Kevin Brown Historian

History of health, medicine and naval history

‘You were the best of us and you taught us to be good and brave’: A medic with the Alpini on the Russian Front commemorated in San Miniato al Monte, Florence

Perhaps one of the loveliest of Florentine churches is San Miniato al Monte overlooking the city of Florence and offering perhaps one of the best panoramas over the city. On the slope of the hill on which the church and monastery stands is a peaceful cemetery. Among the tombs there is one bearing a bust of a handsome young man in the uniform of the Alpini, Dr. Augusto Saccomani, born on 13 January 1917 in Florence and who died a prisoner on the Russian Front on 18 May 1943. Having studied medicine  at the University of Bologna, Saccomani had served as a physician with the 103 Alpine Regiment of Marcia Julia with the    rank of lieutenant, and was awarded the Gold Medal for military valour. The clean cut looks and direct gaze of this young man, whose life was cut short at the start of his medical career, cry out for something of his story to be told.

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The inscription gives clues as to this young man’s character and the devotion of his family to his memory: ‘We will not forget you because you were the best of us and because you taught us  to be good and courageous.’ It is an epitaph reflected in the face of the man portrayed in the bust

It was in the Russian campaign of 1943 that his virtue and courage were tested, offering an example to those he left behind at home. A newly qualified doctor he served with the Alpini. The 103rd Alpine Regiment, Julia Division, had been formed in the summer of 1943 in Udine under the command of Colonel Gino Bernardini  and was later commanded by Colonel Policarpo Chierici. The Regiment left Gorizia for Russia on 2 January 1943. Over the next few months from February to March 1943 the doctor Augusto Saccomani was to treat casualties from the fierce fighting in the snows of the bitter Russian winter.

In Russia, instead of being deployed in the Caucasus mountains as might have been expected of a mountain DSCN4299regiment, the Alpini, armed, trained, and equipped for mountain warfare, were sent to fight in the plains against tanks and mechanized infantry. Following the collapse of the Axis front  in the Stalingrad campaign, they were encircled by the advancing Soviet Army.  Only about one third of the Tridentina division (4250 survivors of 15,000 troops deployed) and one tenth of the Julia (1,200 from 15,000) were able to survive this military disaster. The Cuneense division was annihilated. Taken prisoner during this debacle, Saccomani himself died in May 1943.

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Augusto Saccomani, Alpini

After the war the University of Bologna honoured those of its students who had been war heroes with honorary doctorates . On 7 December 1946, Augusto Saccomani, a graduate in medicine and surgery, received an honorary degree  from the Clinic of Nervous Diseases and Mental Illness. This laurel wreath was intended for graduates whose dissertations were not written with ink but with blood. OtherAlpini  officers were similarly honoured at the same ceremony.  Piero Fonda Savio , born at Trieste on 27 June 1920, was a lieutenant in the 3rd Alpine who died on 24 March 1943 as a prisoner of the Russians at Tambov but was not to receive his honorary doctorate in industrial chemistry until 1955 together with his younger brother Paolo, a civil engineer who also died a prisoner at Tambov.

Professor Edoardo Volterra, who had been deprived of his chair at Bologna through the Racial laws of 1938 and an opponent of the Fascist regime which had deprived the young laureates of their early promise,  described the former students honoured on the same dayDSCN4303 as Saccomani  as ‘the young men fallen on the sands of Africa, the mountains of Greece, in the distant lands of Russia and the Balkans with the hope of serving the Fatherland. “He told the grieving relatives of the young men being honoured that their sorrow ‘can not be separated from a feeling of legitimate pride that the sacrifice of these our Fallen was and is the most high, the noblest, the truest manifestation of social and national life.’

Augusto Saccomani’s memorial bust can not be missed by anyone exploring the small, tranquil cemetery at San Miniato al Monte but his story can be overlooked. yet it can stand for many of his compatriots whose lives and promise were cut short by war in a far off country. Had his grieving family not commemorated him, he would be lost to posterity with only his honorary degree from his university, his gold medal, and his name on a roll of honour to mark his life and early death.

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