THE BERSAGLIERI AND THEIR USE OF BIANCHI FOLDING MILITARY BICYCLES
With reference to the Museum exhibit Modello 25/34
By Richard Henry
It was during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that a military role for the humble bicycle was considered by the French. Although the initial experiments with the cumbersome and heavy machine, as it was then, were deemed unsuccessful, large-scale military manoeuvers five years later in Italy, involving cyclists brought the military bicycle into the limelight.
WHO ARE THE BERSAGLIERI?
The Bersaglieri are an Italian elite army unit which was formed on 18 June 1836 by Captain Alessando La Marmora. Recruits were expected to be physically fit and be able to do all movements at the double time march of 180 paces per minute. The Bersaglieri acted as skirmishers or shock troops and moved quickly by running to engage with the enemy, often surprising the enemy. They also carried more cartridges (60 instead of 40) as was the standard at the time. After a long run they were then expected to shoot accurately. Being at the front of the army, initiative was encouraged as was independent action.
The distinctive 400 black capercaille (wood grouse) feathers worn on their wide brimmed hat were not only for decoration. They served as shade for the marksman shooting eye, camouflage for the soldier and initially to help deflect the blow from an enemy sabre. They greatly impressed King Charles Albert who ordered that they be incorporated into the Royal Italian Army. In 1870 they seized Rome, freeing the city from the Pope’s rule and completing the unification of Italy into one state.
In 1875, some Bersaglieri and seven men from the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment from the Milan barracks participated in a cycle race with heavy (over 30 kg) wooden and steel, bone shaker velocipede bikes. The ride was terribly hard and officers were forbidden to be seen riding a boneshaker.
The bone shaker velocipedes had pedals, wooden wheels with a steel rim and were most uncomfortable to ride.
In 1878, some bone shaker velocipedes took part in the large army manoeuvres in the Marche region in Italy (Ancona) but they were still viewed with scepticism by the army authorities.
John Boyd Dunlop of Belfast, Ireland had in 1888 invented the pneumatic tyre. This solved the problem of the vicious jarring of the Bone Shaker experienced even on good roads and opened a range of possibilities of cross-country deployment. The pneumatic tyre provided a great leap forward
The first properly documented folding bicycle was designed by American Emitt Latta. He patented his idea in the United States in September 1887 and received his papers in February 1888. Many people followed suit. A French military officer named Captain Henry Gérard in conjunction with an industrialist Charles Morel built a prototype and later mass produced a folding bicycle from April 1895 onwards. These bicycles were sold to the public as well as the French military. Quickly many other countries made use of folding bicycles, such as Styria in Austria, Dursley-Pederson in England, Peugeot in France and Bianchi in Italy.
A very rare Captain Henry Gérard folding bicycle restored and displayed at the National WW1 Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, United States.
Lieutenant Luigi Camillo Natali saw the possibilities of using bicycles to enhance the mobility of the Bersaglieri. He obtained a folding bicycle, possibly a Carraro or Bianchi copy of the French design. He conducted his own trails and started to lay down procedures, instructions, riding position and a user’s guide for the bicycle’s use. Procedures and maintenance and repair of the bicycle were stressed.
These trials came to the notice of General Testafochi who saw the bicycle’s potential. In 1895 General Testafochi persuaded the military authorities to test 16 men on bicycles, commanded by Natali during that years large manoeuvers. Problems with punctures were experienced.
Many could now see the many advantages of the bicycle. It required no fodder and water and was three to four times faster than marching soldiers. It was silent and inconspicuous and easy to maintain. During the manoeuvers the bicycles suffered punctures and it was decided to return to the solid rubber tyre. To ease the bone jarring from the solid tyres, the forks were fitted with shock absorbers. Larger wheels were also incorporated for extra speed and a two speed gear system was investigated. The civilian bicycles used at the time were Bianchi, Carraio, and Costa & Rossi Melli models. In March 1898 the first cyclist company was formed at the musketry school in Parma. In 1905 the 12th Regiment formed a temporary cyclist unit. The Carraio folding bicycle, which weighed 30 kg was fitted to carry a backpack, panniers and the Model 1891 Carcano 6.5mm service rifle in a rifle clip. In 1908 this model, one of the desired bicycles, was tested by the temporary cyclist unit, over 1 153 km of the bicycle race of the Tour of Italy. In 1910 one cyclist battalion was formed in each of the twelve Bersaglieri regiments. Each cyclist battalion comprised three companies of 150 men each.
