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From the pontifical zouaves to the "volunteers of the west", the mutation of a motley and inexperienced corps into an elite troo

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History & strategy
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Laurent Gruaz tells us a little-known story here, that of these Franco-Belgian volunteers who became pontifical zouaves, having initially served under the Pope's banner, and who then fought in 1870 for the arms of France under the name of "volunteers from the west". Faith in an ideal, esprit de corps, and the training power of leaders are the key words of this true and original saga.

The second part of this rich history will be published in the June issue of Les Cahiers.

Rhe organisation of the Pontifical Army and the creation of the Franco-Belgian Riflemen's Battalion (1860-1861)

In May 1860, the situation of the Papal States was alarming. In the south, Garibaldi and his army of nearly a thousand men, supported by regular insurgent troops, set out to conquer Sicily. In the north, Piedmontese troops began to mass on the borders of Tuscany and Romagna. The Papal State, which then represented about the central third of Italy, was taken in pincers.

A few weeks earlier, Garibaldi had already failed to remove Romagna on his own after unsuccessfully attempting an invasion of the Marches and Umbria. Victor-Emmanuel II of Savoy, King of Sardinia, intends to make Italian unity and makes no secret of it. His intentions are clear: he wants Rome as his capital. Once the conquest of Sicily was achieved, Garibaldi's mission was, in fact, to conquer Naples before marching on Rome. War seems inevitable.

The Pope has little choice if he wants to try to save his territory. His army, which has been confined to inaction for some thirty years, has no capacity to defend itself, and appealing to the Catholic powers is excluded; the fate of the Papal State is not a priority at the moment.[1]. There is only one solution left: reorganize the army, or at least what is left of it, and increase its strength to no more than 12,000 men in 11 battalions.

Bishop de Mérode, Minister of Arms of the Holy See, then breathed into Pius IX the name of a man he knew well to work on it: General de La Moricière.[2]. He also submitted to him the idea of setting up a new corps composed of Catholic volunteers from all over the world. From 1860 and for ten years, nearly 11,000 young men of 35 nationalities would thus swell the ranks of this new battalion, first called "Franco-Belgian Riflemen" because of the two predominant nationalities, which would become the regiment of the Pontifical Zouaves the following year.

An army of the most rudimentary

  • It's a tough job..

Until the first half of the 19th century, the Pontifical Army suffered from one of the worst reputations in Europe. And since the revolutionary episode of 1848-1849, it had disappeared so completely that it no longer had, one might say, an army other than the name. General de La Moricière's surprise remained famous, when one day in 1860, he had read in an order that a marching exercise would take place the next day "if the weather remained fine".[3]This was also the anger of Lieutenant-Colonel de Becdelièvre, commander of the Franco-Belgian riflemen, who had scheduled a shooting exercise to start in the early morning and had been surprised to see that it would be held the following day.He was refused entry to the artillery magazine to receive the cartridges of his men on the pretext that the duty officer was at home and would not return until the next day.[4]!

  • The equipment . was of the most summary and the men poorly dressed and undisciplined. If a general sloppiness had set in in the troop which did not shine by its military qualities and where desertions were frequent, the officers were not much better than the soldiers according to foreign observers:

"The young nobles of the high Catholic families who, as Don Quixote of the nineteenth century, came to the Holy Father or were sent to "The young noblemen of the high Catholic families who, in the nineteenth century, Don Quixote came to the Holy Father or were sent to Rome by their parents in order to place their revolvers - since there could be no question of good spears - at the disposal of the sovereign pontiff, did not for the most part bring him or send him to Rome.The other officers who arrived with some knowledge of their profession were for the most part made up of very unsavoury elements, which were no longer to be heard of in other armies.[5].

  • The Pontifical Troops suffered from a lack of credit in the eyes of the population. In fact, military service was little sought after in a country where the ecclesiastical state alone opened the door to honours and consideration.[6].

  • The work of La Moricière in the Pontifical States, supported by Bishop de Merode, is within a very limited period of time, of the order of six months. Between the two of them, the prelate and the general are going to change everything: they are opening weapons workshops, blowing snow, renovating what can be renovated, buying modern rifles in Belgium, organizing artillery and cavalry. The men in rags were given new uniforms and good shoes, the chalked bread disappeared from the ordinary, sales were increased, barracks were established, and fortresses were renovated. The stronghold of Ancona is restored, its staff is reinforced. Garrisons are set up in various cities such as Perugia, Spoleto and Viterbo. In short, the occupation of the territory was restructured and the general took geographical realities into account brilliantly, leaving a minimum of troops in the west and putting all his efforts into the east.

