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The Army of Africa (French language: Armée d’Afrique) was an unofficial but commonly used term for those portions of the French Army recruited from or normally stationed in French North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) from 1830 until the end of the Algerian War in 1962.


The Army of Africa included indigenous Arab or Berber volunteers, Spahis, Goumiers and Tirailleurs; regiments largely made up of French settlers doing their military service (Zouaves and Chasseurs d'Afrique); and non-French volunteers (French Foreign Legion). The divisions were not absolute and (for example) volunteers or conscripts from mainland France might choose to serve with the Muslim rank and file of the Spahis and Tirailleurs, while Arab volunteers might appear amongst the ranks of the Zouaves. Prior to World War I one battalion of each of the four Zouave regiments then in existence, was recruited in France to provide a link between the African and Metropolitan armies.[1]

In May 1913 a limited form of selective conscription was applied to the Muslim population of Algeria. Only 2,000 conscripts a year were obtained by this method out of approximately 45,000 possible candidates and Muslim enlistment remained predominately voluntary in peacetime. As in France itself, military service was an obligation of citizenship and all physically fit male settlers of French origin were required to undertake two years of compulsory service (three years from 1913).

Officers of all branches of the Army of Africa were predominantly French, though a certain number of commissioned positions up to and including the rank of captain were reserved for Muslim personnel in the spahis and tirailleurs.

In 1956, in the course of the Algerian War, a new policy of greater racial integration was adopted in the remaining units of the old Army of Africa. Algerian Tirailleur regiments were to be made up of roughly 50% "Frenchmen of North African stock" (i.e. Arab and Berber Muslims) and an equivalent number of French volunteers and conscripts, largely drawn from the European settler community. At the same time additional Muslim soldiers were be incorporated into previously mostly European units such as the Zouaves, until they made up to 25% of the total. Growing tensions within mixed units as the war continued, plus the threat of rebel FLN reprisals against Muslim volunteers, largely nullified this attempted reform[2]

Formal status

The Armée d’Afrique was formally part of the French metropolitan army comprising a separate army corps. The designation of 19th Army Corps (19e Corps d'Armée) was allocated to the Armée d'Afrique in 1873.[3] As such it was separate from the French Colonial Forces which came under the Ministry of Marine and comprised both French and indigenous units serving in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the French colonial empire.

African Light Infantry

An illustration of troops of the Infanterie Légère d'Afrique storming a fortification in 1833

The Infanterie Légère d'Afrique (African Light Infantry) was made up of convicted military criminals from all branches of the French Army, who had finished their sentences in military prisons but still had time to serve before their terms of engagement were completed. The preference was not to return them to their original units where they might undermine discipline or brutalise their fellow soldiers.

The first two battalions of the Infanterie Legere d'Afrique were raised in 1832 for service in Algeria. Ironically known as "les Joyeux" (the merry ones) these units were generally used for road and other construction work under harsh discipline. They were however used for combat service when circumstances demanded in Africa, Indochina and in France itself during World War I. Three battalions sent to France at the outbreak of World War II to work on fortifications, were rearmed in April 1940 and saw active service prior to the Fall of France.

Officers of the African Light Infantry were seconded from other regiments as were some non-commissioned officers. Many NCOs were however former "Joyeux" who chose to remain with these unusual units and exercise authority, after they had completed their original terms of service.

Desert troops

Camel mounted Meharistes plus Compagnies Sahariennes (desert infantry and later mechanised troops) were maintained in the Sahara. The Foreign Legion provided mule mounted detachments for service in southern Algeria and, from 1940 to 1962, four of the Compagnies Sahariennes.

In addition to the above, units or individuals from the mainland French Army were sometimes posted to service in North Africa, as were detachments of the Gendarmerie and the Tirailleurs Senegalais.

World War I

At the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Army of Africa in Algeria and Tunisia comprised nine regiments of Algerian Tirailleurs, four of Zouaves, six of Chasseurs d'Afrique, four of Spahis and two of the Foreign Legion. In Morocco nineteen battalions of Tirailleurs and nine of Zouaves were on active service, along with elements of the Foreign Legion and the African Light Infantry. Large numbers of these troops were sent immediately to serve in France, mainly drawn from the peacetime garrisons of Algeria and Tunisia.

