They were fearsome guerilla fighters from the coastal mountainous region of Djurdjura in North Africa in the nineteenth century. They belonged to the Zouaoua Berber tribe. The Zouaves had a loyalty code that they followed for decades. They swore allegiance to the Algerian dynasty known as the Dey.
When France seized Algiers in 1830, their loyalty shifted. According to Military History Now, the French army asked the Zouaoua fighters to pledge their loyalty to them during their military expeditions around the world.
In 1833, the Zouaoua soldiers agreed and took the lead in French military campaigns. The French dubbed the fighters Zouaves as their colonial contingent in Algeria that fought conflicts on their behalf. They were divided into two battalions, but their numbers grew, necessitating the formation of a third battalion.
The three battalions were eventually drafted into the French army as one of its elite regiments. As the French military campaigns continued, so did their prestige. Being a member of the Zouaves became so appealing that it was no longer limited to North African fighters, as Frenchmen volunteered to join the contingent.
It made way for a new order in which officers could transfer to any battalion of their choice after serving two years in the army. The Zouaves would become famous for their bravery in wars such as the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the intervention in Mexico over the next three decades.
By the end of the First World War, the Zouaves had expanded to nine contingents. One of the regiments was drafted into Napoleon III’s prestigious imperial guard. One distinguishing feature of the Zouaves that stood out was their fashion sense. Many of the world’s military forces were inspired by their distinctive uniforms, including units that fought in the Civil War for both the Union and the Confederacy.
In 1846, the American army wore uniforms similar to those used by the Zouaves during the Mexican War. According to historical reports, one American militia colonel named Ephraim Ellsworth led a global tour of American soldiers dressed in Zouaves-like costumes during military training.
Many regiments in the South and North quickly abandoned their blue and grey jacket uniforms in favor of more refined Zouaves-style uniforms. According to Military History Now, the Zouaves were known for their colorful “red silk pants, a bright blue tunic adorned with shiny gold buttons, and a garish fez.” Ordinary federal regiments wearing Zouaves uniforms after displaying bravery in a war became a symbol of bravery.
The contingents from France, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and Brazil began donning uniforms identical to the Zouaves’. The Zouaves fighters, on the other hand, began to decline during the Battle of Second Manassas, incurring massive casualties.
Their numbers fell in the late 1860s as the war became more intense, but they fought until the end. Their famous uniform was still seen in parades and events after the war. According to Military History Now, the last Zouave regiment, a unit from Wisconsin, retired the iconic uniform in 1879.