Spahi: Wikis


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Spahi uniform ca. 1960 as worn by French maréchal des logis-chef. Note distinctive North African burnous.
Spahi uniform today: 2006 pattern parade uniform for a maréchal des logis of the 1st Spahi Regiment, again with distinctive burnous.

Spahis (French pronunciation: [spa.i]) were light cavalry regiments of the French army recruited primarily from the indigenous populations of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.



The name is the French form of sipahi, a word originally derived from Middle Persian term Spah (in New Persian "Sepâh", سپاه ) meaning "army", or "horsemen". The title was probably borrowed from the Parthian (Arsacid) and Sassanian Persian army position Spahbod, or Eran Spahbod, which was the Commander of cavalry/knights as well as Commander-in-Chief of the Persian military.[citation needed]

Early history

First raised in 1831, the Spahis saw extensive service in the conquest of Algeria, in the Franco-Prussian War, in Tonkin towards the end of the Sino-French War (1885), in the occupation of Morocco and Syria, and in both World Wars. A detachment of Spahis served as the personal escort of Marshal Jacques Leroy de Saint Arnaud in the Crimean War and were photographed there by Roger Fenton.

Prior to 1914 there were four regiments of Spahis in the French Army, three based in Algeria and one in Tunisia. A serious rising against French rule in Algeria during 1871–72 was sparked off by the mutiny of a squadron of Spahis who had been ordered to France to take part in the Franco-Prussian War.

During their period as mounted cavalry the Spahis comprised for the most part Arab and Berber troopers commanded by French officers. This division was not absolute however and there were always a certain number of French volunteers in the ranks. In addition, a fixed number of commissioned positions up to the level of captain were reserved for Muslim officers. NCOs were both French and Muslim. As Spahi units were mechanised, the proportion of Frenchmen in the ranks increased.

World War I

Spahis were sent to France at the outbreak of war in August 1914. They saw service during the opening period of mobile warfare but inevitably their role diminished with the advent of trench warfare. By 1918 all seven Spahi regiments then in existence had seen service on the Western Front. In addition a detached squadron had served in Palestine against the Ottoman Empire. During World War I the number of units increased with the creation of Moroccan Spahi regiments and the expansion of the Algerian arm.

Between the World Wars

During the 1920s mounted Spahi regiments saw extensive active service in the French mandated territories of Syria and Lebanon, as well as in Morocco. They continued to perform policing and garrison duties in Algeria and were, for the first time during peacetime, based in France itself. Although mechanisation began in the 1930s of the Chasseurs d'Afrique and Foreign Legion cavalry, the Spahis remained an entirely mounted force until after 1942.

World War II

In 1939 the Spahis comprised three independent brigades, each of two regiments and still horse mounted. Each regiment was made up of four sabre squadrons with five officers and 172 troopers in each. Three regiments saw active service in France in 1940. One Spahi regiment (1er Régiment de Marche de Spahis Marocains) distinguished itself in service with the Free French during World War II. Garrisoned in Vichy-controlled Syria as part of a mounted cavalry unit (1er Régiment de Spahis Marocains), some of the regiment crossed the frontier into Jordan in June 1940. After mounted service in Eritrea, this detachment was subsequently reorganised and equipped with armoured cars by the British in Egypt. It served in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and during the liberation of France. The expanded and mechanised regiment served in Egypt, Tunisia and was part of the French forces that liberated Paris in August 1944.

Post war

In the course of World War II most Spahi regiments were mechanised, but several squadrons remained mounted for patrol work in North Africa and ceremonial duties in France itself. The annual Bastille Day parade in Paris always featured Spahi cavalry in their traditional dress on white Arabian horses. While Arab and Berber troopers continued to serve in the mounted units retained, mechanisation led to French personnel becoming a majority in the armoured regiments.

Armoured Spahi units saw service in both the Indochina War of 1947-54 and the Algerian War of 1954-62.

