The Zouaves on all fronts

The Zouaves on all fronts

  • The Zouave wounded. Crimea, February 29, 1855.

    FENTON Roger (1819 - 1869)

  • Mexican War, siege and capture of Puebla.

  • Zouave killed while marching to the charge.

    TERRIER Henri (1887 - 1918)

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Title: The Zouave wounded. Crimea, February 29, 1855.

Author : FENTON Roger (1819 - 1869)

Creation date : 1855

Date shown: February 29, 1855

Dimensions: Height 13.4 - Width 15.8

Storage location: Condé museum (Chantilly) website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved website

Picture reference: 01-014324 / PH529

The Zouave wounded. Crimea, February 29, 1855.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

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Title: Mexican War, siege and capture of Puebla.

Author :

Date shown: March 20, 1863

Dimensions: Height 0 - Width 0

Technique and other indications: Imprimerie Charles Pinot et Sagaire (1860-1888), Publishers-booksellers in Epinal.

Storage location: MuCEM website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Raux

Picture reference: 07-517308 / 53.86.1061C

Mexican War, siege and capture of Puebla.

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - F. Raux

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Title: Zouave killed while marching to the charge.

Author : TERRIER Henri (1887 - 1918)

Creation date : 1915

Date shown: June 1915

Dimensions: Height 4.2 - Width 6.5

Technique and other indications: Silver print on paper.

Storage location: Army Museum (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrettes website

Picture reference: 06-510738 / 2004.33.1.339

Zouave killed while marching to the charge.

© Paris - Army Museum, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Pascal Segrette

Publication date: July 2009

Historical context

The Zouaves, a separate body in the French army

The history of the Zouaves, a specific infantry unit with an easily recognizable costume, begins in the early days of the second wave of French colonization. Their popularity widened as the industry perfected its techniques of mass iconographic reproduction and developed photographic documentation, two vectors of information or propaganda.

Image Analysis

The Zouaves, shock troops in combat

The photograph by Englishman Roger Fenton (1809-1869), one of the first taken during his four-month mission in Crimea, demonstrates the power of photography as a medium. On a piece of barren land, unrecognizable, a live scene seems to be playing out: his rifle near him, a wounded fighter is stretched out. The bandage on his head makes a pristine stain in tones of gray and contrasts with the dark wine of the bottle, an implicit reference to the blood that is not seen. A woman, canteen of the Marine Corps but also acting as a nurse, brings her this little comfort while a companion supports her head. The two men wear the uniform of the Zouaves with the fez and the pompom. This same element stands out clearly in the melee of the siege of Puebla, a city attacked in March 1863, but which did not fall into French hands until May, at the cost of intense street fighting. The image of Épinal gives pride of place to confrontation, reducing the setting to an unrecognizable urban horizon. The composition is dynamic, with an opposition between the tricolor and the Mexican yellow flag, characters all in motion and swirls of smoke which, like oriental prints, veil and reveal certain parts of the story. If three French soldiers are shown dead or dying, the number of Mexican soldiers is very small; they can only hold out thanks to the popular militia coming out of the city. But the Zouaves are rightly assaulting them: they spring from the lower right corner, near a gap in the defense, and one of them, in the center, brandishes his rifle like a club. Finally, the folds and colors of the Zouave costume echo those of the imperial flag, pictorially sealing this victorious alliance.

Henri Terrier (1887-1918) photographed the Great War at ground level in June 1915. Besides his photo of the Zouaves trenches near Tracy-le-Val, he captured a scene that echoes that of Fenton in Crimea. The dead Zouave, seen from very close but from behind and therefore unidentifiable, this time gives up all the space to the lunar no man’s land where bodies and debris of military equipment lie. The uncertain horizontality of the framing indicates the haste of the photographer, authorized by a compact camera such as the hairy people possessed despite the prohibitions. The horizon over which the invisible enemy lurks is highlighted by the barbed wire line, driven in by the herd of fighters rushing forward.


Modern warfare, the tomb of romantic heroism

The three images selected each illustrate a moment in the crossed history of modern wars and means of propaganda or information. Thus, the Fenton shot appears to have been taken from life, but given the technique of the time, it could only be obtained at the cost of a fairly long exposure time. Not only does the document given as immediate represent the aftermath, but its dramatic intensity is the result of a staging that calls on a topos of Western painting: the deposition of the Cross of Christ. This invocation of the visual culture of the public facilitates the attachment of the French to this specific body of the army and, more broadly, the acceptance of this distant war. Likewise, the heroism exalted by the colors of the image of Épinal, which was to be widely disseminated, conceals the less than laudable motives for French engagement in the New World. Emperor Napoleon III wanted to install an emperor, Maximilian, the puppet head of a regime under implicit French protectorate. The capture of Puebla having opened the road to Mexico in 1863 to the expeditionary force, the propaganda of this achievement had to be up to the ambitions. Among the 40,000 or so soldiers sent, the Algerian skirmishers, the Zouaves and the first regiment of the Foreign Legion stood out, both by their appearance and by their bravery, easily publicized - especially since the four Zouaves of the Alma Bridge, carved in 1856 to celebrate the battle of the same name in Crimea, were already well known to the population. The Terrier snapshot, on the other hand, is a document of private origin and destination, which could not and should not appear publicly - despite requests from the press and under strict censorship rules, which banned until 1915 to show dead people and prisoners. Nothing distinguishes the Zouave from other soldiers, he dies anonymous and without assistance. Her folk costume has given way to the imperatives of a war of attrition, her body already merges with the soil and is nothing exotic or heroic about it.

  • War of 14-18
  • Crimean War
  • Mexico
  • colonial troops


Jean-Jacques BECKER, World War I, Paris, Belin, 2008 (reed.) Alain GOUTTMAN, The Crimean War.The first modern war 1853-1856, Paris, Perrin, 2003.Alain GOUTTMAN, The Mexican War (1862-1867): the American mirage of Napoleon III, Paris, Perrin, 2008 Collective, Colonial Troops in the Great War, proceedings of the Verdun conference, Economica, 1997.

To cite this article

Alexandre SUMPF, "The Zouaves on all fronts"

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