Historical news on the Zouaves Corps ( 1830-1962)

The Birth of the Corps

The birth and organisation of the first two battalions took place on 1 October 1830 under the responsibility of General Clausel; in 1832 they were reduced to one battalion on ten companies. The Royal Decree dated 25 December 1835 brings to the creation of the Corps with two battalions of 6 companies each. On 8 September 1841 the Corps becomes a regiment with 3 battalions, each of them constituted of nine companies.
Starting from 1841 and in a short time, the regiment underwent a complete frenchification of the troops as officers all came from France. The Zouaves became famous in consequence of their behaviour during the war of Crimea in 1854-1855 and the Italian campaign in 1859.
The decree of 13 February 1852, which followed the 1851's putsch, causing Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (who already was the President of the Second Republic) to become Emperor, brought with it the complete change of structure of the Corps that already had been thought of during the monarchy of Louis Philippe. Three new regiments were created, each of them constituted of three battalions on nine companies.

Institution of the Zouave Regiment of the Imperial Guard

With the decree of 23 December 1854, as an acknowledgement of the demonstrated value, Emperor Napoléon III allowed a Zouave Regiment to enter the Imperial Guard, selecting the soldiers among the best people in the others three Zouave Regiments.
The flag was given to the new Regiment by General Canrobert, commander of the French task force in Crimea. The flag was given to the new Regiment by General Canrobert, commander of the French forces in Crimea. In the flag the names of the most important victories of the Imperial Guard of Napoléon I were written: Marengo, Ulm, Iéna and soon the names of the battles fought and won by the Regiment were added, that is to say Sébastopol, Magenta and Solferino.
Thus, the Zouave Regiment of the Imperial Guard became on of the most important unit of the French Army; based in Versailles, it was organised with two battalions of seven companies each.

Flag of the Regiment of the Zouaves of the Guard

The Campaigns: Crimea and Italy

From 1830 to 1962, when the Corps was dissolved, every French campaign or war action had the participation of the Zouaves who always had an elitist role with first-line tasks. In many cases their war character, with bold and individualist manners, along with fighting methods which were often different from the regular schemes of that time, created a real disorientation in their enemies, starting from the Russian troops in Crimea and the Austro-Hungarian in Italy in 1859.
Therefore it can undoubtedly be said that the Zouaves were one of the first examples of modern assault troops. Military historiography is full of episodes that could be used as a proof of it. Suffice it to think about Crimea with the battle of Inkermann, where the 2nd Regiment along with the Algerian Tirailleurs (Turcos) came and helped the English troops or the battle of Cernaia where the Zouaves fought with the Italian Bersaglieri creating a co-operation and friendship which had a revamp in Italy in 1859. We should also remember the battle of Alma where young Colonel Cler, commander of the 2nd Zouave Regiment, played a crucial role and the seizure, after a long siege, of the stronghold of Malakov, in Sebastopol, achieved by the 1st Zouave Regiment and the Zouaves of the Guard. Following their actions in Crimea, the Zouaves were defined as “the best light infantry of the world.” As far as the Italian campaign of 1859 is concerned, we have to remember the battles of Palestro, Magenta, Melegnano and Solferino.
In Palestro the Bersaglieri of the Sardinian Army were “saved” by the arrival of the 3rd Zouave Regiment, called by King Vittorio Emanuele II who, thanks to his boldness in this action, was honored by the Zouaves with the grade of Corporal of the 3rd Regiment. These news were given to the King the night after the battle by a group of Zouaves lead by one of their officials who gave the appointment to the King being just fallen asleep, and that's why at the very beginning he was really annoyed by that unusual visit, whereas he was then very thankful and moved. From then on, the 3rd Zouave Regiment called over the roll every night and when the “ Corporal Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy” was called the oldest sergeant in service answered “absent because he is the King of Italy”. This tradition went on until 9 January 1878 when the oldest sergeant in service answered “Corporal Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy died this morning.”
After the battle of Palestro, the 3rd Regiment of the Zouaves was called “furia francese” (french fury) and its flag, as well as its officers, was decorated with the medal to the military valour of the Sardinian Army.
In Magenta the Zouaves of the Guard played a crucial role, together with the grenadiers of the 3rd Regiment they fought and won, thanks to the support of the Picard Brigade, the Austrian forces who outnumbered them by four times and conquered Ponte Nuovo and Ponte Vecchio paving the way to the troops coming from Trecate who managed, in this way, to go directly to Magenta. This part of the battle caused the death of General Cler while he was giving instructions to the Zouaves to attack Ponte Vecchio.
A further proof of their heroism are the 50 medals to the military valour that were given, for the first time, to some women, as well; the cantinière Jeanne Marie Barbe of the Regiment of the Zouaves of the Guard and Antoinette Trimoreau, cantinière of the 2nd Regiment of the Zouaves who saved the eagle of the flag of the Regiment after that it was shot by a burst of machinegun of fire.
That same day, the Zouaves of the 2nd Regiment, who came from North of Magenta with the 2nd Corps of Mac Mahon, assaulted the city and conquered the railway station as well as Giacobbe’s House. The flag of the regiment was decorated with the Legion of Honour after that they won over the 9th Regiment of the Austrian Infantry.
During the battle of Melegnano the 1st Regiment of the Zouaves played a leading role even though they lost a quarter of their troop including their commander Colonel Paulze d'Ivoy.
Last but not least, the 1st and 2nd Regiments had an important role in Solferino as they conquered Cavriana and reached “Madonna della Scoperta” where the French Army met the Sardinian Army that was fighting in San Martino. The Zouave Regiment of the Guard headed directly to Solferino.

