The banner acquired its blood-stains in the fading light of 2 December. Initially the brunt of the fighting was borne by general Antoine Chanzy’s 16th Corps. As the day wore on Bavarian and Prussian troops recovered to retake the positions from which they had been driven back and by the afternoon the village of Loigny had been invested by Bavarian troops, though a remnant of the 37th battalion held out in the cemetery. In a much-discussed action, Sonis decided to turn the tide of battle by retaking Loigny, though the dispersal of the 17th Corps meant that he had relatively few troops at his disposal. Sonis later maintained that his intention was not to lead a charge of several hundred men, but by this example to galvanise the reluctant 51st regiment. He also expected to find his action supported by the nearby third division. In the event, however, the assault comprised of barely 800: the first battalion of the Volontaires under Charette, the irregular franc-tireur battalions of Tours and Blidah and the mobile guard of the Côtes-du-Nord. Sonis proceeded in the spirit of sacrifice: ‘Je ne voulus point me déshonorer en abandonnant ces trois cent zouaves qui marchaient derrière moi…Je me sentais fort pour le sacrifice que j’allais accomplir, du consentement de ces braves…il me parut bon de mourir sous le drapeau qui les abritait.’87 In the absence of any support, the attack fizzled out and the handful of troops who reached Loigny were soon forced to retreat. Of the 300 zouaves who charged to the shouts of ‘Vive la France! Vive Pie IX!’ 198 fell.88 Charette was injured and taken prisoner. Sonis was left on the battlefield with a shattered knee. He was sustained through the bitterly cold night through a vision of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, while the zouave Fernand de Ferron expired with his head on his shoulder.89
Two weeks later, Augustin d’Albiousse, commander in Charette’s absence, issued a short communiqué that set out the zouave reading of the battle:
La guerre que nous subissons est une guerre d'expiation, et Dieu a déjà choisi parmi nous les victimes les plus nobles et les plus pures...Retrempons notre courage dans nos convictions religieuses et plaçons notre espoir dans la divine Sagesse, dont les secrets sont impénétrables…C'est par un acte de foi que la France est née sur le champ de bataille de Tolbiac; c'est par un acte de foi qu'elle sera sauvée…avec l’aide de Dieu et pour la patrie, restons ici ce que nous étions à Rome, les dignes fils de la fille aînée de l'Église.90 The action of Loigny was placed in a line with their service in Rome, a great moment of expiatory sacrifice, a second Castelfidardo. In the dying moments of the Franco-Prussian War the Volontaires’ assault on the plateau of Auvours provided more martyrs and another tale of heroic sacrifice, this time crowned with victory rather than defeat, but after Loigny it was little more than a footnote.91 Loigny was the supreme expression of the Volontaires’ willingness to offer themselves in expiatory sacrifice. Jacquemont wrote,
la fleur de nos rangs fut moissonnée dans ce terrible combat…[mais] puisqu'ils se sont donnés à [la France] sans regarder en arrière, puisqu'il a fallu, pour expier tant d'erreurs, des victimes si pures et si belles, attendons le jour où Dieu se souviendra de nos sacrifices, et ne désespérons pas.92 Yet, Loigny would also stand alone as a self-contained myth that enabled Catholic France to claim that what glory and military honour could be found in the disasters of the Franco-Prussian War belonged to them. Its champions insisted that there was a sound military logic: if properly supported, it would have undoubtedly resulted in victory, just as an army of truly Catholic soldiers would have defeated the Prussians.93 The myth of the charge under the banner of the Sacred Heart exerted a tremendous appeal over Catholic France and even inspired Alexandre Legentil’s vow to build a chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart. After Loigny the zouaves/Volontaires were recast as the soldiers of the Sacred Heart, indissolubly associated with the expiatory devotion that flourished so spectacularly during l’année terrible. Legentil’s vow was ultimately to result in the Sacré-Cœur basilica at Montmartre, explicitly conceived as an expiatory monument. Loigny, depicted in a mosaic inside the basilica, was the great expression of the cult.94
The Sacred Heart was very much a penitential devotion in the wake of l’année terrible, obsessed with punishment and expiation. Notwithstanding protective and maternal qualities, it was employed in conjunction with the image of an angry chastising patriarchal God.95 Marguerite-Marie Alacoque’s original visions had included ideas of divine anger. One was of Jesus covered in wounds, with the message, ‘This is what my people reduce me to, they persecute me; it they do not mend their ways I shall punish them severely.’96 1789 was the first taste of this providential punishment; defeat and civil war was the second. The zouaves enjoyed a privileged position within the cult, heroes who had rallied to the Sacred Heart, marking the path that others should follow. The annual services to commemorate Loigny offered the ideal opportunity to fix this image of the zouaves/Volontaires.
