The Military of New France
Les Troupes de la Marine
During the late seventeenth century many of the European powers set up local militias in their colonies. The British was very famous with their minute men and militias during the American Revolution. The colony of New France the militia was too small to defend against a British invasion from the south. Thus the colonial government set up a new military force, the Companies Franches de la Marine. Unlike what the name implies these troops were not sea born troops they were regular foot infantry. They were only called marines because of the fact that they were under total command of the Ministry of the Marine which is in charge of all French overseas colonies. These were professional soldiers that were in charge of French colonial defense.
The Companies of the Marines were formed in 1622 to serve as temporary soldiers, and then discharged. Then they were re-raised in the later 1680’s to defend French North American colonies (Canada and Louisiana) from an Iroquois uprising.
The marines were not Canadian born, but were recruited straight from France. While the enlisted men were Canadian the officers of the marines were Canada with overall command under the Governor of New France. Many of the recruits were low class citizens and worked in the docks of France’s ports. Although the troops were recruited from France many sources imply that many of the marines were of many nationalities such as Spain. An officer of the marines said about a group of recruits that they were “mostly Spanish who could neither speak nor understand French…” This blending of nationalities makes the Companies of the Marine one of the first foreign legions, which the French became famous for in later centuries.
The recruits were quickly shipped over to New France where they would receive their clothing, weapons, and training. An interesting part about the Marines is that although these soldiers were recruited in metropolitan France the Ministry of the Marine encouraged the soldiers to become citizens of New France, thus pushing its population up. Thus they were not only soldiers but new settlers of New France.
In the eighteenth century the most popular type of warfare was linear tactics. This was fighting in lines, in which armies would line up in front of each other in tightly packed lines and start to blaze away at each other. The Marines who had fought against the Iroquois had adopted a new style of warfare. They learned from the Indians how to fight in the woods, and guerilla
The Marines were the first European army to use open ranks and irregular warfare in eighteenth century warfare. They would use hit and run tactics with small groups of men. They wreaked havoc on the English during the early years of the French and Indian War. In response to the Marine tactics the British formed the famous Robert’s Rangers and light infantry which had never been seen in European armies at the time.
Also because the marines learned to fight from the Indians they adopted the dress of the Indians, replacing military gaiters with Indian breechcloths and leggings. Also the Marines became very close to the Indians and would fight along side them in military engagements.
The End of New France
The companies of the marines helped to defend New France during the French and Indian War and they fought in every major engagement. They were present at Ticonderoga when Abercrombie led his suicidal attack against the fort. They were present at Fort Niagara when the British bombarded the fort.
But most importantly they were present at the biggest battle of the war, the battle for Quebec on the Plains of Abraham. The marines were posted on the on both flanks of the French battle line. They used their Indian tactics to attack the British from the flanks while the English charged the main French line. A British officer named Lt. Frazier of the 78th Highlanders commented that his regiment lost most of its men when they were attacked by the marines hidden in bushes, “It was at that time and while in the bushes that our regiment suffered the most.” The marines’ best efforts were futile as the French finally withdrew back to the city and surrendered to the British days later, thus giving the British the capital of Canada. This was not the final battle though as the British would repel the remaining French forces in the battle of St. Foy and the last French post at Montreal.
The marines were an experienced, professional army in New France, although their courage and skills were never really embraced by French officers during the French and Indian War.
This webpage was produced by Kate Anthony, Maggie Dobbs, David Naples, Brian Vazzano, and Ben White for a Gettysburg College history project