Daily Life in New France


Soldiers' Daily Lives

Drummer of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, 1716-1730

Caption: Drummer of the Compagnies franches de la Marine in New France, 1716-1730

It is difficult to reconstruct the daily schedules of soldiers in New France. Few details were recorded and, in any case, soldiers' schedules varied considerably depending on whether they were in a town or a fort, or lived with civilians or in barracks. It also made a difference whether it was summer or winter.

In general, drummers sounded reveille as soon as the sun began to rise above the horizon. Regardless of which fort or barracks they were in, soldiers got up, put on their uniforms, cleaned their rooms, and prepared breakfast, which was eaten in groups of seven. It was still early, around seven o'clock, when sergeants came by to inspect the men and their rooms and to give the orders of the day.

The soldiers then dispersed all across the town. Those ordered to stand guard went to their appointed places and could be seen slowly scaling the ramparts. Others were posted to guardhouses at each of the residences requiring surveillance. In Montreal for example, soldiers served as sentries at the gates of the city governor's residence, while in Quebec City, soldiers guarded the gates of the governor general's residence, accompanied by a drummer because protocol required a drum roll each time he entered or departed, like a marshal in France. Sentries were also required to guard the gates of the intendant, the commissaire-ordonnateur or chief civil official, and the treasurer. Meanwhile, on the parade ground, soldiers drilled under a sergeant. Here and there, squads guarded prisoners or watched over shipyards and military hospitals. Some soldiers were also required to assist in law enforcement. They could be seen accompanying a Maréchaussée archer on his way to arrest a criminal.

Guard duty lasted 24 consecutive hours, from noon till noon, and every soldier put in one full day a week, as well as the times when comrades asked to be replaced. While on guard duty, soldiers served as sentries for periods of four to six hours. In summer they were relieved every two hours and in winter every hour, because of the cold. While not actually standing sentry, soldiers on duty were required to be in the guardhouse. Here they rested, ate, and slept fully clothed, since they had always to be at the ready.

Drills were supposed to be conducted three or four times a week, but officers tended to neglect them, probably because they were of little use for the kind of war waged in Canada. In the mid-eighteenth century, however, the authorities began insisting that army practices in France should be copied exactly. As a result, the regulations on drills and parades were enforced more rigidly.

The time not spent on exercises or standing guard was free. Most soldiers worked for private individuals or on public works, or practised some trade of their own. In this way they earned additional income, which was most welcome in view of their meagre wages.

Lunch was eaten around noon and supper between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m., although this could vary. At 8:00 p.m. in winter and 9:00 p.m. in summer, drummers marched through the city sounding the tattoo at about the time the sun set. At this signal, soldiers had to return to their quarters, some to the barracks and others to the homes of private individuals. Thus the day ended. A soldier's life may seem utterly monotonous, but this overlooks all the amusements they managed to devise.