Just as with the dead of Castelfidardo, the divine reward of the expiatory victims of Loigny was not in doubt. In 1871 Pie was clear: ‘to have fallen under the folds of the banner of the heart of Jesus is to acquire the privilege of the beloved disciple’.97 Thirty-eight years later, Alfred van den Brule addressed a prayer to the fallen:
Soldats de Christ, Martyrs de la France, hosties sacrées et saignantes des deux plus grandes causes…vous dont les cendres furent déposées là comme pour être unies au corps de l’Auguste Victime et dont le sang fut répandu là comme pour être mêlé à son précieux sang…nous vous prions comme l’on prie les reliques des saintes.’98
Yet, though the language of martyrdom was applied to the fallen Volontaires, there was no work comparable to the martyrologies of Ségur or Huguet. Perhaps the sheer number of the dead restrained this impulse. Laurent Bart-Loi’s solution was to provide an appendix listing all the dead, wounded and missing.99 Biographies served to make the case for particular individuals – for instance Philibert Catherin, Verthamon or Charruau – and the frequent mentions of individual zouaves in memoirs might stretch into page-long pen-portraits. However, there was one compelling martyr: Sonis. For abbé Vié he was the equal of Bayard and ‘since Saint Louis a soul at the same time so religious and so warlike has not been seen’.100
This ‘archetype of the Christian hero’, emerged from Loigny, in the words of Mgr. Freppel of Angers, who delivered his funeral oration, as ‘a glorious image of the mutilated Fatherland’.101 Emphasis was placed on his vision of Notre-Dame de Lourdes; Charette later recounted that when he saw Sonis on the next day, ‘his handsome and noble face was radiant: he was still under the influence of the vision he had in [the] night, covered and buried in the snow as if in a shroud’.102 There followed 45 days of intense suffering in the makeshift hospital of the presbytery of Loigny. Theuré, curé of Loigny, recounted admiringly that Sonis blessed God when his leg was amputated at the thigh. Remarkably, Sonis returned to serve in the French army; if scarcely able to walk, he could still ride. Mgr. Freppel summed up his life after Loigny as ‘the seventeen-year struggle between a soul magnified by suffering and remains of a body become incapable of serving it…martyrdom renewed twenty times over’.103 Mgr. Baunard produced a hagiographical biography that closed with hopes for his future sainthood. In 1891 the Institut de Notre-Dame de Chartres made a pilgrimage to his tomb.104
Regenerating France was, for many, an explicitly counter-revolutionary project. The Revolution represented the rejection of God and negation of France’s national tradition. The whole zouave enterprise was frequently read in terms of the struggle against the Revolution. In the wake of Mentana vicomte Sioc’Han de Kersabiec commented, ‘la Révolution cette fois, attaquée du front et sérieusement, a dû reculer; elle se sent blessé et en train d’être vaincue’.105 Catherin also read the Franco-Prussian War through the prism of the Revolution, diagnosing a struggle between Church and Revolution.106 Prussia represented Protestantism and the Revolution (two linked evils, characterised by revolt against God). Yet Catherin foresaw defeat: France was infected with the principles of 1789. It was through divine chastisement that French regeneration would come about. In August Catherin wrote, ‘la France finira par sortir de ces tristes événements complètement purifiée des principes fâcheuses de la Révolution et reprendra ses vieilles traditions de Fille aînée de l’Église’.107 The zouaves were the privileged carriers of redemption: Catherin’s disappearance at Loigny made him an expiatory victim whose blood would fertilise a regenerated France.
