Colonial Compagnies Franches de la Marine

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Uniform Plates

The two following plates have been made by the famous French uniformologist Michel Pétard and originally published in the magazine Uniformes Number 34. Mr. Pétard has kindly authorised us to reproduce these plates in our article but retains full copyright on them.

Typical uniform of a private of the Colonial Compagnies Franches de la Marine at the beginning of the Seven Years' War – Copyright: Michel Pétard
Details of the uniform of a private of the Colonial Compagnies Franches de la Marine at the beginning of the Seven Years' War – Copyright: Michel Pétard


Origin and History

Throughout history, the King's vessels have always needed a force of soldiers to protect them and their crew during battle. Sailors, kept busy manoeuvring the ship, could not wields arms at the same time. With this in view, the Cardinal de Richelieu (Sept. 9 1585 – Dec. 4 1642) organised the Compagnies Ordinaires de la mer in 1622. Each company counted only a few men because of its limited role. Badly organised, poorly paid due to lack of funding, plagued by desertions, these companies were disbanded in 1627.

To protect and support colonisation in North America and the West Indies (present-day Antilles), Richelieu raised new regiments. In 1626, he organised the Régiment de la Marine (the Cardinal was its owner and its honorary commander), then the Régiment du Havre (1636-1642) and the Régiment des Iles (1636-1663), the latter serving on the islands of Ré and Oléron. Two of these regiments were short lived and their soldiers transferred to other land units.

With the same goal in mind, Louis XIII created the Régiment des Vaisseaux (1638-1643) which was reorganised by the Cardinal de Mazarin (July 14 1602 – March 9 1661) under the name of Régiment Vaisseau Mazarin in 1644. It later became Régiment Vaisseau Provence before taking its definitive name of Régiment Royal Vaisseaux in 1669.

On that same year (1669), the Ministère de la Marine (Navy Ministry) was created. All colonies were placed under its supervision. The ministry was responsible to administer and defend the colonies. It was under the impulsion of the Colbert, father and son, that the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were created to garrison harbours and vessels. Jean Baptiste Colbert (Aug. 29 1619 – Sept. 6 1683) was appointed Secrétaire d’Etat à la Maison du Roi (Secretary of State to the Royal Household) a charge to which he would add the Navy on March 7 1669, thus becoming the first State Secretary to the Navy. He immediately undertook the construction of more than 250 ships. He also organised two units to support colonial efforts, namely the Régiment Royal Marine and the Régiment de l’Amiral who deployed their various companies into the great French harbours. However, Colbert fell into rivalry with the Secretary of State to War, François Michel Le Tellier de Louvois (Jan. 18 1641 – July 16 1691). The latter was leery of the rapid development of the Navy, a development that was not without diverting funds from the army. For Louvois, it was out of question that the Navy would take away entire regiments who were needed for the wars of Louis XIV, very demanding in soldiers! Upon Louvois' insistence, the two regiments were integrated into the French Army while keeping their name.

To remedy to this situation, Jean Baptiste Colbert de Seignelay (Nov. 1 1651 – Nov. 3 1690), appointed Secretary of State to the Navy in 1683, decided that the Navy would from then on recruit, pay and directly command its own soldiers. Accordingly, 80 companies of 100 men each were deployed in the great harbours of the kingdom and in its colonies (Nouvelle France, West Indies and Guyana). As soon as November 8 1683, three companies arrived at Québec to protect Canada against the Iroquois. Each of these companies consisted of 2 officers and 250 men. In these early units, the captain had to supply his soldiers with a uniform, a belt and a sword; the king supplied the musket and the bandoleer.

The decree of January 1 1685 increased the number of soldiers per company.

A decree, dated April 15 1689, officially created the Compagnies franches de la Marine. These already existing companies, such as those operating in Canada, formed the basis of this new corps alternatively designated as Troupes de la colonie or Troupes de la marine. They were not “marines” in the British sense of the term but rather regular land units. They never served aboard ships but garrisoned the various forts and outposts of Nouvelle-France. The same decree created a company of 100 apprentis-canonniers (apprentice gunners) in Brest, Rochefort and Toulon. Furthermore, a company of 50 bombardiers and six squads of 50 soldiers were created at Toulon, Brest and Rochefort. There were no administrative or tactical unit beyond the company although some ad hoc battalions were formed for some campaigns.

