Milite Ignoto: The Story of Italy's Unknown Soldier

Italy's Unknown Solider or Milite Ignoto was buried in Rome 100 years ago today.

In the aftermath of world war one, many nations determined that they would bury an anonymous corpse to symbolise all those who died on the battlefields.

In Italy's case, the act of honouring an unknown soldier was passed in parliament in 1921, leading to the establishment of a committee tasked with selecting a body.

11 unidentified corpses were duly selected from various areas of the front, their coffins transported to the Basilica of Aquileia, near the Isonzo battlefields.

One of the 11 bodies would be chosen as the 'Milite Ignoto' and have the honour of being buried at the Altare della Patria in Rome's central Piazza Venezia.

The choice fell to Maria Bergamas, from Trieste, who was selected to represent all Italian mothers who had lost a son during the war without knowing where he was buried.

Maria's son Antonio had been drafted into the Austrian army but deserted to enlist with the Italians and was killed in battle at Monte Cimone di Tonezza on 16 June 1916.

Maria Bergamas was chosen to select the Unknown Soldier

On 28 October 1921 Maria Bergamas was led into the basilica where she was faced with 11 coffins.

When the grieving mother reached the 10th coffin in the line, she collapsed to the floor, breaking the silence of the basilica by screaming her son's name.

The church bells tolled and those present wept. This would be the body chosen to make the journey to Rome.

(The other ten soldiers were buried in the war cemetery behind the basilica at Aquileia, where Maria Bergamas herself would be buried more than 30 years later.)

The coffin of the Unknown Soldier was placed on the gun carriage of a cannon and was accompanied by war veterans who had been awarded medals for valour.

The casket was set down on a railway wagon designed especially for the occasion.

The train carrying the Milite Ignoto took four days to reach Rome.

The train travelled slowly through Italy, over four days, so that at each station along the way crowds of people could honour the unidentified soldier.

Hundreds of thousands of Italians showed up to pay their respects. Many greeted the passing train on their knees. Others threw flowers.

When the carriage reached Rome the body of the Milite Ignoto was brought to the Church of S. Maria degli Angeli before being buried at the Altare della Patria on 4 November 1921.

The solemn ceremony was attended by King Victor Emmanuel III as well as veterans, war widows and the mothers of sons who never returned from the battlefield.

President Sergio Mattarella at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Each year the Unknown Soldier is honoured on 4 November, the National Unity and Armed Forces Day, when the Italian president lays a wreath at his tomb and the Frecce Tricolori jets fly past in honour of Italy's war dead.

This year is a particular poignant anniversary as it marks a century since the burial of the Milite Ignoto, an unknown man who means so much to so many.

Photo: Lena Si / Shutterstock.com.

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Address Piazza Venezia, 00186 Roma RM, Italy

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Milite Ignoto: The Story of Italy's Unknown Soldier

Piazza Venezia, 00186 Roma RM, Italy