French Military in Canada

French Military in Canada:

An Overview Of French Forces During The French & Indian War

 By Joe Wagner

The content of this article goes somewhat afield from the typical Revolutionary War focus, but it is relevant enough to the reenactor experience in several ways to merit a look.  First of all, the history of the French military in Canada influenced military developments to the south in the English colonies, along with the obvious English models, from the French & Indian (F & I) War leading up to the Revolution.   It was, after all, against those French forces that our senior officers and statesmen, from Washington on down, fought two decades before our Revolution. Also, the military traditions of France, as exhibited in North America during the F & I War, give insights into the next generation of French forces who shared our War of Independence, as well as their influence on our own uniform, weapons, drill, etc.   Lastly, since any biography of George Washington or other Revolutionary leaders includes their early interactions with the French during both the F&I war as well as their collaboration during the Revolution, that knowledge is broadened by this background information.

Not the least interesting aspect of this research are the sources, which include an English  translation of a mid 20th century historical analysis by the Montreal Military Museum (La Societe du Musee Militaire & Maritime de Montreal),   and a 1759 French Army publication, “Etat Militaire de France”, which, among other things, listed all of the regiments then serving in North America, along with their organizational structure, uniform details, names of their officers, operational experiences, and where they were serving.  Four years earlier, in May 1755, was published a third piece of source material – “Exercice de L’Infantrie Francoise”.  This 80 page manual is a gold mine of period information on French drill, equipment, commands, and movements, as well as very detailed verbal explanation, in French and English, of each drill movement.  The detail of description and the quality of the engraved plates is outstanding.


The first regiment of French troops to serve in Canada arrived in 1665.   They were the Carignan Salieries, and their mission was protection of the fur trade and the associated frontier settlements from the Indians.  After some years, they were disbanded and their members largely stayed in Canada as new residents.  For the remainder of the 17th century, French Canadian armed forces consisted of Troupes de la Marine and militia.  The Troupes de la Marine were garrison companies operating under the authority of the French Navy, which had military responsibility for Canada at the time.  They were not organized as battalions, and served in fixed posts, seldom if ever consolidating to campaign or serve as a mobile military force until the time of the F&I War.

In 1755, when war with England loomed, and the French learned that the English General Braddock was sailing to America with two battalions of troops, the King sent four regular regiments (Bern, Guyenne, Languedoc, and La Reine) initially, followed by three more (Berry, Royal Rouissillon, and La Sarre) over the next two years, totaling 3,800 men under the command of General Louis-Joseph Marquis de Montcalm.   Four other regiments (Karrer, Artois, Bourgogne, and Cambris) were sent to man the fortifications at Fort Louisbourg, Nova Scotia.  These units were captured when the Fortress fell to the British expedition of 1758.

These battalions of the F&I War, like their English counterparts, consisted of 8 musket companies of about 50-60 men each.  Each company normally had a Captain, a Lieutenant, an Ensign, one or two cadets, two Sergeants, several Corporals, and a drummer.  Each battalion was commanded in the field by a Lt. Colonel.  There was an Adjutant to assist the Lt. Colonel, but no other field officers above the company level.  Mirroring the British army, each battalion had a Grenadier company, but the concept of light companies was implemented only by virtue of a “piquet” company named from within the existing companies to serve as sentries and advance guard.


The style of uniform may be seen in the accompanying plates from the 1755 drill manual.  They were generally a light gray in their primary color, with regimental distinctions, like the American Continental, in the colors of cuffs, lapels, and the vest.  In addition, it was also common to differentiate units based on the cut of sleeves and pockets, and in the number of buttons on the coat.  The vest, unlike the Continental weskit, had sleeves, and in hot weather was worn as the outer garment.  The long-skirted coat or justaucorps was the only outer garment issued in France, but was often enhanced with a blanket coat for Canadian winters.  The regulation gaiters were likewise replaced in the colder climate with Indian-style mitasses, heavy woolen tubes held by straps or cloth ties, similar to Continental blue wool gaiters, but which reached higher on the leg.


There were two variants of the Charleville musket in use during the F&I War period.   As is often noted, the operation, capabilities, and configuration of French muskets followed closely those of the British, and all other European armies of the time.  It is not known which or how many of these two models the regiments of Montcalm carried with them to Canada.  Le Modele Reglementaire 1746 is the one shown in the drill plates accompanying this article.  It can be distinguished by the location of the carrying strap swivels on the left side of the stock rather than on the bottom.  The other then in use, Le Modele Reglementaire 1754, has the swivels on the bottom as with the Brown Bess.  They were both in the standard French .69 caliber.

The French soldier of this period also was armed with a short straight sword, which was carried, as with Continental period Sergeants, along with the bayonet in a double frog on the left side.  Unique to the French Army, this double frog was held by a waist belt rather than a shoulder strap.  The cartridge box, carried on the right hip, also had a fastener holding it to the belt, and was quite sizable, but holding only 27 rounds.  Canteens, not shown in the drill etchings, were believed to be originally of tin, but all references to Canadian replacements refer to wood.  No mention is made of other carried implements, such as haversack or knapsack, although certainly something of the type would have been necessary.  Officers were to carry spontoons and sergeants halberds, although they were usually left behind when campaigning.