  • La Moricière clashes However, he had "a serious difficulty: that of finding intelligent, sincere, experienced men, capable of enlightening him in a situation that was completely new to him".[7]. So, with Bishop de Mérode, they dismissed the incompetent men in place and replaced them with dynamic and serious men. Placed under the command of the religious minister, the general constitutes his staff according to his idea and attaches sure values, men of experience on whom he can count like General Auguste de Pimodan.[8]Captain Arthur de Chevigné[9]General Joseph de Courten[10] or Major Theodore of Quatrebarbes...[11]. Twelve officers thus joined the leadership of the army in 1860-1861, the oldest of whom was born in 1803 and the next two in 1809.

  • Proposals to serve in the pontifical troops are not lacking. Thus, from the month of May, the Prince of the Line offered his youngest son to the Holy Father as a soldier in his new army.[12]. The Duchess of Parma, for her part, recommended some of the Parmesan officers to be admitted into the army of General de La Moricière.[13]As for the King of Naples, a few days before the battle of Castelfidardo, he proposes nothing less than to unite his army with that of the Holy Father under the leadership of La Moricière "for the legitimate defense of the Holy See".[14].

  • The troopsIn the meantime, the volunteers were raised in Switzerland, Austria and Ireland, and many young French, Belgians and Dutch began to join the volunteer unit. The general structure of the Pope's new army is taking shape. But all this is expensive, and finding funds is necessary. The needs are urgent, so Pius IX decides to reactivate the denarius of St. Peter's in the form of a voluntary contribution of the faithful to the Papacy.[15]. In France, this is not easy to set up because of the Emperor's support for the King of Sardinia, and many bishops, even supporters of the Pope's temporal power, hesitate to establish by a solemn act the work of the denarius of St. Peter. The imperial government refused the work the right to form a legal association, but it did not prohibit quests in the churches.[16] and, from May onwards, the faithful begin to be solicited. Without remaining confidential, this is done at the diocesan level in relative discretion. It is interesting to note that, according to the advice of the ministry, the French dioceses agree to collect funds to help the pontifical zouaves, but hardly admit to going through organizations that share precisely the reasons that led these young men to enlist in the pontifical army. This is understandable inasmuch as allowing volunteers to go to Rome allows the government to spare Catholic circles while carefully avoiding the spread of their ultra-montane and uncompromising ideas.

The first volunteers

  • The first volunteers began to pour in as early as May 1860. Athanasius de Charette de La Contrie was the first to respond to the Pope's call. This young soldier from the Breton aristocracy was barely 27 years old. He joined the army of Pius IX on the 5th, the same day as two other compatriots, Maurice du Bourg and Ferdinand Lapène, who were given numbers 2 and 3 respectively.[17]. He is the grand-nephew of François-Athanase de Charette, the hero of the Vendée wars.[18]but also, through his mother, the nephew of the Count de Chambord, the pretender of the legitimists to the throne of France. Arriving from the army of the Duke of Modena where he was second lieutenant, Charette was appointed captain in the Franco-Belgian battalion that was being created. Du Bourg and Lapène, for their part, enlisted as simple volunteers. The first was given corporal's epaulettes the same day, and the second was given them a few weeks later. Unlike Charette, these two have no military experience. Two of the three other company leaders, for their part, came directly from another pontifical corps, the 1st foreign regiment in this case. All of them were placed under the authority of Louis de Becdelièvre [19], commander of this new corps where everything remained to be done.

  • At the beginning of September, the Franco-Belgian workforce reached nearly four hundred men. Already four companies have been formed since June, and a fifth is in the process of being formed. Then garrisoned at the training camp of Terni, Becdelièvre was ordered to move toward Collescipoli, a small town a few kilometers north of Rome, after learning of the capture of Naples by Garibaldi. With the territories south of the Papal States now under the yoke of the Red Shirts, an attack to the north by Sardinian troops was imminent. The Marches and Umbria were directly threatened, no less than two-thirds of the Pontifical territory.

  • Many of the king's troops of Sardinia had indeed begun to mass on the border. Thus arranged, the Franco-Belgians covered a Terni-Narni axis. General de La Moricière had established his headquarters at Spoleto, the capital of Umbria, some twenty kilometres further upstream. On the morning of 10 September, Captain Farini presented himself at the outposts of Spoleto with a letter of summons signed by General Fanti, commander-in-chief of the royal forces, for the pontifical army to unconditionally evacuate Umbria and Romagna. The House of Savoy thus hoped to avoid a deadly confrontation which it knew was won in advance.[20]. But, for General de La Moricière, there was no question of surrendering without a fight. His motives were clear and unquestionable: "It would be shame and dishonour for us."[21].

