Nineteenth-Century Crusaders

The surprising story of the Pontifical Zouaves, at the height of the age of progress, is an admirable example of love for the Holy Church, even to the point of self-sacrifice.

Heroism. A word full of imponderables, bringing together all that is most sublime in human history. It recalls swords that clash on the open field, men who launch themselves into the unknown, crossing chasms, oceans and mountains to write their names in Heaven; geniuses, adventurers, idealists – in short, all those for whom the impossible is synonymous with the irresistible.

However, these splendours of heroism are not the only ones, nor even the principal ones.

More than facing an adversary’s bullets or sacrificing an entire life in pursuit of a difficult conquest with the knowledge that this sacrifice will result in the laurels of fame, glory or veneration, the pinnacle of heroism consists of being willing to endure shame and derision, and to appear as a coward in the eyes of the whole world. Then the blood of the soul is shed, which is much more precious than that of the body.

Providence demanded that the members of a certain military corps called the Pontifical Zouaves shed blood of both body and soul

And yet, Providence demanded that both be shed by the members of a certain military corps called the Pontifical Zouaves…

Historical background

Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti was elected Pope on June 16, 1846, taking the name Pius IX. From the early years of his reign, he had to face serious revolutions originating from Italian patriotic movements, which attempted to undermine his rule over the Papal States.

However, as the initial revolts were not fully successful, the conspirators decided to wait some time until tempers flared again, which took about ten years.

Finally, Victor Emmanuel, King of Piedmont, began an operation of annexing the small states of the Italian Peninsula, which made him a real threat to the Papal States. At his service was Giuseppe Garibaldi, leader of the revolutionary soldiers – called “Redshirts” – who aimed to invade the Papal territories.

The battalion is born

Perceiving the true gravity of the situation, and considering the lack of interest of the European powers in matters relating to the Church, Pius IX commissioned his Minister of Arms, Monsignor Mérode – a Belgian priest and former officer – to provide for the defence of the ecclesiastical domains. The latter then decided to summon General Louis de La Moricière, a famous hero of the colonial war in Africa, to be the general commander of the pontifical forces, among which stood out a new battalion of Franco-Belgian riflemen, known as the Papal Zouaves.1

Pontifical Zouave – Glauco Lombardi Museum, Parma (Italy)

To assist La Moricière in his role with this group of fighters, Louis de Becdelièvre was also summoned to take charge of the training and discipline of the members, transforming these enthusiastic young men into real soldiers. Despite their small numbers, they were ready to face any storm. And it was soon looming on the horizon…

After Garibaldi had completed his conquest of Sicily, he marched his troops towards Naples, the last bastion before the Papal States.

La Moricière decided that the Zouaves, although greatly outnumbered, would fight against the Italian army and realize the ideal – until then only theoretical – of fighting for the Church: the hour had come that his men had so longed for.

Castelfidardo: the test of fidelity

As the first of the preparations, Becdelièvre urged everyone to confess and be ready to appear before God’s supreme tribunal.

Once at peace with the Lord, and with the gates of either victory or Heaven open before them, the Zouaves leapt into battle. On September 18, 1860, General La Moricière headed for Ancona, near Castelfidardo, and engaged in open field battle against Garibaldi’s troops.

Nevertheless, divine designs are often contrary to those of men: instead of granting these young soldiers a definitive triumph, Providence demanded something much more arduous: fidelity in the midst of opprobrium. Due to the numerical supremacy of the enemy army, they were defeated.

Forced to take refuge in Loreto, the combatants gathered before an image of Our Lady in order to beseech the strength to face the sufferings in store.

It is easy to imagine the generalized disappointment that this failure provoked in Catholic circles, increasing the disapproval of those who were against the formation of this military force.

Despite all of this, in another sector of public opinion this sentiment was countered by a certain stirring, and even a surge of enthusiasm, as a result of which new recruits enlisted to increase the small papal army.

