On the night of December 1 , the Zouaves were ordered to advance to Patay, where Joan of Arc had won a renowned victory against the English. [General Louis-Gaston de] Sonis asked [Colonel Athanase de] Charette, who had no flag of his own, to lend him the Zouaves’. This banner had a curious history…. In September, the Benedictine nuns of Paray-le-Monial had made a banner bearing a crowned Sacred Heart, with the motto, “Heart of Jesus, Save France.” Given the importance of that symbol to the Zouaves when it was made a gift to them in Tours, they heartily embraced it. This was the flag that would lead Sonis’s men into battle.
Arriving the next day at Patay, Sonis could not help but contrast the valor of St. Joan and her men with the army he commanded—some of whom were already deserting. He turned to Charette and asked, “O you, at least, my colonel, you will not give up on me like these.” “No, no!” answered the Zouave, “Long live Pius IX! Long live France.” It was a cry his men would echo and reecho throughout that long and bloody day. In the morning, the men received absolution. At 3 P.M., Sonis rode up to the 1st Battalion of the Zouaves, and shouted, “My friends, two regiments have just run away! Now is the time for you to show these cowards how brave men can fight; hurrah for the Zouaves!”
German infantry and artillery were positioned in the adjacent woods through which they had to pass to reach Loigny. After cheering their general, the Zouave skirmishers began shooting at the enemy positions, but the return fire was too great. Charette ordered them to fix bayonets and storm the woods. With Sonis, Charette, and their senior officers in the lead on horseback, the Zouaves charged. Through the storm of bullets, they ran and closed with the foe. General Sonis was wounded in the thigh, and Charette fell, having been shot twice. Captain Montcuit, who had lost an arm at Castelfidardo, was wounded in his stump. One participant, Sergeant Wibaux, wrote of the battle a few days later: “it is impossible to give you an idea of the butchery; the Zouaves literally hacked and hewed as if they were beating butter.”
The woods were secured and hundreds of Germans taken prisoner. They were about to attack the village when the Prussians realized the very small size of the force with which they were contending and brought up three regiments from their reserve. Sonis’s infantry refused to come to the aid of the Zouaves and his artillery was out of ammunition. The Zouaves were forced to retreat as the Germans mauled them with artillery fire and automatic weaponry. The earth was covered with the dead; only 3 out of 14 officers made it back to camp by nightfall. Le Gonidec assumed command; three flag-carriers were killed in succession, and a wounded fourth returned with the bloodied banner of the Sacred Heart. In one company, only two corporals were left, all the officers having been killed. Of 300 Zouaves of the battalion, 218 had been killed. Had the rest of Sonis’s command not broken, they would have won the day.
Back on the battlefield, a strange thing happened. The Virgin Mary appeared to the wounded General Sonis, assuring him that all was not lost and that France would survive. A scattering of soldiers milled around the former battle; only the Zouaves and a very few other units retained their order and discipline. The remnant of the 17th Corps retreated to Poitiers. When the surviving Zouaves reached this refuge, they were welcomed deliriously by the townspeople. Deeply saddened by the plight of his former paladins, Pius IX sent a message to them:
“Tell Charette and his heroic sons as speedily as possible that my wishes, prayers, and remembrances constantly follow them wherever they go; that as they were, and still are, present with me, I am also with them in heart and soul, ever entreating the God of all mercy to protect and save both them and their unhappy country, and to bless them as fully and as specially as I do this day, in His name and with the warmest effusion of my heart.”
Charles A. Coulombe, The Pope’s Legion: The Multinational Fighting Force that Defended the Vatican (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), pp. 188-190.