This small picture of my wife’s Italian grandfather has always been on display among the silver frames of her family’s photos. Giovanni Crisantemi was born in Veroli in the province of Frosinone near Roma in 1898. He preferred that his life before the age of seven, when he was unofficially adopted by a landowner and his wife, remain a mystery. Perhaps to hide a difficult and complicated childhood. However his tall stature and fair complexion set him apart from the other inhabitants of the mountain village of Vivaro Romano, 50 miles further north, where he was to grow up.
Having studied the rise of fascism at school I was familiar with Il Duce‘s controversial Abyssinian campaign fuelled by a craving to compete with major powers in recreating a Roman empire. However it’s only recently that I’ve been intrigued by the young face in the distinctly “un-British” uniform. Finding out recently that he was 38 at the time of his death it’s clear that this must have been taken some years earlier, in all likelihood during WW1…
Needing expert help, I posted the portrait online asking if anyone could identify his regalia and received just one reply from a man in Italy. It looked promising but used an unfamiliar word – “Arditi“. This translates as “audacious” or “daring ones”. Searching around revealed they were among the earliest type of special forces, famous for heavily armed and well practiced and clinical attacks. Often armed with just grenades and knives they would move in close to their own artillery barrage catching the enemy unaware. They achieved many successes breaching enemy lines and taking prisoners. They were also feted by the public – better paid and drawn from a range of backgrounds – feared and admired, they were known for the more unorthodox approach to their uniform. Two Arditi never looked the same – however the open jacket, black tie, dagger and battle cry of “A noi!” (To us!) set them apart from regular troops.
According to family, he had indeed fought in WW1 taking part in the costly victory at Piave where he was trapped “up to his neck in mud” . His life was saved by his comrades as they hauled him out at a time when the Arditi crossed the fast flowing swollen river to break the Austro-Hungarian line. The majority of these elite young men were known as the “ragazzi del ’99” – (“The Boys of ’99”) referring to their birth date of 1899 and being ready to serve by 1917.
Intriguingly, I discovered that after the war, Giovanni took part in the illegal occupation of the Dalmatian port of Fiume (Impresa di Fiume) led by the flamboyant war hero and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Angered by the Treaties of Paris and Rapallo which failed to gift Fiume to Italy, he took it upon himself to capture the city and present it to the nation. Gathering a rebel army of some 2000+ AWOL soldiers – many his Arditi comrades, he seized the port in September 1919 pushing out an occupying force made up of their former allies. Creating the “Italian Regency of Carnaro” he made himself Duce and stayed there for 15 months.
Causing international embarrassment the Italian Navy were eventually sent in to shell his residence and force him out. Despite this he remained a national hero to many with his style and influence having a profound effect on the emerging and politically savvy Mussolini.
Researching has been difficult with limited information and no digital records available. Locating his foglio matriculare has also been complicated with military records traditionally held in the province of birth – however the uncertainty of his origins making it impossible to prove. Hopes have been dashed by both Roma and Frosinone records offices.
Despite this, the most extraordinary coincidence occurred when searching an Italian militaria forum. Daunted by my lack of the language I felt I had nothing to lose by putting his name into the search function – and low and behold I got a startling result. A post appeared showcasing a letter knife given to veterans of the Arditi. The owner who’d bought it at a collector’s fair in Pisa saw it as a pleasing but mild curiosity revealing that it contained a name label on which was written “Crisantemi“. I can’t be 100% certain that it is his, however I’m very aware that the surname is extraordinarily rare revealing only a sprinkling of search results on any Italian genealogy site.
I’ve since learned that the original veterans association was the ANAI which invited D’Annunzio to be its figurehead. Mussolini in direct competition set up the FNAI five days before “The March on Rome” which quickly moved to replace the earlier group. The family have no recollection of whether Giovanni took part in the March on the capital city however one of the medals he can be seen wearing bears a strong resemblance to the commemorative award.
“It is a letter knife from F.N.A.I. National Arditi Federation of Italy, but I have nothing else to add.. on the blade in addition to the symbol of the FNAI you can see the motto “Provincial Arditi Department of Italy”.