In 1911, the Italian Minister for War instituted a competition amongst eleven bicycle manufacturers in Italy with the aim of finding the best folding bicycle for the army. The trial consisted of a 3 000km ride over dusty and poor condition roads. Bianchi was the winner and an order for 7 000 Modello Militare Brevettato 1912 folding bicycles was placed and they became the official Italian military bicycle. This was a steel, spring framed folding bicycle with solid tyres. The Bianchi Model 1912 folding bicycle is widely regarded as the forefather of modern mountain bike, thanks to its slightly smaller wheels, rear suspension and front shock absorbers.
BIANCHI – ITALY’s PREMIER BICYCLE MANUFACTURER
Edoardo Bianchi was born in1865, at age four he was orphaned and grew up in a Milan institution where he was taught mechanics. At Age 20 he started a mechanical workshop located at no.7 via Nirone, in Milan. He initially manufactured traditional wooden and steel velocipedes but also other mechanical items such as ball bearings, surgical instruments and electric bells.
Edoardo Bianchi c 1940 Bianchi’s original workshop at No 7 via Nirone, Milan
However he will be remembered as Italy’s premier bicycle manufacturer who used a steel frame and wheels of the same size. In 1888 he used the idea of John Dunlop by using the pneumatic tyre with a rubber inner tube inside an exterior rubber tyre. He attracted the attention of the House of Savoy to teach the use of the bicycle to the royals and in particular to Queen Margherita. For his services he was rewarded in 1895 to be allowed to use the red crusader crest of the Savoy on its products. At the turn of the century he received numerous international awards for his bicycles. In addition to bicycles, Bianchi produces tricycles, motorbikes starting from 1897, cars from 1900 and trucks from 1909.
In 1913 white was the typical colour of the civilian bicycle frame. The well-known “Bianchi Azzurri” which is actually the colour of green water, has changed over the years and only became characteristic of Bianchi bicycles from 1940 onwards. Edoardo Bianchi died in motor car accident in 1946.
On the Museum exhibit this crest is barely visible on the down tube. The bicycle crest on the right reads: Edoardo Bianchi, Milano, Brevetto Speciale (Special Patent)
A post card which reads “Onwards Savoy” and in Latin below, “the 26th Bersaglieri Battalion”. The Bianchi Model 1912 folding bicycle in its 1912 distinctive blue green livery is shown. The rifle appears to be Model 1891 Carcano 6.5mm service rifle.
Source: National WW1 War Museum and Memorial
THE FIRST WORLD WAR
On the morning of 28 June 1914, the 12th Tour de France began in Paris. In Sarajevo, Bosnia, 1,836km away, Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand, the heir of the Austrian Empire, was assassinated. One week after the race had finished, Germany declared war on France and the First Wold War had begun.
Bersaglieri soldiers pose with their Bianchi Model 1912 machines
The First World War began as a very mobile war which proved perfect for bicycles. The flat terrain in Belgium allowed both the Allies and the Central Powers to use a large number of bikes and made it easy to deploy troops to the front lines quickly. At the start of the war the German Jäger (light infantry) battalions each had a bicycle company (Radfahr-Kompanie), making 36 independent companies of infantry on bicycles as well as a battalion of cyclists attached to every cavalry division. They also had ten additional reserve bicycle companies. Additional units were raised during the war, bringing the total to 80 companies. After trench warfare set in, mass transport by bicycle was severely hampered.
The Italians and specifically the Bersaglieri started the First World War with 12 Bersaglieri regiments. A further nine regiments were raised during the war. At the start of the war the 1st Bersaglieri Regiment and five battalions from other Bersaglieri regiments were sent to Libya to supress a revolt against Italian occupation. On 29 December 1914 the army sent the 10th Bersaglieri Regiment to Albania, which was in turmoil when the ruler Price William fled the country. The Bersaglieri fought with distinction on the Italian / Alpine Front against the Austrian-Hungary forces from 23 May 1915 – 6 November 1918. Fighting in the mountains was difficult and in winter many died from the extreme cold. Of the 210,000 members of Bersaglieri regiments, 32,000 were killed and 50,000 wounded during the war. Benito Mussolini also served in the Bersaglieri on the Alpine Front. A contingent of Bersaglieri also participated in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign in 1917. However for the duration of the war the cyclists battalions operated independently from their regiments and were assigned as needed to higher commands.
When hostilities commenced the Bersaglieri therefore consisted of:
- 13 regiments (one in Libya, one in Albania, eleven in Italy)
- 55 battalions on foot (41 grouped in 13 regiments (two deployed to Rhodes Island in the Aegean); 14 autonomous battalions, of which seven in Libya and seven at the Alpine / Italian Front)
- 12 cyclist battalions
Specialist Italian Alpine troops Winter conditions were harsh
Two Bersaglieri with their folding Model 1912 Bianchi
bicycles on their backs climb a mountain on the Italian Front.
