Compagnies Franches de la Marine - Recruitment

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From their arrival in Nouvelle France in 1683, till its fall in 1760; the Compagnies Franches de la Marine have been to the forefront of the defence of the colony. One estimates to about 7,800 the number of men sent from France during this period. We will not go back here over the military role, which is covered in another section, but let us look into an not very well known aspect which has only recently received attention in France: the recruitment of troops and more particularly those of the navy in the second half of the XVIIIth century.

Concretely we will try to answer to several questions: why and how one became soldier during the reign of Louis XV? How was he recruited? From where was he coming?

Recruitment criteria

To become a soldier during the reign of Louis XV, one had to meet certain physical, religious and moral criteria. Let us consider these conditions:

  • to be at least 16 years old even though, during the years 1750, the average age in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine was more around 22;
  • to measure at least 5'5” (about 1.60 m), even though some soldiers were under average height, minimal height was mostly respected. Soldiers of the corps of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine were recruited among the Compagnies Franches and selected essentially according to their height.
  • to be ready to remain bachelor (only sergeants were allowed to get married). In France after 1681, soldiers were forbidden to get married without the permission of military authorities. However, each rule knowns its exceptions and some soldiers of the Troupes de Marine were married. Indeed, authorities closed their eyes because a married soldier meant a new settler when he would be demobilized.
  • to be catholic, a specificity of soldiers sent to Canada. Indeed, Versailles had decided to make Nouvelle France a purely catholic province, therefore all other faiths were kept out of this province. Some Protestant or Jewish soldiers were forced to recant their faith and to convert to Catholicism.
  • to be able to enlist for a period of six years, even though the average enlistment period was more between 20 and 25 years. Several soldiers found in their company a family of sort, all soldiers knowing each others; it is very likely that this attachment have furthered longer service duration. Furthermore, departures in companies were done by seniority, in other words more ancient soldiers left first. However, when few recruits were arriving in Nouvelle France, departures were not allowed to avoid depletion of military strength. Finally, soldiers were never demobilized during a conflict.
  • to accept remoteness from home. Soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were sent to Nouvelle France for the entire duration of their enlistment and returns to France were impossible to the exception of some special cases (mostly family reasons). Even if it is not proved, this remoteness probably inclined certain soldiers to remain in Nouvelle France after their demobilization. After several years in the colony, what would they have found back home? Finally, to promote colonization, local authorities offered lots to soldiers freed from service to entice them to become settlers.

If these selection criteria were relatively respected during peacetime, they were followed with much less attention during wartime. The strong need in manpower hushed up military rigour.

Recruitment methods

In the middle of the XVIIIth century, more than 90 % of soldiers and NCO s of the Compagnies franches de la Marine came from metropolitan France, not that Canadiens were not interested by the military question but they destined themselves to more lucrative sectors such as fishing, agriculture and trade (mostly fur trading). Furthermore, many Canadiens were compelled to serve in the local militia service. So how were these soldiers recruited?

In France two recruitment systems coexisted: the one of the “recruiting sergeant” and the one of the “captain of company”.

The “recruiting sergeant” was paid by a colonel or captain to provide his battalion or company in men. These sergeants were paid according to the number of men recruited; therefore, the quality of recruits was not always as expected (certain reports issued by captains mention the presence of children, disabled, even mental defectives among the recruits!).

Posting an an enticing public notice, dressed with a nice uniform, the sergeant promised the moon and the stars to the potential recruit and, after a few drinks, the latter signed the letter of enlistment which bound him to the royal army for a period of six years. Many abuses have been reported concerning the practices of these sergeants, the most common being to make the recruit drink excessively, to force him to enlist under threat, the most serious cases going up to sequestration!

During his leaves, the captain too made recruitment. Back on his estates, he could enlist recruits. This second recruitment mode did not concern the 'Troupes de marine” since they were recruited in France and then sent to Canada where the captains of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine did not recruit.

In both cases, the recruit received an enlistment bonus varying according to the period. However, as per Gilles Proulx in his book “La garnison de Québec de 1748 à 1759”, this bonus amounted to 30 livres.