The 6th Spahis had been disbanded in 1856, followed by the 9th in 1961. At the end of the Algerian War the 2nd, 3rd 4th, 8th and 9th Spahis were also disbanded leaving only one, formerly Moroccan, regiment in existance as the 1st Spahis[1].


Today the French Army retains one Spahi regiment, the 1er Régiment de Spahis Marocains; an armoured unit which saw service in the Gulf War. The regiment also maintains the traditions of the entire corps as it previously existed.

Until 1984 the Regiment was located in Speyer, Germany. Their actual base there is now the Technikmuseum Speyer. The 1er Spahis are currently based in Valence, Drôme, France, 100 km (62 mi) south of Lyon in the Rhone Valley or what is commonly referred to in France as The Doors of Provence.


Throughout most of their history the Algerian and Tunisian Spahis wore a very striking Zouave style uniform. It comprised a high Arab headdress, a short red jacket embroidered in black, sky blue waist coat (sedria) a wide red sash and voluminous light blue trousers. The four regiments were distinguished by the differing colours of their "tombeaus" (circular false pockets on the front of the jacket). A white burnous was worn together with a red cloak (blue for the Moroccan Spahis). French officers wore light blue kepis, red tunics with gold rank braiding and light blue breeches with double red stripes. Muslim officers wore a more elaborate version of the "tenue orientale" of the Arab and Berber troopers. French Spahis were distinguished by wearing fezs instead of the white Arab turban with its brown camel hair cords. A less obvious distinction was the footwear—short "sabattes" or traditional North African boots in red Morocco leather for Arab/Berber troopers, conventional black leather for French troopers. Armament was the sabre of the French light cavalry together with the 1892 carbine.

From 1915 on a more practical khaki uniform was adopted for service but the classic red and blue reappeared for parade and off duty wear in 1927. The mounted squadrons retained for ceremonial duties wore a slightly modified version of this parade uniform until they were disbanded in 1962. The modern 1er Spahis still wear the traditional burnous, red sash and red or blue cloaks for full dress.

Exceptionally for a French armoured cavalry regiment, it uses gold (and not the usual silver) insignia. The "Ordonnance du Roi portant organisation de la cavalerie indigene en Algerie" of 7 December 1841 establishing the Spahis as a regular corps of the French Army specifies this distinction for sous-officers, brigadiers and officers both French and indigenous (see full text in Pierre Rosiere's "Spahis" as cited below).

Spahis Senegalese

Spahi sénégalais (illustration from Côte occidentale d'Afrique of Colonel Frey, 1890).

In addition to the North African cavalry described above, two squadrons of Spahis were raised in French West Africa. First established in 1855 these mounted units saw service in Morocco as well as in the various West African campaigns. The troopers were recruited from the inhabitants of Senegal and the French Sudan while their officers were seconded from Algerian Spahi regiments. In 1928 the Spahis Senegalese were converted to a mounted gendarmerie. The modern Gendarmerie Nationale of the Republic of Senegal includes a mounted ceremonial squadron—the gardes rouge (red guard) which traces its history back to the Spahis Senegalese and still wears the burnous, fez and red tunic of the French period.

Indochinese Spahis

Shortlived cavalry units designated as "spahis" were raised by the French Colonial Army in Indochina. The first of these was a squadron of spahis recruited from Cochinchina in 1861 and disbanded in 1871. The second was a small detachment of "spahis Tonkinese" raised in Tonkin in 1888 and disestablished the following year.

Spahis of Italy

The Italian colonial administration of Libya raised squadrons of locally recruited Spahi cavalry between 1912 and 1942. These differed from their French namesakes in that their prime role was that of mounted police, tasked with patrolling rural and desert areas. Although they had Italian officers these spahis were more loosely organised than the regular Libyan cavalry regiments (Savari). They wore a picturesque dress modelled on that of the desert tribesmen from whom they were recruited.


  1. ^ General C.R. Hure, page 462, L'Armee d'Afrique, Lavauzelle 1979

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