The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Italian participation in the Anglo-Boer War

by Mario Lupini

There were some 3 000 Italians living on the Reef most having arrived from 1895 onwards - a high number considering that the total population of Johannesburg at the time was around 80 000 of which some 43 000 were European. Not like the Italians who flooded into the USA who were mostly from the central to southern parts of Italy, these were mainly from central and northern Italy.

At the time there was a dynamite factory on the outskirts of the town of Avigliana, that got into financial straights and at the same time the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory was seeking skilled workers. The result was that more than half of the workers and their families were transferred to Johannesburg. In fact one of the living areas there was named Little Italy while the very Italian suburb of Orange Grove gained many of immigrants too. Highly skilled, these Italian immigrants were to be found industry, construction and farming. In some factories such as the Thomas Begbie and Son Foundry three quarters of the 200 or so workforce was Italian. It should be remembered that the Thomas Begbie and Son Foundry was commandeered by the Transvaal Boers, and was run by the French arms manufacturer Creusot and its engineers. Then tragedy struck when a terrific explosion killed and maimed many Italians, which was one of the causes that drove many Italians to the side of the Boers. When the final count was done all the 12 dead were Italian and of the 56 injured 36 were Italians, the others being 10 Austrians and the rest French, German and Dutch. There were no Uitlanders. Naturally there was a huge outcry from the immigrant population.

It was also a fact the Begbie himself was known for his anti Boer sentiments. And when the Transvaal and Diggers newspaper published that the State Mining Engineer, who was at the factory at the time personally saw the smoke of the explosion to be that of dynamite or gelatine used in great quantity, he was convinced that foul play was intended. The Standard and Diggers went as far as to state that, 'strangely enough the failed Jamseon Raid was also followed by a similar dynamite explosion', which further added more suspicion of British or Uitlander complicity.

In fact the undercurrent of anti-British feeling was so strong that Paul Kruger ordered that Commandant Ricchiardi of the newly formed Italian Scouts at the Tugela front to be ordered back to Pretoria for an audience with him and the Transvaal Rand. This resulted in a fiery anti British march by around 1000 foreigners with the firebrand Ricchiardi and some of his officers at its head who offered fiery speeches that led to cries such as Viva Kruger and Viva Transvaal being shouted.

Commandant Ricchiardi gained much publicity from the march to the Town Hall from the Market Square, which also caused a large influx of new members for his Italian Scouts fighting on the Eastern Front. The march catapulted him onto the front pages of newspapers both here and overseas. Being a war correspondent for various international newspapers and speaking six languages it assisted him greatly, his missions being more than well covered in the tabloids here and overseas. One report of great interest just after his visit to Pretoria was that his name was linked with that Mining Commisioner George Munnik to destroy all the mines by dynamiting them prior to the anticipated arrival of the Imperial Army. Fortunately General Louis Botha and Kruger's long-time friend Sammy Marks managed to quell the bizarre idea mooted by men such as Smuts, President Kruger and others.

However back on the Reef and in Pretoria the foreigners were unhappy to the point that when the British Army took both cities they decided to plan a rebellion against them. The proposed plot was to be known as July Insurrection, or Gymkana Affair, which included a large number of Italians. As with all immigrant populations, word soon got out, with the British getting wind of what was going on. Some 500 Continental suspects were arrested, but not after an Italian by name of Luigi Deli and some cohorts opened fire through an open window on members of Compton's Horse at a dinner party in JHB, killing two. Of those arrested well over 100 were Italians. Not long after some 159 and their families were deported to Italy.

The plotters had planned to smuggle rifles into JHB and attack the British officers at their gymkana, shoot them down, then overpower the 600 or so troops stationed in the city. They were to achieve this with the aid of the Italian Scouts who were in the proximity of Jb attacking the British outposts, dynamiting the railway bridge and the station at Irene - 'American style' - as Ricchiardi wrote in his diary.

However there was a second, lesser well-known plot, hatched mostly by Germans and Hollanders with a smattering of Italians living in Pretoria in August of 1900. Their aim was to assassinate General Roberts. Most of the suspects were again rounded up and also deported as undesirables.

At its height the Italian Scouts numbered around 200 members who with their dynamiting skills operated on the rearguard of the Boer forces during their retreat from the Tugela all the way to Komatiepoort on the Mocambiquean border. Under the direct orders of General Botha, Ricchiardi developed a close friendship with him. Botha's express orders were that bridges were to be dynamited only when the white pith helmets of the British army were visible, which meant that at times the distances between the Italian Scouts and the advancing British Army forward screens was down to just 500 metres. In fact in one incident the British were so close they were able to extinguish the fuses under the Olifants River Bridge, thereby saving it.

