The Irish Zouaves at Ancona in 1860

The following account by Captain Count Roussel de Killough was first published in
Revue du Monde Catholique and subsequently republished in translation in the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, December, 1869:

(For background, read this)
It was worthy of Catholic Ireland, that noble daughter of the church, which has preserved intact the faith of St. Patrick in the midst of struggles, trials, and persecutions of every kind, to send to the pope a legion of her sons to fight beside the generous volunteers whom every vessel brought from France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland. As my thoughts revert, after an interval of eight years, to this noble band, whose organization I superintended temporarily, I love to recall the great natural qualities which redeemed their defects, and, despite their disorders and uproar, and their incessant quarrels, won for the Irish the admiration of Lamoriciére, and merited the approval of the pope, who, after the crisis, desired to form around him a guard of these valiant soldiers, these indomitable heroes, these Catholics faithful to deaths.

Unfortunately, in the midst of the fatigues and excitement of this period, amid marches and countermarches, orders and countermands, it was impossible for me to keep a journal of the thousand and one strange incidents, daily events, interesting or amusing, of which I was a witness; indeed, they would furnish Alexander Dumas abundant matter for dramas and endless tales. I must limit myself to those scenes which have left the deepest impression on my memory.

The 30th of May, 1860, found me in garrison in a small hamlet on the frontiers of Tuscany, Citta della Pieve, situated some leagues from Lake Trasimene, famous for the struggle between Hannibal and the Romans, which took place upon its border. Thence a sudden order despatched me to Macerata, a small town of the Adriatic Marches, where I was to organize the Irish Legion. Already a hundred and fifty recruits had arrived, and the order was couched in terms admitting of no delay. I left with regret, for in this little hamlet I had found a family, whose hospitality had touched me. It was that of the gonfaloniere.

The young matron, simple in her tastes, well educated, and handsome as Italians naturally are, had undertaken by her kindness to make us forget the ungracious reception which our uniform had won for us in Perugian society. And in this she manifested not only sound judgment and education, but also rare courage, at this dangerous time, when the least respect towards a pontifical officer merited the stroke of the assassin’s dagger. A little later, I was to find her in Rome, proscribed for her fidelity by a violent, iniquitous, and vindictive government. Will she be able to return to her home despite the cruel vexations to which she has been exposed? I know not, and dare not hope anything from Piedmontese mercy.

Could I separate myself from that noble Swiss regiment, dear for so many reasons, beneath the shadow of whose flag I for the first time drew my sword for the pope? Alas! I was obliged to quit for a long time, perhaps, my brethren in arms, whose friendship had become a pleasure and encouragement and even a necessity, to find in a new corps new associates; and this at the moment when great events were vaguely rumoured, when each could foresee the necessity of all that was dear to brace up against the storm, whose distant echoes were already to be heard. But military obedience exacted this sacrifice. I left early on the following morning, and, after escaping an attack on the diligence by twelve masked brigands, in the gorges of the Apennines I arrived at Macerata on June 1st.

I immediately received a visit from the almoner of the volunteers, whose appearance deserves particular description.

He was an Irish Franciscan father, and by his lofty stature and sonorous eloquence reminded me of the portrait of the great O’Connell, which in my childhood I had seen traced by enthusiastic admirers of his oratory. When Father Bonaventure appeared in the midst of the recruits, the men made way for him respectfully. One of them had been guilty of some breach of discipline. The priest spoke sweetly to him, and a few words of tender severity brought tears to the eyes of the offender. Indeed, this monk, with his lofty brow and stately gait, his coarse habit falling in ample folds from his massive shoulders, was well calculated to impress these children of nature, at once simple but keen, enthusiastic but fickle, good in heart but hasty in character, on whom the priest alone has fitted the yoke of authority.

I immediately saw the necessity of establishing the best possible relations with this influential man. The preliminaries of our conversation being ended, he said, “My dear captain, will you —”

“Pardon me, reverend father, but you give me a title to which I have no right. I am only a lieutenant.”

“Why, captain dear, this will never do. I have announced to the recruits the arrival of their captain; they are prepared to receive you, and all the prestige of your authority will be lost if they find that you are only a lieutenant. No; permit me without offence to attribute to you the rank to which you won’t be long coming, if all that I have heard of you be true.”

“You flatter me infinitely, and I am much obliged for your high opinion; but as we have many things to do, let us save our compliments for some future occasion, and look at the men, whom I must inspect without delay.”

“Immediately, mon cher commandant —”

“Still another thing, Monsieur l’Aumonier —”

“They are in the barracks, and I will present you to them. Come with me; these good fellows await you with impatience, and I hope you will be pleased with them. Remember, you are captain.”