INTER WAR YEARS – TURMOIL, GROWTH and TRANSITION
The nine war established Bersaglieri regiments were disbanded and the numbers of battalions in the remaining regiments were reduced to two per regiment. Italy was in turmoil, she had lost 600 000 men killed and a further 1 million men injured in the First World War. Italy experienced serious economic problems after the war. Revolution appeared imminent with strikes and looting daily occurrences. Fascist and Socialists were involved in street battles. Eventually Benito Mussolini, who has served in the Bersaglieri and who had become the leader of the Fascists marched on Rome with 250 000 supporters on 26 October 1922. On 29 October the King, Victor Emmanuel III, asked Mussolini to form a government.
A shift in economic policy reduced unemployment by 77% and the economy grew by 20%. Big capitalist business, the state and the work force worked together to improve public programmes. Italy signed new trade agreements to import raw materials. State spending however increased the national dept.
A new role was seen for the Bersaglieri. The twelve regiments of Bersaglieri were all converted to bicycle troops to fight alongside the cavalry in the Celeri (fast) mobile divisions. The Italian forces invaded Somalia in 1924, using some old Model 1912 bicycles and some 1912 Model bicycles manufactured in 1924. Since all Bersaglieri regiments were now cyclist units, additional bicycles were needed. I estimate that at least 1 500 bicycles were required per regiment. Bianchi then produced an upgraded high quality, low mass, military model, Patent 1925 bicycle. It had all the features of the model 1912 as well as two gears on the back wheel and a luggage carrier over the back wheel.
Just as the economy was improving, the great world Depression starting in 1929, hit Italy hard in 1931. The state took majority ownership of many large industries. They also spent almost one third of state expenditure on the armed services from the 1930s. The Fascist economy was designed to boost prestige and military strength. Italian expansionist policies from 1924 and the political stand-off between Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and Italy from 1932 continued. Italy prepared for war.
Between 1929 and 1935 the Italians introduced some new equipment to modernise their army. The basic infantry accoutrement equipment available to the Bersaglieri for the Abyssinian Campaign was:
- The new Modello 1933 steel helmet
- A sun/ pith helmet with black capercaille feathers
- A red Fez with blue tassels
- Modello 1933 Canteen in 1 and later 2 litre with sip function
- A Modello 1929 Telo Minetica ( camouflage cloth) in halves as portion of a tent shelter and tent poles x 3
- A Gavetto Modello 1930 (aluminium mess tin)
- A Modello 1933 Gas Mask and Carrier
- An all- weather cape
- A Modello 1935 Gas Mask and Carrier
- A Beretta Modello 1934 semi-automatic pistol
Some of the older equipment still in use was:
- Modello 1891 Carcano service rifle
- WW1 entrenching tool
- WW1 pickaxe
- Modello 1891 two pocket bandolier
- Modello 1891 leather belt with 1907 Pattern cartridge pouches.
- WW1 wool blanket.
- Modello 1907 haversack
- Modello 1907 rucksack
Bianchi built a new bicycle (Biciletta Militare Brevettata Modello 25/34) in 1934 with an extra luggage carrier over the back wheel to assist in carrying the above mentioned equipment. Italy invaded Abyssinia on 3 October 1935 and part of the invading 30th Infantry division was the 3rd Bersaglieri regiment from the Livorno / Pisa area. They invaded from Eritrea and took part in the Christmas Offensive and later the Battle of Amba Aradam. It is not known if the 3rdBersaglieri went to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) with Bianchi bicycles. One Italian source states they were on foot. In March 1935 they were withdrawn back to Asmara to form the East Africa Fast Column which was to advance on Addis Ababa. This column consisted of 12,500 Italian troops, and 1,785 cars and trucks of all makes (Fiats, Lancia’s, Alfa-Romeos, Fords, Chevrolets, Bedford’s and Studebakers) as well as a squadron of L3 /V 33 light tanks and eleven batteries of artillery. Again no bicycles are mentioned.
Already it was evident that for the Italian army to compete with other European Nations she had to have motorised infantry. The Bersaglieri tasks were to be fast moving infantry. In 1936 the reliance on bicycle transport for the Bersaglieri was greatly reduced and the use of trucks and motorcycles was increased. Some bicycles were however still used.
Did the Museum Biciletta Militare Brevettata Modello 25/34 find its way to Abyssinia in 1935/1936?
Based on the excellent condition of the exhibit and the very good condition of the solid tyres on the Museum exhibit, it seems very unlikely.
