A Brief History of Pontifical Zouaves

The Battle of Castelfidaro.

The creation of the Pontifical Zouaves found in the will of Pope Pius IX to form a force to oppose annexation by the Kingdom of Piedmont, reinforced after the Franco-Austrian War of 1859. In 1860 the Vatican created a pontifical army, and placed it under the command of General of La Moricière, French hero of Algeria and a minister under the Second Republic. A call to foreign volunteers is announced, and an army of 14,000 men is placed on the establishment, and in particular including a battalion of Franco-Belgian riflemen, commanded by Commandant Becdelièvre, formed as a Regiment of Pontifical Zouaves.

A group of Pontifical Zouaves fighting as the Légion des Volontaires de l'Ouest, in the Franco-Prussian War.

The threat in September 1860 is real, as the troops of Garibaldi, who have just seized the kingdom from Naples, and have now penetrated into the Papal States. At the same time, the army of Piedmont, not to be influenced by Garibaldi, attempt to pass through the Papal States in order to conquer the Italian Marche region in order to establish continuity with the southern Italy. The pontifical troops are committed to war on September 18, 1860 with the Battle of Castelfidaro which ends in a major defeat for the Papal Forces, which obliges the Pope to sign peace treaty and to give up the Marches and Ombrie. The battle is remembered for being bloody, and for the highly lopsided numbers of troops - 10,000 papal troops to 60,000 Piedmontese. The papal army was composed of volunteers from many different European countries, amongst whom the French and Belgian nationals constituted a Franco-Belgian battalion.(1) This defeat compels La Moricière to reinforce his battalion of Franco-Belgian tirrailleurs(2), (the only unit which has shown any military qualities,) increase them to regimental size and to rename it The Pontifical Zouaves. At the call of the Pope, French volunteers flock to enlarge this regiment. Regarded as a new crusade, this call attracted the noble youth of French Catholic and more often than not the descendants of Vendean chouans. Between 1860 and 1870, 3300 French volunteers are assigned to the Pontifical Army.

The zouaves (3500 men total, include 600 French, 800 Dutch and 450 Belgian soldiers), first commanded by colonel Allet (pictured below), then by the colonel de Charette (pictured below) from 1862, proved themselves illustrious in 1867. During that year they skirmished with the forces of Garibaldi. The tension builds gradually, until open conflict in October. On November 3, at the time of the battle of Mentana, the Pontifical Army, supported by a French troops, repulses Garibaldi. It was during this battle that the French employ the new Chassepot rifle, the zouaves glorify themselves in the capture of the Santucci villa.

With the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, another page in the history of the zouaves is opened. With the declaration of war of France in Prussia, the French occupation troops in Rome who had protected the papal states leave for France on August 5. Losing his principal support, Pope Pius IX can no longer resist Piémontese pressure. Piedmontese troops occupy Rome in September.

1200 French members of the Pontifical Zouaves were evacuated and unload in Toulon on September 27. Re-named "Légion des Volontaires de l'ouest" (Legion of the Volunteers of the West) on October 7, it forms an irregular force, ordered by the Lieutenant Colonel de Charrette, affected to the XVII Army Corps of the Army of the Loire. The legion distinguishes itself again on December 1, 1870 at the battle of Loigny where it suffers the loss 96 dead and 122 wounded from a total of 300 combatants. The zouaves are de-established in August 1871.

Joseph Eugène ALLET, first Colonel of the Zouaves.

Athanase de CHARETTE, Second Colonel of the Zouaves, Decendant of the legitimist Vendean family and of François-Athanase Charette de la Contrie he the grandson of the Duke of Berry by his mother.

Les frères de Charette... not only Athanase joined the Zouaves but his brothers as well came to the Papal colours. in the center is Athanase as a major of Zouaves, to his left is Alain, a Second Lieutenant (sous lieutenant in French), and then to the right Ferdinand a private Zouave, and lastly is Louis, on the left in the differing uniform, a Sergeant of Dragoons. (Maréchal des logis de Dragons). This family continued in it's traditional support of the True Faith by it noble actions. This is a family which rings true in every age.


(1) Castelfidaro was also notable for the number of French nobility from western France especially Bretagne forcing the Peidmontese General Caildini to remark with a wry humour "…you would think this was a list of invitees for a ball given by Louis XIV!.."

(2) Literally skirmisher. An independent marksman of light infantry.

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