  • La Moricière and Becdelièvre ...were at odds as to the strategy to be followed. The former hoped to reach Ancona as soon as possible and hold the siege there, betting that the European powers would react and come to the aid of the Papal State. The gamble was risky, but the situation in Ancona was ideal for trying to counter enemy intrusions at the border.Ancona's situation was ideal for trying to counter enemy intrusions on the northern border, and the opening of the Adriatic Sea to the far east of the Marches still left room for the possibility of Austrian intervention. The second had proposed that the army remain confined to Rome, which would have had the effect of bringing the Sardinian army to the gates of the city, betting that this dramatic situation could only move France, which would then launch its troops confined to Rome to restore order. La Moricière favoured the option of Ancona, which was less risky for the land base of the Papal States and probably also considered more offensive.

  • The confrontation This took place on the morning of the 18th September. For this first assault, the half-battalion of Franco-Belgian riflemen was even less well off than the other pontifical corps: of the three hundred or so men present, the oldest had barely three months of service. As for the new ones, their commitments had been made sometimes until September 1, 1860, two weeks before they were to fight their first battle. Only 96 men, including officers, had any prior military training. However, the fact that only one third had had any initial military experience meant that the Franco-Belgians were able to benefit from significant de facto supervision during the battle thanks to former French officers.The fact that only one third had had any initial military experience, however, allowed the Franco-Belgians to benefit from significant de facto supervision during the battle thanks to former French or Belgian officers serving here as simple riflemen, or to competent soldiers who had the ability to improvise themselves as section or squad leaders in the midst of the fighting, and some of whom were thus able to demonstrate their qualities in the fire, which were conducive to future advancement[22]. 22] This represented about seventy men, the equivalent of a company skillfully divided among the four existing companies.

  • In view of this unpreparedness In view of this obvious lack of men and means, it seems legitimate to ask why, under these conditions, the Franco-Belgians were going to meet certain death without even hoping to reverse the course of events? Because obviously the dimension of this first fight is elsewhere. It is above all religious and it does not matter what the balance of power is. It is this dimension that they give it, it is how they experience it near the "holy house of Loreto" when they climb the slopes of Castel-fidardo, the castle of faith, and it is how they live it.they hoped by committing themselves, with the aim of offering themselves to save the Papal States, both physically and spiritually, and thus, according to them, to redeem the sins of France, which, for its part, did not intend to lend the Pope a hand against the King of Sardinia.

  • On the evening of September 18th, the pontifical army is defeated. But this "glorious defeat" would deeply affect the Catholic world and lead to a massive influx of volunteers wishing to imitate their elders. On 31 December 1860, the Franco-Belgian half-battalion was dismissed. The following day, the battalion of pontifical zouaves was born, which quickly became the most prestigious corps in the Pope's army, and in which a great many Frenchmen, in particular, would enlist for six months or ten years.

1] Jean Guénel, "The Pope's last war. Pontifical Zouaves to the rescue of the Holy See 1860-1870"Rennes,Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1998, p. 22 . The two Catholic powers best suited in theory to help the pontifical territory could have been Austria and France, but the former no longer had a sufficient number of men in fighting condition after its bitter defeats at Magenta and Solferino in 1859. As for France, it adopted an ambiguous position, sometimes playing the game of the Papal States, leaving Rome with a garrison that was supposed to defend it, and sometimes that of the Kingdom of Sardinia, turning a blind eye to the intrusion attempts of the garibaldian troops supported by the king.

2] Xavier de Mérode, born in 1820 in Brussels. He entered the Brussels Military School at the age of nineteen, from which he graduated as second lieutenant in 1841. As garrison life weighed on him, he obtained permission from King Leopold I to perfect his military knowledge by serving in the French army in Algeria. It was there that he made the acquaintance of General de La Moricière. He distinguished himself in an infantry charge against the Kabyles on 17 October 1844. On 27 November, King Louis-Philippe awarded him the Cross of the Legion of Honour. He later entered religious life.

3] Louis Defives de Saint-Martin, Pro Petri Sede. Nos zouaves belges à Rome, 3 vols , Averbode, 1899, p. 134.

4] Louis-Alphonse de Becdelièvre (lieutenant-colonel), "[4 ] Louis-Alphonse de Becdelièvre (lieutenant-colonel).Memories of the Pontifical Army"Paris, Lecoffre fils, 1867, p. 21-22.