Finally, the decree of December 16 1690 reorganised the unit, fixing the strength of the companies operating oversea which now consisted of:

  • 1 captain
  • 4 sergeants
  • 8 corporals
  • 2 drummers
  • 1 fifer
  • 84 privates

In 1691, when Phipps besieged Québec, three companies took part in the defence of the town.

Before 1695, soldiers of the Compagnies franches de la Marine were recruited exclusively in France. After this date, appointment of officers was allowed in Nouvelle-France (mainly sons of seigneurs). These companies were trained in the guerilla warfare typical of the Indians.

In 1697, a few companies were with Sieur d'Iberville in Hudson Bay when he recaptured Fort Nelson and momentarily conquered Newfoundland.

The soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine (infantrymen as well as artillerymen) were the spearhead of the military policy in Nouvelle France from their arrival till the fall of the colony in 1760. They bitterly defended the first French colonial empire from North America, through the West Indies to Guyana.

Jean-Charles Soulié has written many detailed articles on various aspects of these units:

Organisation

In 1743, when companies of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine were raised in Nouvelle-France, the Compagnies franches de la Marine contributed their best soldiers to these new units.

By 1750, the officer corps came mainly from Canada. By this time, the Compagnies franches de la Marine amounted to 30 companies for a total of 1500 soldiers and 120 officers. Each company consisted of:

  • 1 captain
  • 1 lieutenant
  • 1 ensign (not always carrying a flag)
  • 2 sergeants
  • 3 corporals
  • 3 anspessades
  • 1 drummer
  • 1 fifer
  • from 35 to 70 privates.

In March 1757, ten additional companies were raised.

At the end of the Seven Years' War in Canada, which had been so terrible for France, the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were disorganised and dispersed throughout the colony. Their effective strength had decreased to a trifling number of men due to losses in combat and desertions.

By a decree dated November 5 1761, the Duc de Choiseul disbanded the Compagnies franches de la Marine which were integrated in other units. Part of their soldiers had already returned to France in 1760. However, most of them had decided to remain in Canada. This decree marked the end of a glorious unit who had rendered distinguished and loyal services for more than 80 years.

Service during the War

In July 1755, 108 men of the Compagnies franches de la Marine were among Beaujeau's force which ambushed and defeated Braddock on the Monongahela. Meanwhile, 800 men of these Compagnies Franches were sent to relieve Fort Saint-Frédéric (present-day Crown Point) and put a stop to the British advance on Lake Champlain. On September 8, the latter detachment took part in the Combat of Lake George. After their victory, British provincial troops maintained their position but stopped their progression on Fort Saint-Frédéric.

From February to April 1756, about 60 men from the Compagnies franches de la Marine took part in the expedition against Fort Bull which captured and destroyed the fort. From May to August, a few companies took part in the operations on Lake Ontario where the French captured and destroyed Fort Oswego. Several companies were also left at Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga) to defend the place until late October.

From January to March 1757, 300 men from the Compagnies franches de la Marine took part in a raid on Fort William Henry, destroying the fleet of small vessels destined for the invasion of Canada. In July and August, a converged battalion of Compagnies franches de la Marine accompanied Montcalm's force in its expedition against Fort William Henry which was captured and destroyed.

On March 13 1758, Indian scouts located a party of Rogers' Rangers near Fort Carillon. A small detachment of the unit was among the party sent against them. They engaged them during the so called skirmish of Snow Shoes. The rangers lost 125 men in this engagement. In mid June, some 600 Troupes de la Marine were ordered to move to Carillon. These troops were kept in reserve at Carillon with III./Berry Infanterie. By mid July, additional companies had reached Carillon and Montcalm formed 2 battalions (Valterie and Lacorne) of 1,000 men each from the Troupes de la Marine. These units which also included some Canadians were placed under the command of M. de Rigaud. Valterie’s Battalion encamped near the Fall while Lacorne's Battalion was posted at the head of Lake Saint-Sacrement (present-day Lake George) with orders to reconnoitre this lake. On July 8, several companies took part in the victorious Battle of Carillon. Additional companies arrived during the battle and immediately joined the fight. At the beginning of September, Lacorne's Battalion retired to the Fall leaving only 200 men to guard the outlet of Lake Saint-Sacrement. Between November 1 and 5, the entire French army quitted Carillon to move to its winter quarters, leaving detachments from various battalions to guard the fort.

