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Wellington's Army

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History and Uniform of the Compagnies franches de la marine, 1683-1760
by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand

cwm_1.jpg (27054 bytes)
Compagnies franches de la marine soldier in
summer campaign dress. (artist: R.J. Marrion
copyright:Canadian War Museum)

The following is an extract from the book Military Uniforms in Canada, 1665-1970 by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand (Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1981) and is reproduced here by the kind permission of the Canadian War Museum. Reprinting or duplication of the text or illustration without permission from the Canadian War Museum is prohibited.


Frontenac succeeded Courcelle as Governor of New France in 1672. When Joseph-Antoine Le Febvre de La Barre took over the position in 1682, the new Governor found the colony on the brink of war with the Iroquois, but without military resources. In response to La Barre's urgent request for troops, the Ministry of the Navy, which was responsible for the administration of France's North American colonies, was assigned the task of raising a force for service in Canada. Three companies of "Navy Troops" (Troupes de la marine), comprising some 156 all ranks, were recruited in France and transported to Quebec in 1683. By 1684, the hastily raised force had been transformed into a permanent body of colonial regulars with a separate establishment of its own, independent of both regular army units and the companies on the naval establishment based in France For seaport protection.

The troops' strength continued to grow during the following years. Between 1689 and 1750, the garrison of Canada consisted of twenty-eight companies of colonial regulars known as the Companies franches de la marine (Independent Companies of the Navy). This number was increased to thirty in 1750, and raised again in 1757 to some forty companies. As their title suggests, the colonial regulars consisted ofa number of independent companies with a variable establishment. By 1757, a company was ordered to consist of one captain, one lieutenant, two ensigns, three sergeants, four corporals, two cadets, two drummers, and fifty-four soldiers. In fact, the companies were chronically under strength, and Governor Vaudreuil's complaint in 1757 that the colonials were 250 men short was all too typical.

Some of the companies were formed into a battalion in 1757 for service with Montcalm's regular army battalions. Twenty-four companies of colonial regulars were stationed at Louisbourg during the 1750s, although Louisbourg was not even considered part of New France, but a separate colony of "Isle Royale" with its own establishment.

The assignments of colonial regulars varied greatly. Some were posted to garrison the major fortified cities of Quebec and Montreal, while others were subdivided into garrisons for the small fortified outposts guarding the frontiers and supply routes. Small detachments were sent to protect the advance trading posts, which supplied the profitable fur trade of New France.

Officers from the Compagnies franches de Ia marine were selected to organize and command war-parties of Canadien militia and their unpredictable Indian allies, for swift raids across the New England borders. These war-parties usually included at least one company of colonial regulars to provide a dependable disciplined nucleus for the improvised units.

Away from the endless ceremonial duties and formalized tactical rnanoeuvres of European armies, the colonial regulars were somewhat lax in matters of drill and dress. But if their deportment and discipline were more casual than those of the line regiments, their skill in moving and fighting over the rugged Canadian terrain was far superior to that of the regular army units. They became experienced bush fighters and a match for the Indians in their own hit-and-run style of fighting.

The Compagnies franches de la marine provided regular infantry troop support for the colony until line infantry regiments of the French army (Troupes de terre) arrived in 1755. The colonial regulars formed the backbone of the French push down the Ohio valley, which began in 1752 to limit the westward expansion ofthe New England colonies. In July 1755, the operation culminated in the defeat of Major-General Edward Braddock's column of British regulars on the Monongahela River by a mixed force of colonial regulars, militiamen, and Indians.

During periods of relative peace the soldiers received additional pay for constructing forts and roads. Because of a chronic labour shortage, the regulars were also permitted to augment their meagre pay by working on local farms. As a result, the regular troops became closely identified with the colony.

As the years passed, the Compagnies franches de la marine assumed a distinctly Canadien character. The colonial force offered little opportunity for promotion beyond the rank of captain and thus was not particularly attractive to the French career officer. However, it did offer an opportunity for members of prominent Canadien families to enter the service, and an increasing number of officer vacancies were filled locally. To accommodate the demand for these popular appointments, a number of officer cadet positions were created, which were occupied by Canadiens.

The other ranks were recruited in France, and were expected to remain in the colonies when discharged. The enlistment of Canadiens was discouraged because it reduced the work-force available for the essential farming industry.

