Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Zouaves of Algeria

Zouaves were soldiers of the French Army recruited from Algerian Berber tribesmen and the large European emigrant population (pied noirs) that lived in Algeria from the 1830s up until the independence of Algeria in 1962. They had a a reputation for being fierce warriors who would charge into battle with wild cries, swords or bayonets at the ready. The Zouaves, along with the indigenous Tirailleurs Algeriens, were among the most decorated units of the French Army. 

Zouaves on Parade in Paris

The distinctive uniform of French and other Zouave units was of North African origin. It generally included short open-fronted jackets, baggy trousers (serouel), sashes, and a fez-like chéchia head-dress. The four Zouave regiments of the French Army wore their traditional colorful dress during the early months of the First World War. Vincent van Gogh found their uniforms fascinating and produced several paintings and studies of Zouaves. The development of the machine gun, rapid-fire artillery, and improved small arms obliged them to adopt a plain khaki uniform from 1915 onward, in common with other units of the Armée d'Afrique. 

Zouaves in Uniform, Probably a Training Photo

When the war broke out, the French were still in the process of conquering Morocco, where many of its premier troops were. A Moroccan division was created, which was a mélange of French troops, Zouaves (mostly European North Africans), tirailleurs, and some West African troops. Algeria (which was the headquarters for the XIX Army Corps) and Tunisia immediately supplied 13 battalions of Zouaves and 16 battalions of tirailleurs. These formed the 37th and 38th divisions.

On the Western Front, Early War

Approximately 104 battalions were sent from North Africa during mobilization. North African units faced heavy combat from the marshes of St Gond during the battle of the Marne and the subsequent race to the sea. Throughout World War I, the Zouaves received the best care and had the highest morale of all the units of the Armée d’Afrique. 

Zouaves Later in the War

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. During the Zouves' existence, other nations had military units modeled on and named after the Zouaves, including during the American Civil War.

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