With so many mountains it is hardly surprising that Italy has long had a tradition of producing good troops that could operate in such difficult terrains. With the unification of the country following the fall of Rome in 1870, the now famous 'Alpini' were formed just two years later to defend the new country's northern frontiers. Initially just a militia, they soon grew to become an elite unit within the Italian Army, and by the outbreak of war in 1915 there were eight regiments of Alpini ready to face their Austro-Hungarian opponents. This was just as well, for much of the fighting took place in cold mountainous conditions, and in Italy it became known as the White War or the War of Snow and Ice. As a result, though there have been few sets of World War One Italians so far, this set of mountain troops was long overdue.
With a set of mountain troops there is of course much scope for more unusual and special poses, and here we find several. The man in the middle row carrying his skis is an obvious example, as is the man below him actually skiing. The first man in the third row is presumably in the act of going up or down a surface as he is handling a grappling hook on a rope, and the soldier beside him is in the act of climbing. That is a lot of really interesting poses, all of which are very well done, though it does mean there are fewer combat poses. However those too are really nice in our view, with advancing and firing examples of course, but also some that are a little different. The kneeling figure firing high makes much more sense as his Austrian opponent would very often be higher than he, and the other kneeling figure is clearly looking well above him. Many sets have prone figures, but hardly any have them as well done as these. The first man is crawling in a far more realistic way than is usually presented in figure sets, and while the other is much closer to the ground he too is a refreshingly imaginative and realistic pose, about to throw a grenade. Finally the officer is doing what so many of them do - peering through binoculars - though again his pose is much more animated and nicer than the normal 'standing straight' ones we generally see. An excellent collection.
Although the Alpini had a host of specialist equipment, their uniform was mostly the same as that worn in the rest of the Army since c.1909. Everyone here wears the correct tunic with no visible pockets and concealed buttons, including the padded shoulder rolls to reduce slippage of straps. On the legs they have breeches that close below the knee, and the lower leg is covered in puttees and boots (long socks would also have been correct). The distinguishing feature of the whole outfit is the Cappello Alpino, the felt cap with the all-important feather on the left side. Here this has been well sculpted, and indeed the same is true of the whole uniform, which is entirely correct. The officer has the officer’s version of the tunic, with external breast pockets and hidden skirt pockets.
Equipment consists of a waist belt supported by a strap that passes behind the wearer’s neck, which is accurate but not a great design of the time. On the belt are four ammunition pouches containing 96 cartridges, and round the side a bayonet scabbard and water bottle are also attached. Most of the men also wear a haversack, which seems to be attached to the belt also. In some cases the water bottle is attached to this rather than the belt itself, which is also correct. Many have a full knapsack, often with spare shoes or rope attached to the outside, so everything here is consistent with the M1907 equipment and in the right sort of arrangements that you might expect for mountain troops.
Weaponry is easy to describe as most of the men are armed with the standard rifle of the day, the M1891 Mannlicher-Carcano, which has been well done here. The last man in the second row has a scope attached, so is clearly a sniper, of which there were huge numbers in the Great War. The prone man holds a grenade that looks much like the late war stick grenades of Germany and Austria, but not much like any Italian grenade, with perhaps the Baldari being the closest. The officer has a pistol, which is holstered, and holds an alpenstock.
The sculpting is superb, with great proportions and excellent detail throughout. Rifles and equipment such as ropes are slim and perfectly formed, though the grappling hook has been poorly finished. The tricky subject of the hat feather has been tackled well, and the poses do not look at all flat, despite most being made as a single piece. The only exception is the skier, who has separate skis and a separate left arm. This fits well enough but will need gluing, as will the skis. What does let the set down a bit is some of the compromises for the mould. While there is no flash anywhere there are a few areas which are blind to the mould and so have excess plastic, but these are not many or particularly noticeable. Also on the back of the running figure detail has been lost on the surface where the moulds meet. However the general impression remains very good.
We must add a note on dating. The war began in May 1915, and in September the 'Penne Nere' ('black feather'), as the Alpini were nicknamed, were told not to wear their feather in their caps when on the front line. This is easy to resolve of course by simply trimming the feather off if desired, but other changes were soon to follow. Helmets were widely issued during 1916, particularly necessary as shells would often cause many rock splinters to fly when they landed. None of these figures even carries a helmet, although there was an understandable desire to wear the prestigious cap even if it was a risky thing to do. Also, no one has a gas mask canister, which again became common during 1916. Plausibly the use of gas is ineffective in the high altitudes these men would often fight, though they would all eventually have to come down, but to what extent they carried their gasmask cannisters is unclear. As a result, since these men are clearly in the face of the enemy, these figures really work for 1915 and part of 1916, but it is harder to say whether they are still plausible for the later years of the war. Added to that the variety of warm and camouflage clothing such men increasingly wore as the conflict developed, and these have an early war feel to them. This is perfectly fine (few troops ended World War I looking the same as they started it), although the hand grenade is more late war.
We really liked this set, with some lovely sculpting and great poses. Everything is accurate and the small bit of excess plastic is a small price to pay for non-flat and very realistic poses. Since a set of WWII Italian Mountain Troops has existed for some decades it was high time their father’s generation got the same recognition, and we felt this set does them proud.
Note: Some retailers are reporting problems with breakages in some of this set. Because the figures are so widely spaced, the sprue frame is quite large and they do completely fill the box quite tightly. It seems when in transit this means the figures are more prone to battering, when slender items can become broken, so if possible check before you buy!