On the 150th anniversary of their great victory at Mentana, remember the courage of the Pontifical Zouaves

Today is the 150th anniversary of an almost-forgotten battle, in which a large force of young Catholic men came together to defend the independence of the Holy See. The battle was fought at Mentana, 18 miles north-east of Rome, and the Catholic regiment – the Pontifical Zouaves – have a story that is worth retelling.

For centuries the Holy See had governed a large band of central Italy, stretching from Rome to Rimini, known as the Papal States. The reason why the Pope needed to govern a secular state was the same then as the justification for the Vatican State today – namely, to protect the independence of the papacy. Simply put, if the papacy is based in a territory ruled by another government, then no Pope can ever be truly independent.

In the mid-19th century, however, the existence of the Papal States along with the other Italian states was increasingly challenged by the rising desire for Italian unification. It was a legitimate cause; unfortunately, its two chief leaders, Garibaldi and Cavour, were extremely anti-Catholic – intent on confiscating Church property and closing down religious orders which provided the majority of social welfare and health care throughout Italy. In these circumstances it was impossible for Pope Pius IX to arrive at any meaningful compromise.

The threat to the Papal States led the Pope to issue a call for volunteers to join the papal army. This call was almost unprecedented – the papal army had historically relied on local recruitment together with the Swiss Guard – but the response to volunteers was dramatic. Many came from the British Isles: over 300 Irish volunteers under Major Myles O’Reilly fought tenaciously against 8,000 Italian troops at the battle of Spoletto. Meanwhile, an Englishman, Joseph Powell, has left a fascinating account of his Two Years in the Pontifical Zouaves.

The title “Zouave” came from units of the French North African Army who earned a reputation as an elite force during the Crimean War. In Britain we are perhaps inclined not to recognise that the French Army has always been one of the leading armies of Europe; but in the 19th century, memories of French victories under Napoleon were still fresh. Many countries copied French Army titles and uniforms, as did the papal army.

In 1860 the Italian army seized most of the Papal States, leaving only the area around Rome itself, the present province of Lazio. Seven years later, Garibaldi launched an invasion preceded by a terrorist explosion at the Zouave barracks in Rome. The armies met at Mentana and the battle was won by the decisive “Charge of the Zouaves”, a gallant and successful attack against a fortified position. One of the Zouaves who lost his life in that attack was Julian Watts-Russell, whose heart is preserved in a casket in the Chapel of the English College in Rome. Sadly, in 1870 the Italian army attacked Rome in force and Pius IX ordered his troops to surrender to avoid a senseless waste of life.

The French Zouaves, however, remained together and fought bravely for France in the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. They disbanded after attending Mass and saying together the prayer “Coeur de Jesus, Sauvez La France” (Heart of Jesus, save France).

On September 20 each year a Mass is said in Rome in memory of the Zouaves.  Even their enemies acknowledged that they were brave and honourable soldiers who fought and died for a sacred principle. In this anniversary year especially they deserve to be remembered; and all of us, wherever we come from, can repeat their last prayer: “Heart of Jesus, save our country”.