That the reasons for the fall of France lay in the fatal doctrines of the Revolution was a commonplace. Nicolas Vagner, the father of another zouave who had disappeared at Loigny, wrote in May 1871, ‘Pauvre France! À quelles tristes destinées t’ont réduite 80 ans d’enseignement irréligieux…le fondateur de l’Église a attendu une réforme, une conversion de la France; mais notre folle patrie gangrenée ne s’est point repentie et Dieu s’est lassé.’108 The zouave narrative was inscribed within the broader language of counter-revolution from the outset. Lamoricière’s order of the day on taking command of the papal armies in April 1860 was unequivocal: the Revolution threatened European civilization as Islam had in previous centuries. The zouaves were understood – and understood themselves – in opposition to the revolutionary tradition. 1870-1871 did not change this. The great addition to the zouave legend, the Sacred Heart, proved perfectly in line with zouave thinking, stressing expiation and reading the Revolution and l’année terrible as divine chastisement. Moreover, the Sacred Heart was the literal symbol of the counter-revolution, worn by the Vendéen counter-revolutionaries of 1793-4. In 1870-71 therefore a counter-revolutionary force identified with a counter-revolutionary devotion in a mutually-reinforcing association.
Raymond Jonas argues persuasively that the cult of the Sacred Heart was inextricably bound up in a counter-revolutionary context, not least because the leading participants had no interest in extracting it from this context. Legitimist deputies Pradines and Gabriel de Belcastel enthusiastically sponsored the ‘National Vow’ movement to dedicate France to the Sacred Heart. The latter led the delegation of deputies on the 1873 Paray-le-Monial pilgrimage, while the former pressed for the National Assembly to attend the laying of the first stone of the basilica.109 In numerous speeches Belcastel advanced a Manichean reading of French history as a struggle between God and Revolution; redemption was to be found in a regenerated Catholic France under the flag of the Sacred Heart.110 Charette, invited to serve on the organising committee of the ‘National Vow’ basilica, liked to display the image of the Sacred Heart worn by his great-uncle at his execution in Nantes.111 Whatever the moderation or prudence of Mgr. Joseph Guibert, archbishop of Paris, and his successor, François Richard, Sacré-Cœur could not but be seen as a counter-revolutionary monument.
The zouaves’ social origins sharpened their identification with counter-revolution. Despite frequent statements that the zouaves and volontaires recruited from all classes and were genuinely democratic and egalitarian, the over-representation of the nobility was inescapable.112 Jean Guenel estimates that 44 of 60 zouave officers were noble and argues that so too were many sous-officers and members of the rank and file; Nouaille-Degorce calculates that, if the particule can be taken to denote nobility, 466 of 4680 volontaires were noble. Yet it was not a corps of nobles and their deferential tenants; enrolment patterns show that nobles were seldom joined by peasants from the locality. The decisive influence in recruitment was that of the clergy.113
Zouave political thinking appears more clear-cut. Jacquemont wrote defensively, ‘Si le plus grand nombre d’entre eux étaient royalistes, leur fera-t-on un crime? S’ils avaient appris de leur Roi à aimer avant tout la France et à s’immoler pour elle, n’ont-ils pas prouvé que c’était là une bonne école de patriotisme?’ Religious and patriotic motivations trumped all, he insisted; not even the grandsons of Vendéen leaders hankered after the Bourbon panache blanc.114 Guenel argues for a pervasive legitimism within the zouaves, a tendency to link ultramontane Catholicism to a belief in the monarchy as the instrument of redemption and re-Christianisation. Certainly, many legitimists saw ultramontane Catholicism as inseparable from their cause and believed that only they stood for Catholic interests. This was very much the position of Belcastel. In short, the notorious legitimism of Charette was shared by many of his comrades. It was perhaps fitting that he laid the famous banner of Loigny on his sovereign’s defunct body, having attended the deathbed of the Bourbon Pretender, the comte de Chambord.
