The Pope’s Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force That Defended The Vatican

I have a distinct memory, from my Catholic high school days back in the 1950s, of a black and white photograph in a history textbook.  It was of a soldier in a funny-looking uniform; he had an even funnier-sounding name.  He was identified as a member of the “Zouaves.”  I don’t recall ever having a clear understanding then of exactly what army this soldier was a member, or what he fought for, but I CAN tell you, that after reading Charles Coulombe’s new, very readable book, The Pope’s Legion, I now know!

Who were the Zouaves?  In truth, there were a number of uses of the name by different fighting forces.  The first to adopt the name were members of the French Army in Algeria in 1831.  They were actually men from a tribe of Berbers called the Zouaoua who were recruited to fight for the French.  Soon, the units were composed of only French soldiers, but they retained the name and the distinctive “funny-looking” uniform.  These French units continued to be active in various wars up to and including World War II.

The term was used even in the American War Between the States — by both sides!  It came to denote units who volunteered, rather than regular soldiers who were conscripted.  Their uniforms were modeled after those of the original Berber Zouaves of Algeria.

Charles Coulombe’s story of the Papal (or Pontifical) Zouaves is at the same time, glorious, heart-rending, exciting, pathetic, uplifting, and tragic.  It is interesting how and why the same name and uniform came to be used both by men fighting for the Holy Father in the later nineteenth century and by French soldiers as well in the earlier part of the same century.  Let us see how this came to be.First, a little background:  The year 1789 ushered in what some refer to as THE Revolution, the beginning of the end of Christianity’s influence on men and the reign of the forces of Satan in the world.  That Revolution is still in its throes today.  By mid-nineteenth century, all of Europe was caught up in the revolutionary spirit, and Masonic forces were gathering strength to overthrow altar and throne in every corner of the continent.  The Papal States, that central portion of the Italian Peninsula owned and governed by the Papacy, served as a bulwark for the Church in its independence from foreign governments.  These “states” were composed of lands primarily given to the office of the Papacy beginning with the “donation of Constantine” of the city of Rome in the fourth century and added to, mostly by further donations of lands, over the next fifteen centuries.

As the forces of nationalism rallied in the Italian peninsula, all greedy eyes  looked toward grabbing the lands of the Papal States and unifying the disparate sections into a united Italy.  Naturally, as in other parts of Europe, France particularly, this movement was led by anti-Catholic Freemasons. In Italy, General Garibaldi, that old Sardinian revolutionary, a recruit of Giuseppe di Mazzini, was cleverly utilized by the younger leaders, Camillo Count de Cavour, and Victor Emmanuelle who, having the royal blood of the House of Savoy, sought to undermine the temporal rights of the papacy and unite Italy under his rule as king.  Garibaldi and Cavour were often at odds, but their anti-clericalism united them against the Pope, the beleaguered Pius IX.

With Revolutionary military strength pressing upon all sides of the Papal lands, the Holy Father had to look for defensive forces of his own.  Where to find them?  The call for volunteers went out around the Catholic world for soldiers to come to Rome and protect the Vicar of Christ  and his lands.  The list of leaders of the Papal Legion reads like “a guest-list from a party of Louis XIV,” the author quotes one observer as saying.  Readers familiar with the heroic stand of the Loyalists of the Vendee, during the French Revolution, will recognize the name Charette.  Others were the Marquis de Pimodan, Chevigne, and Bourbon-Chalus all under General Lamoriciere.  Volunteers arrived in Rome from every Catholic country of Europe, from French Canada, even a few from America, although American bishops were hesitant to recruit because of the War Between the States was going on at the time.  Northern bishops, in particular, did not want to seem “unpatriotic” and “un-American.”  (It is a fact that the Holy Father’s sympathies lay with the Confederacy.)

Because of General Lamoriciere’s service with the French Zouaves in the Algerian War, that uniform and name became the distinctive mark of the Papal Army.  Why did these men come to fight in what they must have known was a lost cause?  All believed in the justice of their cause and wished to defend the Holy Father with their lives.  Many did just that.  They knew from the start that their mission was a difficult one — their numbers were small and their funding was low; yet their purpose was noble and they were fighting for God and His representative on earth.

In the ten years that the Zouaves gave to their cause, 1860-1870, there were few victories and bitter defeats.  In the end, the saintly Pius IX surrendered his temporal power to prevent further loss of life.  We know that he became a self-imposed prisoner in the Vatican, refusing to leave his post for the entire remainder of his life.  It was not until the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini  in 1929 that Vatican City became an independent State.

I particularly like the way Mr. Coulombe weaves the general story of the Zouaves, their victories and defeats, with personal accounts of some of their heroes, officers and underlings alike.  He adds interesting asides about historical facts as well.   Although the story is basically a sad one, the author’s characteristic sense of humor is evident in many places.  More importantly, the chivalric sense of these Catholic soldiers in defense of their Pope and their religion strikes a chord of pride for Catholics who pray for the return of our holy Church to her days of glory.

In the words of Charles Coulombe, “…it would be tempting simply to label the Papal Zouaves complete failures.  But this is a temptation that ought to be resisted.”  Their service to the Pope allowed the convening of Vatican Council I which defined Papal Infallibility; their devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus spread through the French Army and vivified the Spanish loyalists under the Carlists, enabling victory for the Catholic side in Spain’s bloody Civil War in the 1930’s.  Today, there are Catholic youth groups dedicated to emulating the Zouaves in Belgium, Italy, and elsewhere in former Catholic Europe, even while their parents have lost the Faith and Muslims take over their lands.

For an exciting and informative read of a little known part of our Catholic history, The Pope’s Legion is highly recommended.