The Chasseurs d'Afrique were a light cavalry corps of chasseurs in the French Armée d'Afrique (Army of Africa). First raised in the 1830s from regular French cavalry posted to Algeria, they numbered five regiments by World War II. For most of their history they were recruited from either French volunteers or French settlers in North Africa doing their military service. As such they were the mounted equivalent of the French Zouave infantry. The other major cavalry element in the Armee d'Afrique were the Spahis--recruited from the indigenous peoples of Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco with mostly French officers.
In addition to numerous campaigns in North Africa, these colorful regiments also served in the Crimean War, Franco-Prussian War, Indochina, France's invasion of Mexico and both world wars. The Chass. d'Af. distinguished themselves by securing the flank of Lord Cardigan during the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. On this and other occasions they used their characteristic African tactic of advancing rapidly in open order, in contrast to the rigid lines of the Light Brigade.
On 5 May 1863 the 1st Chasseurs d'Afrique distinguished itself in a clash with Mexican lancers during the Battle of San Pablo del Monte. The regimental flag was subsequently decorated with the Cross of the Legion of Honour and 5 May remains the annual day of celebration for the modern Chass. d'Af.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, six regiments of Chasseurs d'Afrique were in existence. The 1er and 2e RCA had detached squadrons on active service in eastern Morocco while the four remaining regiments were on garrison duty in Algeria and Tunisia. Seven regiments of Chasseurs d'Afrique (including three regiments de marche or active service units created for a particular campaign) were transferred to France between 1914 and 1918. The 1er and 4e RCA ended the war in the Middle East fighting against the Turks, while the 5e RCA detached squadrons to serve in the Balkans.
In 1933 the regiments de chasseurs d'Afrique (RCA) began the process of conversion to mechanised units. The first vehicles adopted were White TBC armoured cars, followed by White-Laffly 50 AMs. Both models were obsolete for European warfare but suitable for colonial campaigning. Other vehicles were provided for individual squadrons and in 1939 Hotchkiss H35 and H39 light tanks were received by the 1er RCA.
On the outbreak of World War II (September 1939) regiments of chasseurs d'Afrique were deployed as follows:
1er RCA in Morocco;
2e, 3e, and 5e RCA in Algeria ;
4e RCA in Tunisia;
Only the 1er and 4e RCA were fully mechanised at this date, the other regiments comprising a mix of mounted and mechanised squadrons.
In 1941, 6e and 7e RCA were created in the Levant, that is in Syria and Lebanon. Both were involved in heavy fighting against Allied forces in 1941 Operation Exporter, equipped with 90 tanks (mostly Renault R-35 with a few Renault FTs) and a similar number of armoured cars.
In the course of World War II the process of mechanisation was completed. The 3e and 5e RCA were equipped with M4 Sherman and M5 light tanks. The 5e RCA notably landed in Provence in August 1944, and was one of the first units to be fully operational for combat. It was engaged in several battles during the taking of Toulon, in the Rhone valley, through Burgundy, Alsace, and in the Black Forest. The regiment earned the Rhine and Danube badge.
Algerian independence brought an end to the corps through a series of disbandments and transfers between 1962 and 1964, after over a century of service. However one regiment (1er Regiment de Chasseurs d'Afrique) was re-established in 1998 to preserve the traditions of this famous cavalry. The modern regiment is one of the mechanised units of the French Army. It is divided into one instruction squadron and three combat squadrons and is equipped with approximately 45 armoured vehicles.
The Chasseurs d'Afrique were until 1914 clothed in light blue tunics tucked into a red sash and red breeches. Their normal headdress was the taconnet--a light blue and red shako, similar in shape to that worn by the equivalent light cavalry regiments (hussars and chasseurs à cheval) of the metropolitan army, but worn with a white or light khaki cover. Prior to 1873 the casquette d'Afrique had been worn. The traditional fez and sash were worn off duty or when in barracks until World War II. The light blue tunics had yellow facings and reportedly earned the Chasseurs d'Afrique the nickname of "Blue Butchers" amongst some of their opponents.
The khaki uniforms worn by the Chasseurs d'Afrique from 1915 onwards were distinguished by dark blue collar patches with yellow braiding and regimental numbers. The modern armoured regiment has recently (2014) reintroduced the historic red sash and fez for parade. More commonly worn is the light blue and red kepi of the French cavalry.