As early as the middle of the XVIIth century, the presence of artillerymen is attested in the colonies of Nouvelle France and Indes Occidentales (West Indies). These artillerymen were professionals called “Commissaires de l’Artillerie”. They were supported in their tasks by assistants supervising manoeuvres and training men as occasional artillerymen for punctual needs. In 1697, to alleviate this lack of technicians, the Ministère de la Marine decided to create military schools, the first one being established in Québec. One man from each of the 28 Compagnies Franches de la Marine present in Nouvelle-France had to be trained in this school to become Maître-Canonnier (master-gunner). Thus, a first unofficial colonial company was organised. Similar schools were established at Louisbourg in 1735, Mobile (Louisiane) in 1744, Fort Royal (present-day Fort-de-France in Martinique) in 1746 et Saint-Domingue (present-day Haïti) in 1755.
However, there were still very few companies and, in certain cases, training was far from optimal. This situation made it necessary to organise professional colonial artillery units devoted entirely to the handling of the cannon. This led to the creation of the Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine. The colonial artilleryman, as his counterpart of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine had to face rough conditions. First of all, the climate severely tested men and equipment. The harsh Canadian winter, with its heavy snowfalls, made it almost impossible to handle artillery pieces in January and February. In the West Indies (present-day Antilles), heath and humidity rotted wooden gun carriages while sea air attacked gun barrels and metallic parts. This same climate made men sick. Furthermore, distance, periods of idleness and broken dreams could easily shake a faltering morale. However, the Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine, with their elitist character, were among the most disciplined colonial troops. For instance, during the 1745 mutiny in Louisbourg, they were the sole unit to remain loyal to their commander!
This article, especially the section “ Service during the War”, is essentially devoted to the colonial Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine even though other troops fought along with them during this conflict.
Creation of the unit
By the decree of June 20 1743, Louis XV created a company of Canonniers-Bombardiers to serve at Louisbourg. A second company was raised in Louisbourg on February 1 1758, it incorporated 10 Bombardiers de la Marine 1 arriving from Rochefort. Soon other companies were raised in Saint-Domingue (a first as per the decree of December 19 1745, a second as per another decree of November 20 1758), in Martinique (a first on April 30 1747, a second on November 20 1757), in Canada (a first on April 10 1750, a second on March 15 1757) and finally in Louisiane (on November 1 1759). The first companies counted only 30 men but the decree of April 10 1750 increased this number to 50 men commanded by 4 officers. Among other things this latter decree stipulated that:
“His Majesty having established by his decree of June 20 1743 a company of Canonniers-Bombardiers at Isle Royale composed of only 30 men notwithstanding officers; and being informed that it is not sufficient to provide for the service to which it is destined, he has ordered and orders the following.
The said company will be increased from the number of 30 men to which it had been fixed by the said decree to the number of 50 notwithstanding officers to be composed of 2 sergeants, 3 corporals, 2 drummers and 43 gunners.
The 20 men necessary for the said increase will be, by orders of the Commander for His Majesty in the colony, chosen among the soldiers of the infantry companies, and their replacement will be made by recruits in the said companies.
The two last articles dealt with remuneration and reminded that the decree of 1743 was still applicable on all matters related to discipline. All gunners could be dispersed into various locations, as it was the case for the gunners stationed in Martinique who were sent to Guadeloupe, Sainte-Lucie and Marie-Galante.
As mentioned in article 2 of the decree of April 10 1750, recruits of the Canonniers-Bombardiers were chosen among the colonial infantry companies. These men were picked among the best soldiers of these companies and had to demonstrate real aptitudes for artillery. Furthermore, they were taller than usual. Gilles Proulx gives the following explanation: “taller soldiers were reputed the best and their slightly superior height thus gives to the corps of the Canonniers-Bombardiers a more elitist character”. Their were usually a few years older than their counterparts serving in the colonial infantry.
The work of J.-C. Bonnefons constitutes an uncommon eyewitness account, by a soldier (a very rare event in these days!). It states that certain men could be recruited in the Canonniers-Bombardiers upon arrival in the colony during the review where each captain chose his lot of recruits:
“(…) having placed myself, by my own initiative, at the tail of the two companies of gunners who, in this country, play the role of grenadiers, inspection began with them. The commander (…) then passed to the other companies and finally to recruits, where each captain by seniority, starting by the one of the gunners, took the number of men allocated to him, the commander of the gunners took ten of them at his choice without counting me and then the other captains”. Soldier Bonnefons was nevertheless incorporated in the Canonniers-Bombardiers some time later.
The recruitment of the officers of this corps was quite informal. The captain had above all to have a solid knowledge in the domain of artillery. Furthermore, there were no training school for these officers, so it was not uncommon to see professional commissaires d’artillerie supervise the first companies, Some officers came from the officer corps of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine because of their knowledge. With the special needs arising from war, some officers were even taken from the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie, a practice which was not without arising ire of some colonial officers (as it was the case at the creation of the second company in Québec in 1757). As can be seen, origin of officers was quite eclectic!
