UWE History, Neil Edmund’s Fund, Occasional Papers No.1, November 2013
From Zouaves Pontificaux to the Volontaires de l’Ouest: Catholic Volunteers and the French Nation, 1860-1910
On 20 September 1870, after a token resistance and the brief bombardment of the Porta Pia, Italian troops finally invested the city of Rome, extinguishing the last remnants of papal temporal power. Pius IX became the ‘prisoner of the Vatican,’ ‘Peter in Chains.’ The papal zouaves, the volunteer force that had spent the decade 1860-70 defending the papal territories, were confronted with the ruin of their mission and became prisoners rather than martyrs for the papal cause. Five days earlier, colonel Augustin-Numa d’Albiousse, commander of three zouave companies at Civita Vecchia, had pleaded in vain to be allowed to lead his men out in a fatal sortie.1 The multi-national zouaves were divided up according to nationality and repatriated. Following a mass on deck of the French frigate Orénoque, the flag of the regiment was symbolically divided up amongst the 657-strong French contingent. This was not, however, the end of their endeavour: before they had even disembarked a zouave wrote to his parents, ‘Je suis content d’avance du poste qu’on m’assignera; et j’espère d’être avec l’aide de Dieu, un vrai chrétien et un bon français.’2 The Franco-Prussian war, conducted under the auspices of the republican Government of National Defence after the precipitous fall of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, was to claim the energies – and in many cases the lives – of numerous returning zouaves. This paper examines the French zouaves, both in the context of their engagement in papal territories and their subsequent involvement in the Franco-Prussian War.
In engaging in the Franco-Prussian War the zouaves added another dimension to what was already a well-rooted and vigorous myth built around their specifically Catholic heroism. From the unequal and doomed engagement of Castelfidardo onwards the zouaves’ deeds had been reported to a receptive Catholic audience. Zouave exploits were recounted in diocesan Semaines religieuses, the Catholic press (especially Louis Veuillot’s L’Univers), hagiographical biographies, martyrologies, memoirs and even romantic fiction.3 The zouaves of the Franco-Prussian War, reconstituted as the Volontaires de l’Ouest, would offer fresh heroics for Catholics to admire. Above all the Volontaires distinguished themselves at Loigny, celebrated as a glorious defeat that proved the martial virtue of Catholic soldiers. Loigny slotted into the existing legend, confirming and amplifying pre-existing aspects of the discourse on the zouaves. It is this neglected Catholic discourse on the zouaves/Volontaires that lies at the heart of this paper.4 In particular, it is intended to investigate how the Franco-Prussian War impacted upon the ways in which the zouaves were understood – and how they chose to understand themselves. In exploring the development and mutation of the zouave legend 1860-1910 analysis will focus on three related themes: ideas of patriotism and the French nation; ideas of martyrdom and expiation and lastly ideas of counter-revolution.
To examine the discourse on the zouaves reveals how they were constructed as both Catholic and French exemplars. The zouaves offered lessons about the French nation and French identity well before they became embroiled in the Franco-Prussian War. L’Univers declared, ‘À Rome le régiment des zouaves, formé d’éléments cosmopolites, accomplissent un œuvre français en protégeant et défendant l’indépendance et la souveraineté du Saint-Siège. Ce n’est pas pour rien que la statue de Charlemagne veille aux portes de Saint Pierre au Vatican.’5 The reference to Charlemagne points to the issue of national history: the zouaves were placed in a continuum of national history, read in terms of service of the Church, that legitimated and glorified their actions.6
This discourse existed in a dynamic relationship with competing versions of the nation, both republican and Bonapartist. In the context of the Second Empire and the Third Republic, the zouaves could be employed to attack and delegitimize the actions of the governments of the day. The example of the zouaves served to demonstrate the hollowness of Bonapartist claims to incarnate the glories of French national history.7 Likewise, the republican version of France as the republican nation forged through the revolution and united around the values of 1789 could be challenged and undercut by insisting on the national character of the zouaves.8 The zouaves were one of the constituent parts of a vigorous Catholic discourse that countered the discourse and rituals of the Third Republic – it was, as Jean- Clément Martin has termed the Vendée, ‘contre-mémoire’.9 Ruth Harris points out that the pilgrimage movement arose in the context of the construction of a republican symbolism; Lourdes offered an alternative Catholic set of rituals to challenge the secular cult of the Republic.10 Similarly, Brian Brennan has drawn attention to how pilgrimage to Rome offered the chance to experience ‘the historical fantasy of the ‘True France’ that was traditional, Catholic and royal’.11 Much the same applies to the zouaves. They appealed to royalist traditionalists and ultramontane Catholic opponents of the Republic because they fitted into their vision of France: traditional, pious, largely rural, deferential and – for many, if not all of those who celebrated the zouaves - monarchical.