By the late 1930s the Italian economy was still too underdeveloped to sustain the demands of a modern militaristic regime. Raw material production was underutilised and finished military equipment was limited in quantity and too often in quality. At the start of the Second World War 1939-1945, the majority of Italian equipment was considered obsolete. There were a few exceptions like the Beretta Model 1934 pistol and the Beretta Model 1938 sub-machine gun.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR 1939-1945
The first Italian armoured divisions were formed in 1939. Each armoured and motorised division was allocated one Bersaglieri regiment. Most Italian infantry in the Second World War were on foot. The 12 Bersaglieri regiments, with three battalions each however, used a fair number of trucks and motorcycles for mobility. Each of the 12 Bersaglieri regiments had one motorcycle mounted battalion. In all, six of the 12 Bersaglieri regiments fought in North Africa, compiling an excellent combat record, with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel (“the Desert Fox”) acknowledging in a Radio Rome interview in late 1942 that, The German soldier has impressed the world, however, the Italian Bersaglieri soldier has impressed the German soldier.”
In East Africa, only one battalion of the Bersaglieri saw service. They served as one of the three battalions of the 11thGrenadier Regiment under Colonel Corso Corsi. The 11th Grenadier Regiment formed part of the 65th Infantry Division which was commanded by General Amedeo Liberarti. Photographic evidence taken from the official South African East African Campaign album show the Bersaglieri rode motorcycles. These were Motor Guzzi, 500cc, GT 20, twin seater Alce (elk) machines, Motor Guzzi, 500cc Triale, three wheelers and 350 cc Benelli motorcycles.
Bersaglieri riding 500cc Motor Guzzi ‘Alce’ machines in North Africa.
THE MUSEUM BIANCHI EXHIBIT
The Ditsong National Museum of Military History has a BIANCHI BICILETTA MILITARE BREVETTATA MODELLO 25/34 (Patented Military Bicycle Bianchi Model 25/34). This is a folding military bicycle with a shock absorber under the saddle for the rear wheel and twin shocks on the front wheel. This was to offset the hard ride due to the solid rubber tyres. The pattern or patent is 1925. This is in keeping with the large increase in the use of bicycles for the Bersaglieri from 1924 -1936. The date of manufacture is 1934.
The Bianchi all steel bicycle frame is numbered 467242. This high number therefore is unlikely to be the number of Modello25/34 manufactured, and may indicate the number of bicycles made by Bianchi (Civilian and Military?) up to that date.
The saddle is brown leather made by the Italian bicycle and saddle manufacturer AQUILA. The saddle has an oval stamp which reads COMPANIE CONTINENTAL, S.C.A.E, AQUILA, REGIO ESERCITO It was made by the Aquila Company for the Royal Army. Also stamped into the saddle is SA E BIANCHI (Société Anonyme) Edoardo Bianchi.
The solid rubber tyres are marked PERILLI 600 x 27 ½ (24 “) and were specially made for the Bersaglieri. They are marked BATTAGLIONE BESAGLIERI CICLISTI
As discussed above it is unlikely that the Museum Bianchi Bicycle came to Ethiopia in 1935 /1936 with the Italian invasion. When the Second World War started, the Bersaglieri had mostly changed over to truck and motorcycle transport but bicycles were still used. It is believed that it formed part of the equipment of the Bersaglieri battalion which served in Abyssinia /Ethiopia. The general condition of the bicycle however shows that it was hardly used.
Sapper J Anderson , who donated the Bianchi B=bicycle, served in the 17 Divisional Field Park Company (SAEC) in Abyssinia in 1940/1941. The 17 Divisional Field Park Company under Captain EW Tyson followed 11 African Division who had already arrived in Mogadishu. Here they were attached to the 11 African Division who had no field park company of their own. Large Italian stores were found at Mogadishu and it is possible that the Bianchi bicycle was taken from these stores.
17 Field Park Company later moved up to the capital Addis Ababa with the 11 African Division and occupied a large Italian engineering camp at the beginning of April 1941. Here they stayed for a while and it is most probable that during this time Sapper Anderson “scored” a brand new Bianchi Folding Bicycle.
At the beginning of December 1941 the 17 Field Park Company moved up to the Red Sea port of Massawa. On Tuesday 23 December they embarked on the Dilwara for Durban with Sapper Anderson’s loot on board. In December 1948 he donated this very interesting exhibit to the new South African War Museum.
Reference: https://www.museociclostoricopalazzi.it/www. museo ciclostorico
Orpen, N & Martin, HJ Salute the Sapper ——————————-
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VERIFIED: S Mackenzie