jeudi, février 17, 2011

The Papal Zouaves

Fourth part: Toward the Battle

By June 1860, the training of the new recruits could begin. The battalion went out for a first exercise. The Holy Father himself reviewed the troop in the evening and exhorted the men. Enthusiasm and cheerfulness were not lacking, and Monsignor Talbot, a camerier of the Pope, would tell that Pius IX appreciated the spirit of the men. Then, the battalion left the Eternal City for a few weeks of training that gave full satisfaction to Becdelièvre. The people from the country displayed cordiality when the troop went through their villages. It was quite comforting to see that many Italian people loved and supported the Pope. Meanwhile the organization of the corps was set up: supplies, equipment, weapons and ammunition were distributed. The fusion between the French and the Belgian was well carried out, and new recruits continued to arrive. Other units composed with volunteers of different countries were organized at the request of General de La Moricière, such as a corps of cavalry. In less than a month, La Moricière muffled all the critics that had said it was impossible to create an international corps. The General, who had served in North Africa, certainly remembered the example of the Foreign Legion created in 1831, and he knew that with discipline, everything was possible. The cohabitation of men from different countries even fostered a sound competitiveness that pushed the whole group toward a greater perfection. Yet, it was a difficult task that required many efforts and attention from the officers.

A new uniform was finally presented to Monsignor de Mérode who approved it. It was a combination of the uniform of the Zouaves of Africa and the one of the French infantry: the dress was blue with red trimmings. This uniform would change the title of “bataillon de tirailleurs” into the famous “zouaves pontificaux.”

During the summer, the situation became more tense as the revolutionary troops intensified their pressure. With an impulse of greatness, La Moricière exclaimed: “If France abandons Rome, and if Austria permits the violation of the treaty of Villafranca and the invasion of the Papal States, we shall go to the sanctuary of Loreto and pick the standard given by His Holiness Pius V to Juan of Austria, the hero of Lepanto. We shall lead the Pope to Ancona. Then we shall see if Christian Europe would contemplate without stirring Pius IX besieged and bombarded by the barbarians of the XIX century.

The strength of the Papal Army was now 18,000 men. La Moricière organized the Army in three columns positioned on the line that goes from Rome to Ancona. General de Pimodan received the order to deploy his brigade around the city of Terni. This little corps was composed, in addition to the Zouaves, of two battalions of Italian volunteers, one battalion of Swiss Carabineers, one battalion of Austrian Bersaglieri, a squadron of cavalry, and six pieces of artillery. The two others corps were deployed around Foligno and Macerata. La Moricière remained with a reserve in the middle of his deployment in Spoleto. He could join one of his corps and reinforce it wherever a serious menace would appear. He knew that something would happen in the very near future. Garibaldi had to attack before the Army of the Pope became too strong. But its General–in–Chief had no idea about the huge wave that would break soon.

In fact, it was not the little troop of Garibaldi, considered as a gang of bandits, that would frighten the Papal Army led by well experienced officers who have fought on many battlefields. Colonel de Becdelièvre explained that the morale was excellent in the camp. French and Austrian officers met every evening and the “gatherings were joyful as long as it was just about fighting against Garibaldi.” But in the beginning of September, an event changed the situation. Piedmont had officially declared the war on the Papal States, with the passive approbation of Napoléon III. La Moricière took this as a betrayal and an act of hypocrisy. As a result, some Italian troop of the Papal Army refused to fire on other Italian fellows.

La Moricière received an ultimatum from General Franti, who led the Army of Piedmont, which was composed of 35,000 men. Franti’s Army had already taken possession of Perugia and Spoleto. La Moricière found his communication cut off and decided to reach the last fortress in the power of the Papal troops: Ancona. He urged General de Pimodan to redeploy his brigade as fast as possible around the city. It was necessary to arrive before the Piedmont Army. By the 12th of September, a column of 4,000 men were en route toward Ancona. The weather was extremely hot and it took four days to arrive. La Moricière was already there. He ordered a day of rest and of preparation for the battle that would be on the 18th.

His men passed the day of the 17th in religious exercises and in going to confession, Countess Cesaresco wrote in The Liberation of Italy. The vicinity of the Holy House of Loreto, brought hither by angels from Bethlehem, filled the young Breton soldiers with transport of religious fervor. La Moricière had taken from the Santa Casa some of the flags of the victors of Lepanto to wave over his columns. In the battle of the next day the French fought with the gallantry of the Vendéens, whose descendants they were, and the Irish behaved as Irishmen generally behave under fire.”

Colonel de Becdelièvre gathered his Zouaves on the eve of the battle. “The hour that you were longing for since you joined the army of the Holy See is now near. Tomorrow you will see the enemy, and we know that this day will be hot. You will do your duties as valiant soldiers, and you will not forget that we fight for the cause of God. For that reason you must prepare yourselves to appear in front of Him. Tomorrow, many of us will be gone. Therefore I urge you to do what many military chiefs would not dare to tell. Go to our chaplain, as I am going to do now. Let everybody be prepared for tomorrow.”

The sun rose on the morning of this bloody day of September 18th, 1860. It was to be a fatal day.

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