From the Sahara to the Somme: The Zouaves

Zouaves were soldiers of the French Army who were recruited from Algerian Berber tribesmen and the large European emigrant population that lived in Algeria from the 1830s up until the independence of Algeria in 1962. Known mainly for their bright and flamboyant dress, Zouave regiments had a reputation for being fierce warriors who would charge into battle with wild cries and sabers at the ready. Typical Zouave uniform dress included a red fez or turban with a contrasting silk tassel, a short blue jacket, a wide sash and bright red baggy pants, or pantaloons. Naturally, these uniforms were quite visible and within a year after the start of the First World War the uniforms were standardized to monochromatic khaki. Zouave regiments also fought in World War II, although much of their organized participation was limited to the opening and closing stages of the war.

The first Zouave battalions were raised exclusively from the Zouaoua tribe, a tribe of Berbers who lived in Algeria’s Jurjura Mountains and who were renowned for their fighting skill. It is from “Zouaoua” that the term Zouave is derived, although by the end of the 1830s recruiting was expanded to other Berber tribes and the emigrant European “pieds noir”.

The 19th century was a time when war still had the semblance of honor and glory about it, and elaborate uniforms were in vogue. Imitating the dress and style of the Zouaves was seen by many military romanticists as a way to import some exotic élan to their own forces. Zouave regiments, often privately funded and outfitted, were raised in a number of countries including Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Ottoman Empire, Britain and even the United States. Zouave regiments fought in the US Civil War on both sides, most notably the 5th and 11th New York Volunteer Infantry who saw action in the First and Second Battle of Bull Run. By the 1880s, Zouave units had faded from the ranks of the American military in conjunction with the transformation of militia formations into the new National Guard. Although the Zouaves as a battlefield fighting force have long since vanished, their colorful uniforms can still be seen today when French Army regiments such as the Chasseurs d’ Afrique put on parade dress and march in formation.