In April 1759, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, governor of Canada, estimated that the Compagnies franches de la Marine totalled some 1,500 men. On June 26, the French army defending Québec moved to its encampment at Beauport. The left was manned by the Milice du district de Montréal along with 1 battalion combining 'Troupes de la Marine and militiamen from Montréal. At the beginning of July, an additional battalion of 'Troupes de la Marine was part of the right wing under Vaudreuil. On July 31, the combined battalion of Montréal took part in the victorious Battle of Beauport. When the French army retreated after being defeated in the Battle of Québec, 450 men from the Compagnies Franches de la Marine remained in the town as garrison accompanied by about 150 regulars. In November, when the French army, retiring from its posts near Pointe-aux-Trembles (present-day Neuville) and Île-aux-Noix, took its winter quarters, the remaining Compagnies Franches de la Marine were deployed as follows:

  • most companies stationed in Montréal and its surrounding
  • 300 men, along with 100 regulars, at Île-aux-Noix under the command of M. de Lusignan
  • 150 men, along with 150 regulars, at Saint-Jean on the Richelieu River
  • 300 men at Fort Lévis under the command of M. de Désandroins
  • 450 men, along with 150 regulars, at Jacques-Cartier under Major-General Dumas (from this force, a detachment of about 250 men should be sent at Pointe-aux-Trembles under the command of M. de Repentigny)

On July 24 1759, a body of Compagnies Franches de la Marine was part of the French relief force who tried to raise the siege of Fort Niagara. This force was defeated by the British at the engagement of “La Belle Famille”.

By March 1760, 800 men of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were organised into 2 battalions for the planned expedition against Québec. They were supplemented by 358 men from the militias of the localities upstream from Montréal who were integrated into the battalions. From April 21 to 25, transport vessels gradually sailed from Montréal for Québec. Overall the battalions then counted 80 officers, 898 regulars, 246 militia and 79 non-combatants for a total of 1,303 men. On April 28, these two battalions took part in the victorious Battle of Sainte-Foy. However, the arrival of a British relief fleet forced the French to retire on Montréal. On August 13, the battalion of Compagnies Franches de la Marine stationed in Montréal received orders to encamp on Île Sainte-Hélène. By September 7, only 200 men of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were still in service in Montréal, the unit had suffered many desertions. This understrength battalion was still encamped at Île Sainte-Hélène. On September 14, as per the terms of the capitulation, the remaining troops were embarked aboard British transports who reached Québec on October 10 and 11 and then sailed for France where they arrived in December.

Meanwhile, on April 10 1760, a small French flotilla, placed under the command of François Chenard de La Giraudais, sailed from Bordeaux for the reinforcement of Canada. It transported 400 men from the Compagnies Franches de la Marine (in 4 coys: d'Angeac, La Vallière, Dupont du Vivier and d'Orfontaine) commanded by M. François Gabriel d'Angeac. On May 18, with a British squadron blocking his way up the Saint-Laurent River, La Giraudais took refuge in Baie des Chaleurs with his squadron. On June 22, with the arrival of Byron's Squadron chasing his convoy, La Giraudais ascended the Restigouche River to get out of reach of the British ships of the line. The soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were posted at Pointe-à-la-Garde and Restigouche. On July 8, when the British squadron destroyed the remnants of the small French convoy in the Battle of the Restigouche, the soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine retreated into the woods. On October 30, informed of the capitulation of Montréal, d'Angeac and his force surrendered. The soldiers were transported to La Rochelle in France under condition that they would not serve any more during the present war.

Uniform

Privates

Uniform in 1756 - Source: Kronoskaf
Uniform Details
Headgear
Musketeer black felt tricorne made of lamb wool, laced gold, with a black silk strap and a small copper button to hold a black or white cockade worn on special occasions
the tricorne was often replaced by a grey-white and blue forage cap laced gold with a gold fleur de lys on the front band
Grenadier not applicable
Neck stock white
Coat grey-white lined with blue serge (rarely worn during summer campaigns) with 18 polished copper buttons on the right side; 1 polished copper button on each side in the small of the back; and 3 small copper buttons to fasten the basques of the coat
Collar blue
Shoulder Straps n/a
Lapels none
Pockets horizontal false pockets, each with 4 polished copper buttons (the real pockets were vertical and placed in the folds of the coat, they were not visible)
Cuffs wide blue cuffs, each with 4 polished copper buttons
Turnbacks blue fastened with hooks and eyes and decorated with white anchors
Waistcoat blue long-sleeved waistcoat made of serge of Boisbesson and lined with yellow cloth with 18 polished small copper buttons on the right side; 4 small copper buttons under each horizontal pocket; 4 small copper buttons on the sleeve allowing to turn the cuffs which could also be worn unturned
Breeches blue serge of Boisbesson
Stockings knitted blue stockings made in Saint-Maixent
Gaiters white (often replaced by Indian style buckskin gaiters called mitasse)
Leather Equipment
Cross-belt natural leather with a copper buckle
Waist-belt natural leather with a copper buckle worn over the waistcoat
Cartridge Box natural leather containing 19 or 20 cartridges
sometimes between 1751 and 1756, the cartridge box was replaced by a cartridge pouch containing 30 cartridges
Bayonet Scabbard natural leather
Scabbard none (usually troopers carried a hatchet instead of a sword)
Footgear black leather shoes with copper buckles made in Niort or Bayonne (often replaced by mocassins)