At the time the Italian Scouts operated with the assistance of a locomotive and a single carriage with a Long Tom canon fitted to assist them in their rearguard duties. In fact Ricchiardi was offered financial rewards by General Louis Botha for the successful demolition of bridges. For example for the long Bronkhorstpruit Bridge, he was offered 300 gold Kruger Pounds. A captain from one of Italy's top cavalry units in 1890, Ricchiardi served under General Aguinaldo in the Philipine War of Independence in the steamy jungles against the USA. It was there that he learnt his guerrilla tactics.

Starting at Chieveley he was part of a Boer commando that captured Winston Churchill. In fact it was Ricchiardi who on seeing Churchill toss an illegal dum-dum away questioned him as to what it was. Churchill's simple reply was, "I just found it in the grass)'

Almost no single day passed without something about Ricchiardi being reported in the local tabloids and apart from being also connected to some acts of notoriety the Italian Scouts were renowned for the number of nobleman it its ranks. They were from some of the most renowned cavalry units in Russia, Germany, Italy and elsewhere. Included among them was Captain Count Komorovsky from the well-known noble family even mentioned in Dr Zhivago, Count Pecci, and Barons Von der Lippe, von Goldegg, von Kalrsburg and von Maltzan.. The latter was seriously wounded when a bullet passed through his jaw on a reconnaissance with the Scouts.

However many of his Scouts were brigands of the first order and at times tarnished the name Ricchiardi was attempting to maintain with stern discipline. Such as the time he chained an Italian scout to the railway line near Bronkhorstsprui for an entire afternoon for his part in ransacking a Boer farmhouse with the terrified woman alone at home. Another incident was when his Scouts revolted in Middelburg because of the negative attitude the Boers held of foreign volunteers. With drawn revolver he fired several shots into the air to quell them. During another defensive shootout thee Scouts deserted their positions under heavy fire. When they were finally found he had them manacled for a whole day with the threat of the firing squad held over their heads. He finally pardoned them.

In fact he was known for his famous statement to the lawyer, commando fighter and author Schikkerling while sitting around a campfire near Belfast one night, 'In the Philipines we never took prisoners' he said. But he showed compassion too, when he writes, '.... the dead were respected, as always under my command, and more than once, knowing the address of the family of the dead, I sent to their mothers some memento of their sons, whom we honoured in burial'. This particular statement was made after a successful action together the Johannesburg Commando totalling around 1000 men, which attacked a strong mostly cavalry British force near Witfontein east of Pretoria and,'... after leaving a few hundred dead and wounded... the Italians were the first to saddle and give chase. All our men then raced to get some memento from the English dead - carbines, bayonets, bandoliers, some of the less sentimental also found an odd pound...'

Naturally, being foreigners there was a definite bent towards the culinary side of things, especially among the officers. Their visits - through British lines - to a German Trappist Monastry at Waschbank in Natal were as rewarding as they were dangerous, where they would partake in the fine homemade wine and collect fresh vegetables and grapes. The Irish seminary in Newcastle proved just as entertaining when they sang together with the priests to the accompaniment of a piano, guitar and mandolin to the early hours of the morning. And when they departed at seven they just missed the arrival of Dundonald's Cavalry Brigade that arrived an hour later. However the stopover at a German Protestant mission station at Botshabelo near Middelburg was not as happy. After being handled rather crudely the Scouts commandeered several horses, which they painted to hide their identities when they departed early the next morning. Not a single inhabitant spotted the fact that the 10 horses they were riding belonged to the mission station. Ricchiardi in his diary notes that not only were the missionaries supplying horses to the British, but added laconically, 'We are at war'.

Skirmishes were the order of the day as the Boer forces retreated towards the Mocambique border. At this stage the Italians began to face a dilemma, which due to the fact that Italy was a supporter of Britain in the war meant that any of its subjects fighting on the side of the Boers could be considered traitors if captured and could be tried and if need be to face a British firing squad.

It was also then that Italian farmers with suspected Boer sympathies, and even without, had their farms plundered by the British army and shipped off to concentration camps. Were it not for the countless written pleadings by the Italian Consul Count de Morpurgo many would have suffered the devastating ravages of those inhumane concentration camps erected by General Kitchener filled with women and children resulting from his dreadfully inhumane and hated Scorched Earth policy.