An elite corps
The Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine constituted the military elite of the colony where they served. Indeed, even the recruitment mode imported recruits with an elitist character since they were chosen among the best soldiers. Furthermore, these men served as grenadiers when they did not act as artillerymen.
Grenadiers units had appeared in the French Army during the XVIIth century and were specialised in grenade throwing. The were assigned the most perilous tasks: assaults, sorties or breaching during sieges. Gradually, these soldiers became the elite unit of each regiment even though grenades had become obsolete.
As the grenadiers of the line infantry regiments, the Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine received certain privileges distinguishing them as an elite corps. They held the place of honour, to the right of the line, during military reviews; during parades they had precedence over other colonial infantry units. They were allowed to wear moustaches and carried a sabre instead of a sword. Furthermore, in Québec, they did not reside in barracks but were better lodged in guardrooms at the Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis gates. In the same town, the Canonniers-Bombardiers were not subjected to guard duty but had to devote their time to practical and theoretical exercises with the cannon. Finally, the Canonniers-Bombardiers were better paid. Indeed if the privates of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine received 108 livres annually, the Canonniers-Bombardiers had a bonus of 2 to 4 livres per year. This was not sufficient to keep them safe from need and, as their comrades of the infantry, they worked during their free time to improve their living. Nevertheless, the Canonniers-Bombardiers, as the sergeants of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine were good pretenders for marriage: “NCOs and gunners received higher pays and occupied more prestigious positions. These conditions made more attractive candidates to marriage for the widows and young women of Québec” mentions Gilles Proulx.
The Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine constituted the first regular units of colonial artillery. This elite corps fought from North America to the West Indies, facing determined and overwhelmingly superior adversaries. One after the other, each company was annihilated. At the end of the Seven Years' War, only two companies had survived at Saint-Domingue. They were disbanded on March 27 1764. Colonial artillery then became the responsibility of the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie. By a series of decree dated March 24 1763, detachments of this corps were assigned to the West Indies (Martinique, Guadeloupe, Marie-Galante, Saintes, Sainte-Lucie and Saint-Domingue). However, contrarily to the Compagnies Franches de la Marine who ceased to exist at the end of the conflict, the Canonniers-Bombardiers would soon rise from the ashes. Indeed, as early as 1764, Versailles realized that an artillery corps permanently fixed in the colonies was much more useful and effective than small detachments of metropolitan artillery. Accordingly, new companies were raised in the West Indies as well as in the East Indies.
Service during the War
During the XVIIIth century, the sphere of activity of the companies of Canonniers-Bombardiers was as vast as the French colonial domain. As mentioned before, these soldiers were present from North America, through the West Indies (Martinique and Guadeloupe and their dependencies) down to French Guyana.
Service in Canada
In Canada, the Canonniers-Bombardiers were deployed at Louisbourg and in the larger towns of the colony as well as in the Ohio Valley and even farther. During the Seven Years' War, they were engaged in several great battles in Nouvelle-France.
In June and July 1758, two companies (100 men and 6 officers) took part to the defence of Louisbourg where they were assisted by sailors of the warships blockaded in the harbour. When the British began the encirclement of the fortress, a ferocious artillery duel lasted from June 20 to 25 between the British forces who had established their positions near the Tour de la Lanterne, at the entrance of the harbour, and the Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine entrenched the Île de l’Entrée, facing this tower. This contest ended in the night of June 25 when the French guns were finally silenced. Other Canonniers-Bombardiers served inside the fortress of Louisbourg, at the Bastion du Roi (put afire by an important bombardment on July 22), Bastion de la Reine (partly destroyed on July 23) and foremost at the Bastion du Dauphin where artillerymen fought to the last till the British created a breach on July 25. The following day, considering the disastrous situation in which he found himself, Governor Chevalier Boschenry de Drucour was forced to surrender without obtaining the honours of war, despite the stubborn resistance of the garrison. Very little is known about the losses of the two companies of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine safe that survivors returned to France in 1760 before being transferred to Saint-Domingue in 1762. The remaining company was disbanded in Saint-Domingue in 1766.
Meanwhile on July 8 1758, during the British offensive on Lake Champlain, one company of 50 Canonniers-Bombardiers was present at the Battle of Carillon. This company was posted in the fort, no gun was deployed in the French outside defensive works during the engagement. From the beginning of the attack, around 10:00, till 13:00, artillerymen observed the combat from the fort. Around 14:00, as the battle was nearing its end, a flotilla of 20 barges and rafts armed with guns arrived from La Chute River on the left flank of the French lines. As the flotilla moved closer to the north bank, it was received by a lively musketry fire from the two companies of volunteers led by Duprat and Bernard. The barges continued to progress along the shore in the direction of the fort. The Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine saw them and opened fire. The heavy pieces of the south-west bastion sank a barge and, continuing fire, destroyed another small boat, forcing the other to retreat.
