Army of the Levant

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1er Régiment Etranger de Cavalerie, 1er REC. The only cavalry regiment in the French Foreign Legion, since the 2nd Foreign Cavalry Regiment (2e REC) has been disbanded. 1er REC has been stationed at Quartier Labouche in Orange, France since it moved from Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria in October 1967.

The regiment was created in Tunisia in 1921 around a cadre of Russian White movement veterans with extensive light cavalry experience from the Russian Civil War. It subsequently served in Syria and Morocco in 1920′s and 1930′s.

Uniforms of the Troupes Speciales varied according to arm of service but showed a mixture of French and Levantine influences. Indigenous personnel wore either the keffiyeh headdress (red for Druze and white for other units), fezzes or turbans. The Circassian mounted troops wore a black full dress that closely resembled that of the Caucasian Cossacks, complete with astrakhan hats. A common feature across the Troupes Speciales was the use of “violette” (purple-red) as a facing colour on tunic collar patches, belts and kepis. Squadron or branch insignia often included regional landmarks such as the cedars of Lebanon or the main mosque of Damascus.

In 1920, the French were given a mandate over Syria and Lebanon by the League of Nations. During this period Syria was known as the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon was known as the French Mandate of Lebanon.

From 19 April to 26 April 1920 the San Remo Conference was held in Sanremo, Italy. After this conference was concluded, the short-lived monarchy of King Faisal’s was defeated at the Battle of Maysalun during the Franco-Syrian War. The French army under General Henri Gouraud then occupied the Mandate of Syria and the Mandate of Lebanon.

A force called the Syrian Legion was raised by the French authorities shortly after the establishment of the two mandates. This comprised both cavalry and infantry units and was drawn mainly from minority groups within Syria itself.

Following the Druse revolt of 1925 to 1927, the Syrian Legion was reorganised into the “Special Troops of the Levant” (Troupes Speciales du Levant) augmented by North African infantry (tirailleurs) and cavalry (spahis), Foreign Legion (Légion étrangère), and Colonial Infantry/Artillery units (both French and Senegalese). The whole force constituted the Army of the Levant and was responsible for keeping order in both French mandates during the interwar period.

The French Mandate Administration followed a principle of divide and rule in organising the Troupes Speciales. As far as possible the Sunni Muslim Arabs, who made up about 65% of the population of Syria, were excluded from service with the Troupes Speciales, who were drawn mainly from Druze, Christian, Circassian and ‘Alawi minorities. During the period from 1926 to 1939, the Army of the Levant included between 10,000 and 12,000 locally engaged troops organised into: ten battalions of infantry (mostly ‘Alawis), four squadrons of cavalry (Druze, Circassian and mixed Syrian), three companies of camel corps (méharistes), engineer, armoured car, and support units. In addition, there were 9 companies of Lebanese light infantry (chasseurs libanais) and 22 squadrons of Druze, Circassian, and Kurdish mounted infantry forming the auxiliary troops (Troupes Supplementaires). This latter force provided a form of military police (gendarmerie) for internal security purposes and were primarily deployed in the areas of their recruitment. Some of the Lebanese units were trained as ski troops for mountain service and wore the berets of the French elite mountain infantry (Chasseurs Alpins).

By 1938, the Troupes Speciales numbered 10,000, with 306 officers of whom only 88 were French. A military academy (École Militaire) was established at Homs to train Syrian and Lebanese officers and specialist non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

During the 1930s the French Army experimented with integrating mounted and mechanised cavalry units into larger formations. Dragoon regiments were converted to motorised infantry (trucks and motor cycles), and cuirassiers to armoured units; while light cavalry (Chasseurs a’ Cheval, Hussars and Spahis) remained as mounted sabre squadrons. The theory was that mixed forces comprising these diverse units could utilise the strengths of each according to circumstances. In practice mounted troops proved unable to keep up with fast moving mechanised units over any distance.

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