Although only the officers were native born, the Compagnies franches de la marine were the first truly Canadian regular soldiers, and can be considered the forerunners of the Canadian Permanent Force.


Clothing and equipment for the troops of New France were purchased in France and shipped out to Canada. Some of the clothing contracts and bills of lading have been preserved and provide considerable detailed information about the dress of colonial regulars. They also provide insight into the inevitable changes in details of dress and equipment that the Compagnies franches de la marine underwent during their seventy-five-year history.

In the 1750s, the private soldier was issued a long collarless single-breasted coat or justaucorps of greyish white, with lining and deep cuffs of blue. Pockets with horizontal flaps were set low on the hips, and the skirt corners could be hooked back to facilitate movement. The long-sleeved waistcoat, breeches, and stockings were blue.

A black felt tricorn, decorated with a cockade and button, was worn very low over the eyes; its brim was edged with false-gold lace. The buckled shoes were black. Gaiters of white duck, reaching just to the thigh, were fastened below the knee with a black strap. A white cravat and shirt completed the soldier's dress.

Corporals wore a yellow stripe of woollen lace around the top of the coat cuffs. Sergeants' uniforms were of similar pattern, but of better quality material; an inch-wide stripe of gold lace edged the cuffs and pocket flaps. Sergeant-majors wore two gold lace stripes on the cuffs and pocket flaps.

Drummers wore the King's small livery. The blue coat had brass buttons and red cuffs and lining. ft was heavily ornamented along the seams and buttonholes with the King's livery lace - white chain on a crimson ground. Waistcoat, breeches, and stockings were red. Otherwise the uniform was similar to that of the private soldier. The drummers' buff sword-belts and drum slings were bordered with livery lace. The blue drum shells were sprinkled with fleurs-de-lis.

Drum majors wore the King's great livery, which differed from that of the drummers only in the red triangles on white ground that appeared between the strips of livery lace.

Officers' uniforms were of the same pattern and colour as those of the men, but of better quality cloth. The waistcoat was frequently embellished with gold lace, but the coat was left unadorned. Buttons were gilt, and hats were braided with fine gold lace. Officers wore a gilt gorget on duty, and were armed with a gilt-hilted sword and an espontoon, which was exchanged for a fusil when in the field.

Cadets served in the ranks and wore the same uniform as the men; they were distinguished only by an aiguillette of blue and white silk with brass tips.

A buff leather waist-belt with brass buckles was attached to a double frog holding brown leather, brass-tipped scabbards for sword and bayonet. The brass-hilted sword had a straight blade. A red-brown leather cartridge-box was attached to the waist-belt; later, it was suspended on the right hip from a buff leather cross-belt. As descriptions of several patterns of cartridge-box have been found1 one can assume that this item went through a number of variations The standard French cartouchière of the mid-eighteenth century held thirty musket cartridges. The older cartridge pouch held only nine cartridges, and the flap was engraved with the King's arms or a white anchor and border. A small brass-mounted powder-horn completed the equipment.

On campaign or when stationed in western outposts, the colonial regulars adopted a casual, serviceable dress modeled on that of the woodsmen: buckskin or cloth leggings, moccasins, and breeches of Indian design In some cases, soldiers dressed entirely in the Indian fashion.

For winter dress, the Canadian hooded capot, woollen tuque and leggings, moccasins, and mittens were issued. The men moved across the deep drifts of the countryside on snowshoes.

While the precise designs of the muskets carried by the Cornpagnies franches de la marine have not survived, it is known that all were of the flintlock type, although many soldiers in Europe were still armed with matchlock muskets as late as the 1690s. As the colonial regulars were the responsibility of the navy, they carried navy-model muskets made at Tulle. In the 1740s, the navy began to purchase muskets from St-Etienne that probably resembled the army's 1728 model. By 1752, the royal magazines at Montreal and Quebec housed a considerable variety of muskets and bayonets. The French steel-mounted .69-calibre musket was somewhat lighter than the British Brown Bess.

The soldier of the Compagnies franches ire La marine in the illustration [above] is dressed for a summer campaign. He has discarded his heavy grey-white justaucorps, and wears his long-sleeved blue waistcoat as an outer garment. His buckskin mitasses (Indian leggings) and moccasins are better suited to the rough conditions than are shoes and white gaiters; the hatchet in his frog is much handier than a brass-hilted sword. A cloth fatigue cap has replaced the cocked hat.

Copyright: Canadian War Museum

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