The Troupes de la Marine (also known as the Compagnies franches de la Marine) were French regular infantry soldiers under the control of the Ministère de la Marine. Their key purpose was to defend France’s overseas colonial possessions, including New-France. These soldiers can be considered Canada’s first permanent regular army.
(courteoisie de Bibliothèque et Archives Canada/2837934)
The Troupes de la Marine’s lineage goes as far back to 1622 when companies of soldiers were organized to serve on French naval ships. These units are renamed to “Troupes de la Marine” in 1674 by the head of the Ministère de la Marine: Jean-Baptiste Colbert. In 1690, the unit is renamed to Compagnies franches de la Marine.
Deployment to New France
After 1668, the defence of New France becomes a responsibility of the Ministère de la Marine. Apart from the recently deployed Carignan-Salières regiment, the colony’s defence had mainly been dependent on local Canadian militias. The first companies of the Troupes de la Marine — each consisting of up to 50 soldiers — arrived in New France in 1683. Eventually up to 40 companies are present in Canada by 1756. A good number were also stationed at Louisbourg. These troops gradually develop into the first permanent "Canadian" force.
Fighting in Canada
Initially entirely composed of Frenchmen, the Compagnies franches de la Marine came to be officered largely by Canadians. The troops also adapted their equipment and tactics to the Canadian environment. Warm clothing, canoes, and snowshoes became standard items. In the 18th century, the Compagnies became highly proficient in bush warfare. They usually operated in small groups with militia troops and with Indigenous allies in attacks on British forts and settlements. Yet, they also retained their ability to fight as regular line infantry in European-style pitched battles.
In 1758, during the Seven Years' War, the Louisbourg companies were taken prisoner by the British with the fall of that fortress. The Compagnies franches de la Marine also participate in major battles like the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Battle of Sainte-Foy.
With the defeat of France and the British Conquest of New France, many soldiers settled in Canada while many others returned to France reluctantly.