Geographic distribution of recruitment

Two thirds of the soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine came from the coastal provinces of France from present-day Pas-de-Calais to Aquitaine. Furthermore, the proximity of the large ports of embarkation towards Nouvelle France eased recruitment; among the most important of these ports were La Rochelle, Rochefort, Nantes, Brest, Dunkerque. The last third came mostly from Paris, who in the XVIIIth century was one of the main recruiting centres in the kingdom, or else from neighbouring countries, Germany being the most important source.

Identity of the soldier

The career of soldier was not very attractive, indeed, there were few promotions and at best one could hope to become a sergeant after twenty or so years of service. More than 80 % of the soldiers came from the lower forms and many of them had a job. Considering the young age of these men, they were usually apprentice rather than master craftsmen. However, knowing a trade could allow to improve the pay. Generally these men enlisted to evade a poor life with meagre revenues, the king supplying his soldiers with food, shelter and clothes. However, all were not driven to enlist by hunger or misery, all were not robbers, rapists or some cut-throats as some cut-throat contemporaries might have written. The Comte de Saint-Germain in a letter dated 1757 depicts his soldiers in a less than flattering way:

“I lead a band of robbers, of assassins who will walk away at the first musket shot and who are always prompt to rebel. There is nothing that can equal this. The king has the worst infantry possible and the most undisciplined. It is impossible to serve with such troops.”

Some reports by officers are even worst. Unfortunately, we have very few letters written by soldiers describing their daily life. In Paris and in several large cities of the kingdom, signs were posted at the entry of certain taverns stating “No servants and soldiers”.

However, even though the life of soldier did not rank among the most attractive of the period, a large number embraced this career not always in a fit of pique but rather by love of adventure or to escape a decision of justice.

In conclusion, we can see that the recruitment of the soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine was, to the exception of a few points, similar to the one in other French regiments of the period (age, height, enlistment period, etc.). Differences were in particular the fact that captains did not recruit their soldiers by themselves, this charge being left to recruiting sergeants in France. Remoteness played an important role and it is not before the years 1730 that recruits were informed of their garrison places. It was for this reason that recruits were systematically supervised by the archers of the Maréchaussée to prevent all risks of desertion! Religion was another specificity of these recruits serving in Nouvelle France, Versailles wishing that Nouvelle France would remain Catholic.

These soldiers arriving in world totally unknown to them and placed under the command of Canadian officers, would soon, despite their differences, become one of the main bulwarks of Nouvelle France.

Daily military life in Nouvelle France in the middle of the XVIIIth century

Evoking a soldier's life in France in the XVIII<th>th</sup> century immediately brings to mind images of battles and combats, in a word: war. However, conflicts, even though they were the raison d'être of the profession of soldier, only occupied part of his time! Indeed, fighting generally took place during half a year (from March to September) and each campaign was interspersed with periods of inactivity. When the winter months arrived, the army entered into its winter quarters awaiting the opening of the next campaign. During this period, the soldier was cloistered in a garrison and, often, there was boredom in store for him!

In this section, we shall examine the corresponding situation in Nouvelle France where, even though military life was very intense in this colony (fighting continued throughout winter!), the soldier of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine',' in garrison in the larger towns of the colony or in the various forts, was equally confronted with periods of inactivity. We shall describe how he spent his free time, where he lived and in which conditions.

A long, boring and perilous crossing

After having been recruited, the young soldier went to an Atlantic port of embarkation, usually La Rochelle, Nantes or Brest. There, the future soldier learned the basics of military life and waited for the appropriate moment to sail away from France. The crossing of the Atlantic was generally made aboard a flûte, a warship armed for commerce, keeping only half of her guns. In peacetime, it was not uncommon to make the crossing unescorted, contrarily to the convoy system used in time of conflict.

