The Pope’s Legion: The Multinational Force That Defended the Vatican

By Charles A. Coulombe

Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

250 pages, $26.95

To order: us.macmillan.com

(888) 330-8477


Like an Indiana Jones movie, The Pope’s Legion starts moving from the get-go and doesn’t stop until the very last. The Papal Zouaves themselves lived life like this. As a besieged fighting force, they hardly had the chance to stand still.

Their fighting is something of a Greek tragedy. The military battles could never, in the end, go their way.

The Zouaves were put together to fight the unification of Italy, since this movement demanded the papal territories. Though not all the unificationists were anti-Catholic, as a whole this movement was anti-clerical.

Charles Coulombe, excellent at holding various threads of the story together at the same time, compares these men and their romantic, Christ-centered spirituality to the Crusaders, something not allowed in the politically correct academic world. The author also spends enough time discussing the Italian, European and international political and cultural situation in which the Zouaves were fighting. From the vantage of hindsight, these politics make the work of these fighters seem even more tragic: They were, in reality, fighting not only the Italians under Victor Emmanuel II, Garibaldi and Cavour, but the whole mindset and policy of the U.S. and Europe.

Given the forgotten nature of the Zouaves, Coulombe serves readers well by spending a great deal of time on the beginning of this fighting legion. French allies in Algeria, a Berber mountain people called the Zwawa, in 1838 “became a regiment under the already distinguished Major Lamorcière. Wearing their native dress of baggy trousers, short vests and native headgear, the Zouaves, as the French called them, were an imposing sight.” Eventually, French soldiers joined, and the Zouaves became a part of the French military.

Years later, when the Italian unificationists were brutalizing their way into the papal territories, Lamorcière, a faithful Catholic, voiced the anxiety of the Catholic world, which was rapidly mobilizing to the side of the steadfast papacy, with echoes of the Crusades:

“Christianity is not merely the religion of the civilized world, but the animating principle of civilization. ... The revolution today threatens Europe as Islamism did of old, and now, as then, the cause of the Pope is that of civilization and liberty throughout the world.”

This also anticipates the Church’s fight with Eastern European communism, where Pope John Paul II and the Church represented freedom in the face of another variation of modern thought.

Lamorcière helped the papacy establish the Pontifical Zouaves, who were initially filled in 1860 with 15,000 volunteers from every Catholic country, which in the case of the Netherlands and a few others led to the stripping of citizenship.

Coulombe’s love of the Zouaves and the cause and his respect for the sacrifices of the men make this book a spiritual as well as historical read, as he ties courage, faith and honor to the Catholic faith.

Many men had had previous military careers; many joined right after graduating from school; and none did it in order to gain personally. When off duty, the men could be found not at the pubs but in churches. After the wars had finished, many became priests, though some continued the life of adventure and soldiering.

The Zouaves, and the papacy itself, were as much victimized by the indifference of their supposed friends and allies — such as France or Austria — as by the zealousness of the Italian nationalists. Had things been more evenly matched, Cavour and his fellows would never have won, given the heart of the Zouaves.

Brian Welter writes from

Burnaby, British Columbia.