall and the trekking in the fields which at this point seems almost as it had been a happy time. Alpino D’Andrea approached me and addressed me in his dialect… Lu, sior c’el ga studia, me diga, cosa semo vegnu a far qua noialtri? (Lieutenant, Sir, you who have studied, tell me, what have we come here to do?) … As if my university degree was supposed to prepare me to have answers to give for this absurdity. I do not know what we have come here to do. I once knew we had been sent to Russia to cover the left flank of the Nazi troops while they attacked Stalingrad. But we are now in the middle of nowhere, and I have lost my men to cold and starvation, not to the heroic battle in which we were supposed to engage against the Red Army. The worst sin of Fascism is not that it betrayed us, the generation of Young Fascists, us who shouted VIVA LA GUERRA, VIVA IL DUCE (Long live the war, long live the Duce) . It’s having betrayed these poor souls on whose shoulders the war is falling upon.
Lieutenant Corti.

We kept walking, even when the night came on. It’s cold, colder than ever. Our breath freezes on our beards, and we walk on, in silence. We look ahead and there is nothing: no trees, no houses, no people. There is only us and the endless snow. I think about lying down on the snow and closing my eyes. Will that be my death? How many of my men behind are having the same thought and throwing themselves down on the snow to never get up again? I can’t stop to check on them, I know I am losing them, but I need to bring the survivors to safety. I am frightened of getting frost-bite, but I walk on. We are like shadows, the Italian ghost army disappearing in the snow. A strong cold wind blows up and we’re all white. What day is today? On we walk, every step in the snow is one less to reach home. The sun rises and the whiteness of the snow together with the sunlight dazzles us. I don’t know what to think or what I’m doing anymore. Every now and then I hold my breath and I think.. now, I’ll die. But I don’t, and I walk on. I eat handfuls of snow to try and keep my mouth hydrated in some way. We walked along steadily but slowly, even by forcing myself I couldn’t proceed any faster. I kept repeating to myself now is the time I will die, and the thought went along with each step. The cold is torturing my body and my mind… I am lost, I turn to look if the men are still following. There is less than twenty of us now. I collect all my strength and I shout… Come on, follow me, there is a train waiting for us somewhere. A train back home.
Lieutenant Corti

Lieutenant Corti was captured by the Red Army on the 18th December 1942 and taken to a prison camp in Siberia. He was the worst time for POW in Russia: after the victory of Stalingrad the Red Army was overwhelmed by the huge number of prisoners and the resources were stretched to the limit. The majority of prisoners captured in the end of 1942 and the beginning of 1943 died in the early part of 1943. Thousands died of cold, hunger, typhus and other diseases connected to malnutrition. Lieutenant Corti survived and in September 1945 he was among 1700 generals, officials, soldiers, and civilians who were the first to be repatriated to Italy. By November 1946, 10.032 men were returned to Italy, and the Soviets declared the process complete, leaving unaccounted for 60.000 others. Only in the 1990’s, formal evidence was produced of 64.500 Italians captured alive by the Soviets, 38.000 of which had officially died in prison camps, while the remaining 16.468 were declared missing.