The Compagnies Franches de la Marine of Canada

European Tactics: Impractical In Canada

While the French officers responsible for inspecting fortifications in New France could draw on what they had learned from military textbooks as well as the advice of their counterparts back home, the situation was entirely different for military strategists pondering the defence of New France in the midst of the wild and vast territories of North America. Compounding the problems of geography were rigorous winters, which were unparalleled in western Europe except in parts of Scandinavia and Russia.

The available treatises on the art of war were written for armies campaigning in France, Germany or Italy, in accordance with European battle tactics calling for compact units of musketeers protected by pikemen for battle on foot. Nowadays, the idea of lines of infantry advancing over open terrain toward the enemy, their brightly coloured uniforms making them easy targets and their weapons gleaming in the sun, seems suicidal. Why did they not hide? The answer was that the limited effectiveness of firearms made mass tactics necessary. Musket fire only began to be effective at ranges of about a hundred metres, when concentrated in salvos, because muskets were still too inaccurate to hit particular targets. What was needed was one mass of men firing at another.

None of these military techniques could be applied in Canada. There were no roads, and therefore no field artillery or cavalry to send against the invaders to check their advance. If English soldiers and New England militiamen did advance into New France, the available troops would probably not suffice to overcome them in any case. For all these reasons, and even though this potential enemy waged war in the traditional European fashion, French officers of the 1680s realized that most of their knowledge and experience of war was of little help in the colony.