I found the recruits, about a hundred and fifty in number, ranged in two lines along the vast corridor, and I must confess that my first impression was not favourable. They were for the most part ragged, evidently fatigued by the long voyage. A long bench stood before them.

“We must remove the bench,” said I to the priest. “It will be in the way during my inspection.”

“Not a bit of it, captain dear,” he answered; “on the contrary, it will assist wonderfully for the ceremony of your presentation. You are shorter than I, and my height destroys the effect that you ought to produce, (he was fully six feet in stature.) Get up on that bench, and you will appear as tall as I, and your prestige will increase proportionally.”

“All right, reverend father; here goes for the bench. You are a decided master of scenic art.” I acted on his advice, and mounted my platform, while the chaplain prepared his countenance and attitude for the grand discourse that was to follow. He waited for silence, and, when he saw all eyes directed toward me and all ears open to him,

“Boys,” he said, swinging with majestic movement the loose sleeves of his habit, “welcome this happy day, the object of your ardent desires, on which you will enjoy the honour of enrolling yourselves in the army of the sovereign pontiff, and on which your names, children of St. Patrick, will be inscribed on the great list of the defenders of the papacy. You see before you, at this moment, the representative of that august sovereign for whom your Irish and Catholic hearts beat with filial love. Welcome with acclamations him whom God has sent us the illustrious Captain Russell,” (here he laid his heavy hand on my head as if he wished to flatten it,) “the noble descendant of your ancient kings, the worthy nephew of the gallant Marshal MacMahon, the hero of Perugia, into whose hands I gladly resign the authority which I have hitherto exercised. Now, boys, from the bottom of your throats, hurrah for Captain Russell.”

“Hurrah for the captain!” shouted the hundred and fifty.

“And, you, captain,” (here he turned his great, benevolent eyes toward me.) “whom the pope has invested with the powers of commander until the arrival of their regular chief, consider in the goodness of your heart the devotion of these true sons of Ireland, who abandoning their homes and families, came through fatigues, dangers, and privations, over mountains and seas, to place at your disposal their lives, their strength, and their heart’s blood.”

I answered this harangue as well as I could, giving with all my might a hurrah for the Pope, which was repeated along the line; then, descending from my pedestal, I shook warmly the hand of the reverend chaplain, to testify publicly my trust in him, and, after the inspection, occupied myself immediately in forming the companies. Alas! the first act of my administration was unlucky, and showed that my brains were not equal to the organization of an Irish regiment.

Having learned from the chaplain that the recruits of different provinces mutually entertained profound jealousy, I thought I would succeed well in putting all the Dublin men in one company and all the Kerry men in another. This disposition having been made, I assigned to each of the companies one or more apartments of the barracks, and ordered them to take immediate possession of their quarters.

This order, simple in appearance, was the occasion of a prodigious storm; and you would be long divining its cause.

While the Dublin men executed my order without delay and betook themselves quietly to their quarters on the upper story, the Kerry men, on the contrary, gathered in several noisy groups under the conduct of as many leaders, as if they did not understand the orders, and finally declared point blank that they would not obey them.

“Peste, Monsieur l’Aumonier,” said I to the chaplain, who observed with a certain anxiety the disturbance which was brewing, “if things begin thus, they do not augur well for the future.”

“Wait a bit, captain, before dealing harshly with the culpable. Let me find out the motives of their resistance.”

“All right, father. I await your rendering an account of them.”

The monk stepped firmly up to the mutineers and endeavoured to speak with them.

“We want the upper floor! We’ll have the top floor!” was the only answer he received.

“But, boys, the upper floor is no better than the lower.”

“We want the upper! The Kerry lads are not made to be stowed away on the ground-floor.”

“For mercy’s sake, listen to reason, or else the captain —”

“Down wid Dublin! Kerry for ever!”

The monk returned, pale as death, to explain the cause of the tumult.

The volunteers from “county Kerry,” whose blood is proverbially warm, were indignant because I had quartered them on the ground-floor, while the Dublin lads occupied the upper story; wherefore they were determined not to budge until this insult was repaired and Kerry vindicated.

“But, reverend father, the order is given, and cannot be revoked without compromising my dignity. Try to point out to me the leaders; I will have them arrested. As to the others —”

“Ah! captain, remember their inexperience of discipline.”

“That is the very reason why I wish to be severe with the leaders.”

I had the leaders of the disturbance arrested, and, on seeing this, the remainder quietly dispersed and occupied without further difficulty their allotted barracks.

