How the Pope's Army Marched Against Prussia 1870

Posted by RTH Real Time History on

This week on Glory and Defeat: the latest battle of the Franco-Prussian War is fought in Italy:

Last week, the Germans defeated the French at Sceaux, besieged Paris, and began discussions to form a united German Empire. But the future Germany is not the only nation-state that is changing because of the Franco-Prussian War this week – even as German troops camp around Paris, the fall of the French Second Empire is being felt in Italy as well.

In September 1870, the German states fighting against France are only starting to discuss unifying into a single nation state – which will later earn Germany the nickname “the belated nation.” Italy is another latecomer to the nation-state club. In the first half of the 19th century, the Italian peninsula was also divided into various kingdoms, duchies, and counties. By 1861, most of today’s Italy was united under the leadership of the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont and King Vittorio Emanuele II following several wars – a process known as the Risorgimento which made a national hero of revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi.
The success of Italian Prime Minister Camillo Benso Conte di Cavour in the risorgimento served as an inspiration for Otto von Bismarck’s hopes to unify Germany which were now being put into practice.

In the eyes of the Italian King and his Prime Minister, their nation-state is not complete in 1870. The Papal States are still under the control of the Papacy, and even though Italian forces had taken much of its territory in the wars of unification, Rome and Lazio are still ruled by the Pope. In the years before the 1870, Napoleon III provided military support to help the unification of Italy, including in the Sardinian War against Austria in 1859. But he also protected the independence of the Papal States, which was guaranteed by French troops stationed in Rome.

Napoleon III had helped Italy become a nation-state, but the French garrison in the Papal States is a thorn in the side of Italian nationalist dreams. They see Rome as the true capital of Italy, and with cries of “Rome or death” have been demanding the end of the Papal States since 1861. The collapse of the French Empire after Sedan gives them the chance they’ve been waiting for this week.

When the Franco-Prussian War broke out back in July 1870, Emperor Napoleon III withdrew the French forces that had been protecting the Pope in Rome since they were badly needed in France. Pope Pius IX is now left with a small, poorly trained army including about 3000 Papal Zouaves. These fiercely Catholic volunteers have come from all over the world to protect the head of their church: there are Papal Zouaves from the Netherlands, the southern German states, Ireland, France, the United States, Austria, Spain, and Canada.
Once the French imperial troops leave Rome, there’s little hope the Pope’s ragtag army can resist the Italians. On the night of September 11-12, 1870, the Italian army invades the Papal States at Ponte Felice in the Tiber Valley. The Pope wants to fight, but his 13,000 fighters under Baden General Hermann von Kanzler are poorly equipped and outnumbered 3 to 1.
At first there’s hardly any fighting, but this changes on September 20, when Italian troops storm Rome. Nationalists like Giuseppe Guerzoni are enthusiastic:
"The legs dance, the ranks form by magic, the weapons are seized in a flash (...) the cavalry leads the way, the artillery lines up in its place and the infantry marches in unison - Viva Roma." (Seibt, 17)

Italian Commander-in-Chief General Raffaele Cadorna orders the attack to begin at 5:15am. Artillery opens fire on the Eternal City and breaches the city walls at the Porta Pia gate at 9:00. There’s a short fight for the breach, but at 9:50 Pope Pius IX raises the white flag. The brief battle costs the lives of 60 men.

Surrender negotiations are over by 3:00 in the afternoon. The Papal troops are dismissed and the Zouaves released to return to their homelands. The majority of Romans welcome their Italian conquerers according to the envoy of the North German Confederation, Harry Count of Arnim: "The number of those who really regret the fall of the Pope's temporal power is vanishingly small. The hatred against the foreign regiments, against the police, against the whole old system of government is too general and too deeply rooted (...)." (Seibt, 96)
Celebrations in Rome go on for several days and nights, and General Cadorna publishes an exuberant proclamation:
"Romans. The morning of September 20, 1870 marks one of the most memorable dates in history. Rome once again has forever returned to being the great capital of a great nation." (Fiori, o.S.)
September 20 is still a national holiday in Italy today.

Meanwhile some of the former Papal Zouaves don’t actually go home – instead they decide to head for France on September 25 and join the French Republic in its fight against the German alliance. As staunch Catholics they’re no fans of the liberal republic, but they do want to fight against the hated Protestant Prussians. The Zouaves rename themselves the Volontaires de l’Ouest and join with French forces on the Loire river.

Events in the Franco-Prussian War lead to the fall of the Papal States to the Kingdom of Italy this week, but the battlefields in France are relatively calm. The siege of Paris began on the September 19, but French troops and civilians in Metz have been besieged now for weeks.

Marshal Bazaine’s Army of the Rhine has been trapped in Metz alongside the civilian population since August 19. They’re surrounded by the German 2nd Army, including staff officer Major Hans von Kretschman. Kretschman writes nearly daily to his wife Jenn and reports on daily life with the besieging army.
He complains about supply shortages, the difficulties of siege logistics, but also about hygiene problems. On September 21, he writes from the village of Vernéville outside Metz:

"(...) the place has been disinfected with chlorine and carbolic acid, [and] it’s taken on a certain chic. But imagine a village of 750 inhabitants [where…] about 12,000 men are quartered. Any soldier who relieves himself in a spot not meant for this purpose is arrested. But this is the only way to avoid epidemics. Doch nur so kann man Epidemien vermeiden." (Braun, 124f.)

He also writes of the constant rain, the spread of dysentery, and that he considers himself to be in a Pestloch – a plague pit.
Kretschman experiences the siege from an officer’s point of view, but he also writes about the problem of camp prostitution – which he considers a lower-class issue. The men have been away from their wives and fiancees for 8 weeks, and Kretschman is disgusted by what he sees:

"We are now beginning to get to know a part of the French population that I thought existed only in Paris. Elegantly made up French women, all pretending to be the wives of officers, prowl about everywhere, but the trappings of their social position are not to be overlooked. Naturally, precautions are taken to put an end to this business." (Braun 119).

The officers order constant drill and occasional gymnastics in the hopes of channeling the men’s sexual energy elsewhere. This week, another task keeping the men outside Metz occupied is digging up dead officers for transport to their families in Germany.
Inside Metz, more than 250,000 French soldiers and civilians are suffering from overcrowding, food shortages, and a lack of medical supplies for the 20,000 wounded and sick. Conditions in the hospitals are catastrophic, and many wounded die of diarrhea or typhoid.
Belgian Red Cross nurse Ida de Crombrugghe describes the stress experienced by a fellow nurse separated from her child who stayed behind:
" [She] tells me that her only son, aged 12, is currently trapped in Metz […] like many other mothers anxious for their own children, she said the only thing that stilled her anguish was the relief she provided for the poor wounded soldiers." (Crombrugghe 61)

Some residents feel Bazaine and the army should be doing more to break the siege. On the 27th, the mayor receives a call to action signed by 800 Messins: "We believe the army gathered beneath our walls is capable of great things, but we also believe it’s time it actually did such things – nous croyons aussi qu’il est temps qu’elle les fasse." (Pilant 152)

This week Rome falls to the Kingdom of Italy in the absence of French support, and the brutal the siege of Metz continues. The French Empire’s collapse earlier this month not only contributes to events in Italy. When news of the Third Republic reaches the French-held island of Martinique this week, black residents rise up against the French colonial system – but few in war-torn France pay them much attention. In Paris, Metz, and other surrounded cities, the besieged and besiegers alike suffer – and no end is in sight.


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  • Crombrugghe, Ida de: Journal d’une infirmière. Paris 1871

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