Celebrating the zouaves served to advance a particular vision of France and French national history. The zouaves encapsulated a vision of a re-Christianised and regenerated France. Implicit within this vision was the argument that France had lost her way. Mgr. Charles Émile Freppel of Angers, inaugurating a monument to general Christophe Lamoricière, original leader of the papal armies in 1860, was explicit on this point. 1789 saw France leave ‘her historic and traditional path’, while the 1830 Revolution which terminated the Bourbon restoration was ‘one of the most disastrous events of our history…the principle source of all our faults and all our misfortunes’.12 The logic of the zouaves was undeniably a counter-revolutionary logic: they defined France in opposition to the heritage of 1789. The Syllabus of Errors of 1864, in which Pius IX effectively anathematised the developments of the nineteenth century, reinforced this counter-revolutionary perspective.
Enthusiasts for this vision of France did not see their project as one of constructing a new French nation; that was something their political adversaries were attempting, particularly the opportunist republicans of the 1880s. Their project was couched in terms of the recovery of authentic French traditions, of the restoration of true France. Certainly, notwithstanding their concern for the contested terrain of the French nation and their readiness to challenge other versions, these counter-revolutionary upholders of ‘true France’ were not nationalists. Catholics above and before anything, the zouaves shared in Pius IX’s rejection of the modern nation-state and its claims. The Syllabus made it clear that the Holy Father was unable to countenance the sweeping claims made by the nation-state. By definition, in their fight for the temporal sovereignty of the Holy See the zouaves rejected many of the tenets of nineteenth-century nationalism.13 Indeed, arguably the zouaves represented the papacy’s response to the claims of nationalism.14
The political flux of nineteenth century France only served to raise the stakes. The catastrophes of the collapse of the Second Empire, defeat and the Paris Commune opened the door for a reshaped France. Those who had championed the zouaves vigorously engaged in debates over the causes of defeat and French renewal. The zouaves/Volontaires were deployed in arguments that stability and French greatness could only be rediscovered in a re-Christianised France, ideally a France dedicated to the Sacred Heart. Mgr., later Cardinal, Louis-Edouard Pie, speaking at the first anniversary of Loigny cautioned, ‘jamais vous referez la patrie française, si vous ne refaites pas la patrie chrétienne’.15 The failure of efforts to restore the monarchy in 1871 and 1873 and the eventual stabilisation of the Third Republic under firm republican leadership (1877-79) meant instead an anti-clerical regime which possessed a diametrically opposed vision of France. In this context, to celebrate the zouaves was to contrast the godless Republic with a vision of ‘true France’ as embodied in the zouaves. In 1885 the reunion to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the regiment was promoted as a counter to the Republic’s quatorze juillet.