The crossing was long, very long and could last more than three or four months if weather conditions were unfavourable. Aboard, living conditions quickly degenerated from uncomfortable to precarious or even, in certain cases, to lamentable, mainly because of provisions. Indeed, diet aboard a vessel crossing the Atlantic, did not offer any green vegetables, nor dairy product, nor eggs (sources of vitamins) because these products went rapidly bad due to the lack of conservation means. Only dried vegetables and dried meat (cod, beef, pork) were present on board, but even these provisions went bad after a few months at sea. For this reason, ships transported livestock: beefs, sheep, poultry (turkeys, chickens, ducks). However, the presence of these type of meat could not alone prevent development of illness associated with poor calorific meals! For its part, the sea biscuit was largely consumed, however it got weevilled, in other words it was crawling with maggots. Large quantity of water (from 2000 to 3000 litres) were also embarked and the daily ration was two litres per man. However, it became unfit for human consumption after a few weeks, it grew foul in barrels and one had to be very thirsty to drink it! Indeed, it had to be drunk without breathing for it odour was putrid and/or filtered two or three times through towels to get rid of maggots. Wine was also available on board: the daily ration being 70 cl per man (which gives an idea of the quantity embarked!). To these problems was added the lack of hygiene aboard the vessel: bad air circulating in the steerages, overcrowding of men, very bad personal and collective hygiene (one washed with sea water): the ship was a source of all kind of illness who could transform her in a hospital or a floating mouroir: dysentery (related to the lack of hygiene or to the ingestion of spoilt food) and more particularly scurvy (related to a deficiency in vitamin C in the diet). Finally, to all this, the ship in herself and her environment must be taken into consideration: soldiers were not sailors and for some of them it was the first time that they boarded a ship: roll and pitching made the young soldier sick and weakened him even more! And what about gales and storms who put bodies to rude tests!

What could the young soldier do aboard? Help the sailors from time to time, pass time playing cards and dice, activities prone to give rise to brawls. In short, the crossing was tough for these young soldiers and it was with relief that they caught sight of the coasts of Canada!

A soldier's life

This much expected arrival after a tough crossing concealed a “cultural shock” for these soldiers coming from France. Upon landing in Québec, some of them went directly to the hospital to recover of a tough journey, others went to jail for having created trouble aboard, most waited for the assembly taking place a few days later on the parade ground to know their precise posting in the various companies. On the given day, recruits were aligned in two ranks facing three ranks of soldiers. Around noon, the governor-general, followed by his staff, reviewed the future soldiers. First choice was given to the captain of the Canonniers Bombardiers de la Marine, considered an elite company (in fact they acted as grenadiers in the colony). Then came the turn of each captain of the Compagnies franches de la Marine, in order of seniority. Then the young soldier joined his company which could be stationed in Québec; or in another town of the province, mainly Trois-Rivières, Montréal or Louisbourg; or in a distant fort at the other end of the colony! What should we say of these young soldiers sent in the deep forests of Nouvelle France? They suffered a real psychological shock! Indeed, these soldiers who, for most of them, had never left their village in France, were finding themselves immersed in a totally unknown universe. They had to walk for days through dense woods before finally reaching a fort (generally a wooden fort) where a very rudimentary comfort and a Spartan life were waiting for them. There, they lived in close contact with Indians. Even though they had already encountered some Indians on their way since their arrival at Québec, dealing with them on a daily basis must have been an “ethnic shock”! Indeed, the customs of the various Indian nations allied with the French might have appeared strange, even shocking, to these young men but rapidly connections were established: uniforms gradually adopted elements of Indian clothing and some soldiers married Indian women.

Upon joining his new comrades, the young soldier was nicknamed with a nom de guerre which he would retain throughout his military life. Let's examine this tradition which, still today, has left his trace in the names of several French Canadian families!


During the XVIIIth century in France, recruits received a nom de guerre upon enlistment. This fact is attested in the controls of the troops of each company of each regiment, collating in many columns the name followed by the nom de guerre, the place of birth, a description including the physical characteristics of the recruit, his date of enlistment, and date of death, of leave or of desertion. The first column, listing the name, the nom de guerre and father's name, is particularly interesting. The nickname could refer to several criteria:

  • physical characteristics: Le Grand, Le Long, La Jeunesse.
  • geographic origin: Poitevin, Picard, Le Parisien, Provençal.
  • character trait: Sans Quartier, Va de bon cœur, Frappe d’abord, L’Eveillé.
  • a trade: La Lancette (a surgeon), La Fontaine (cooper), Boulanger.
  • a flower name (much valued): La Rose, La Violette, Le Lys.
  • the prefix “Saint” simply adjoined to the recruit's name or first name: Saint Léger, Saint Louis.