“Boys,” said I, going among them, “the leaders who have brought you astray are scoundrels, whom I am going to punish. They have trifled wickedly with that proud sentiment of rivalry which does honour to the different provinces of Ireland. Keep this sentiment of noble jealousy, of just emulation, keep it for the field of battle, where you can make better use of it than here.”

“Hurrah for the Pope! hurrah for the chaplain! hurrah for the captain!”

A few days later, on a beautiful afternoon in June, the detachment of volunteers from Limerick arrived. They numbered about two hundred, conducted like the others by their chaplain, a man at once indefatigable and full of courage, whose almost juvenile ardour was irresistibly communicated to his companions.

I thought that these brave men, fatigued by a long journey and numerous privations, deserved to be well treated by that Pope to whom they came thus to offer their arms and blood. Hence, I had prepared for them at the barracks fresh straw mattresses and warm soup, and, having made these arrangements, went forward to meet them on the road to Ancona.

Confused cries and sounding hurrahs soon announced the approach of the column. I presented myself to the new almoner, whom I recognized by his long black coat and high gaiters. At once he gave a prodigious hurrah for the Pope, which was instantly repeated by the two hundred volunteers with an enthusiasm of which the pure races are alone capable. At the same time they brandished enormous cudgels, which served them alike as walking-sticks and weapons, and with which each man had provided himself before quitting his native parish.

It would be difficult to portray the terror which such scenes produced on the peaceful inhabitants of the town, little accustomed to such noisy demonstrations. They always avoided meeting the Ollandesi, as they then ignorantly termed them the Verdoni, (canary colour, half green and half yellow,) as they afterwards called them, from the colours of their uniform. The women were content to gaze timidly from the windows at these strange guests; the urchins alone, braver or more frolicsome, escorted the newly-arrived, and strove to keep step with these giants of the north, four times as great as themselves.

During the bombardment of Ancona, which lasted six days, I occupied with the fourth Irish company a bastion of the intrenched camp, situated on a height which commanded the city and the defence from the land side. For some days we had nothing to shelter us; and to add to the annoyance, the earth having been lately turned for the works ordered by the general, the first rain changed it to thick mud. On this couch my men had to sleep, with naught above them save the arch of heaven. Nevertheless, they did not complain, as I might have expected from their previous conduct, and they remained the whole night exposed to a driving rain on this wet soil without uttering one complaint, so much had the sight of the enemy excited their ardour and developed their military virtues. Strange! It had only required a few bomb-shells to change these peasants, so intractable the evening before, into sober, patient, and warlike soldiers, ready for all sacrifices. Every afternoon, about five o’clock, the bombardment ceased, as if by agreement, and then commenced the most original scene which can be imagined.

In the midst of the terreplein of my bastion they kindled a fire, and grouped themselves pell-mell around it, just as chance arranged them, soldiers, non-commissioned and commissioned officers. For the latter seats of honour were reserved, consisting principally of inverted wheel-barrows, water-buckets, and old pieces of lumber. The pipes struck up, the gourds of brandy passed from hand to hand, and tongues were unloosed; and as the day had been more or less exciting, so was the conversation animated. One of a dramatic turn, endowed with a long and neglected beard and draped majestically in some old cloak, recited with upraised hands some scene of mighty Shakespeare. Another, somewhat younger, sung tenderly a national air, a sweet melody of the poet Moore. I have always remembered one of these touching ballads, and cannot resist giving it here:

“Rich and rare were the gems she wore,
And a bright gold ring on her wand she bore;
But oh! her beauty was far beyond
Her sparkling gems or snow-white wand.

“Lady, dost thou not fear to stray,
So lone and lovely, through this bleak way?
Are Erin’s sons so good or so cold
As not to be tempted by woman or gold?

“Sir knight! I feel not the least alarm;
No son of Erin will offer me harm;
For though they love woman and golden store,
Sir knight, they love honour and virtue more!

“On she went, and her maiden smile
In safety lighted her round the green isle,
And blest for ever is she who relied
On Erin’s honour and Erin’s pride.”

Another, an inhabitant of the mountains, began some interminable legend, in which the ghosts of his ancestors played an important part. Sighs and cries of joy accompanied the recital, broken only by the monotonous “All’s well,” which the sentries on the parapet passed from one end of the camp to the other. All listened, awed, wonder-stricken, and transported in spirit to the hearths which they had left, and around which they had often kept joyous vigil by the light of the burning turf. Fortunately, no inopportune shell came from the enemy’s batteries to cast its lurid glare over the joyous group or glitter on the beard of the singer. O pure and romantic natures! Oh! what a natural poesy and gaiety surrounds this race, which we are wont to cover with a cloud of melancholy sadness. Were I to live a hundred years, I could not efface the vivid remembrance of those noisy vigils at Bastion No. 8, at the bombardment of Ancona in 1860.