Yet the Volontaires complicated the issue. Even taking into account former zouaves who rejoined at lieutenant-colonel Athanase de Charette’s appeal of October 1870, the original zouaves were no more than a significant minority in a force of about 2,700.16 Charette himself was commander of the Volontaires who, though they might resemble the zouaves in certain ways – from an over-representation of the west to a stress on Catholic fidelity to the point of requiring a curé’s statement – were not the zouaves writ large. They were a force led by zouaves – all 113 officers had served in Italy - with a scattering of zouaves in the rank and file. They were, however, engaged in a very different combat. The Volontaires were one of a range of irregular volunteer forces that engaged in the Franco-Prussian War (ironically including a force led by the zouaves’ determined enemy, Giuseppe Garibaldi): their history is part of the wider history of the war effort of Léon Gambetta’s republican Government of National Defence. The zouaves’ service in Rome had been framed in terms of their desire to fulfil France’s historic mission as la fille aînée de l’Église; the case for the Volontaires as French patriots was self-evident. Castelfidardo and Mentana provided martyrs for the papal cause; Loigny provided martyrs for France. Loigny could be presented as a potential national site of memory, a battle that demonstrated the fraternal heroism of a whole range of forces – the Volontaires, the franc-tireur battalions of Tours and Blidah, the mobile guard of the Côtes-du-Nord and the regular forces of the 37th infantry battalion. However, there was a marked tendency on the part of their champions to sharply differentiate the Volontaires from other elements of the French army. Unlike other soldiers, it was claimed, they carried the secret of regeneration and were untainted by the defeat. They proved that true patriotism was rooted in Catholic values. They were on the one hand exemplars, on the other pure and expiatory victims whose willing sacrifice would redeem a fallen France.
Just as the zouaves were not, however tempting the parallel, vendéen or chouan counter-revolutionaries, the Volontaires were not zouaves, though it is undeniable that some thought of themselves as such (for instance, Volontaire Joseph Perraud wrote, ‘I will give with joy half my blood for France, but I want to save the rest for the Pope’).17 Patrick Nouaille-Degorce argues that the Volontaires must be understood as a separate phenomenon rather than assimilated to the zouave narrative.18 Certainly, those unsympathetic to Charette’s monarchism and ultramontane Catholicism distinguished his leadership of the Volontaires from his years in Rome. La République Française observed, though Charette’s service in Rome might be worthy of respect, ‘[the fact] that he offered his sword of a royalist, son of chouans and his pontifical zouaves…where the sons of émigrés were numerous, to an invaded France, to a republican France led by revolutionary leaders, that is rather more important’.19 Nonetheless, the Volontaires were assimilated to the zouave legend – in addition to being routinely referred to as zouaves. There was a marked reluctance on the part of those who celebrated their memory and exploits to separate them from the zouaves, or to read them solely in terms of the wider French struggle against the German invaders. In particular, the commemorative ceremonies organised under Charette’s auspices, insisted on continuity of the two forces. To analyse the zouave legend in full, account must be taken of the Volontaires. Conversely, the discourse on the Volontaires is only fully intelligible in light of the zouave legend.
One major element of continuity lies in the issue of French identity, although in the context of the defeat, great emphasis was laid on the salvation and regeneration of France. The zouaves and the Volontaires were employed to advance a certain vision of France and later to contest the official republican alignment of France with the revolutionary tradition. It is, however, reductive to read the discourse on the zouaves/Volontaires solely in terms of political rhetoric. The zouave legend was not solely a political weapon. The primary audience of Catholics might choose to draw political lessons from it, but equally they were invited to reflect on lessons of the faith involving expiation, suffering and abnegation. The zouaves and Volontaires need to be understood in light of the mid-nineteenth century Catholic revival. There was a powerful emotional dimension to the zouave legend: they were not just exemplars of the faith, martial heroes to be admired, but Catholics were encouraged to enter into an emotional relationship with them, sharing in both their pain and suffering and in the sacrifice and suffering of the zouave mothers who mourned their sons.20 As with Lourdes and the devotion to Pius IX the themes of pain, sainthood, expiation and the miraculous were to be found within the zouave narrative. It was in light of the new character of Catholic devotions – including, notably, the cult of the Sacred Heart – that the zouaves/Volontaires proved so potent.21 Only in this context can we understand the interest in zouave and Volontaire relics, above all the banner of the Sacred Heart carried at Loigny.