Rations & Pay

The basic ration of all troops in Canada consisted of three items; bread or biscuit, salt pork, and dried peas.  Normal daily issue was 1 to 1.5 pounds of bread, a half pound of salt pork, and half pound of peas.  Where opportunity allowed, vegetable gardens and some hunting supplemented these basics.    In hard times, the pork was replaced by horse meat.  The most common liquid stocked for issue to the troops was spruce beer, a mildly alcoholic concoction of molasses, yeast, and the tips of spruce trees.  Preferable to water due to the common diseases of dysentery and other ailments, the spruce beer had the added advantage of being an excellent preventative for scurvy.

A soldier’s pay was small – 10 livres (about $40 in current value) a month for common soldiers – and was usually issued in paper specie.  Soldiers could earn extra cash by working as laborers and other tasks within their camps and fortifications.  Perhaps unique to the French army, since it is not common to the 18th century English or American forces, a soldier was considered a “fighter”, and when “civilian” work was required such as building roads, cutting logs,  or digging postholes for a fort, he was paid extra as a civilian worker for his labors.


The French Canadian campaigning during the F&I War consisted of five distinct ventures, one each year from 1755 to 1759, with the first three offensive in nature and then two that were defensive.  In the summer of 1755, while General Braddock and Colonel Washington were fighting their way through Pennsylvania, General Baron de Dieskau led a force including the regiments La Reine and Languedoc, as well as militia and Indians, up Lake Champlain to Lake George.  Here they met a largely colonial American-British force under command of General William Johnson.  The French forces suffered a very thorough defeat, taking about 230 casualties including the wounding of General Dieskau.

The second campaign, in the following year of 1756, was led by the newly arrived General Montcalm.  He took the Bearn, Guyenne, and La Sarre regiments, along with 700 Troupes de Marines, militia, and Indians westward to Lake Ontario.  Here he invested the British fort of Oswego, which fell after a short siege.  He burned the fort, as well as a small British fleet on Lake Ontario, and returned victorious to Montreal.  This cleared the English from the western end of French Canada, and eliminated the only English access to the Great Lakes.

In 1757, the third year of the War, it was decided to once again attack up the Lake Champlain/Lake George corridor, and destroy the British fort on Lake George, Fort William Henry.  To attack this heavily defended fort was a major undertaking, requiring all of the French forces available.  Montcalm assembled all six of his available regular battalions (Berry had not yet arrived), 3,500 men from the Marine companies and militia, and over 1,800 Indians.  After a siege of less than a week, the British surrendered Fort William Henry, which was followed by the infamous massacre of the paroled British troops by the Indians.

1758 found the British on the offensive, as they tried to capture the key fort on Lake Champlain, known to the Americans as Fort Ticonderoga, but to the French as Fort Carillon.  A massive force of over 12,000 British regulars and American militia attacked a French defense that consisted of every available regiment Montcalm could muster,  numbering some 3,800 men, fighting from behind log barricades stretching out a half mile in front of the fort.  After a day-long assault, the British gave up and retired, losing some 1,600 troops.  This defense of Lake Champlain was the final high point of French military achievement during the F&I War in Canada.

1759, the next to final year of the War in Canada, brought the famous defeat of the French Army before Quebec by British General Wolf, resulting in the death of both he and General Montcalm.  The battle began as a siege, in which Montcalm, with five regular regiments (two were at Lake Champlain), the Marine troops, and militia held off General Wolf for several months before a climactic battle on the Plains of Abraham resulted in the defeat of the French forces.  After Montcalm’s death, his second in command, General Levis, took the remaining French forces west towards Montreal, where they wintered.

Regaining strength and reinforcements, the French army returned to Quebec in April 1760, and besieged the city now held by a smaller British force under General Murray.   However, a British relief force arrived up the St. Lawrence River, and lifted the siege, which resulted in the remnants of the French forces retreating to Montreal.  Here they were surrounded by converging British forces from Quebec, the Champlain Valley, and the St. Lawrence.  Levis finally surrendered in September 1760, ending the F&I War, and ending French ownership of Canada.

Due to deaths, desertion, and the opportunity to remain in Canada after the end of the War, it is estimated that fewer than a thousand men of the six regular regiments who came over in 1755-57 returned to France.


French Military Graphic

Some items of interest in these drill etchings:  the left side attachment of the musket sling on the Model 1746 Charleville is apparent in the “Ground Arms” picture 1st Movement, where the musket is turned with the left side facing the viewer.  Also noticeable are the small sword, the long tightly fitted gaiters, the long and decorated waist coat, and the belt attachment for the bayonet and sword double frog.  In the view at right, the embossed leather cartridge box, with its secondary attachment of the shoulder strap to the belt is clearly shown.


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