Exceptionally, cadets, gentlemen's sons, and those born with a certain social status were exempted of any nom de guerre.

The nickname was an essential element to recognize a soldier as André Corvisier explains: “(…) the nom de guerre plays a capital role in the designation of the soldier and this is why we see it written in large letters, or neatly detached from other names, sometimes even placed first, before the first name and name, in order to ease its consultation”. At the end of the Seven Years' War, many soldiers of the metropolitan units as well as from the Troupes de la Marine chose to remain in Canada and thus can we still find today family names referring to the Canadian military past!


The question of lodgement has always been a preoccupation for military authorities. If in France, before the reign of Louis XIV, soldiers were billeted at the inhabitant; with the accession of the Sun King barracks were constructed to reinforce soldiers' discipline and martial spirits. The situation was slightly different in Nouvelle France.

In Québec, before 1748, soldiers were billeted at the inhabitant. The lieutenant-general of the Prévôté gave a billet de logement to captains who transmitted it to the soldier. This process became necessary as soon as 1683 with the arrival of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine in Québec. On this billet appeared the name of the person where the soldier would reside. This person, depending on the size of his house, could lodge up to two soldiers. From 1685, the inhabitant should supply to the soldier a bed, a mattress, a blanket, a pot, a bowl, lighting and a place by the fire.

However, exemptions existed. Indeed, priests, militia officers, nobles, notaries, judges and royal officers did not house any soldier. Furthermore, some inhabitants already involved in other social occupations (taking care of sick and wounded, preventing illness) were in the same case!

If certain inhabitants did not appreciate their role of host (theft, bad behaviour of the soldier), we must recognize that most of them adapted very well to this charge! Indeed, the soldier received a daily ration from the King's magazine which was given to the inhabitant and added to the meal of the family. Furthermore, soldier could help with the domestic daily work. Besides his martial duties, the soldier was free of his movements. It was thus quite difficult to apply strict military discipline to a military population dispersed throughout the town of Québec and its outskirts! This led to the decision to build barracks to compensate for the lack of discipline!


Even though barracks already existed in Québec before 1748, the military population was not numerous and the inhabitants preferred to lodge the soldiers rather than pay taxes for the maintenance of the barracks. With the increase of the military presence and the desire to maintain a stricter discipline, soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine installed themselves in the barrack of the Redoute Royale in 1748 and in those of the Dauphine in 1749. Meanwhile, the construction of other barracks had started. Nevertheless, to compensate for the insufficient number of places in these barracks, billeting at the inhabitant continued. By 1752, the Nouvelles Casernes (New Barracks) were completed in the eastern part of the town. Measuring 180 m. long, they constituted the largest military building in North America. They were badly needed for, from 1755, the first metropolitan battalions arrived from France and were partly lodged in these barracks.

In the other towns of Nouvelle France, the use of barracks varied. Indeed, the garrison of Trois Rivières was so small that a single house was enough. In Montréal, as soon as 1714, Intendant Michel Bégon (1667-1747) planned to build barracks but the project was abandoned in face of the hostility of the population to pay taxes for their construction and maintenance. In fact, Montréal never had barracks during the French Regime. Things went very differently at Louisbourg where, at the beginning of the 1720s, the first barracks were constructed. They were located in the Bastion Royal. Other barracks were built in the batteries outside of the fortifications for the soldiers serving these batteries. Finally, small barracks were erected on Ile Saint Jean (present-day Prince Edward Island) for the garrison of the island. Billeting has not been used much at Ile Royale (present-day Cape Breton Island), barracks being largely sufficient to house soldiers!

