The Garibaldi brothers
The fabled Giuseppe Garibaldi’s six grandsons all fought valiantly to defend France and Italy during WWI
The legendary Italian’s descendants battle to save France and Italy in WWI
Celebrated as the ‘Hero of Two Worlds’, Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) is best remembered for leading a series of campaigns in Latin America and Italy. His irregular volunteers – nicknamed the ‘Redshirts’ for their trademark loose-fitting, blood-red shirts – were romanticised throughout the world for supporting nationalist causes and fighting against oppressive autocracies.
President Abraham Lincoln showed interest in recruiting Garibaldi to lead his armies during the American Civil War, with the hope that he could “lend the power of his name, his genius, and his sword to the Northern cause”. Garibaldi’s faithful Brazilian wife, Anita (18211849), gave birth to four children before her untimely death from malaria while campaigning with her husband. For six decades, men from the Garibaldi bloodline fought around the world to liberate oppressed peoples and to defend republican ideals and democracy.
Ricciotti Garibaldi (1847-1924) followed his father during his campaigns in Italy and France. He took command of a brigade in Garibaldi’s Army of the Vosges during the Franco-prussian War. He distinguished himself at the Battle of Dijon in January 1871, where he presented the captured standard of the 61st Pomeranian Regiment to his father on the battlefield. Giuseppe Garibaldi died in 1882, but the Garibaldi cult lived on through Ricciotti. He issued a proclamation calling for volunteers and led a Garibaldi Legion against the Ottomans during the Greco-turkish War of 1897 and the Balkan War of 1912-13.
At the age of 67, Ricciotti was too old and crippled from old war wounds to fight when Germany declared war on France in August 1914. Still, he called for Italians to defend French soil against German aggression, just as his father had done during the Franco-prussian War. He visited England and France to try and raise funds to equip 30,000 Redshirts for service on the Western Front. The name of Garibaldi became a rallying cry for those in Italy who wanted to see their nation enter the war on the side of the Allies.
Six of his seven sons, ranging in age from 20 to 35 – Giuseppe (known as ‘Peppino’), Ricciotti Jr., Sante, Bruno, Constante and Ezio – enlisted in the French army. All six of the brothers had received educations at the Methodist College in Rome. World travellers like their predecessors, the brothers roamed the globe, at one time or another covering five continents. When war broke out, Peppino and Ricciotti Jr. headed to France from New York, Bruno from his sugar cane plantation in Cuba, Sante from Egypt and Constante and Ezio from Italy.
“THE NAME OF GARIBALDI BECAME A RALLYING CRY FOR THOSE IN ITALY WHO WANTED TO SEE THEIR NATION ENTER THE WAR ON THE SIDE OF THE ALLIES”
Described as being “tall, handsome and looks as if born to command,” the oldest and most outspoken of the brothers, Giuseppe ‘Peppino’ Garibaldi II (1879-1950) saw action as a mercenary in a handful of wars and rebellions before volunteering for service with France. Born in Australia, he fought with his father in the Greco-turkish War and in the Balkans War. During the Second Boer
War (having been convinced by his father to fight for the British rather than the Boers) he carried a sword that had been presented to his grandfather by the workers of South Shields into battle. He next travelled to Latin America, where he commanded Venezuelan and Mexican revolutionary units. Peppino brought this wealth of military experience to France when he arrived in August 1914.
A total of 2,354 Italian volunteers enlisted in the Fourth Régiment de Marche of the French Foreign Legion in November 1914. The men were split into three battalions. They wore the standard French uniform but had a small branch of pomegranate leaves embroidered on their collars. Many wore the Garibaldi emblem, the blood red shirt, underneath their greatcoats.
The age of the volunteers in the ‘Italian Legion’ or ‘Garibaldi Legion’ as it became known, ranged from 14 to 60. They came from a diverse range of backgrounds: miners, factory workers, shopkeepers, intellects, artists, soldiers, engineers, chemists, teachers and romantic adventurers. Although they were a diverse group, most fought with the same Garibaldi ideology in mind. The French graciously allowed half of the officers selected to be Italians, and all six brothers were commissioned as officers (Peppino was made a lieutenant colonel and was appointed as the second-in-command of the regiment).
The Garibaldi Legion was attached to General Henri Gouraud’s Tenth Colonial Division and deployed to the Argonne sector (between Champagne and Verdun) on the Western Front in December 1914. The regiment received its baptism of fire in the La Fontaine-desmeurissons ravine to the east of the Bolante Woods. On Christmas Day 1914, the Second Garibaldi battalion received orders to drive the Germans from their trenches, who were only 140 metres (150 yards) from the Allied lines. The French bombardment began at midnight and lasted until the next morning.
The Garibaldis rushed the German trenches, only to find the mass of barbed wire still intact, exposing them to withering machine-gun fire. They suffered the loss of 48 dead and 78 wounded, including Second Lieutenant Bruno Garibaldi, Ricciotti Garibaldi’s fourth son.
