Dr Lynch’s Military Career Part 1

The Fighting Years 1869 – 1871

Having arrived in Rome following his departure from the Irish College in Paris, Dómhnall enlisted in the Papal Zouaves.

Who were the Papal Zouaves? ∗

During the 1860’s an Italian army under King Victor Emmanuel fought to unify Italy, which up to then had been an amalgamation of different states, each independent of the others. Garibaldi and his followers supported King Victor’s Army during the 10 years of this unification campaign.

The Papal Zouaves were the army of the Pope. The Vatican state was a politically independent state, of which the Pope of the day was ‘Head of State’ as well as leader of all Catholics worldwide. Many thousand Catholics from many countries arrived in Rome to help defend the city. They came from French Canada, the United States, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, Ireland and some also came from South America.

When Dómhnall enlisted in the Papal Zouaves on his arrival in Rome, it is not known whether he was a swordsman or a rifleman, although the latter is more likely given that he was an excellent shot all his life in Ballyvourney. Indeed there is a letter in existence from ‘The O’Donoghue of the Glen’ – an Irish landlord and traditional head of the O’Donoghue clan – warning the then Dr Lynch of the future consequences of shooting on his land near Glenflesk!

Rome was a city enclosed by walls, many of which were 1500 years old and were built by the different Roman emperors. During those 1500 years, part of the walls were destroyed and rebuilt many times. The youngest section of the walls was 200 years old and was only 4-5 metres thick. Situated at many points in the walls were gates known as porta (Latin for gate).

One of the most important gates was the Porta Pia. These gates were modern and the walls near them were not thick enough for cannon to be placed on them, so 160 cannon were placed on temporary structures which were very makeshift.

By 19th September 1870 some 60,000 men with 100 modern cannon had encircled Rome. At 5am the artillery barrage began with many parts of the walls being attacked and the heaviest artillery fire was directed at the Porta Pia.

Huge chunks of the wall collapsed which made it impossible to move the old fashioned Papal cannons. This was about 9am and the riflemen blazed away from then on. After another hour there was a breach in the walls and Ferrero – one of the commanding officers of the Italians – drew up his men in preparation for an assault.

Colonel Allet commanded his army of over 1,000 Zouaves, carabinieri (national military police of Italy), line infantry and 16 guns. Facing him were Cadorna’s 30,000 men with 54 cannon. The latter opened fire all along their section of the wall, but the skill of the Papal artillerymen, seconded by the fire of Remington rifles all along the ramparts forced the Italians to alter their positions several times. Even at a distance of approx. 1km, the Remingtons were a threat to the enemy gunners. Eventually superior numbers told, and after 4 hours of fighting the defences around the Porta Pia and other nearby walls and gates were destroyed.


Breccia Porta Pia Wall Rome

Cadorna (the Italian general) divided his forces into 3 columns – two for the breach in the wall and the third for Porta Pia itself. Slowly they advanced towards their chosen targets. Just then a pontifical dragoon – a messenger on horseback – arrived with orders from General Zappi to fly the white flag in keeping with the Pope’s orders that only a short-lived resistance would be mounted in order to show the world that it was only through violence that Victor Emmanuel would be master of Rome.

The Zouaves refused to obey the verbal orders and instead sent an officer to the Vatican for written confirmation. Meanwhile the Zouaves kept firing and stopped the advancing column in its tracks. When confirmation arrived from the Vatican, the Zouaves ceased firing and raised a bayonet with a white cloth.


Papal States Map
The columns at the breach were not doing too well, many Italians were killed so they were forced to withdraw, but when orders for the white flag arrived, the Zouaves surrendered, the Italians rushed through the breach in the wall killing some Zouaves who had by then laid down their weapons. The cannons kept firing into the city for another hour. The Zouaves had by now surrendered, therefore ending the story of the Papal States (∗∗) on September 20th 1870.

Pope Pius IX and the diplomatic corps gathered in the Vatican, where the Pope told them it was more than an attack on the Papal States – it was an attack on Catholicism itself.

He told the diplomats to take care of their own countrymen Give a thought also I beg you, to the Irish and the Canadians who have no-one here to represent their interests.

Then he said “I release my soldiers from their oath of loyalty to me in order to leave them their liberty”. The Vatican City would not be occupied, and the Zouaves and the Legion of Antibes (French soldiers) were free to leave the Vatican.

On the night of September 20th 1870, the Papal troops including the Zouaves all camped in the Piazza San Pietro (St Peter’s Square) in Rome. The next day (September 21st) all of the troops were formed into their ranks and their commander Colonel Allet shouted “Mes Enfants! Vive Pie Neuf”.

Rome Square pioix1970

This picture shows Pope Pius IX blessing his troops for the last time before the capture of Rome, April 25th 1870.

The scene described below would have looked similar to this.

The Pope appeared on the balcony and blessed all present. The officers drew their swords, they knelt to present their arms and when they arose the Pope had returned inside the Vatican.

The Papal Army marched to San Paolo and then travelled by train to Civitavecchia. On arrival they were separated by nationality and held in a prison alongside common criminals until their futures were decided.


Information compiled by Jerry Lynch, Riversdale House, Bishopstown.
∗ Reference: “The Popes Legion” ~ The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican (2008) by Charles A. Coulombe. Published by Palgrave Macmillan 2008.
∗∗ Image of the Papal states sourced from “Italy 1796” by Capmo – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Italy_1796.png#mediaviewer/File:Italy_1796.png