Crimea – battle of the Alma 20 september 1854

Campaign of Italy – battle of Magenta 4 june 1859

The Zouaves: origin and spirit

A noteworthy characteristic of the history of the Zouaves was their social origin. The personnel of the various regiments possessed a really higher cultural level if compared with the other infantry regiments. Many men with a degree or coming from the bourgeoisie were not difficult to be found among them.
We should also bear in mind that the best students of the Military School of Saint Cyr, which is still today the most prestigious Military Academy in France, regularly wanted to go and fight in the Zouave Regiments.
As it can easily be understood so far, the spirit of co-operation in the corps was really high and it was often, above all outside the battles, animosity to anything that had nothing to do with the Zouaves, together with a certain indiscipline, especially in the line regiments.
Suffice it to remind two examples: where the regiments passed for their exercise, many farms were often “accurately visited” in order to get “extra food”. The riots with the soldier of other regiments were extremely famous, above all the ones between the Zouaves of the Guard and the Carabiniers of the Imperial Guard in Versailles.

American Zouaves

The popularity of the Zouaves crossed the Ocean and reached America, as well. In fact, thanks to Captain Ellsworth of the American Army the 1st Regiment “Fire Zouaves” of New York was created during the American war of secession (1862-1865) while the voluntary troops outnumbered the Unionist Army. The Regiment was clearly inspired by the famous french troops and many of its elements came from France as well as from Ireland and Italy. To this first regiment many other followed such as the 5th Regiment of New York which used uniforms like the ones used in France and which together with the 114th Pennsylvania Regiment was among the 50 most famous Zouave regiments. The 114th Pennsylvanian Regiment, thanks to the honour gained during the battles, became the guard of the Northerner Headquarter in the final part of the war. Also in the Confederate Army there was the Zouaves regiments like the famous Tiger Zouaves or the 1st Battalion Louisiana Coppen’s Zouaves.

Mexican expedition

After the 1859's Italian campaign, the Zouaves of the 1st Regiment and the 3rd Regiment they built the Corps of the French expedition sent to Mexico in order to help Emperor Maximilian of Hapsburg. This was a really hard campaign which put a regular army in front of the dangers of a guerrilla between 1863 and 1867. Above all, we have to bear in mind the battles of Puebla and San Lorenzo. During this campaign the flag of the 3rd Regiment got the decoration of the Legion of Honour.

