The Compagnies Franches de la Marine of Canada
Officers Make a Difference
Caption: Colonel's and unit colours of the Compagnies franches de la Marine, 18th century
During the 1680s, these Navy troops in the colony increased to some 1,500 officers and soldiers. In the first half of the eighteenth century, this number settled to around 900. From 1689 to 1749, the garrison consisted of 28 companies.
The Compagnies franches de la Marine in Canada soon stood out on account of the high proportion of officers to regular soldiers. After 1687, each company theoretically had three officers instead of two, although in fact a fourth was even added, recruited from the families of Canadian gentlemen. The latter was called the second ensign or "little officer." 55 This was an initiative of Governor Denonville, who had noted the excellent fighting qualities of the young men from the new Canadian gentry. Over the years, this measure was to have a considerable impact on social and military life of the colony.
Another practice, which probably began during the 1680s, also encouraged the integration of Canadians into the regular troops. The families of officers who had remained in the colony often sent their young sons into the Compagnies franches de la Marine as cadets in the hope that they would eventually become commissioned officers. Thus, in the early eighteenth century, the troops contained "bright youths of quality ... sons of officers ... paid as soldiers, " 56 whose promotion was encouraged. A quarter century later, however, complaints arose that the companies contained too many cadets "who were mere children" 57 taking the places of real soldiers. The king ordered that this situation be corrected by restricting the numbers of cadets. Then in 1731, a royal order was issued officially establishing the rank of cadet in the Canadian forces, with one per company. As a distinctive mark, they wore a blue and white cord on the shoulder of their uniforms, giving rise to the nickname "cadets of the aiguillette." However, the 28 positions available with the Compagnies franches de la Marine were not sufficient to provide for all the officers' sons who wished to join, and "soldier cadets" - a kind of junior cadet - made their unofficial appearance. They were eventually recognized officially and assigned one to a company in 1750.
The cadets were counted as soldiers in reviews and inspections, and were expected to learn how to handle weapons by serving with them. However, they also enjoyed the protection of officers (who were often family members), and were occasionally given opportunities to exercise command. With close ties to both the officer corps and the regular soldiers, these young men were an excellent source of information on the morale of the forces.
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