Barrack rooms

Unfortunately, besides the fact that barrack rooms were reduced to minimal requirements, we do not know very well their disposition. As per the military decrees of the middle of the XVIIIth century, each room should have as much beds as the available space made it possible. The bed was made of oak and measured 1,30 m wide, 1,86 m long, and 30 to 40 cm high. The mattress was stuffed with straw which had theoretically to be replaced twice a year. The blanket was made of wool and sufficiently wide to cover the entire bed. However, some beds were smaller than the prescribed minimal size, straw was seldom replaced and blankets only occasionally washed. Lice and acarids were often present.

In addition to this rudimentary furniture, a barrack room had a table, two benches, a hearth, racks for swords and bayonets, and hooks on the wall to hang clothes. Men slept two per bed (sometimes three when space allowed it). This bred hygiene problems due to promiscuity! The fact of sleeping three men per bed resulted from a military regulation stipulating that, when two men slept, the third should stand guard. However, this regulation was not followed and the three men often slept together! A certain discomfort and an evident lack of sleep resulted from this practice. Furthermore, during hot North American summers, soldiers sweated much and barrack rooms were full of bad odours and a nest for various illness.

The sergeant had a different treatment. Indeed, he slept with his men but had his own bed and was separated from others by a wooden curtain allowing him a relative privacy!

This proximity among men was not without problems. Archives reveal brawls who could degenerate in duels between soldiers. To prevent wounds by musket ball, muskets were stored on racks in a special room.

Each morning, according to the Military Code, soldiers should sweep the barrack to maintain a certain hygiene. However, it seems that this regulation was not followed in the barracks of Québec since, in 1754, Governor-general Duquesne (1700-1776), observed to his utmost despair that the barracks of the town were more fit to serve as warehouses!

Each soldier received (theoretically and certainly not towards 1759-60 when supply problems were cruelly resented) 1,5 pound of bread and 0.25 pound of pork and dried peas. During Lent and on Fridays, fish and vegetables replaced pork. To prepare the meal, soldiers assembled in groups of seven around the hearth in the barrack room, putting their daily ration in common. They used the same plates and utensils to cook and to eat, which was not ideal for hygiene!

Indeed, these problems in the barracks were a source of preoccupation for military authorities of the period: large numbers of men concentrated in a limited and often humid space created very favourable conditions for the outbreak and diffusion of illness. Therefore, efforts were made to improve ventilation in barracks, to avoid, as much as possible, that too many soldiers resided in the same place, and, above all, that barrack rooms were cleaned up daily. John Pringle (1707-1782) a British physician, in “Observation sur la médecine des armées” informs us of the necessity of such practices because, according to him, corrupted air was responsible of the worst illness in “the barracks when they are overcrowded and unkempt”. And what should we say of the conditions in field hospitals as there were at Fort Carillon in 1758 or on the shores of Beauport during the siege of Québec in 1759. There, soldiers of all arms and more particularly militiamen were confronted with deplorable sanitary conditions. Louise Dechêne (op.cit.) mentions: “The risk of contamination is immense and whoever enters into the hospital with the first signs of scurvy or a light wound had strong chances to die from an infection”. However, conditions in the barracks of Nouvelle France were very different from those in France which were overcrowded. Despite this less than flattering picture, soldiers had decent living conditions for the era compared to soldiers serving in France.

Relations with women

How could we speak of the soldier's life without evoking his relation with women. Indeed, these young men arriving from France were single. Billeting at the inhabitant allowed to the lodger to meet the landlord's daughter and to enter into intimate relationship with her! At the term of his service, the soldier often married the woman encountered in such conditions and decided to settle in Nouvelle France. It is thus normal to see that in Louisbourg where there were much less women, several soldiers opted for a return to France at the end of their service.

Marriage of soldiers has always been encouraged by the authorities of Québec. With an insufficient number of settlers, the married soldier was a perfect candidate for colonisation! Nevertheless, these same authorities were reluctant to allow soldiers to marry! Indeed, theoretically the soldier could not marry a woman before three years of service and had to quit his military career. He had to ask authorities for permission and those were free to reject his request if they did not want to deprive themselves of a soldier. Of course, during wartime, such authorisations were rarely given. From 1755, there were non-existent.