Armaments consisted of a musket, a bayonet and, theoretically, a sword which was most of the time replaced by a hatchet.

NCO s

Sergeants had golden braids on cuffs and pockets of the coat and waistcoat. They usually carried partizans.

Corporals had three yellow woollen buttonholes on the cuffs.

Anspessades had yellow woollen laces on the cuffs.

Officers

Compagnies Franches de la Marine Officer serving in Canada - Source: Edmond Lajoux, Le Lys, l’Ancre et la Croix - Les régiments qui construisirent l’empire d’outre-mer 1665-1786 from the collection of Dr Marco Pagan

Officers had golden braids on cuffs and pockets of the waistcoat. Their coat had golden buttons. They also carried a gilt gorget and wore white stockings.

Officially, officers were armed with a sword and a spontoon. However, during campaigns, they usually preferred to carry a musket or pistols.

Musicians

The drummers of the regiment wore the Royal Livery: blue coat lined red; red cuffs, waistcoat and breeches; laced with the braid of the small Royal Livery.

Drummer wearing the Royal Livery - Source: Jocelyne Chevanelle

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

French Royal Livery - Source: reconstruction based on a sample from Jean-Louis Vial's collection


Colours

Colonel colour: presumably white with a white cross. Each canton was decorated with 25 golden fleurs de lys. In the centre of the cross a pattern illustrated an explosion of red and gold thunderbolts. The motto “PER MARE ET TERRAS” was written on the horizontal branches of the cross.

Ordonnance colours: a white cross with cantons 1 and 4 red and cantons 2 and 3 blue. Each canton was decorated with 25 golden fleurs de lys. In the centre of the cross, a pattern illustrated an explosion of red and gold thunderbolts. The motto “PER MARE ET TERRAS” was written on the horizontal branches of the cross.

Colonel Colour - Source: Richard Couture from an original illustration by Gilbert Noury
Ordonnance Colour - Source: Richard Couture from an original illustration by Gilbert Noury

References

Bakshian, Aram Jr.: Soldiers of New France - French and Indian War, The Armchair General Vol. 1 No. 3, 1968

Chartrand, René: Canadian Military Heritage, Volume 1, 1000-1754, Art Global, 1993

Chartrand, René and Eugène Leliepvre: Louis XV’s army (5). Colonial and Naval troops, Osprey Military, 1998

Dechêne, Louise: Le Peuple, l’Etat et la Guerre au Canada sous le Régime Français, éd. Boréal, Montréal, 2008.

Dictionnaire Biographique du Canada en ligne]

Kennett, Lee: The French Armies in the Seven Years' War, Duke University Press, 1967

Merllie, Louis: La rivière “Mal Engueulée”, in Carnet de la Sabretache 1977/37

Parkman, Francis: Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, p. 215

Pétard, Michel: L'homme de 1751 – Les compagnies franches de la Marine, in Uniformes, No. 34

Proulx, Gilles: La garnison de Québec de 1748 à 1759, Ministre des Approvisionnements et Services, Canada, 1991

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

Valiquette, Louis and André Senkara: Uniformes portés par les soldats et les officiers des Compagnies franches de la Marine, Compagnie Franche de la Marine de Montréal

Veyssière, Laurent and Bertrand Fonck: La Guerre de Sept Ans en Nouvelle France, PUPS/ éditions du Septentrion, 2011.

N.B.: the section Service during the War is mostly derived from our articles depicting the various campaigns, battles and sieges.

Acknowledgement

Jean-Charles Soulié for his articles on the origins of the unit, on the recruitment of its soldiers and on its officers

Jean-Pierre Loriot for additional details on the unit

Gilbert Noury for the colours