Milices garde-côtes

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Hierarchical Path: War of the Spanish Succession (Main Page) >> Armies >> French Army >> Milices garde-côtes

Origin and History

The origins of the Milices gardes-côtes (Coast-guard Militia) is much anterior to the establishment of land militia by Louvois. They can be traced back to the feudal right of the XVth century allowing lords to raise troops. The Garde-côtes units were destined to defend the maritime frontiers of France. Successive regulations stipulated the organisation and use of these units. Initially they were placed under the authority of the Amiral de France.

As soon as 1517, a decree specified the type of smoke signals (during daytime) and fires (during night time) to be used to give forewarning.

The decree of August 1681, finally completely regulated the Garde-côtes units. Men of all coastal parishes, aged between 18 and 60 years old and measuring at least 5 feet (1.62 m.) had to assume watch duty on the coast whenever required. Inhabitants of the coastal regions (up to 2 km from the coast) were compelled to this service. Sailors and of those assuming watch duty in towns, castles and fortresses were exempted,

Parishes subjected to this watch duty were grouped into Capitainerie de Garde-côte. At all time, inhabitants of these parishes had to be equipped with a musket, a sword and half a pound of powder or they could be fined. Up to the XVIIIth century, their main duty was to be on the lookout.

In a decree dated 12 May 1696, the Garde-côtes units were designated as Milices Garde-côtes for the first time. Louis XIV kept for himself the right to appoint officers, even though the latter continued to be registered at the clerk's office of the Admiralty and to make oath to the Amiral de France.

In January 1716, the Milices Garde-côtes were reorganised. All parishes within 2 lieues (about 7.8 km) from the coast had to supply militiamen for guard and watch duty (sailors were exempted). To avoid any contestation, boundary stones were installed to clearly mark the recruitment territory. All inhabitants, between 18 and 60 years old, had to be equipped with a musket, a bayonet, a bayonet-scabbard, half a pound of powder and 2 pounds of musket-balls. Wherever possible, militiamen received a uniform similar to the uniform of marines. A militiaman who had served during 20 years of war and 4 distinguished actions was exempted from service for the rest of his life. All militiamen were exempted of service once they had served for 30 years. While on fatigue duty, the Milices garde-côtes took part in the construction of guardrooms, redoubts, battery platforms and entrenchments.

The Milices Garde-côtes also provided gunners for the coastal artillery pieces deployed in their parishes:

  • 10 men for a mortar or a 48-pdr gun
  • 9 men for a 38-pdr gun
  • 8 men for a 24-pdr gun
  • 7 men for a 18-pdr gun
  • 6 men for a 12-pdr gun
  • 5 men for a 8-pdr gun
  • 4 men for a 6-pdr gun
  • 3 men for a 4-pdr gun

Militiamen received pay only if there had been assembled for more than four days.

Service during the War

During the first half of the XVIIIth century, most conflicts involving France took place on the eastern frontiers in Germany or in Italy, naval conflicts between France, Great Britain and the Netherlands essentially saw naval engagements or operations in the colonies.

In 1701, there were 90 capitaineries (captaincies) distributed all along the coasts of France. The decree of 23 November, stipulated that the recruiting zone was extended to a distance of 2 lieues (about 8 km) from the coast. The inhabitants of these zones, between 18 and 60 years old, measuring at least 5 feet (1.62 m.) barefoot, had to supply the necessary number of militiamen. Their role too was widened. Now, besides being on the lookout, the militia were formed in mobile columns to oppose resistance to any landing operation. Regular infantry and dragoon regiments were barracked in nearby towns and, when required, marched towards landing places. For their part, the Milices Garde-côtes were responsible for the initial defence of the landing place while awaiting the arrival of regular troops. For these reasons, the parishes within the garde-côte zones were exempted from any contribution to the Milices provinciales. However, the Navy being constantly in need of sailors, who were mainly recruited in coastal regions, men from these regions, aged between 16 and 35 years old, were allowed to become sailors. This exemption also applied to all occupations related to the sea: sailor, mateys, bargees, carpenters, dry dock or construction workers. Furthermore, exemptions tolerated by intendants were numerous. Contrarily to the Milices provinciales, replacements were specifically authorised. Exercises were done once a month in peacetime (twice a month in wartime) on a Sunday under supervision of the captain or lieutenant of the company. Members of the Milices Garde-côtes benefited from a peculiar right: 10% of all wrecks found on the coast of their region were divided up among them

.

On 23 December 1702, another decree forbade Garde-côtes to enlist in the regular army.

In February 1705, a decree made the charge of captain-general venal. The charge had now to be bought. This decree also tried to reorganise these militias to make them more efficient.

In 1707, the number of capitaineries was increased to 100. The staff of each capitainerie consisted of:

  • 1 captain-general
  • 1 lieutenant-general
  • majors
  • aides-majors
  • commissaries (from 1709)

There were two types of companies:

  • detached companies (in fact these companies could vary between 45 and 100 men): their role was to serve in guardhouses established to protect the coasts and to guard batteries
    • 1 captain
    • 1 lieutenant
    • 1 ensign
    • 2 sergeants
    • 3 corporals
    • 3 ansepessades (lance-corporals)
    • 1 drummer
    • 25 gunners
    • 16 soldiers
  • parish companies: made of all militiamen not assigned to detached companies; their role was to occupy watch posts located on the heights
    • 1 captain
    • 1 lieutenant
    • 1 ensign
    • 2 sergeants
    • 3 corporals
    • 3 ansepessades (lance-corporals)
    • 1 drummer
    • 41 soldiers

N.B.: officers were chosen by the captain-general. There were also some plantons destined to link parishes together and to carry orders of the captain-general.

In 1708, a decree introduced signals made with flags or cannon.

In fact, the recruitment of these militiamen made them rather poor troops, more armed peasants than soldiers.

Uniform

The gardes-côtes were responsible to equip and arm themselves with a musket, a bayonet, a bayonet scabbard, a bandoleer, half a pound of powder and two boxes of musketballs.

Clothing consisted of a hat, an overcoat, breeches, a black neck stock and a haversack.

Officers

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NCOs

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Musicians

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Colours

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References

This article contains text translated from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Gébelin, Jacques: Histoire des milices provinciales (1688-1791), Paris: Hachette, 1882, pp. 68-69, 221-232
  • Hennet, Léon: Les milices et les troupes provinciales, Paris: Baudoin, 1884, pp. 297-331
  • Bornier, Capitaine Magnan de; in the Carnet de la Sabretache, 1899

Acknowledgements

Jean-Pierre Loriot for most of the information presented in the section Service during the War