Zouaves fighters of North Africa who inspired U.S., other Western nations to change their military uniforms

Stephen Nartey December 08, 2022
The Zouaves were known for their colorful red silk pants. Photo via Military History Now

They were one of the feared guerrilla fighters who hailed from the coastal mountainous region of Djurdjura in North Africa in the 19th century. They were from the Zouaoua Berber tribe. The Zouaves had a loyalty code which they lived by for many centuries. They pledged to serve the Algerian dynasty known as the Dey.

Their allegiance however switched when France conquered Algiers in 1830. The French army asked the Zouaoua fighters to pledge their loyalty to them in their military expedition in parts of the world, as reported by Military History Now.

The Zouaoua fighters agreed and began spearheading the French military campaigns in 1833. The French named the fighters Zouaves as their colonial contingent that fought wars on behalf of the French in Algeria. They were classified into two battalions but their numbers increased which called for the creation of a third battalion.

With time the three battalions were conscripted into the French army as one of its elite regiments. As the French’s military campaigns raged on, so was their reputation. It became attractive being a member of the Zouaves that it no longer became a preserve of North African fighters as Frenchmen volunteered to be part of the contingent.

It gave room to a new order where officers could transition to any battalion of their choice so long as they have served two years in the army. In the next three decades, the Zouaves would gain notoriety for their bravery in wars such as the Crimean War, Franco-Prussian War and intervention in Mexico.

By the First World War, the Zouaves had grown in numbers and metamorphosed into nine contingents. One of the regiments was conscripted into Napoleon III’s vaunted imperial guard. One distinct feature of the Zouaves which stood out was the style of dressing as well. Many of the world’s military forces drew inspiration from their distinctive uniforms, including units that fought for both the Union and the Confederacy in the Civil War.

The American army in 1846 wore uniforms closely related to the Zouaves outfits in the Mexican War. Historical accounts have it that one American militia officer by the name of Ephraim Ellsworth led a world tour of American soldiers wearing Zouaves-like uniforms in their military drills.

Many regiments in the South and North soon discarded their blue and grey jacket uniforms for refined Zouaves-like uniforms. The Zouaves were known for their colorful “red silk pants, a bright blue tunic adorned with shiny gold buttons and a garish fez,” as Military History Now reported. It became a symbol of bravery for ordinary federal regiments to take on the Zouaves uniforms after exhibiting courage in a war.

The France, Poland, Spain, Turkey and Brazil contingents began wearing uniforms similar to the Zouaves’ outfits. The Zouaves fighters however began witnessing a decline during the Battle of Second Manassas, suffering huge casualties.

In the late 1860s, their numbers fell as the war became intense but they continued to serve in the Civil War up to the end. After the war, their famous uniform was still seen in parades and events. Per Military History Now, the last Zouave regiment, which was a unit from Wisconsin, finally retired the iconic uniform in 1879.

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