The handsome Bruno had travelled to
England before the war with the intention of becoming a missionary. He instead found himself serving on the Western Front rather than performing charitable work in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Bruno didn’t have orders to take part in the Christmas Day assault but chose to join it anyway (abandoning his place with the reserves). He was wounded in the hand and temporarily left the fighting to have a surgeon patch it up. He returned to the front line until he was hit again, still urging his men on. A third bullet struck the 26-year-old officer, killing him. His body was retrieved from the battlefield and sent back to Rome by train.
Despite his father’s wish for his funeral to be a private affair, “All Rome paid homage to the
“GIUSEPPE GARIBALDI II (1879-1950) SAW ACTION AS A MERCENARY IN A HANDFUL OF WARS AND REBELLIONS BEFORE VOLUNTEERING FOR SERVICE WITH FRANCE”
dead hero,” one account recalled. Thousands gathered to attend the funeral on 6 January 1915. Old veterans lined the streets wearing their ragged red shirts from past Garibaldi expeditions. Representatives came from the French army to show their appreciation for his sacrifice. Ambassadors from France, England, Russia and Belgium attended too. A red shirt was stretched across the top of the funeral car while French, Italian and Greek flags were draped over Bruno’s coffin.
The same day that Bruno’s body was being transported to Rome, another Garibaldi fell defending France. On 5 January 1915, the First and Third Garibaldi battalions assaulted the German trenches at Courte-chausse plateau. Eight mines holding 2,700 kilograms (6,000 pounds) of explosives were detonated under the 0.8-kilometre (0.5-mile) long German trench at 7am. The Garibaldis rushed the German position and secured the first and second trench lines. They were halted at the third line, but not before capturing four machine guns, two mortars and 200 prisoners.
Their success came with a hefty price, suffering the loss of 125 dead and 175 wounded. Among the dead was Chief Adjutant Constante Garibaldi. Remembered as “a tall, manly young fellow, full of vigour and hope,” his death came only days after Bruno’s. Constante’s body arrived in Rome for burial on 12 January. The deaths of Bruno and Constante shocked Italy to its core, but their sacrifice fuelled Italian sentiment towards wider intervention in the war.
The four remaining Garibaldi brothers continued to see serious fighting on the Western Front. On 7 January 1915 the
Germans took the initiative and three regiments launched an assault at 7.30am on the 46th French Regiment, Tenth Division. French reinforcements were rushed in to plug the breach. The French 89th Regiment and the Second Garibaldi battalion charged into the woods and engaged the Germans in handto-hand combat. They managed to check the enemy advance and rescued the remnants of the 46th – reduced to about 300 men under a captain. Bloodied in the engagement, the Garibaldis were relieved by the 120th Regiment two days later.
“THE GARIBALDI LEGION SUFFERED HEAVILY AFTER LESS THAN THREE WEEKS OF FIGHTING AND MORALE BEGAN TO WANE. THEY LOST ABOUT 600 MEN – 41 PER CENT WERE OFFICERS”
The Garibaldi Legion had suffered heavily after less than three weeks of fighting and morale began to wane. They lost about 600 men – 41 per cent were officers. “The fighting that fell to the lot of the Legion Italienne in January 1915,” Lieutenant Colonel Peppino Garibaldi explained, “reduced its numbers to such an extent that it had to be withdrawn to rest and reform.” The regiment was pulled from the front line on 10 January. The French minister of war disbanded the unit on 5 March 1915, after only four months of service. Peppino later recalled with remorse that it “ceased to exist except as a glorious memory”.
Members of what remained of the Garibaldi Legion volunteered for service in the Italian army when Italy joined the war on the side of the Allies in May 1915. Three of the Garibaldi brothers enlisted. Peppino joined the Alpini Brigade – originally formed by their grandfather in 1859 to fight against the Austro-hungarian Empire – while Ricciotti Jr. and Sante were sent back to the Western Front, distinguishing themselves in the fighting that took place in the summer and autumn of 1918.
The Austrians and Italians fought a vicious war in the Alps between 1915-1918. While fighting for control of the mountains, they also had to deal with freezing temperatures, avalanches and the nightmare of transporting men, artillery and supplies over the rugged terrain. Roughly 600,000 Italians and 400,000 Austrians would die fighting in the gritty battles
on the Italian Front. On 12 July 1915 Peppino Garibaldi was given command of a battalion stationed at the foot of Col di Lana mountain.
Peppino had orders to take the strategic location at whatever cost. He appreciated the importance of capturing Col di Lana but did what he could to minimise the loss of life.
“It is not in a Garibaldi to sacrifice men for any object whatever if there is any possible way of avoiding it,” he wrote. Indiscriminate frontal attacks had led to the destruction of the Garibaldi Legion after only three major engagements on the Western Front. Now he would adopt “man-saving theories” that he’d learned from the Argonne, utilising mines and adopting artillery cover to make less costly assaults. This kind of thinking was still in its infancy on the Italian Front.