Furthermore, the policy of barracking soldiers begun in the 1740s had limited relations between military personnel and civilians and even more between soldiers and women! Thus, between 1748 and 1759, marriages in Québec were not very numerous and only NCOs, particularly sergeants and even more the Canonniers Bombardiers de la Marine (receiving a higher pay) contracted unions. The soldier with his meagre pay constituted a second-rate candidate for marriage. A soldier marrying a widow could benefit from her assets. Otherwise, soldier did not enrich themselves through marriage since dowry were slender or non-existent!

Even though the presence of women was theoretically prohibited in barracks (contrarily to British barracks); several reports state that few units abided by this regulation and it was not uncommon to find women in barrack rooms! Only sergeants were authorised to live with their wife!

Relations with the weaker sex were not limited to marriage and the soldier could go out with young girls of easy virtue! Indeed, prostitution existed in Nouvelle France, even though colonial authorities opposed to it, judging that it perverted soldiers. In any case, brothels existed in the largest towns of the colony, mainly in Québec and Montréal. Venereal diseases, who were a plague for the armies of the XVIIIth century, appeared. In Louisbourg, the lack of women allowed prostitutes to raise their prices. Soldiers, often heavily in debt and touching a meagre pay had to do without the company of women and took refuge in alcohol which flowed in the taverns of Ile Royale. In Europe during the same period, armies were followed by cohorts of prostitutes during campaign. This phenomenon did not exist in Nouvelle France due to the type of military operations: swift detachments of a few men conducting raids against the enemy and retiring rapidly.

Soldiers garrisoning forts represented an interesting case. Indeed, if the soldier was married, his wife followed him and served as washerwoman or maidservant. Some men married Indian women living in the neighbourhood of forts even if this practice had been condemned by the religious authorities of the colony!

A soldier's day

In the garrisons of Nouvelle France a typical military day varied depending on the season and on the type of lodging of the soldier (billeted at the inhabitant, barracked in town, or in a fort). In all cases, day started by the reveille when drummers beat the “Diane” at daybreak (around 4:30 AM in Summer). The soldier got up and dressed. His uniform consisted of a white coat with blue cuffs, a linen shirt, blue woollen stockings, black shoes and a black tricorne laced in in false gold. Every two years, uniform was renewed. In the interval, the soldier had to replace missing pieces at his own expense. Then he cleaned up the room and prepared the breakfast taken by group of seven (a tradition inherited for the Marine Royale where sailors took their breakfast by plats, a group of seven). Then the sergeant inspected the place and gave the orders of the day. The main role of the soldier was to stand guard at key points in town and to ensure security. Soldiers of the Compagnies franches de la Marine could be seen at the various guardrooms of the town, for instance in front of the Château Saint Louis, the residence of the governor-general since 1646, in Québec. The the soldier was accompanied by a drummer who beat a drum roll each time that the governor entered or left his residence. In Montréal, soldiers guarded the residence of the governor. Soldiers were also present in front of the houses of the notables of the colony: treasurer, surveyor general, commissioner... They should also stand guard in front of the Nouvelles Casernes, the shipyards and watch the town gates. Duration of guard was 24 hours from noon to noon and the soldier should be on guard duty between 4 and 6 hours. The soldier was relieved at the sound of the drums at each two hours in Summer and at each hour in Winter. Those not on guard duty had to remain at the guardroom where they ate and slept with their uniform to be ready to intervene on all occasions. Finally, on all Sundays and Holidays soldiers trained in military exercises. In Québec as in Montréal, the garrison assembled to welcome distinguished guests, for reviews (parades where troops were inspected) or to assist to the sentence of a condemned soldier. The Compagnies Franches de la marine also assumed a police role, being charged to find and arrest criminals, a task who gave soldiers the opportunity to receive a bonus. In this latter case, they are accompanied by an archer de la Maréchaussée. When drums beat l'Assemblée, the soldier went to the exercises who took place three to four times a week. In the 1750s, colonial military authorities insisted that these exercises would be executed with exactness. At sunset, the drummer beat la Retraite, announcing the end of the day and that the town gates would be closed. The soldier could go back to his barrack or to the house where he resided. Finally, l’Ordre signalled that the town gates were closed. The sound of the drums gave a certain rhythm to the life of civilians and soldiers. Let's also mention la Garde who indicated that enemy had been spotted or le Ban, announcing the public lecture of a decree. Finally, the soldier took his supper and went to bed.