5] Wilhelm Rüstow, ".....The Italian War in 1860. Garibaldi's campaign in the Two Sicilies and other military events until the surrender of Gaëte in March 1861"Geneva-Paris, 1862, p. 14.

6] Paul Frayssinaud, "[6 ] Paul Frayssinaud, "....General de La Moricière and the Pontifical Army", Paris , 1863, p. 16.

7 ] Frank Russel-Killough, "....Ten years of pontifical service. Stories and Memories"Paris ,1873, pp. 90-91.

8] Georges Auguste de Rarécourt de La Vallée, Marquis de Pimodan (1822-1860). He was 38 years old when he entered the service of the Holy See on April 11, 1860 with the rank of colonel and the functions of chief of the general staff. A military man by profession (received at the Saint-Cyr Military School and resigned in 1840), he put his sword at the service of many powers. He died at the battle of Castelfidardo on 18 September 1860 as a result of his wounds.

9] Arthur de Chevigné. Born December 1, 1833. Received at Saint-Cyr. Resigned. Entered the Military School of Modena, he joined the Pontifical Army on April 17, 1860 as captain of staff.

10] Joseph, Count of Courten. Born in Sierre (Switzerland) on 2 January 1809. Second lieutenant in the Valaisan contingent of the Federal Army in 1829, he resigned in 1832 before entering the Pontifical Army with the rank of lieutenant. In August 1860, as part of the reorganisation of the army, he was appointed Brigadier General under the command of La Moricière.

11] Théodore de Quatrebarbes, born in Angers (Maine-et-Loire) in 1803. A former officer in the French army, he entered the service of the Holy See as a staff captain on August 16, 1860.

12] Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio particolare di Pio IX , "Sovrani et particolari", Index 1131, folio 147, May 8, 1860.

13] Ibid . folio 861, July 10, 1860.

14] Ibid . folio 752, September 11, 1860.

15] Thedenarius of St. Peter(denarius Sancti Petri) was originally an annual tribute paid by England to the Holy See from the eighth century to 1534, the date Henry VIII abolished it.

16] Fernand Mourret.The Contemporary Church", volume VIII, Paris, 1919, p. 466.

[17] «Number of the French-Belgian Riflemen Battalion", Lille , Morel, 1910, p.13.

18] François-Athanase de Charette de La Contrie (born April 21, 1763 in Couffé, shot on March 29, 1796 in Nantes). He was one of the great leaders of the insurrectional movement called the "Vendée militaire" (1793-1800) during the French Revolution .

19] Born in Le Puy (Haute-Loire) on 14 February 1826, Louis de Becdelièvre entered the Saint-Cyr Military School in 1848. First assigned to the French army of occupation in Rome, from 1850 to 1852, he joined the 32nd line stationed in Italy, then the 4th battalion of foot chasseurs with the rank of lieutenant. In 1856, at the end of the Crimean War, he joined the 4th Battalion of foot chasseurs with the rank of lieutenant.[19]he was appointed captain and remained in the French army until his resignation following his marriage in 1858.

20] Facing the seven to eight thousand pontifical soldiers based in the area of Castelfidardo and Loreto, there were more than twenty-five thousand Piedmontese, and as many were in reinforcement in the rear. The Piedmontese army there had 18 battalions of infantry or bersaglieri, 10 squadrons and 22 pieces of artillery. On the right side of this southern front, four battalions and four guns held their positions. And in the Ancona sector, 13 battalions, two squadrons and 16 guns were stationed.

[21] «Report of General de La Moricière to Bishop de Mérode"Paris , Ch. Douniol, 1860, p. 10.

22] This was the case, in particular, of Sergeant Auguste Lemonnier, who had served in France in the Infanterie de Marine as a non-commissioned officer and who was appointed officer less than two weeks after Castelfidardo, where his qualities as a trainer of men were noticed.

Mr. Laurent GRUAZ is the parliamentary attaché of the deputy of Savoie Dominique Dord. Holder of a doctorate in history, as well as the qualification of lecturer, he is also an associate researcher at the Rhône-Alpes Historical Research Laboratory (LARHRA). On the military level, he held the position of communications officer at the Ecole des pupilles de l'Air in the operational reserve before joining the citizen reserve at the 13th Alpine Hunter Battalion.

Title : From the pontifical zouaves to the "volunteers of the west", the mutation of a motley and inexperienced corps into an elite troo
Author (s) : Monsieur Laurent GRUAZ