“America wasn’t the only country to embrace the Zouave uniform. Regiments in Poland, Spain, Turkey and even Brazil fielded light infantry formations that sported the distinctive pantaloons, short jacket and headgear of the famous French Zouaves.”
IN TODAY’S WORLD of disruptive pattern camouflage, ghillie suits and stealth technology, the idea of marching into combat in brilliant red silk pants, a vivid blue tunic adorned with fancy embroidering and shiny gold buttons all topped off by a garish fez or turban seems quaint, anachronistic, even foolhardy. But that’s exactly what France’s famous Zouave regiments wore into battle in the mid-19th Century.
And oddly enough, a number of other armies around the world were so taken by the dazzling spectacle of the North African-inspired uniforms, as well as the exotic pomp embodied by the Zouaves, they rushed to raise their own copycat regiments. Among the most famous of these were the American Zouave units that fought for both the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War – the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry and the Louisiana Tigers for example. But America wasn’t the only country to embrace the Zouave uniform and tradition. Regiments in Poland, Spain, Turkey and even Brazil fielded light infantry formations that sported the distinctive pantaloons, short jacket and headgear of the famous French Zouaves.
Origins of the Zouaves
Originally, Zouaves were 19th century guerrilla-style fighters from the Zouaoua Berber tribe that inhabited the coastal mountain Djurdjura region of North Africa. Traditionally, the warriors pledged their services to the ruler of Algeria, known as the Dey. But when France conquered Algiers in 1830, the invaders asked the Zouaoua to provide men for the conquest of the rest of the country. The tribe agreed and by 1833, two battalions of what the French were calling “Zouaves” were raised as colonial troops and sent into action throughout Algeria. By the late 1830s, a third battalion was formed. All three units were soon officially integrated into the French army as elite units. Enlistment in the Zouaves was also opened up — any French soldier could transfer into the battalions provided that he had at least two years of service in the army. Over the next 30 years, French Zouaves would fight with distinction in the Crimean War, the intervention in Mexico, and the Franco Prussian War. One Zouave regiment was even added to Napoleon III’s vaunted Imperial Guard. By the First World War, the Zouaves had grown to nine regiments and even donned their flamboyant garb to fight in the war’s opening weeks.
Big in America
America’s love affair with the North African stylings of the Zouaves began in the years leading up to the Civil War (1861 to 1865). While at least one U.S. Army regiment wore the distinctive uniform as far back as the 1846 to 48 Mexican War, an American militia officer named Ephraim Ellsworth organized a touring company that thrilled audiences nationwide with Zouave-inspired uniforms and drill. Suddenly, it seemed like nearly everyone (civilian and military alike) wanted to be seen in the flamboyant and exotic attire. By the start of the Civil War, nearly 100 volunteer regiments from both the North and South had traded in their blue and grey jackets for distinctive Zouave-inspired battledress. While the elaborate pants, colourful sashes and turbans were difficult to maintain in the field, the members of Zouave regiments relished their distinctive appearance as well as their light infantry tactics. In fact, many ordinary Yankee units were granted permission to ‘go Zouave’ as a reward for bravery in battle.
In an era of rifled muskets and more accurate artillery, Zouave units made inviting targets for enemy gunners; the regiments suffered grievous casualties. Although to be fair, many of these units also fought harder than a lot of their conventionally attired comrades. During the Battle of Second Manassas, the 5th and 10th New York volunteer regiments were decimated while holding off a Confederate attack on the Army of the Potomac’s right flank. In fact, the 500-man 5th sustained 90 percent casualties in 10 minutes during the two-day battle in August of 1862. No other unit suffered so many losses so quickly during war. While their numbers dwindled as the fighting between the states continued, Zouaves would continue to serve in the Civil War right up to the bitter end. In fact, the last Union soldier killed in battle in Virginia was supposedly a member of a Zouave outfit — the 155th Pennsylvania. The distinctive uniform would continue to appear in ceremonies and parades in the years after the war. The last Zouave regiment, a militia unit from Wisconsin, finally retired its famous garb in 1879.
While by the 1870s, the United States was saying au revoir to the last of its Berber-clad regiments, insurgents in Spain backing Carlos VII donned the famous uniform for their four-year fight for control of the that country’s throne. However, these “Carlist Zouaves” discarded the signature red pants for grey and replaced the fez or turban with a white beret.
Zouaves of Death
At least one regiment of Poles acquired the legendary uniform as well. This particular group fought in the ill-fated, anti-Russian uprising of 1863 under the name “the Zouaves of Death.” But instead of dressing in decorative colours, the group fittingly opted for an all black ensemble. The outfit, which was raised by a sympathetic French army officer named Francois Rochebrune, operated as light infantry throughout the year-long January Uprising. Although suffering heavy casualties, the group managed to strike a series of blows against the Russians. In fact, they performed so well, Rochebrune was briefly considered to command the entire Polish rebellion. Eventually, the insurgency was crushed and the members of the unit fled or were captured. Rochebrune returned to his homeland to later fight against the Prussians.
The Zouave’s traditional Islamic pedigree didn’t stop the Catholic Papal States of Rome from raising its own brigade in its 1861 fight against the Italian reunificatio. The 4,500-strong French-speaking Zuavi Pontifici was remarkably diverse – being manned and officered by thousands of loyal Catholics from counties like Belgium, Ireland, Holland, Prussia, Spain, Poland and even Mexico, the U.S. and French Canada. It fought throughout the decade long war for control of Italy, but was eventually defeated along with the Papacy in 1870. But it wasn’t over for the Zuavi Pontifici – they would fight again, this time in the Franco-Prussian War under the designation “Volunteers of the West”
A to Zouave: Random Facts
- Two regiments of the palace guard of Ottoman Turkey adopted the distinctive Zouave uniform in the 1880s.
- During the Paraguayan War of 1864 to 1870, Brazil raised a unit of all-black Zouaves called the zuavos baianos. They saw little action.
- The famous fitted Zouave-style jacket that inspired so many 19th century militaries was also adopted by well-dressed ladies of the 1850s and 1860s. Stylish women wore the short tunics over their full length dresses. While the trend became old hat by 1870 it came back with a vengeance in the 1890s.
- The famous brand of rolling papers known as Zig Zag, which was founded in France in the 1870s, still features a drawing of a Zouave as its iconic logo.
- While France’s Zouave units finally discarded their colourful garb early in the First World War, regiments continued to fight right up to the Armistice. In the interwar years, some outfits reintroduced their famous battledress for the parade square. Zouave units would fight again in World War Two and even help with the counterinsurgency in Algeria in the 1950s. The last of France’s Zouave formations was finally disbanded when Algeria won its independence in 1962. Owing to the Zouave’s distinction as the elite, some of France’s commando units continued to include ceremonial dress reminiscent of the North African regiments, however these traditions were finally retired completely in 2010.
(This article originally appeared on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on May 27, 2013)