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Welcome to Papal Zouave International​

An organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the memory of the Papal Zouaves. A unit of brave Catholic soldiers who came from across Christendom to defend the Papal States and Bl. Pope Pius IX during the 9th Crusade.

Who we are

History of the
Papal Zouaves

Papal Zoauve Battle flag standard guidon

The Stage

In the mid-19th century Italy was divided into 10 different territories. In Southern Italy the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (It’s last ruler and his mother are both saints, Servant of God Francis II and Blessed Maria of Savoy). In Central Italy the Papal States (The last “Pope-King” is also a saint, Blessed Pope Pius IX). In Northern Italy the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont, San Marino, and Monaco. Along with Austrian controlled Kingdom of Lombardy and Venetia and the Austrian influenced Duchies of Parma, Tuscany, and Modena.

papal states map of italy

Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont, under the leadership of King Victor Emmanuel II, wanted to unify Italy at almost any cost. Even if it was achieved through violence, conniving, and treachery. The Church and the Pope were about to suffer greatly.

In late 1859, understanding the threat against the Church, Monsignor Xavier de Mérode, a private chamberlain of Bl. Pope Pius IX, convinced the Holy Father that relying on diplomacy alone was not enough to curb the nationalistic fervor of King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia-Piedmont and the Italian revolutionaries. Strengthening the Papal Army was necessary to protect the Papal States. This would be a huge undertaking as the Papal Army was very weak and ill equipped. However, Mérode had a vision that the Army could be revitalized through a multinational force of pious Catholics from around the world akin to a Crusade. Indeed, the volunteers o the Pope view themselves as soldiers fighting in the 9th Crusade. Bl. Pius IX approved of Mérode’s plan and he was promoted to the Papal Minister of Arms.

Monsignor Xavier de Mérode.

Monsignor Xavier de Mérode.

The Martyrs of Castelfidardo

The plan was put into effect immediately, French general La Moricière was hired to lead the Papal Army and more than 5,000 foreign recruits were raised from almost 30 different countries. Most were Irish, Austrian, French, and Dutch. The Austrians formed 5 Battalions of light infantry, the Irish formed the Battalion of St. Patrick, and the French and Dutch formed the Franco-Belgian Battalion (The future Papal Zouaves).

 In 1859  Victor Emmanuel II began his campaign to unite Italy. A secret agreement was signed between Piedmontese Prime Minister Cavour and French Emperor Napoleon III, the Emperor promised to help push the Austrians out of the peninsula in return for Savoy and Nice near the French border. In March the Piedmontese began mobilizing along the Lombardy border provoking Austria to mobilize themselves. In April, when the Kingdom of Sardinia refused to de-mobilize Austria invaded. France quickly joined Sardinia and together after several months Austria was defeated.

During this time, Sardinia staged uprisings in Tuscany, Parma, Modena, and the Papal Legations (Northernmost territory of the Papal States) causing them to destabilize. Shortly after the war ended, these territories were annexed by Sardinia-Piedmont. With Austria defeated, they ceded Lombardy to France, who gave it to Sardinia, and in turn Sardinia ceded Savoy and Nice to France.

Seeking to continue uniting the Peninsula, Cavour secretly coordinated with Garibaldi for his Red Shirts to seize the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. By May, his forces had landed in Sicily, Garibaldi declared himself dictator in the name of Victor Emmanuel II. By September, the entire Kingdom was under his control with the exception of over ten thousand holdouts in Capua, Civitella del Tronto, and Gaeta commanded by Francis II. All eyes were now on the Papal States.


A French garrison was stationed in Rome which was supposed to help guarantee the Pope’s temporal power. However, Cavour had received Napoleon III's blessing to take all of the Papal States with the exception of the Lazio region (Rome and its surrounding territory) without his interference. With this act Napoleon III turned his back on his Catholic subjects.


In early September Sardinia and the secret societies began inciting civil unrest in the northern territories of the Papal States. Under the guise of restoring order, Sardinia invaded the Papal States with 38,000 - 70,000 soldiers on September 11th, 1860. The only hope the Papal States had in winning was if Austria sent troops to reinforce the Papal Army through the port of Ancona in the N.E. of the Papal States. In anticipation of these supposed reinforcements, the Papal plan was to have the majority of the Army maneuver to the city and defend it from siege.

Unfortunately, the majority of the Army was routed during the Battle of Castelfidardo on September 18th, 1860. On September 29th Ancona fell and with it the majority of the Papal States. The Pope’s temporal power was reduced to only the Lazio region, which included Rome. Bl. Pius IX protested these losses; however, the majority of the world ignored him. While for the moment, the fighting stopped, the threat against the Papal States continued. The revolutionaries would not stop until all of Italy was united.