Charette also symbolised the counter-revolution through his great-uncle, Vendéen leader François-Athanase de Charette. Other great names of the counter-revolution were prominent in the zouaves. Allard celebrated Guérin’s vendéen blood and read the zouaves through the prism of the ‘guerre de géants.’115 The Volontaires boasted a Stofflet, a Cadoudal, and the grandsons of Marquis Charles Bonchamps.116 However, although recruitment figures reveal a substantial over-representation of the west in both forces, the fit with the heartlands of the Vendée/chounannerie is in fact a poor one.117 Also a vendéen or choaun heritage proudly proclaimed might mean little more than a pride in a mythologised past.118
The zouaves and Volontaires in many ways possessed a counter-revolutionary identity, and both their champions and their detractors often read them in these terms. Hostile commentators could interpret the Volontaires as an archaic aristocratic-dominated expression of the counter-revolutionary west. It was equally notable that zouave/Volontaire champions were also frequently legitimists – notably Pie, Freppel and Cabrières, if not Dupanloup. There was not only substantial ideological overlap between the zouaves and the Volontaires, but the temptation to read the two forces as basically congruent was strong. Yet, notwithstanding the insistence on continuity, they were forces recruited in very different circumstances at the service of very different aims. Though the zouaves fought alongside French troops at Mentana, for most of the decade 1860-1870 they were isolated and at odds with the French government – and self-consciously so. This was obviously not the case in 1870-71, whatever the Volontaires’reservations about the Government of National Defence, or even about the regular army (volontaire Perraud wrote, ‘God cannot protect and cherish the souls of soldiers who speak only blasphemy and shamelessness’).119 Supporters of the zouaves chose to read them as the embodiment of French national tradition, but the argument for the Volontaires as patriots was stronger and did not hinge on a particular interpretation of national history. In light of Loigny and Auvours might they command respect as an expression of national cult of the French resistance of 1870-71?
Unity was elusive in the wake of l’année terrible. Though it has been argued that there was a willed collective amnesia, the defeat was omnipresent in the early years of the Third Republic, a staple of political discourse. Competing projects for national regeneration rested on particular constructions of the collapse.120 The commemoration of the Volontaires must be understood in this context. In the absence of any hegemonic interpretation of the defeat, it was hard for any particular memory to gain universal consent. Nonetheless, certain episodes were celebrated, notably the glorious resistance at Bazeilles, whose ‘maison de la dernière cartouche’ was immortalised by Alphonse de Neuville.121 At first sight, it might be thought that Loigny would exercise a similar appeal. A narrative of resilience, heroism, sacrifice and unity could be woven around the events. As with Bazeilles, there was heroic resistance, in the shape of the two battalions of the 37th regiment in the cemetery. A disparate range of forces united, sacrificing themselves in a magnificent effort to afford them fraternal assistance. Catholic politician and advocate of social Catholicism, Albert de Mun, argued that Loigny should feature in school primers, one of the ‘impérissables modèles du sacrifice offert à la patrie’.122
In 1893 Mgr. d’Hulst drew a lesson of patriotic unity. Sonis and Charette symbolised ‘the alliance of the national flag and the white banner [of the Sacred Heart]’. The rebuilt church, conceived as both expiatory chapel and ossuary, was ‘a Christian pantheon of martyrs’, offering a great lesson: the indissoluble union of patriotism and faith, cemented in blood.123 Already in 1884 abbé Beauchet had held out the hope that Loigny might become ‘a national pilgrimage’.124 Yet, the theme of unity was drowned out by forceful arguments about Catholicism and patriotism. Vié, comparing the Volontaires to Joan at Tournelles and Patay, concluded rhetorically, ‘Qui donc avait osé dire que la piété diminuait la bravoure et qu’une jeunesse formée par des prêtres serait moins vaillant? Zouaves de Loigny, vous nous avez bien vengés.’125 The inclusive nature of the celebration of Loigny in terms of lessons of fraternal unity was undercut by the emphasis on the Catholic nature of patriotism. The anti-clerical offensive embodied in the lois Ferry,designed to render state education secular, sharpened the need to prove the virtues of Catholic principles. Arguments about regeneration had given way to arguments about Catholic education. D'Hulst’s reading of Loigny framed an argument for the rights of Catholic education. Catholic schools would not divide the nation:
Aux jours de nos désastres cette fraternité c’est révélée. On n’a pas demandé aux zouaves de Loigny s’ils avaient le droit de déployer la bannière du Sacré-Cœur. Et ceux-là…n’ont pas demandé à ceux qui combattaient à leurs côtés d’autre certificat que celui de la vaillance et du dévouement.126
While Loigny did become a site of pilgrimage – in 1901 a 350-strong pilgrimage was organised by the Union provinciale de la jeunesse catholique de l’Orléannais – it could not become a national site of memory.127 In part, the sense of a Catholic site of memory, a counter to the secular Panthéon militated against this. In part, also, this was because the monarchist convictions of Charette and his fellow zouaveswere imprinted on the site. The expiatory chapel contained a stained glass window of Saint Henri with the features of Chambord. In part, though, this reflected the fact that the zouave/Volontaire version of heroism and patriotism, was not only incompatible with but an implicit challenge to the civic ideals of the Republic. The whole language of expiation was inherently divisive. As Jonas points out, the process of expiation was designed to ‘identify and incriminate others…to fix their transgression in memory though community rituals and monuments’.128 The truly guilty were not those penitents who built the Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre. In using Loigny to advance arguments about Catholic patriots the Volontaires’ champions implicitly identified those responsible for the defeat. Henri de Cathelineau declared, ‘Si dans ces jours d’épreuve, il s’était trouvé plus de soldats chrétiens, nous n’avions pas à pleurer sur le sort de nos frères de l’Alsace de la Lorraine.’129
The zouaves/Volontaires were Catholic heroes whose heroism was to be enjoyed and celebrated by enthusiasts for a rechristianised France, a vision that seemed within reach in the aftermath of l’année terrible. With the stabilisation of the Third Republic in the 1880s, celebrating the zouaves was to assert the continuing existence of another France and the essential falsity of the revolutionary principles that were proclaimed as the foundation of the Republic. The legend of the zouaves was a touchstone for the values that united anti-republican, clerical conservatives, irrespective of their views on monarchy. Just as with the ‘National Vow’movement, commemorations of Loigny and the zouaves served to advance an alternative vision of France, French national history and French identity. Applauding the truly French nature of zouave/Volontaire heroism was to operate within a distinctive Catholic definition of the national. In this perspective the very concept of sacrifice was foreign to the Republic; Loigny offered a national lesson. The banner of the Sacré-Cœur was the symbol of French regeneration. The Volontaires reaffirmed the zouaves’ recognition of the value and necessity of expiatory bloodshed. They also demonstrate the strength of dolourist Catholicism, balanced by a confidence in divine intervention. Sonis’ words exemplify this tradition: ‘J’aime à être brisé, consommé, détruit par vous… Détruisez et travaillez-moi…Que je sois crucifié, mais crucifié par vous!’130 Miracles stretching from the visions of Marguerite-Marie to the deliverance of Pontmain from the Prussian invaders were the counterpoint to this acceptance of pain.
The experience of 1870-71 gave the champions of the zouaves new heroes to commemorate, new sites of memory to consecrate and a new confidence in engaging in debates over French identity. The Volontaires might never be a national cult, but they possessed a resonance and political edge that the zouaves lacked. 1870-71 forged convincing national heroes: the zouaves were viewed in a new light by those previously inclined to denigrate them. For their supporters however, it only laid bare the truly national impulse that had always animated them: Guérin had died for France no less than Perraud. Clerical opponents of the Republic, whether overtly monarchist, or non-dynastic conservative proponents of ‘social and religious defence’ or even those who, obedient to the policies of Pope Leo XIII, officially ‘rallied’ to the Republic in the 1890s, found a set of compelling arguments in the Volontaires. Yet, the potential political uses of the Volontaires – as a counter to the dominant official republican discourse, as an argument for the value of Catholic education – did not necessarily outweigh the significance they held in religious and spiritual terms. Reflecting on the zouaves and the Volontaires was to reflect on the issues of sacrifice, suffering and expiation. The faithful were invited not merely to celebrate heroism, but to enter into the pain of individuals, the physical pain that often accompanied the martyrs’ deaths and the pain of those who mourned the fallen. The zouaves and Volontaires taught the powerful lesson that suffering was never in vain.
Acknowledgements/contact details to be added.
1 C. Du Coëtlosquet SJ (trans. R. F. Clarke), Theodore Wibaux, Pontifical Zouave and Jesuit (London: The Catholic Truth Society, 1887), p. 248.
2 Philibert Catherin letter, 28 September 1870, in Laurent Bart-Loi (pseud.),