Among them, it is worth noting the case of Queré, a young illiterate peasant from Brittany – of unprepossessing appearance and incomprehensible dialect – who presented himself in Paris to join the papal ranks. In addition to his inadequate “CV”, the young man had a foot deformation that made it unsuited for marching. Taking advantage of the fact that he had forgotten his papers, he was denied entry to the squadron. But the Breton was so determined that, despite having travelled on foot from his village to Paris, he returned home and came back once again to the capital, this time carrying the required documents. Faced with such a show of resolve, there was nothing to do but accept him.

Another soldier, in a letter to his family, expressed the following thought: “To God and His Vicar I have neither fortune, nor nobility, nor talents or influence to offer; I have only my blood, and that I give.”2

But while the number of pontifical soldiers grew, reaching six hundred men in January 1861, Victor Emmanuel made his triumphal entry into Naples, the last stop on his way to papal lands.

A fruitful period of inaction

Despite this, after the Battle of Castelfidardo there was a certain lull on both sides, which did not prevent many small clashes from taking place.

Under threat of invasion by Garibaldi’s troops, Pious IX charged his minister of arms to organize the defence of Church domains

For the Zouaves, this period was of great benefit in terms of both military and spiritual preparation, due to their proximity to Pius IX, to whom they swore an oath of allegiance in January 1861.

During this time of inaction, two events deserve special attention. The first was the so-called September Convention: an accord signed in 1864 between Victor Emmanuel II and Napoleon III, which organized the withdrawal of French troops from Italian territory and ensured there would be no aggression against papal lands.

The second, in the same month of the following year, was the death of La Moricière. With this loss, Pius IX had to give in to the urgent requests coming from all sides to relieve Monsignor Mérode of the role of Minister of Arms and transfer it to the German general Hermann Kanzler, who, as it happens, proved to be extremely effective.

Pope Pius IX with Zouave soldiers – Church of St. Peter, Longueville (France)


The new appointment, added to the general indignation caused by the withdrawal of the French troops, renewed the fervour of the Pontifical Zouaves and the Catholics who came from all over the world to join the Pontifical ranks. As a result, from a battalion of just 500 men in 1865, the army grew in two years to 2,289, of which 872 were Dutch, 659 French and 495 Belgians.

“I am co-operating with the holiest of missions”

New strength could be felt in the beating of their hearts, which was well expressed in the words of Baron Onffroy: “We would like to see arise the magnificent movement that took place at the time of Godfrey of Bouillon and St. Louis the King, in favour of the worthy Successor of Peter, for the liberation of the Holy Places.”3

These were veritable crusade graces, which imparted to the soldiers a dynamism and courage that surpassed mere nature, as is clear from the letter of one of them to his family: “The idea that I am co-operating with the holiest of missions, that I am fulfilling God’s will, gives me a strength that is not natural.”4

Statements like these testify to the influence of grace in the souls of the combatants, in preparation for the new struggles to come.

Mentana: the great victory

The year 1867 intensified the work of the papal squadron. As early as February, Garibaldi travelled through northern Italy gathering men to advance on the Eternal City. His anti-Catholic zeal was so evident that some of the faithful even considered him the antichrist.

“The battle near Mentana”, by Lionel-Noël Royer – Private collection

In response to the resumption of hostilities, the Zouaves also returned to action and fought Garibaldi’s troops on several occasions: Bagnoregio, Montelibretti, Farnese and Monte-Rotondo, among others.

Thankfully, in almost all of the battles the victory went to the defenders of religion, owing in no small part to their training and their new commander.

However, it was not possible to maintain a life of constant warfare. Thus, it was necessary to bring the matter to a close once and for all, by means of a great battle.

With the return of Napoleon III’s support for the papal army, the opportunity arose to finally put together a reasonable army. There would now be 5,000 men – including around 2,500 Zouaves – to fight against 10,000 enemies.