Engraving of the Battle of Castelfidardo on September 18th, 1860.

Engraving of the Battle of Castelfidardo on September 18th, 1860.

Victory at Mentana

Following thee defeat in 1860, the Papal Army grew and became more well trained. The Franco-Belgian Battalion officially transitioned to the Papal Zouaves on January 1st, 1861. The Papal Zouaves viewed the Franco-Belgians as part of their pedigree and as such truly considered them part of their unit.  Over 10,000 men would join the Papal Zouaves over the course of its lifetime.

Over the next few years the Zouaves patrolled the borders of the Papal States and fought against brigands in the south. That was until 1866, when the French Garrison in Rome was sent back to France do to a secret agreement between Napoleon III and the Kingdom of Italy in September 1864.


With the French garrison no longer in Rome and Lombardy under Italian control due to the 7 Weeks War with Austria in 1866, Victor Emmanuel II initiated his plans to capture Rome. The prime minister at the time, Rattazzi and his cabinet supplied Garibaldi with arms, supplies, and money and allowed him to raise an army. In late September, 1867 Garibaldi and his two sons began their invasion of the Lazio region with over 10,000 Red Shirts.

Over the next month the Papal Army of 13,000 fought bravely and fended off most attacks that came from the Garibaldians. In late October, the Red Shirts attempted to incite a revolution in Rome but it failed to gain any traction. It was also during this time that Empress Eugenie and pressure from French Catholics convinced Napoleon III to denounce the invasion of the Pope’s territory and to send him a sizable force to help defeat the Red Shirts. Garibaldi attempted to seize Rome before the French force arrived but he was unable to do so.


On October 30th the French force arrived in Rome. Garibaldi, hoping to draw France into a conflict with the Kingdom of Italy, pulled his forces back in an attempt to link up with the Italian Royal Army. Realizing his plan, the commander of the Papal Army General Kanzler, with French reinforcements pursued the Red Shirts and routed them in the town of Mentana on November 3rd, 1867. The Papal Zouaves were the tip of the spear during the battle, it was through their efforts that the battle was won. By nightfall, the Papal Army had Garibaldi’s Army trapped and surrounded inside the town. The next morning the Red Shirts surrendered and the Papal and French forces occupied the town. Unfortunately, Garibaldi escaped capture. He had slipped away during the battle with half his force into the safety of Italian territory. Not wanting to start a war they were unprepared for; the Royal Army did not assist the Red Shirts. Garibaldi himself would never again invade the Papal States. The victory at Mentana is considered the greatest battle ever won by the Papal Zouaves. A monument was dedicated to their victory and to the fallen at Campo Verano cemetery in Rome. The victory at Mentana bought the Papal States 3 more years. Which in turn allowed the first Vatican council to happen starting on December 8th 1869. 

The Battle of Mentana by Volunteers of the West Soldier Lionel Royer.

The Battle of Mentana by Volunteers of the West Soldier Lionel Royer.

The Fall of Rome

Following the victory in 1867, the Papal Zouaves grew to the largest it would ever get in 1868, a full regiment with 4 battalions, totaling almost 5000 men.

Over the next 3 years things were relatively quiet. That was, until the start of the Franco-Prussian war in the summer of 1870. After the Battle of Mentana, Napoleon III kept a garrison of 4,000 soldiers in Rome. However, his war with Prussia was not going well, and he was getting desperate. He recalled the force in Rome and declared he was returning to the rules of the September convention. On September 2nd Napoleon III was captured after his defeat at the Battle of Sedan. With France out of the way and Austria too weak to assist the Papal States, Victor Emmanuel II pounced on the opportunity. Afraid of having Garibaldi invade and risk destabilizing his monarchy, Victor Emmanuel II decided to use his Royal Army to invade Rome.


General Kanzler came up with a grand plan that would involve splitting the Italian divisions through offensive operations. He sought approval from Bl. Pius IX. However, the Pope disappointed the Papal Army, he rejected any offensive operations as he believed the war could not be won. His orders were upon invasion, to have all elements of the Papal Army fall back on Rome and wait for the arrival of the Italians. With the exception of the Papal port of Civita Vecchia, so that the Pope could have a potential route to escape if needed. Bits of resistance on the way to Rome were allowed to show the world that Italy was unjustly usurping the temporal power of the Pope by force, additionally a defense of the Holy City was allowed to a point. The invasion began on September 11th, the Papal forces began to fall back to Rome.