In 1914 33,000 Muslim Algerians were already serving with the Spahis, Tirailleurs and other units of the Army of Africa. In the course of the war a further 137,000 enlisted either as volunteers (57,000) or as wartime conscripts (80,000). Of the total of 170,000, 36,000 were killed.

World War II

As had been the case in 1914, substantial numbers of the Army of Africa were moved to mainland France on the outbreak of World War II. In May 1940 14 regiments of zouaves, 42 regiments of Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan tirailleurs, 12 regiments and demi-brigades of the Foreign Legion and 13 battalions of African Light Infantry were serving on all fronts.[4]

Following the fall of France, the Army of Africa was reduced to a level of 120,000 under Axis direction. General Maxime Weygand was however able to maintain and train a further 60,000 men in French North Africa disguised as auxiliary police, "provisional conscripts" and "unarmed workers".[5]

From the end of 1942, the Army of Africa was headed by French general Henri Giraud and fought in the Tunisia Campaign before its merger with General Charles de Gaulle's Free French Forces. North African units subsequently played a major role in the liberation of Corsica (September - October 1943) and the Italian Campaign (1943–44) in the French Expeditionary Corps. During the French and German campaigns of 1944-45 the Army of Africa was expanded to 260,000 men (including 50% Maghrebis),[6] including the 1st Motorised Infantry Division (Zouaves and Foreign Legion), the 1st Armoured Division (Chasseurs d' Afrique and Foreign Legion), the 2nd and 4th Moroccan Infantry Divisions (Moroccan Tirailleurs), and the 3rd Algerian Infantry Division (Algerian and Tunisian Tirailleurs). In addition three groupements de tabors of Goumiers served as independent units while artillery, engineer, commando, reconnaissance (mechanised Spahis) and tank destroyer units were drawn from the French and indigenous populations of French North African.[7]

Post-Algerian War

With the exception of a reduced Foreign Legion and one regiment of Spahis, all units of the Armée d’Afrique were disbanded or lost their former identity between 1960 and 1965. A small unit of the Infanterie Légère d'Afrique was maintained in French Somaliland until that Territory became independent in 1977. However, one regiment each of Chasseurs d'Afrique, Tirailleurs and artillery (68e Régiment d'Artillerie d'Afrique) have been re-established to maintain the traditions of their respective branches.


A zouave in 1888, wearing "tenue orientale" with white summer trousers instead of the usual red.

The uniforms of the various branches making up the Army of Africa ranged from the spectacular "tenue orientale" of the Spahis, Tirailleurs and Zouaves to the ordinary French military dress of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, Foreign Legion, Artillerie d'Afrique and Infanterie Légère d'Afrique. Even the latter units were distinguished by details such as sashes, white kepi covers and (for the Chasseurs) fezs which made them stand out from the remainder of the French Army. Some of these features have survived as parade dress to the present day; notably the white cloaks and red sashes worn by the 1st Spahis, and the white kepis and blue sashes of the Foreign Legion. The "fanfare-nouba" (regimental band) of the 1st Regiment of Tirailleurs still wears the full traditional "tenue orientale"; comprising white turbans, light blue zouave style jackets braided in yellow, red sashes and wide light blue or white Moorish trousers.


European units

Indigenous units

See also

  • French colonial flags
  • French Colonial Empire
  • List of French possessions and colonies


  1. Larcade, Jean-Louis. Zouave & Tirailleurs volume 1. p. 157. ISBN 2-9515171-0-6. 
  2. Windrow, Martin. The Algerian War 1954-62. p. 20. ISBN 1-85532-658-2. 
  3. Anthony Clayton, 'France, Soldiers, and Africa', Brassey's Defence Publishers, 1988, p.66
  4. Ian Sumner & Francois Vauillier, page 11 The French Army 1939-45 (1), ISBN 1-85532-666-3
  5. Ian Sumner & Francois Vauillier, page 13 The French Army 1939-45 (2), ISBN 1-85532-707-4
  6. "Au total, à l'automne de 1944, la France finira par disposer d'une armée effective de 250 000 hommes composée pour moitié d'éléments indigènes, Maghrébins, Africains et pour moitié d'Européens d'Afrique du Nord", Philippe Masson, L'homme en guerre, 1901-2001: de la Marne à Sarajev, Editions du Rocher, 1997, p.23
  7. page 393 L'Armee d" Afrique 1830-1962 (1), ISBN 1-85532-666-3

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