Chasseur [sha-sur; Fr. sha-sœr] (a French term for "hunter") is the designation given to certain regiments of French and Belgian light infantry (Chasseurs à pied) or light cavalry (Chasseurs à cheval) to denote troops trained for rapid action.
This branch of the French Army originated during the War of the Austrian Succession when, in 1743, Jean Chrétien Fischer was authorized by the Marshal de Belle-Isle to raise a six hundred strong mixed force of infantry and cavalry. It was called Fischer's chasseurs. During the remainder of the 18th century various types of light troops (troupes légères) were employed within the French army, either as independent units or as companies within existing regiments.
Chasseurs à pied
The Chasseurs à pied were the light infantrymen of the French Imperial army. They were armed the same as their counterparts in the regular line infantry (fusilier) battalions but were trained to excel in marksmanship and in executing manoeuvres at high speed. The other light infantry unit type, the voltigeurs, specialised as skirmishers and for advance screening of the main force. The chasseurs could also be called upon to form advance guards and scouting parties alongside the voltigeurs.
Following the Napoleonic Wars the Chasseurs à pied continued to exist as a separate corps within the infantry. Initially a specially trained elite, their tactical role eventually came to match that of the ordinary lignards (line infantry). By the late 19th century the differences between the two branches were confined to uniform and insignia, although the chasseurs retained a strong esprit de corps.
Chasseurs à cheval
The Chasseurs à cheval, a type of French light cavalry, date from 1743 when an independent unit (Fischer's Volunteer Company of Chasseurs) was raised during the War of the Austrian Succession to counter Trenck's Pandurs and Croats employed as irregulars by the Austrian army. Originally a mixed corps of light infantry and horsemen, this force proved sufficiently effective to warrant the creation of a single corps: Dragoons-chasseurs de Conflans. In 1776 this and other volunteer "legions" had their mounted elements converted into 24 squadrons of Chasseurs à cheval, each of which was attached to one of the existing dragoon regiments of the Royal cavalry. In 1779 these squadrons were amalgamated into six regiments, each of which was given a regional title (1st Chasseurs des Alpes, 2nd Chasseurs des Pyrenees, etc.). In 1788 six dragoon regiments were converted to Chasseurs à cheval and during the period of the Revolutionary Wars the number was again increased, to twenty-five.
During their earlier history these regiments lacked the higher profile of the identically-armed (but much more lavishly uniformed) hussars. Distinguished by dark green uniforms and a bugle-horn badge, they were frequently used as advance scouting units providing valuable information on enemy movements. Both Napoleon's Imperial Guard and the Royal Guard of the Restoration each included a regiment of Chasseurs à cheval. In addition Napoleon added a further five line regiments to those inherited from the Revolutionary period. At the beginning of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French Army had twelve regiments of Chasseurs à cheval, grouped with eight hussar regiments to form the light branch of the cavalry and tasked with primarily reconnaissance duties. This intended role continued through World War I and the Chasseurs à cheval remained entirely horse mounted until the 1er RCh was motorised in June 1940. Disbanded after the Battle of France, these units were reconstituted in 1944–45 as light armor.
During the French occupation of Algeria, regiments of Chasseurs d'Afrique were raised. These were light cavalry recruited originally from French volunteers and subsequently from the French settlers in North Africa doing their military service. As such they were the mounted equivalent of the Zouaves.
Modern French Army
The modern French Army comprises bataillons of Chasseurs à pied (mechanized infantry: 16e BC),Chasseurs-Alpins (mountain troops: 7e, 13e, 27e BCA) and regiments of Chasseurs à cheval (1er-2e RCh and 4e RCh: light armored regiments). In addition one regiment of Chasseurs d'Afrique (training unit: 1er RCA) has been re-raised to commemorate this branch of the French cavalry. Since May 1943 there has been a "Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes" (1er RCP).
All of these units have different traditions:
- Bataillons de chasseurs are light infantry units created after 1838. Some of these battalions were converted to specialized mountain units as Bataillons de Chasseurs Alpins in 1888, as an answer to the Italian Alpine (Alpini) regiments stationed along the Alpine frontier.
- Régiments de chasseurs are units of the "Arme Blindée Cavalerie" : armoured units. The basic organic unit is called regiment and not bataillon to avoid confusing cavalry and infantry chasseurs.
- The airborne infantry units called Régiments de chasseurs parachutistes were created in 1943 with airborne troops from the French Airforce (GIA or Groupe d'Infanterie de l'Air), who were transferred into the Army.
- Chasseurs Alpins are the elite mountain infantry of the modern French Army. They are trained to operate in mountainous terrain and to undertake urban warfare.
Although the traditions of these different branches of the French Army are very different, there is still a tendency to confuse one with the other. For example when World War I veteran Léon Weil died, the AFP press agency stated that he was a member of the 5th "Regiment de Chasseurs Alpins". It was in fact the 5th Bataillon.
From its creation as a permanent force in 1832 the Belgian army included regiments of both Chasseurs à pied and Chasseurs à cheval, performing the same roles as their French counterparts. At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914 there were 3 regiments of Chasseurs à pied, each of 3 battalions, and 3 regiments of mounted Chasseurs.
The last Belgian regiments of Chasseurs à cheval (or Jagers te Paard in Dutch), the 1st Regiment of Chasseurs à cheval were amalgamated with the 1st Guides Regiment in 2004, while the final unit, the 2nd/4th Chasseurs à cheval, was formed into the ISTAR Battalion in 2011, losing the distinctive designation.
- "Fischer, Jean Chrétien". New International Encyclopedia. 1905.
- Ludovic Letrun and Jean-Marie Mongin, pages 4-5 "Chasseurs à cheval 1779-1815, ISBN 978-2-35250-199-2
- Stephen Shann, page 16 "French Army 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War 1 Imperial Troops, ISBN 1-85532-121-1
- Ian Sumner and Francois Vauvillier, page 15 The French Army 1939–45 (1) ISBN 1 85532 666 3
- P Lierneux, R Pawly. The Belgian Army in World War I. p. 4. ISBN 978 1 84603 448 0.