When he was not on duty, the soldier was free to undertake his own activities. Most of them knew a trade or at least the basics of it. This allowed them to increase their pay which was of only 6 Livres 15 sols per month, NCOs touching double-pay. For this reason, it was not uncommon to see a soldier working for private individuals (picking up hay, erecting a wall, covering a roof…), for the king (as baker. mason, etc.) or for officers (ploughing their estate…); others served as medical orderly at the Hôtel Dieu in Québec; all kinds of small jobs improving their ordinary.

Soldiers who did not know a trade worked as day labourers, receiving 1 Livre per day. Between 1745 and 1757, they could be found on the construction site of the new barracks or on the one of the fortifications of Québec as labourers earning 1 Livre per day.

Colonial authorities viewed the work of the soldiers in a favourable light. It compensated for the lack and the high cost of manpower in Nouvelle France. A soldier costed twice less than a civilian labourer: employer as well as soldiers all got their side of the bargain!

Life in forts was quite different. Lodging was more rudimentary than in town. In the older forts, the commander had his own room but in certain cases soldiers and sergeants slept in the guardroom or even in the warehouses! This situation tended to improve with the construction of new forts as Carillon, Saint Frédéric, Chambly (rebuilt from 1710-1711) where some buildings were specifically reserved for lodging the troops. The soldier could improve his pay by trading with the Indians; he could then sell accumulated goods on his return to a town of Nouvelle France. Unfortunately we do not know much about the occupations of soldiers garrisoning forts. However, we can guess that they helped to the maintenance of the fortifications, went hunting, played cards and dice... In short, they killed time as they could!

When not on duty, the soldier improved his ordinary by working. However, he still had some free time left. How did he spend this free time?

On the eve of the Seven Years' War, Québec counted some 8,000 inhabitants and not less than 81 of them ran cabarets and inns. Among them, eleven were active sergeants or retired soldiers. Soldiers could then easily choose his bar! In these places, the soldier drank, sometimes too much, and this resulted in brawls and even duels. They drank wine in great quantity (about 32 l. annually) and, to a lesser extent, brandies (calvados and cognac) and rum ).

In these establishments, the soldier could play cards and dice, dance (another way of meeting women), sing; the most popular songs were “Auprès de ma blonde”, “Malbrough s’en va t-en guerre” and numerous bawdy songs (called paillardes in France) as “Chevalier de la table ronde”, “Cadet Rousselle”, “De Nantes à Montaigu” and many others with very evocative titles…

In Louisbourg, as we have previously seen, lack of women (even prostitutes) induced the soldiers to frequent the cabarets of Ile Royale where they stove off boredom in a drunken stupor!

Last interesting case concerning the owners of these establishments. As we have previously seen, eleven of 81 owners were sergeants or retired soldiers. In the former case, we can wonder how objective a sergeant owning a tavern could be when suggesting a cabaret to his men!

The soldier and justice

As for any subject of the king, the soldier was justiciable for committed offences. Desertion was the gravest crime for a soldier who could also include treason.