Yet, the zouaves/Volontaires were not merely passive objects of the enthusiasms of counter-revolutionary Catholics. The zouaves played an active role in the construction of their own legend. Commemorative ceremonies – most notably the ‘noces d’argent’ celebrations organised by Charette in 1885 – saw the legend powerfully restated. A newspaper, L’Avant-Garde, was launched in 1892 to keep veterans’ memories alive.22 Numerous memoirs helped to shape the images of the great set-pieces of zouave history – Castelfidardo, Mentana and Loigny. Moreover, attention was drawn to zouave words, above all zouave correspondence, central to adulatory biographies, but also featured in works such as Anatole de Ségur’s Les Martyrs de Castelfidardo.23 (This is not, of course, to deny that zouave letters were selectively quoted from and subject to a judicious editorial process). Nonetheless the language of expiatory sacrifice, fidelity to vendéen and Breton ancestry or identification with the crusades was not simply imposed on the zouaves by those who chose to celebrate them. This paper then, seeks to understand the zouaves/Volontaires broadly, while not playing down the overtly political ends to which their myth might be turned.
The question of the temporal sovereignty of the Pope, the great cause of the zouaves, came to the fore in 1859 as a result of a momentous shift in French policy towards the Italian peninsula. As president of the Second Republic, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had helped to restore the Pope to his throne in 1849, but by 1859 as Emperor Napoleon III he was identified with his enemies. At Plombières in 1858, Napoleon III had promised Count Camillo Cavour, Prime Minister of Piedmont, military assistance against the Habsburgs, in exchange for Nice and Savoy. Although Napoleon III was not unaware of the dangers of antagonising French Catholic opinion he proved willing to countenance the dismemberment of the Papal States. While the French troops garrisoned in Rome would ensure that the Pope retained the Eternal City and its immediate surroundings, it was envisaged that the Romagna and the Papal Legations would be absorbed into a kingdom of Upper Italy. The remainder of the Papal States were to form part of a kingdom of Central Italy together with Tuscany. It was proposed that the resulting four Italian states (the kingdoms of Upper Italy, Central Italy, Naples and the rump of the Papal States, the ‘Patrimony of St Peter’) should form a confederation, under the presidency of Pope Pius IX, in the hope that this would ‘console him for losing the best part of his States’.24
Although the course of events was to escape the control of Napoleon III, the drastic reduction of papal territories was envisaged from the outset. After the Legations had declared the Pope’s rule there to be at an end, the publication in France of Arthur de La Guéronnière’s Le Pape et le Congrès, known to be written at the direction of the emperor, made the position clear: the pope should depend for his independence on a smaller state. Defence was to be found in the army of an Italian confederation and income in grants from Catholic powers.25 These proposals were anathema to Pius IX, but his protests were swept aside under the pressure of events. The wholly unexpected success of Garibaldi’s expedition altered the dynamic of affairs in the peninsula and, on 11 September 1860, four days after his triumphal entry into Naples Piedmontese forces invaded the Papal States. The papal volunteers who had been arriving over the course of the previous months were finally to taste combat.
The decisive encounter between the papal forces and the Piedmontese took place on 18 September. The decidedly unequal engagement of Castelfidardo pitted papal forces numbering little more than 10,000, under the command of Lamoricière, a political opponent of Napoleon III who had found his Catholic faith in exile in Belgium, against as many as 60,000 Piedmontese troops. Though the defeat of Castelfidardo resulted in the annexation of the bulk of papal territories by the victorious Piedmontese, this did not mark the complete extinction of papal sovereignty. Cavour’s gamble in invading the Papal States was at least in part predicated on the imperative need to prevent Garibaldi from marching on Rome. Thus while the kingdom of Central Italy did not become a reality, Rome and the small Patrimony of Saint Peter remained under papal control, as originally envisaged. The continuing presence of French troops in Rome guaranteed that this state of affairs would continue; King Victor Emanuel I could not risk sparking a conflict with France. The Pope retained Rome until the French garrison withdrew in the context of the Franco-Prussian War.