Bits of fighting and heroism were done on the way; a few days later over 8,500 Papal Soldiers were inside the city ready to lay down their lives for their Pontiff. By September 18th the city was surrounded by over 40,000 Italian soldiers, including a large contingent of Red Shirts who came to wreak havoc on the city. Wanting to avoid further bloodshed and believing that a sufficient show of force had been displayed Bl. Pius IX ordered a “surrender at first cannon shot”. General Kanzler petitioned the Pope to allow a greater defense to preserve the honor of his army. Bl. Pius IX was swayed and allowed a defense until “a breach has been opened” in the walls.


The Italian attack on Rome began in the early morning hours on September 20th. The Papal Army put up a valiant resistance, taking “a breach in the walls” as loosely as possible. After several hours it became clear that a breach had been made. At 10:00 am Bl. Pius IX ordered the white flag to be flown over St. Peter’s Basilica. He turned to the diplomats with him and said “Sirs, I give the order to surrender. Abandoned by all, I had to succumb sooner or later. I must not shed blood uselessly You are my witnesses, Sirs, that the foreigner enters here only by force”.


As the Papal Soldiers marched back to the Vatican to await further instruction, anticlerical and secret society members accosted and even attacked the Papal Soldiers. Over the coming days, some were even murdered, and several Churches and convents ransacked and destroyed. The Papal Army spent the night bivouacked in St. Peters Square. The following morning before the military was disbanded and everyone sent home. The Papal Army had one last formation and a final blessing was given by Bl. Pope Pius IX.


An Irish Papal Zouave, Patrick Keyes O'Clery gave this account of the emotional scene:


“When all the soldiers were lined up, facing the Vatican and ready to leave, Colonel Allet stepped forward and, his voice broken with emotion, shouted: 'Mes enfants! Vive Pie Neuf! A mighty cheers broke out from the troops. Just at that moment the Pope appeared on the balcony, and, raising his hands to heaven, prayed: “May God bless my faithful children!” The enthusiasm of that supreme moment was indescribable. With a frantic Eljen! (Hurrah) a Hungarian Zouave drew his sword, and immediately, with a simultaneous scuff of steel, thousands of unsheathed swords glinted in the sun. The scene was absolutely moving. At the thought of leaving the Holy Father, tears of bitter regret ran down the cheeks of those men who had defied death in so many desperate battles. The trumpets gave the order to advance and, as it moved, the head of the column let out a last sad cry of “Long live Pius IX!” which, echoed row after row, was repeated by the whole army and by the crowd gathered to watch the departure.”


The Papal Zouaves were put in a train and sent to Civita Vecchia. Under horrid conditions and lack of food they awaited to board steamers to return home. Thus the 1000-year reign of the Papal States was over. Bl. Pius IX refused to acknowledge the takeover as legitimate. He considered himself a prisoner in the Vatican and refused to step outside its walls for the rest of his life, General Kanzler in solidarity, adopted this same position He retained his title as Minister of War honorarily. Subsequent popes remained as prisoners in the Vatican until the Lateran treaty in 1929 between Pope Pius XI and Mussolini, which formalized the relationship between Italy and the Vatican.

The Papal Zouaves defend the Porta Pia during the Siege of Rome on September 20th, 1870.

The Papal Zouaves defend the Porta Pia during the Siege of Rome on September 20th, 1870.

The Fight Continues

For most of the Papal Zouaves, the physical fighting was over. However, the majority of the French Papal Zouaves continued fighting with the unit as they reorganized into the Volunteers of the West. The Volunteers fought under the banner of the Sacred Heart to defend France during the remainder of the Franco-Prussian war. After the war, the unit was disbanded.


Additionally in 1873, many Papal Zouave veterans joined the Carlist Zouave Battalion under former Papal Zouave Prince Alfonso de Bourbon during the Third Carlist War. Many of the Papal Zouaves held onto hope, that one day they would put on their uniform again and retake the Holy City for their beloved Pope. Unfortunately, these events never came to pass.

However, Papal Zouave veterans substituted the sword for the pen. They took the fight against the revolution to a new stage. With many writing memoirs, in journal, in publications, or books. Additionally, many were actively involved in community life in an effort to fight growing secularism. It is with this same spirit that Papal Zouave International picks up where they left off and continue the fight while honoring their memory! 

Group photo of some soldiers of the Carlist Zouave Battalion and their standard during the Third Carlist War in 1873.

Group photo of some soldiers of the Carlist Zouave Battalion and their standard during the Third Carlist War in 1873.

The charge of the Volunteers of the West, led by Colonel Charette during the Battle of Loigny on December 2nd, 1870.

The charge of the Volunteers of the West, led by Colonel Charette during the Battle of Loigny on December 2nd, 1870.

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