However it was not all bad news. With the arrival of 80 000 British soldiers to Pretoria there was much business for many Italians - two Italian bakers were producing between 12 and 15 000 loaves of bread each day.

Even as the Italian Scouts were nearing the border with Mocambique new conscripts were still joining, many were Argentinian Italians serving under the British as horse grooms for the countless horses supplied by Argentina. By that late stage the name of the Italian Scouts was changed to the International Corps. It was also at this time that Commandant Ricchiardi was ordered by General Louis Botha to deliver President Kruger's counter proposal to the surprising annexation of the Transvaal to Britain.

With a certain amount of aplomb and a touch of humour he wrote in his diary, and I quote, "On September 6th, I left our forward positions accompanied by two volunteers, unarmed with a white flag on two beautiful English horses emblazoned with the coat of arms of the British regiments they were taken from ... blindfolded we were led to Waterval Onder to General Pole Carew, who, though receiving us cordially was very surprised that an Italian officer could fight against his dear English friends ... I responded by telling him that I had personal sympathies for the English, having many acquaintances among their officers, including among others General Reginald Talbot and Colonel Needham, Military Attache in Rome in whose company I had the pleasure of being when they were both officers of the 2nd Life Guards. But I was not a sympathiser of their egotistical government and their men in government, who would want everything - and I was proud to be of assistance to be of help to the Boer nation".

Carew's answer was that he knew the ideals of the Italian Legion and smilingly added that he hoped he'd one day make him prisoner. "With this I was offered a good lunch, with some Chianti and some cigars to take away with me."

It was just a few days later that at a Krijgsraad at Nooitgedacht that Riccbhiardi attended his name was proposed by a few Boer Generals for promotion to Vecht Generaal, but the commandants would have nothing of it as they were against taking orders from a foreigner. Had this taken place he would only have been only the second foreigner after late Vecht Generaal de Villebois Mareuil to achieve such a high rank.

Naturally with a polyglot of characters a free-roaming scouting unit has, it attracts a wide variety of individuals. One such scout was a Dr Umberto Cristini who joined the Italian Scouts after leaving General de Wet's commando on the Western Front. What made him even more interesting was the fact that his full name was Umberto 'Dewet' Cristini. Yes, such was his admiration of De Wet that he asked his permission to add the General's name to his own baptised name. In fact at one stage it seemed he would even marry one of de Wet's daughters.

But what makes him really stand out was the fact that he returned to the Transvaal to rejoin the war. In a letter to his mother he even mentions the fact that though everyone may have thought he went back to only to fight, his other intention was to 'help find the greatest treasure anyone could imagine'. The Kruger Millions? To this end Ricchiardi was even reported by the British Army to having been spotted in the Pretoria Station well after his departure. Was there some connection? Cristini fought right up to the end of the war then remained in South Africa for some years ending up by training local athletes, some world famous, such as world class South African runner Donaldson and marathon runner Hefferson, in Cape Town. On his return to Europe became the assistant trainer of Georges Carpentier, the French world boxing-champion in 1912. A man who thrived on wars, he was implicated in the assassination of King Carlos of Portugal with a group of anarchists in an attempt to overthrow the Braganza Dynasty - which finally occurred. Arrested, he managed to escape to Spain where he spent several months. From there he moved to France where he joined the French army and was killed in action in the battle of Argonne in 1915. A man of honour, in one of his post cards from the Transvaal to his family he was to write 'Down with arrogance!'

Another interesting character was a Ciccio de Giovanni, a 12-year-old boy who made an unexpected visit to the laager of the Italian Scouts to see his father Giovanni serving in the unit. He rode all the way from Johannesburg, some 400km, on his own. The was some consternation in the laager, but his father was loathe to let him go back alone. After all there was a war going on. Ricchiardi protested too, but after much discussion relented and the boy remained. In fact Ricchiardi had much good to say about the boy, especially of his horse riding capabilities, discipline and orderliness something some of his Scouts were oblivious of. Ricchiardi was to write, 'he became my messenger, and well known to the Boers. He was also the first to notice a flying column of Hussars bearing down on us as we were preparing a meagre breakfast. The youngster was to bring a certain amount of frivolity to the Scouts, one of the merrier aspects among the uncomfortable and habitually dour Boers. Another interesting scouts was Pilade Sivelli, the son of the youngest member of the famous 'One Thousand Redshirts' serving under Garibaldi's guerillas during battles for the unification of Italy.