Amongst those who fought at Castelfidardo was a 450-strong Franco-Belgian volunteer force. In 1861 the remnants of this force were reconstituted as part of an international volunteer force under the leadership of another former French officer, Louis-Aimé de Becdelièvre, who had led them at Castelfidardo. The name they were to take in 1861 was already anticipated in 1860: the zouaves. The Franco-Belgians had borrowed a name and uniform from the elite force that Lamoricière had commanded in Algeria. For the rest of the decade the papal zouaves acted as defenders of the truncated papal territories until the final fall of Rome.
Though significant, the zouaves were never a large force. Even at their zenith in the summer of 1870 they numbered 3,200 - though over the course of the decade 9,000 enlisted at one time or another. When restricted to the French contingent – the dominant nationality in the multi-national zouaves was in fact the Dutch – it was a mere 3,300 men who upheld the honour of Catholic France.26 As we have seen, the French contingent repatriated after the fall of Rome numbered well under one thousand. The key engagements that came to be associated with the zouaves – Castelfidardo, Mentana and Loigny – were fought by larger forces, of which the zouaves represented no more than a significant minority. At Mentana in 1867, they were in fact outnumbered by 2,000 regular French troops, hastily recalled in response to Garibaldi’s incursion into papal territory. Also, service in the zouaves did not necessarily entail combat at all. After Castelfidardo zouave forces were not involved in any major engagements until Garibaldi’s vain attempt to take Rome in 1867. Despite the initial inclinations of Xavier de Mérode, the Pope’s minister of war, and Becdelièvre to mount offensive operations, the policy was firmly one of coexistence with the Italian state, illegitimate though it may have been in the eyes of supporters of the papacy. The Pope’s secretary of state, cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, saw papal forces as largely symbolic and believed that the continued existence of temporal sovereignty rested on the stance of France.
The fall of Rome and return to France marked a new chapter in the zouave epic and transformed the nature of their engagement. Aside from the engagements against Garibaldi’s forces in 1867, the zouaves had spent most of the decade 1860-70 in actions designed to bring order by tackling the problem of banditry.27 In France they found themselves plunged into a hard-fought if ultimately inglorious war under the authority of the republican Government of National Defence. After a series of negotiations in October, it was agreed that the zouaves should form the nucleus of a new force, the Volontaires de l’Ouest, under Charette’s command. Three battalions were swiftly recruited, with about 2,000 men under arms in the period November 1870-January 1871. All three saw action, but attention was above all drawn to the first, which distinguished itself in December at Loigny, and then, reconstituted with men drawn from the second battalion and reserves, at Auvours in January. The three battalions were reunited at Rennes on 27 January and incorporated into the 14,000 strong division of the Army of Brittany under the command of Charette, promoted to brigadier-general. The division had scarcely taken up position on the Mayenne line when the armistice was signed.
With the exception of the Volontaires, the division was swiftly disbanded, though significant numbers of Volontaires also took the opportunity to return home, leaving fewer than 800 by April 1871. The symbolic end to the Volontaires was marked on 28 July 1871 in the chapel of the Rennes seminary, where the regiment was consecrated to the Sacred Heart, thereby fulfilling the wishes of Henri de Verthamon, who had died holding the banner of the Sacred Heart at Loigny.28 The official end to the Volontaires came shortly afterwards on 13 August 1871. Charette had declined the offer to serve in the French army when his request that the Volontaires might not be integrated but continue as a separate force was turned down.29 The dissolution of the Volontaires therefore was carried out at Charette’s own demand – though his letter to general Ernest Courtot de Cissey, the minister of war, contained the telling proviso, ‘that you allow us, as a corps of volunteers, to march beside the army the day it goes to Rome’.30 Charette’s logic sprang from his conception of the Volontaires as a continuation of the zouaves: a force that had to remain free to serve the pope if called upon. Integration into the French army would constitute a betrayal of the zouave mission: ‘this uniform is the property of the whole Catholic world whose belief we represent; it is the livery of Rome, it is not ours to be disposed of at will and linked to the fortunes of an unstable government’.31 Individuals might join the French army but the regiment could not.