The Organization of New France

French Naval Troops

Compagnies Franches de la Marine (Warships)

Soldier of the Compagnies franches de la Marine serving on warships in France, around 1750

Caption: Soldier of the Compagnies franches de la Marine serving on warships in France, around 1750

There is now considerable confusion with regard to the Compagnies franches de la Marine. The obvious reason is that this name applied to both troops serving on ships and those serving in the colonies. A source of further confusion is that contemporary records often speak of Navy "detachments." Many historians have concluded, naturally enough, that a single corps, based in France, occasionally sent detachments of soldiers to serve in the colonies. In fact, two different corps were involved.

The confusion does not end there. Until 1671, the French Navy occasionally raised regiments to serve on its ships. Their names indicated their origin: "La Marine," "Royal-Vaisseaux," or "Royal-Marine." However, at the insistence of the War minister Louvois, all regiments were transferred to the army, including regiments with "naval" names, even though they may not have actually performed any functions of that nature thereafter. The minister of the Navy, Colbert, then persuaded Louis XIV to authorize the raising of soldiers organized in "compagnies franches," that is, independent companies which were not part of any regiment. During the 1670s and 80s, companies of marines were raised and commissioned as needed. Then, on December 16, 1690, the Compagnies franches de la Marine were created to provide this service on a permanent basis. They were assigned to all the naval ports in France, and each company detached soldiers to serve on warships. Men from these companies took part in all naval battles and in many landings. They served under d'Iberville during his maritime expeditions. During periods of peace, their numbers fell to as few as 3,000 men, but soared to 10,000 during wartime. These Compagnies franches de la Marine serving on ships were dissolved on November 5, 1761.

The soldiers in these companies were armed at first with swords and matchlock muskets with bayonets. The matchlock muskets gradually gave way to flintlock muskets during the 1690s. Beginning in the 1680s, the soldiers wore grey-white uniforms with blue cuffs, linings, waistcoats, breeches, and stockings, and pewter buttons, which began to be made of brass in the early eighteenth century.