The reasons why Piedmont-Sardinia joined the war against the Russians in 1855 have long been debated and continue to be the subject of argument, but it seems clear that Prime Minister Cavour saw an opportunity for his country. If Sardinian forces fought with the allies and the Russians were beaten then this would bolster Italian prestige and perhaps win powerful friends in the struggle to unify all the Italian peninsula. 15,000 Italian troops were promised to the allies, although in the end more like 18,000 actually served. The first wave arrived in the Crimea in the spring of 1855, and their most important action was at the Battle of the Cernaia River in August of that year, where they performed very well and impressed their allies.
A set labelled as just 'Sardinians' might lead you to believe that it contained ordinary infantry, but in this case you would be mistaken. What we actually have here are the famous Bersaglieri. In 1855 there were 10 battalions of these troops, and for the expeditionary force to the Crimea two companies from each battalion (which consisted of four in total) were allocated. These were organised into five battalions, and each was added to one of the five brigades dispatched. Thus about half the Bersaglieri were sent, which amounted to between 2,500 and 3,000 men - a substantial part of the force but a minority compared to the regular infantry.
These men all wear a short single-breasted tunic with rolls on the shoulders and green cords and tassels on the front, which is the correct summer campaign uniform for these men. However there is a problem. It is easy to find many paintings of Bersaglieri in this uniform fighting in the Crimean War, some executed at the time, but as with many contemporary illustrations these were done by artists who had never seen the action or the participants, and were primarily concerned with delivering a rousing picture for newspaper readers at home. For the actual appearance of these troops however we have two excellent sources. One is George B McClellan, later a famous general in the American Civil War, who observed the Crimean War for the US Government. In his detailed report on the armies, he said of the Sardinians that they left their frock coats and tunics at home and spent the war in overcoats. Our other on-the-spot source is a British officer, George Cadogan, who produced some remarkable water-colours of the war he witnessed. He includes Sardinian troops, especially Bersaglieri, on several occasions, and every time he drew an overcoat just short of knee-length. With such impeccable sources we have no choice but to accept their observations, and therefore say that these figures do not wear the correct uniform for the Crimea, although for service back in Italy this uniform would be fine.
The rest of the uniform is authentic. The men have the quite loose trousers with shoes and gaiters, and of course the celebrated domed hat with the wide brim and plume of cockerel feathers. This hat was of course worn on the campaign, and makes these men unmistakable. They have a waist belt with a belly box for their ammunition, and the sword-bayonet on their left hip. Many have a rear ammunition pouch too, which seems to have been common but not universal, and some have a haversack and canteen, which is reasonable. Several have packs with a mess tin attached, which looks OK except that in all Cadogan’s drawings this is shown with a blanket rolled around the outside.
The officer wears his usual frock coat, which is easy to accept as authentic, and is in the process of drawing his sword, which is a very good representation of the real thing, which is almost the same as that used for parades today. It has only a gentle curve and even the complex 4-strand guard has been attempted. The only error on the officer is his sash. While Italian officers wore their sash around the waist, Bersaglieri officers wore them across the chest, not as here.
Although originally light infantry, by this date they were also used as elite shock troops. All the poses in this set are reasonable for the time, although some are a little awkward. Attempting to reproduce the stance of the man in the bottom row about to strike down with his bayonet exposes the limitations of the human body, and one or two others are a trifle flat, but nothing too terrible.
We are not fans of Strelets sculpting, but compared to the range as a whole these are pretty good. Certainly items such as swords and bayonets are too thick, and there is the usual chunky quality, but detail is quite nice and the sculptor has done very well with the feather plume, which is clearly one of the big challenges of such a set. Those figures that are side on to the mould lose the proper jaunty angle of the hat for obvious reasons, but the faces are mostly pretty good and these are not unattractive figures. We could find no flash on any figure, so these are well produced too.
Why this set is not named Bersaglieri we do not know, as the name is almost as famous outside Italy as it is at home. However the wrong choice of coat will annoy some and please others. Certainly they look better for their smart tunic, and those that like to see smart colourful troops in their battles will be thankful for these figures. For those with an eye for absolute historical accuracy however there are some real problems with this set as we have said, and not ones that can easily be overcome. However the sculpting is one of Strelets' better efforts and as the first representatives of Italy's contribution to the Crimean War this product is more than welcome. It is to be hoped that a set of regular infantry will one day see the light of day so this contingent can be more fully represented.