The postcard of ‘Renzo’, with ‘Ready for action, 1916’ on the reverse. Renzo was an Arditi, or Italian special forces in WW1


Perusing Aldo Carrer’s excellent book ‘The Motorcycle Uniform During the World War One’ (Zanetti, 2008), I was struck by this image: does this photograph show the first instance of a ‘skull and crossbones’ (or Jolly Roger)  on a motorcyclist’s outfit? The photo was taken in Italy during WWI, and shows ‘Renzo’ on a Bianchi Model 500A.  Renzo (“waiting for action” it says on the back of the photo) was an Ardito (literally – ‘audacious man’); the Arditi were the equivalent of Special Forces in the Italian Royal Army, created during a difficult period during the War for a specific job – to break a stalemate on the entrenched Italian Front. They were specially trained as an elite unit, with (according to ‘Italian Arditi’) “special recruitment procedures, training, arms, uniforms, priveleges, and benefits. For the first time, an Italian soldier was given concentrated, specific training, both psychological and physical; the Ardito also received the best available equipment and enjoyed superior living conditions. In order to counter the high casualty rate (!)… esprit de corps was very important..particular attention was focussed on comraderie and attitude, in order to motivtate the men and help them bear the psychological stress involved.”

A corps of Arditi in the Italian Alps during WW1, trained to break a long deadlock with German troops (as discussed in Hemingway’s book ‘A Farewell to Arms’)

Regarding the history of the skull and crossbones; there is evidence it originated on the flag of Roger II of Sicily (1095-1124), a sponsor of the Knights Templar.  After the Knights were disbanded, former Templars flew Roger’s flag when pirating at sea.  In the 1700s, the ‘totenkopf’ (death’s head) became very popular, and was used in an official capacity by von Ruesch’s Hussar Regiment #5 of the Prussian army.  In the same era, the ‘Jolly Roger’  was adopted by pirates, privateers, and corsairs plying the world’s oceans, and the first citation of sighting the ‘Jolly Roger’ was in 1724, in  Charles Johnson’s ‘A General History of the Pyrates’).

A 1725 woodcut depicting pirate Stede Bonnet with the Jolly Roger

The Jolly Roger has been utilized by ‘bikers’ in the twentieth century for the same purpose – as a ‘memento mori’ (reminder of mortality), and to signify ‘no fear’ of death. The image has been modified in a thousand ways since this first, simple logo on Renzo’s riding outfit, but the message remains the same; don’t mess with me.

Not just for boys; Princess Victoria Louise of Prussia was the honorary leader of the Hussars, who used the ‘totenkopf’ on their uniforms

The motorcycle is a Bianchi Model 500 A, a 498cc sidevalve single-cylinder machine with a short-leading-link front fork (see patent drawing from Jan 19th, 1915), a Bosch magneto, and Zenith carb. This was Bianchi’s mainstay model, introduced in 1916, which dates the pic of Renzo between 1916-18, as the Arditi were disbanded after WW1.

Renzo’s machine is a 1916 Bianchi Model A, a very advanced design with unit construction and a clutch

The Bianchi used a cone clutch inside the unitary engine casting, plus a kickstarter and a geared primary drive, all very advanced for 1915, although the final drive is still a single-speed belt. While similar in profile to the ubiquitous Triumph used by English despatch riders during WW1, the Bianchi is a better-engineered machine – the clutch alone makes for a far more useful motorcycle.

The 500cc sidevalve engine of the Bianchi Model A

The photograph of Renzo can be found in Aldo Carrer’s amazing book ‘The Motorcycle Uniform During the World War One’ (Zanetti, 2008), which can be ordered (and his previous effort, ‘The Dawn of the Motorcycle’) from Aldo directly here.

The Bianchi motorcycle photos are from ‘Eduardo Bianchi’ (Gentile, NADA, 1992), which is a lovely book in English/Italian.

The photo of the Arditos (knives raised!) is from ‘Italian Arditi: Elite Assault Troops 1917-20’ (Angelo Pirocchi, Osprey, 2008). As a further note, many of the Arditi joined Fascist paramilitary units just four years after WW1, to support Mussolini’s rise to power. They were created about the same time as the Austro-Hungarian and German armies founded the Sturmtruppen – not a very romantic outcome.

For more information on pirates, I recommend ‘Under the Black Flag; the Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates’ (Cordingly, Harvest, 1995), which is the best book I’ve found on the subject.

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