Under the cardboard casing I found a note with the name “Crisantemi”, perhaps the surname of the recipient who owned the letter knife….”
The early 1920’s saw Giovanni begin married life with Dorotea and return to working on the land until the post war surge in nationalism created part-time volunteer groups with him joining Mussolini’s Partito Nazionale Fascista (PNF) in January 1923. This merged into the “Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale” (MVSN) with the picture above being used on his party membership card. As Mussolini’s grip on power grew, the MVSN became the Camicie Nere (CC NN) known to us as Blackshirts. Giovanni became a member of the CCXX Roma Battaglione, 215th Legione “Cimino” Regiment, forming part of the 4th “3 Gennaio” CC NN which was established in the Rome/Viterbo area marking his return to soldiering.
“The name 3 Gennaio (“3 January”) was given in honour of the date of assumption of dictatorial powers by Benito Mussolini on 3 January 1925.”
By 1935 Mussolini had finally mobilised his forces for the invasion of Ethiopia, landing in allied Eritrea first. This photo captures men of the 215th Legione freshly arriving from Italy.
There is little doubt that the fighting between the Italians and valiant Ethiopians was one sided and brutal – often with armies of 70000 facing each other. The 215th were active in the Battle of Amba Aradam where the Italians encircled Ras Imru Haile Selassie’s army who were positioned on top of a mountain. The Ethiopians raced down and threw themselves at the “3 Gennaio” Division who struggled to contain them but were ground down by Italian artillery and air attacks. Eventually the invaders fought their way to the top of the mountain to raise the flag and claim victory. Other battles involving the 215th Legione included Trembiem and Maychew before the eventual capitulation at Addis Ababa.
Although the capital had been taken, the Italians only held a third of the country. This changed the nature of fighting with Italian strongholds and transport routes under attack from localised Ethiopian “Patriot” resistance fighters. These were regarded as well planned and organised operations. After the rainy season ended In July, guerrilla activity on railway line between Djibouti and Addis Ababa was frequent. At the time, Evelyn Waugh who was working as a war correspondent documented his experience on an armoured train to the capital to interview the brutal General Graziani. On one occasion Italian Minister of Colonies Alessandro Lessona who was being secretly transported in an armoured train came under attack.
According to Dr Richard Pankhurst “Patriot forces nonetheless kept up their pressure on the invaders in other regions… They also report that trains were attacked at Dukam on 8 October, and near Adama on 16 October, while the line was cut near Walankiti on 18 October.”
It must have been during the attack near Adama that Giovanni was killed. Remarkably, and so far unseen by anyone in the family I was sent a posthumous medal citation describing the battle in which he died. The medal awarded was the Bronze Medal for Valour. The family remember that this was upgraded to a Silver medal however this failed to materialise.
He seems to have continued as an Arditi to the very end – fearlessly attacking the enemy with grenades and with no thought for himself.
CRISANTEMI Giovanni, from Veroli (Roma), 215th Legion CC.NN. (Black Shirt). In memoriam: While serving on board an armed train, he showed bravery of the highest valour during two clashes. At a critical moment during the fighting he jumped out of the carriage, taking with him a group of brave men, and with intense bombing he managed to repel the opponent’s attack. As he boldly pursued his opponents he was mortally wounded. A shining example of military virtue. – (between) Ualanketi Hadama 15-16 October 1936.
At first it was difficult to match the place names on a map. Hadama is more widely known as Adama (as in Pankhurst’s writings) and Ualenketi has many variations with recent maps settling on Welenchiti.
Following his death his daughters received a convent education in Rome. With their ages ranging from teenagers down to my 3 year old future mother-in-law they were treated as the “orphans” of a war hero and would be presented on several occasions to greet visiting dignitaries who arrived at the convent to check on their well-being. They would hold a banner with his bravery award attached and also attend Mussolini’s rallies in the centre of Rome joining in his anthems.
During WW2 his widow helped to hide 17 escaped Allied POWs as they made their way home giving them her husband’s clothes to evade detection. One of these was Captain Ian Reid of the Black Watch who made it to safety and wrote about the kindness and hospitality of villagers in his published memoir “Prisoner at large – The story of five escapes” .