After some hard initial trials, in Mentana the Zouaves obtained a resounding victory over the enemy, despite their numerical inferiority

On November 3, the two armies clashed in Mentana. Despite the disproportion in numbers, when the two flags met, the Zouaves advanced with such élan that, “in an instant, Garibaldi’s troops were overtaken, struck by bayonets, thrown to the ground and pursued, preventing them from regrouping.”5 Finally, the papal armies expelled them from the city to which they had fled, leaving a thousand dead and wounded, as well as taking 1,398 prisoners.

The victory was complete. Arriving in Rome, the battalion entered to the cheers of the people: “Long live Pius IX! Long live France! Long live the Pope-King! Long live the Zouaves! Long live the pontifical troops! Long live the French!”6

The fall of Rome and the dissolution of the Zouaves

The Battle of Mentana was followed by another three-year lull until, in July 1870, the Franco-Prussian war broke out, forcing a new withdrawal of French support. It was the right time for the Italian revolutionaries to take up arms against Rome again, but this time with the intention of crushing it… They totalled sixty thousand men, divided into three fronts of attack.

For his part, General Kanzler determined that the papal army, made up of only seven or eight thousand soldiers, would be restricted to the defence of the city of Rome at four posts. Humanly speaking, it was a suicidal confrontation, and the troops knew it.

On September 19, when he learned that the revolutionaries were just over sixteen kilometres from the capital, Pius IX summoned the minister and told him: “We want resistance to be what is strictly necessary to demonstrate the reality of an aggression, and nothing more.” Stunned by the order, Kanzler replied: “Your Holiness, the entire army wants to fight and die.” However, the Pope insisted: “We will ask them to surrender and not to die; that will be an even greater sacrifice.”7

Pope Pius IX blesses the papal troops for the last time on April 25 of 1870, before the capture of Rome

The following day, the Holy Father sent a letter to the general, reiterating his decision: “At a time when the whole of Europe deplores the many victims of a war between two great nations, let it never be said that the Vicar of Jesus Christ – even though unjustly attacked – has consented to an outpouring of blood.”8 This was the most demanding moment: to communicate to the Zouaves the order to surrender.

The war ended with a hard sacrifice: the surrender of the pontifical troops, who had marked history like the crusades in defence of the Church

And so it happened. On September 20, shortly after the battle began, the terrible message was transmitted by the commissioners and the fighting ended with the surrender of the Pope’s defenders. Perhaps the greatest difficulty for these heroes was witnessing the entrance of their opponents, who showered them with a deluge of insults and violence, while the white flag of capitulation was raised over the dome of St. Peter’s Church.

After receiving the Pope’s blessing, everyone returned to their respective homelands. The surrender was followed by the dissolution of the pontifical armies.

The war of the Zouaves was over, but gilded by the highest honour of having served the highest of missions. They went down in history as crusaders, unforgettable bulwarks of love and sacrifice for the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. ◊



1 The Roman court would only officially choose the name Zouaves shortly after the Battle of Castelfidardo, which will be discussed below. However, the decision only authorized an existing custom, since the battalion had already been so called due to its uniform (cf. CERBELAUD-SALAGNAC, Georges. Les zouaves pontificaux. Paris: France-Empire, 1963, p.60).

2 GUÉNEL, Jean. La dernière guerre du Pape. Les zouaves pontificaux au secours du Saint-Siège: 1860-1870. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1998, p.45.

3 Idem, p.86.

4 DU COËTLOSQUET, SJ, Charles. Théodore Wibaux. Zouave pontifical et jésuite. Lille: Desclée de Brouwer, 1890, p.46.

5 MÉVIUS, David Ghislain Emile Gustave de. Histoire de l’invasion des États Pontificaux en 1867. Paris: Victor Palmé, 1875, p.337.

6 CERBELAUD-SALAGNAC, op. cit., p.175.

7 GUENEL, op. cit., p.141.

8 Idem, p.142.



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