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Zouaves: The First and The Bravest
Zouaves: The First and The Bravest


 
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Zouaves: The First and The Bravest

Warfare in the nineteenth century was no less bloody than today, yet people of the Victorian era saw it as a romantic adventure. Their vision of the battlefield was largely formed by the art of the period. Normally, early nineteenth century military art was limited to depictions of immense fields of battle, miraculously devoid of smoke and confusion, with any action centering around a prominent general on horseback. The most common of military art, created for the masses, consisted of cheap lithographs, crudely drawn and even though filled with blood and gore, curiously unrealistic. As a result, the Victorian mind was able to view war through a veil of romanticism and hide from sight those aspects it preferred not to see. As warfare was then associated with glory, patriotism and heroism, it was only natural that the warrior should share in those virtues. The wretched, often brutal, life of the common soldier was ignored as was his lowly status in society. Only the most visible, colorful or romantic of soldiers were allowed to intrude upon society in the Victorian age. In England, the proud Guards regiments and romantic Highlanders were the chosen representatives of the British soldier. They were the ideal types. In France it was the Chasseurs and the Zouaves who received similar public notice. They became the stereotypes for bravery and to a degree their own lives as soldiers were enhanced by this attention. None were more heroic in lithographs or paintings than the Zouave. He seemed the beau-ideal of a solider, as General Geroge B. McClellan, of Civil War fame, described him. The French Zouaves enjoyed a reputation of being recklessly brave on the battlefield, as though warfare was merely a game and their lives simply the table stakes. Their conduct off the battlefield was equally notable, for they tended to be undisciplined, resourceful foragers who provided for their personal comfort in any manner which was practical and the liberation of goods meant little to men who could expect to die in their next combat. Yet, there were not brigands. They were members of an elite unit with an esprit de corps which bound them together as a family, with the regimental commander, known as Father among the Zouaves, as the family head. They were also bound together by their distinctive dress. The Arab-inspired short jacket, baggy trousers and fez were key parts of their identity. The Zouave became a Victorian ideal of a soldier. He was not afraid to die in combat for he looked upon battle as a field of honor. Yet, he was human and capable of emotion, whether rage on the battlefield or deep sorrow at the death of a comrade. The end of the Victorian era and it died in the muddy Flanders fields in 1914 with thousands of brave soldiers also menat the end of the Zouave. He was a product of Victorian sentimentality and could survive the twentieth century in the same form. The French Army retains unites of Zouaves, but they no longer wear distinctive uniforms. In America Zouaves lasted into the 1950s in the form of an American Legion drill team, even appearing on the Ed Sullivan show in their twilight years. But the true Zouave, the gallant rascal of the nineteenth century, is gone forever.

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