Steady pressure from Peppino Garibaldi’s men over the summer months forced the Austrians further up the mountain. By the first week of November his men were in control of three sides of Col di Lana, with the exception of the summit. This impregnable position was described by him as a “sheer wall of rock” 200 metres (650 feet) high. A 14-man machine-gun nest sat on top of the cliff, positioned to easily annihilate any advancing Italian units. Just like his father and grandfather before him, Peppino was used to working with less and prepared to find a way to overcome this daunting obstacle.
He ordered all of his artillery to concentrate fire on the summit. Once the machine-gun nest was eliminated, he ordered 120 handpicked Alpini soldiers to scale the cliff. They caught the Austrian defenders by surprise, capturing 130 of them in one sweep. The Alpini troopers suffered the loss of only three men. “The apparent impregnability of the position was really its undoing,” Peppino would later declare. Capturing the summit was only part of the problem: holding it was another matter.
The Austrians directed 120 guns to bombard the summit. 50 of Peppino’s men found shelter in rocky ledges, while the remainder crept over the edge of the cliff and “held on by their fingers and toes”. An enemy counterattack that night drove the battered Alpini men back and recaptured most of the summit.
Peppino Garibaldi would have to find another way. He devised a plan to mine the portion of the summit held by the enemy. He selected Gelasio Caetani for the task, as he’d had experience working in mines in California and Alaska before the war. His men began tunnelling in the middle of January 1916.
When the Austrians found out what the Italians were up to, they began to conduct counter-mining operations and concentrated heavy fire on the miners. They bombarded the Italians day and night for 14 days. Peppino directed the operation from his headquarters in a little shed protected by a large boulder. In one specifically hot instance, the Italians
“THE AUSTRIANS DIRECTED 120 GUNS TO BOMBARD THE SUMMIT. 50 OF PEPPINO’S MEN FOUND SHELTER IN ROCKY LEDGES, WHILE THE REMAINDER CREPT OVER THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF AND ‘HELD ON BY THEIR FINGERS AND TOES’”
“IT IS NOT IN A GARIBALDI TO SACRIFICE MEN FOR ANY OBJECT WHATEVER IF THERE IS ANY POSSIBLE WAY OF AVOIDING IT ”
– Peppino Garibaldi
counted an average of 38 Austrian shells fired per minute. The frontline battalions had to be rotated every week to relieve them from the relentless strain and hard work.
For three months the Italian miners worked in the tunnels until the mines were ready. On 17 April 1916 the mines were detonated, blowing a hole 45 metres (150 feet) wide and 15 metres (50 feet) deep. An Austrian survivor recalled, “The peak of Col di Lana burned like a pillar of fire in the night sky. The mountain trembled and shook. It opened up. It rose. The peak tipped over, lost its shape, broke in on itself together. Here a chasm opened, there another closed. Rocks, snow, earth, human bodies, gun supports, covers, shelters, barracks, steel plates, machine guns flew light as feathers upwards, rained and raged heavily down…
Balls of fumes and thick smoke unfolded, rolled before the wind and were driven forward, sank, tattered, dissolved. When the smoke, which had long hovered low, faded away, one saw through the rain of ash the mutilated peak.” the Alpini then moved in and reclaimed the summit.
For his valour and excellent service during the war, Peppino Garibaldi was promoted to general and awarded the Légion d’honneur on 26 August 1918.
The surviving Garibaldi brothers remained influential figures in Italy well into the 1940s. Ricciotti Sr. and Ezio Garibaldi supported
Benito Mussolini’s Fascist movement (the Italian dictator liked to link his Blackshirts to the famed Redshirts), while Peppino and Sante remained ardent anti-fascists. Sante offered to lead a Garibaldi Brigade to fight with the French resistance in 1939, but this never materialised. He went on to survive being sent to Dachau concentration camp.
Even today, there is debate in Italy over how much of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s myth is fact and fiction. Regardless of the Garibaldi patriarch’s accomplishments in his life, his six grandsons valiantly fought in defence of France and Italy during WWI – two sacrificing their lives.
“WHEN THE SMOKE, WHICH HAD LONG HOVERED LOW, FADED AWAY, ONE SAW THROUGH THE RAIN OF ASH THE MUTILATED PEAK”
The Garibaldi Brothers. From left to right: Bruno, Ricciotti, Peppino, Sante, Constante, Ezio
Peppino (wearing a tie) with Francisco I. Madero (second left) during the Mexican Revolution
ABOVE: Bruno, Peppino and Ricciotti Jr. arrive in Paris to enlist in the French Foreign Legion
ABOVE: Ricciotti Garibaldi presenting a captured Prussian standard to his father
The legendary Giuseppe Garibaldi after being wounded in Aspromonte (the wound is visible on his right ankle) ABOVE: Bruno Garibaldi’s body being carried to the rear by his men
LEFT: Giuseppe Garibaldi and his Redshirts, Calatafimi, 15 May 1860
Bruno and Constante Garibaldi died in these trenches while fighting in the impenetrable and muddy Argonne
General Ricciotti Garibaldi Sr. reviewing troops in Paris, 1915
View from Col di Lana, looking across to the Marmolada Glacier