Campaign of the Mexico – battle of Puebla

The French-Prussian War

In 1870 the Zouaves had the chance to show again their flag during the unlucky French-Prussian war. In particular in the battle of Froeschwiller, 6 august 1870, the 1st Zouave Regiment that, attested in the locality of Woerth, after to have to along resisted the enemy being maintained the position, enduring serious losses, and with the soldiers and the Officials who refused the change, only withdrew from the battlefield when express it was ordered it from the High Quarter, in the picture of one manoeuvre of folding of all the French forehead. Even though they were notorious for their indiscipline, the 1st Regiment left the field marching in perfect rows under the fire of their enemy, showing in that way the pride and boldness of being a Zouave. Also the 3rd Regiment took part in that battle and in the wood of Niederwald it lost two thirds of its soldiers. The 1st Regiment endured then, of fact, the annihilation to Sedan the 2 september 1870.
The Zouave Regiment of the Imperial Guard fought in Paris on 20 July 1870 to defend the city. and after that took part in the battle of Metz. In Sedan on 2 September 1870 the Emperor Napoleon III was arrested by the Prussian Army. The war went on for many months and brought to the siege of Paris from 19 September 1879 to 28 January 1871. Also in this case the Zouaves gave their contribution. On 20 Septmber 1870 the 4th Regiment of the Zouaves was created in Paris and it was constituted by two companies of the Zouave of Imperial Guard, that it had been forced to the yield 28 October 1870 to Metz, and by a battalion of the 3rd Regiment which survived from the defeat of Sedan.
Thanks to the popularity of the Zouaves, this new regiment was soon complete thanks to people who were recalled and men who were not duly trained and equipped. The 4th Zouave Regiment became anyway the heir the tradition of the Zouave Regiment of the Imperial Guard. With regard to an important episode; to the action of the yield of 28 October of the regiment of Imperial Guard Zouaves, its commander in chief Colonel Giraud decided not to let their flag fall in the hands of the enemies. That's why it was cut in many pieces and given to all the soldiers, officers, and Zouaves. Some years later, in the Hall of Fame of barracks Saussier in Tunis, Colonel Drian and his staff organised a moving ceremony during which most of those glorious pieces were re-united and re-built the flag of the Regiment of the Zouave of the Imperial Guard, a precious witness of a great past.

French-Prussian War - Froeschwiller 6 august 1870

The Zouaves of the Pope

About the reorganization of the Papal Army entrusted General Lamoricière it was created to beginning of the 1860 a Battalion of the franc-Belgian tirailleur with commander the baron Athanase de Charette. The unit said optimal tests and constituted the founding nucleus of the Papal Zouaves battalion instituted on 1 January 1861. The Zouaves were, of fact, the expression of what it could be defined like a new movement Crossed in aid of the Pope, the State of the Church and in defense of the faith. They collected in fact recruits from all the world; French, Belgian, Dutch, Irishes, Italians, English, Spanish, Swisses, Poles etc.The social extraction was much high elevating with numerous noble and bourgeois. Many of they were part of confraternities given over to the faith and the social welfare. In the ranks every social difference was exceeded from the belongings to the unit and this, joined to the strong ideal motivations, was translate in a highest spirit. The unit grew until becoming regiment on 1 January 1867. The Papal Zouaves were the elite of the Papal Army representing an example for all, opposing comprised from which was feared. With the entrance of the Piedmont’s Army in Rome on 20 september 1870, the Zouaves left the city on 26 September 1870 in order to catch up Tolone in France when by now had fallen the Empire and instituted the third Republic to continuation of the unravelled one of Sedan of the 2 September 1870. General de Charette collected the veterans of the regiment giving life to the Legion of the Volunteers of the West that participated, with value, to the second part of the French-Prussian war on 1870. When the war finished was offered they to enter in the French regular Army, but they, faithful for oath to Pope Pio IX, declined invite it definitively melting the regiment.

De Charette


From the Third Republic to the World Wars and towards the End

With the Third Republic the engagement did not lack, was quite one shipment in Indo-China with operations in the Tonkino and Tien-Tsin in 1890. Then the campaign of China in 1900 with the aim to protect the European diplomatic legations.

During World War I some other regiments of Zouaves and Tirailleur were added to the four traditional regiments. This brought to the lost of the elitist status of the troops maintaining however to that one of assault forces of front line. During the war the 4th Regiment played a crucial role, it was the heir of the Imperial Guard Zouaves and became one of the most decorated of the French Army, deserving the Legion of Honour, as well.

At the beginning of World War II all the Zouave Regiments were on the French-German front between 1939 and 1940. After the 1940's armistice, the Zouaves were then re-constituted in 1942 in Northern Africa. They actively took part in the actions to stop the German troops towards Tunisia. In 1944 the Zouave regiments became departments of the mechanized infantry and disembarked in Provence together with the Americans to set France free. They went as north as the Rhine valley taking part in hard battles in the Vosges and Alsace. The 2nd Zouave Regiment was the first one to reach the Rhine in the Mulhouse area. The 4th Regiment fought in the area of Courcon-Muaze and even more actively in Rochelle. In Alsace it fought succeeding in to free the city of Royan. The expeditions went on until May 1945 with some Zouave departments that went to the Southern part of Germany.

In 1962 , contextually to the dissolution of the Armée d’Afrique, it was decided to end the Zouaves Corps. After 132 years the history of one of the most prestigious and famous Corps of the French army came to an end. The traditions of the Corps are kept alive to the 9th Regiment Commando School until 29 September 2006.