Momentary enthusiasm was their great motive power. Whoever knew how to excite them, could obtain from them whatever he wished. And then, to see the play of their chests, their arms and shoulders; they seemed like so many Vulcans. The heaviest weights, which an Italian could scarcely move, gun-carriages, shell, beams, blocks of stone, they raised without difficulty, and, placing them on their stalwart shoulders, carried them with the greatest ease, one after another. From this I derived much benefit in a critical situation.

The Piedmontese having, half by surprise and half by main force, seized one of the outposts of Monte Pelago, and having there posted a battery, whence a raking fire entirely commanded the bastion which I occupied, I saw that, in order to protect my men, I must construct a traverse in the midst of the bastion. But how remove the earth? How perform all the necessary work under the fire whose balls rained among us and whistled unpleasantly in our ears? Fortune favoured me; a heavy rain storm interrupted the bombardment.

“To work, boys! to work!” I cried. “In three hours you must raise twelve feet in length of a traverse, eight feet high, five feet thick at the top, and ten at the bottom, which will withstand everything they may send from Monte Pelago. Here, you terracemakers, come on with your picks and shovels. And you, Sergeant Tongue — you are a master carpenter; dress these logs and slabs for me, to make a frame for the work. In this manner, by God’s grace, we will get ready a traverse that would keep the devil out, even if we had not the Pope with us. To work, boys! to work!”

In a few hours we had the bastion sheltered from the fire of the enemy. Alas! my poor traverse, fruit of such generous labour, we did not keep you long. In fact, the following day all was over, unfortunately ended; Bastion No. 8, along with all the others, passed into the hands of the enemy.

I did not take part in the defence of Spoleto, that feat of arms so glorious for the Irish Legion; but after seeing these volunteers at the bombardment of Ancona, I can easily imagine what must have been that struggle of twenty-four hours of their two companies against ten thousand Piedmontese.

An old cannon of heavy calibre, for many years laid aside as condemned, was buried in a corner of the fortress. Instantly it was extricated from the debris, transported by main force to a height whence it commanded the enemy, and mounted on a gun-carriage; and the rusty old piece, astonished at its resurrection, killed more men on that one day than during the entire century of its past existence.

A decayed, half-ruined gate afforded an entrance into the citadel. The enemy directed their efforts against it. The athletic sons of St. Patrick fell to work, and in an hour it was braced up and barricaded with gabions, and firmly resisted two successive assaults of the enemy’s column.

I could cite twenty instances of this kind, where heroic courage joined to prodigious muscular strength worked miracles. But if a more prosaic example will suffice to form an idea of the strength of these iron limbs, I would add, softly and not without a slight blush, that during the period of my command I never saw a guard-house door which could resist their opposing efforts more than two hours, however well bolted it might be. After the iniquitous bombardment, which did not respect the white flag floating over all the works of the citadel and fort, our general capitulated, and we were obliged to abandon the place. The departure was very trying, and I cannot recall without grief the humiliation of that disastrous day. I do not wish to speak of it, nor could I do so without bitter tears; but it gives me pleasure to remember a spirited act of the Irish Legion.

It was six o’clock in the evening; our companies, of which I commanded the last, marched in close column, flanked, alas! by a line of Piedmontese, who, I must admit, had more regard for our misfortune than the dastardly population of the city. We passed gloomily the gate which leads to the Porta Pia quickening our step as much as the escort would allow, when some of my men came to me.” “Captain,” said they, “we have come to say that Ireland will blush for her children if she learns that we abandoned this city without bidding a last adieu to the Pope; we ask permission to salute him after our fashion at this last moment.”

“I understand; be quiet for a moment, and Ireland will be content with you and with me.”

A few moments after this, we reached the boundary of the suburbs. As the last man passed the gates of this unfortunate city, judging the moment opportune for the execution of our project, I gave with all the strength of my voice a last hurrah.

“Hurrah for the Pope!” shouted all in unison. The walls, the city, the gate, even the ocean itself, were shaken. To paint the astonishment of our guards would be impossible. They consulted together for an explanation of what had just occurred. Finally, I heard a sous-officer say to his neighbour,

Lasciamo fare, sono Irlandesi! Bah! these are Irishmen; of what use is it to trouble yourselves about their savage cries?”

Such was our departure from Ancona, on the 20th of September, 1860, and such the solemn adieu of the Irish Legion to the pontifical soil.


Posted on September 21, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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