Crime rate in Nouvelle France was low. However, soldiers were responsible for half of the offences, the worst being rape, murder, robbery with violence, duel, assault and battery or also homosexuality and witchcraft! These crimes were judged by the War Council, created in 1665, which was the first level of the military judiciary system. The defendant presented himself in front of a college of officers of his corps. Once the sentence pronounced, the soldier could appeal and the case was presented to the Superior Council, the highest court of the colony. Generally speaking, it lessened the severity of the sentence. For example, if a death sentences had been pronounced in first instance, it was commuted to public flogging followed by nine years on the galleys. When galleys were suppressed by the decree of September 17 1748, they were replaced by hard labour in the prisons of Toulon or Brest. Escorted by two Archers de la Maréchaussée (first Canadian police force created by the decree of May 9 1677), the defendant, dressed with a simple shirt was led to the main street of the town where he asked God and the King for their mercy while he was flogged. He sometimes carried a sign around the neck indicating his offence. He was then locked away till the departure of a ship for France where he joined the Corps des galères in Marseille. During his public flogging and detention, the offender was guarded by soldiers who could not show him any sympathy on pain of dishonourable discharge for their NCO! If the offender did not admit his crime, he could be tortured. In most cases, a death sentence was pronounced!

For minor crimes such as drunkenness, indiscipline, insubordination or breach of moral standards; depending on the seriousness of the offence; the soldier was usually put in jail for eight to fifteen days. The most serious cases were transferred to the War Council. The worst offence was theft of a comrade-in-arms. This offence was punished by the baguettes followed by a month in jail. The offender had to present himself bare chested in front of two ranks of soldiers who hit him on the back with the ramrod of their musket. This sentence was the most severe inflicted to a soldier in the French Army of the Ancien Régime.

The baguettes punishment - Source: Engraving by Nicolas Guérard (1648-1719)

The most serious crime for a soldier was desertion, often associated with treason, since as a prisoner he disclosed precious information. In the XVIIIth century desertion was the plague of any campaigning army in Europe. It is estimated that 10% of soldiers deserted! This crime was punished by death (till the decree of December 12 1775 who replaced this sentence by hard labour) but to contain this haemorrhage several decrees were promulgated in an attempt to bring back deserters into the ranks. For example, between 1740 and 1748, during the War of the Austrian Succession (known as King George's War in North America), not less than ten decrees pardoning deserters were issued! Soldiers usually deserted to escape punishment, after having killed somebody, or to avoid harshness of military life. Depending on the type of desertion, the offender could see his punishment lessened. In Nouvelle France, desertion rate was very low, between 1 and 6 % par year with Louisbourg with the lowest rate. These figures can easily be explained by the nature of the North American environment. Indeed, the prospect of walking huge distances across dense forests pursued by soldiers and militiamen, and of meeting hostile Indians probably disheartened most soldiers considering desertion! Furthermore, if by chance the deserter reached the British colonies, he received rather bitter greetings from the Protestant settlers who did not speak French. Nevertheless, only 50% of deserters were recaptured. For those who managed to escape, the sentence was pronounced in absentia in front of the assembled unit. If several soldiers deserted together and that the group was recaptured, bulletins were placed in a hat and the soldier who drew the black bulletin was put to death and the rest of the group sent to the galleys!

Executions, galleys, jail, baguettes... Even though this judiciary system may appear inhuman by our own standard, it must be noted that the French soldier of the XVIIIth was much better treated than his British or Prussian counterparts for whom punishments were more frequent and military life harsher. Let's leave the last words to the narrator of the film Barry Lyndon referring to the conditions in the Prussian Army: “The Prussian service was considerably worse than the English. The life that the private soldier led was a frightful one. Punishment was incessant and every officer had the right to inflict it. The gauntlet was the most common penalty for minor offences. The most serious ones were punishable by mutilation or death”.


In this article we had the opportunity to see various aspects of the military life in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine. After a difficult crossing who put body and soul to the test, the young soldier was assigned to a company in a town or in a distant fort. Besides his purely military tasks, the soldier often worked to improve his ordinary. Prefering to lodge at the inhabitant, he nevertheless had to adapt to the new policies favouring barracks to reinforce military authority. His days punctuated by the sound of the drums, the soldier occupied his free time in cabarets, playing, dancing, drinking, and meeting women. Submitted to lax discipline, he could nevertheless find himself punished and, for the most serious offences, sent to galleys or put to death. In peacetime, the soldier thus had a rather glum life.


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Jean-Charles Soulié for the initial version of this article