Daily Life in New France


Officers' Duties

The daily lives of officers were very different from those of their men. At the time, an enormous social gulf separated aristocrats and bourgeois from the lower classes, from which most soldiers were drawn. Officers had at least one valet, usually a man from their company, to serve them. They were not expected to perform manual labour, and their social rank conferred various privileges upon them.

In general, officers did not participate actively in such military activities as drills, but supervised them instead. Captains were responsible for entire companies and paid particular attention to their junior officers and to relations with more senior officers and other captains. Lieutenants, ensigns and second ensigns attended to the details of daily life: ensuring that weapons and uniforms were in good condition and that the soldiers were shaved and clean, visiting the sick and injured in hospital, inspecting the sections standing guard, and overseeing drills. When companies were lodged in barracks, the subordinate officers inspected the rooms in the morning to ensure that their occupants kept them clean and orderly. They repeated this procedure in the evening to ensure that all soldiers were present and "above all ... that no harlots had found their way in." Sergeants were responsible for carrying out the orders of junior officers, who were expected "to report on all these details" to the captain. 110

Some officers were allowed to be absent for particular periods of time. For instance, in 1729 the governor general allowed poor officers to live on their lands, so long as two officers were always present with the company to stand guard and take part in inspections. There were also some officers who "by their age or infirmities" were "no longer able to serve." 111

Although their daily lives differed enormously according to their ranks, a certain friendliness usually reigned between officers and soldiers in Canada. As early as the 1680s, the officer La Hontan noted that troops in Canada had to be treated differently from those in Europe. A gentle approach, he wrote, was the best way "to win the hearts of soldiers" 112 and thus gain their loyalty and confidence. Kalm, for his part, noted with some surprise that soldiers respected their officers, enjoyed considerable freedom, and treated each other as comrades. The type of military service performed in Canada encouraged this more intimate interaction because soldiers often lived in small, isolated groups, each man having to count on the others.

The first duty of officers was to lead their men into battle. Canadian officers were particularly diligent in this regard. Expeditions against New England or hostile Amerindians always included several officers, especially young men, as well as cadets who had volunteered. This was not only because of their legendary courage but also because this was the only way to familiarize themselves with the particular military tactics practised in Canada.