Whenever Italian Scouts came into contact with the well-known individuals of the time they mostly left with positive sentiments about them. Dr Fessler, head of the German Ambulance team at the front, who authored a popular book on the Boer War, was one who appreciated to some of their positive and sometimes negative aspects on the front, when he wrote, '... here at the base of a rocky bill were the tents of the Italian Commandant Ricchiardi where we were cordially accepted as guests, although the long trip had tired me some, we stayed up with the Italian Corps, which included several Germans, deep into the night, sitting and chaffing about the latest reports, for which we have be waiting for some time. Here, out on the field one experiences, when one is not personally involved, much less about the most important experiences of the war arena. Ricchiardi, with his flying column has gathered about him the most able of people who could undertake the most improbable missions. Only this sort of people could he use, who would be able to approach the enemy outposts, look around, maybe attack an exposed English guard, eliminate him and then quickly disappear. There were also people in khaki, who could speak fluent English who late at night could go to Colenso and further south, could easily converse with the English and return with important information. Commandant Ricchiardi had done many a good service for General Botha'.

On the night before the Italian Scouts departed Fessler further recounts, '... a well guarded bottle of champagne was produced from the cold, crystal clear water to toast their departure. Each one of us then reached for our enamel cups and received a small portion of this priceless drink. Being without a metal mug in the Transvaal, one is the poorer. When we awoke with the greying dawn on our mattresses the Italians were gone. In the tents there was turmoil. I was anxious in all this mess to find my few chattels. My beloved mug and eating utensils could not be found, as they were most probably 'on duty', as the jargon of the day goes on the battlefield. Then ruefully he continues, 'As long as they are well used I wish them well, but I wish I had other utensils to replace them! The ambulances are not that rich that one can borrow everything from them'.

The purpose of the mission the Italian Scouts undertook that day was to recapture a kopje taken by a section of the South Arican Light Horse. Ricchiardi recounted the affair in his diary, 'The English left their horses to explore the front, when some 180 metres from the horses one scout fired a volley on the men left behind in charge of the horses. Three fell and the horses were disbanded. The scouts then stormed the kopje. The English after a brisk fire retreated hastily to their camp while our men fetched their own horses and boldly captured eight horses, all in splendid condition, belonging to the South African Imperial Horse'.

There were several hundred Italians fighting on the side of the Boers. Two well-known Italian names on the side of British were Peppino Garibaldi, nephew of the famous General Garibaldi of the Italian War of Independence, born in Australia from an English-speaking mother. Another was Major Fiaschi, Chief of the Australian forces in South Africa, whose son was a Lieutenant and in fact came to the assistance of the Iorio family when a detachment General French's troops arrived, torched the farm, robbed them and forced marched them away - this after Fiaschi had given the family a written pass on which it was stated that nothing be taken without paying for it. Another Italian by the name of Dr M Ricono, a prominent surgeon from Cape Town, offered the British his services. Of the 3 000 or so Italians who resided on the Reef just some 1 200 were left after the war.

A little known fact when the Boers finally were hemmed in at Komatiepoort was Ricchiardi's dash to visit President Kruger who was in LM awaiting a ship to take him, his entourage and some close family members to exile in Europe. It was a last vain attempt to persuade President Kruger to make a last ditch attempt to defend the border post. However Kruger and his advisors decided against the idea due to the worry that the British would commence bombing the village of Boane and other habitations not far from the border thereby diminishing the close relationship the Republic of Transvaal had with the Portuguese authorities. The upshot was Ricchiardi's arrest and short imprisonment in LM. He was released after promising that he would not re-cross the border into the Transvaal. Naturally the hand of the British was clearly evident in this affair. It must also be remembered that a price of 300 pounds was placed on the head of Ricchiardi, the same as that that offered on General De Wet.

Ricchiardi returned to Italy but was soon at work presenting talks as a public speaker in favour of the Boer cause. In fact it was he who organised for the first Boers to emigrate to Argentina, to Rivadavia. He managed to organise free land for them and even sent a booklet back he authored indicating the types of prefab houses available and other information pertinent to their needs on arrival.

By then he was married to Hannah Guttman, Paul Kruger's 18 year old granddaughter, whom he had met in the Pretoria Military Hospital while recuperating from serious leg wounds he had suffered at the battle of Tugela. He was also made a government representative to assist the Boers in their every need in Chubut, southern Argentina.

In 1923 tragedy struck when he suffered a cerebral haemorrbage depriving him of the use of various bodily functions. His last years were spent with his family in Casa Blanca, Morocco, where he passed away on January 21, 1940 and where he now lies buried.

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 7 February 2006

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