In 1759, the British launched another offensive on Lake Champlain. On July 23, General Amherst at the head of 11,000 men arrived in front of Fort Carillon (present-day Ticonderoga) defended by Bourlamaque with 400 men, including a few artillerymen of the Canonniers-Bombardiers. Considering the overwhelming superiority of the British force, the French put the powder magazine afire and retired on Fort Saint-Frédéric (present-day Crown Point). On August 31, they had to abandon this fort as well.
Meanwhile, from June to September 1759, two other companies of 50 Canonniers-Bombardiers each, along with 6 officers, took part in the defence of Québec. They manned artillery pieces within the town and in the entrenchments of Beauport. There was also a company of the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie, along with matelots-canonniers (gunners-sailors) and artillerymen of the militia serving with them. On September 13, during the battle of the Plains of Abraham, Montcalm had only 4 pieces present on the battlefield but we do not know if they were manned by soldiers of the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie or by Canonniers-Bombardiers. Maybe detachments of both were present!
In the Spring of 1760, the Chevalier de Lévis made an attempt to recapture Québec. On April 28, at the battle of Sainte-Foy, the attack on the British commanded by Brigadier-general Murray was supported by artillery pieces handled by the Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine and men from the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie.
In the Summer of 1760, the last defenders (1,450 men including a few Canonniers-Bombardiers) of the southern front on the Richelieu River entrenched themselves on Isle-aux-Noix under the command of Bougainville. They were facing the 3,000 men (supported by 40 guns) of Brigadier General Haviland. In the night of August 27, despite a courageous resistance, Bougainville had to abandon this position and to retire on Montréal. The southern front had ceased to exist. The Canonniers-Bombardiers were of all engagements but unfortunately their losses and the number of survivors are not known.
By the end of the Summer of 1760, the British three pronged attack against Montréal had cornered the sole remaining French force in and around the town. Surrounded by General Amherst at the head of an army of 17,000 men, this small French army, still under command of the Chevalier de Lévis, was forced to surrender to avoid unnecessary bloodshed (although some officers proposed to make a last stand and to die arms in hand!). The last elements of colonial artillery in Canada then ceased to exist.
Service in the West Indies
In the West Indies, the Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine fought courageously against overwhelmingly superior forces.
Until the beginning of 1759, the French islands of the West Indies enjoyed a relative calm. Then, Great Britain turned its attention towards these profitable “sugar islands” who also sheltered nests of corsairs. The most powerfully defended of all these islands was indisputably the Martinique who acted as a lock on the eastern side of the Caribbean Sea. From Martinique forces were sent to Guadeloupe, Saintes, Dominique and Sainte-Lucie islands.
Among the defenders of the Guadeloupe Island, there was a company of Canonniers-Bombardiers (the one created on November 20 1757 in Martinique). This company was led by the Chevalier Antoine Le Pelletier de Liancourt (born October 13 1738 in Compiègne), son of the commander of the artillery school of La Fère (Picardie). Very little is known about his youth. In 1755, he went to Guadeloupe to settle a question of succession. His uncle, Michel Antoine Bourdaise de Montéran, had bequeathed to him a considerable fortune. Shortly after his arrival, Liancourt, then aged only 19, was appointed captain of the second company of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine. He was seconded in his function by Joseph Gaspard de Tascher de la Pagerie (born in Martinique on July 5 1735) who, at 20 years old, had been appointed lieutenant in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine before being transferred in 1757 to the second company of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine. In 1758, this company (or part of it) arrived in Guadeloupe to organize the already existing local artillery (militiamen and soldiers). Indeed Guadeloupe was home to a large number of corsairs of a high fighting value and well accustomed to the handling of guns!On January 13 1759, a British fleet (11 ships of the line, 6 frigates, 4 sloops, 4 bomb ketches and 60 transports with some 6,000 troops on board), under command of Commodore John Moore, sailed from Barbados for an expedition against Fort Royal (Martinique). The company of Canonniers-Bombardiers stationed in Guadeloupe under the Chevalier de Liancourt and Lieutenant de la Pagerie was recalled to rejoin the first company already stationed in Martinique for the defence of the latter island. On January 19, in front of the doggedness of the French garrison, the British commanders changed their objectives and decided to proceed to the conquest of Guadeloupe. Liancourt's company was immediately sent back to Guadeloupe. The Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine had demonstrated their skill in front of a determined adversary numerically superior. Assisted by corsairs, the Canonniers-Bombardiers had held their ground in front of the British and their lively fire had even compelled them to retire!
On January 23, upon their arrival off Guadeloupe, the British initially turned their attention to the town of Basseterre on the western island, 8 ships pounding the coastal batteries served by professional artillerymen – corsairs and Canonniers-Bombardiers – supervising unskilled militiamen and soldiers. Soon the confrontation turned into a real artillery duel. The French artillery, manned by skilled crews (corsairs and Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine) opposed a fierce resistance before being silenced by the British naval artillery. On January 24, a British force landed unmolested, the French having abandoned Basseterre. In the following weeks, formal operations turned into guerilla warfare particularly deadly for the British. On February 13, British ships bombarded Fort Saint Louis on the island of Grande-Terre. At mid March, the British redirected their main efforts on the island of Grande-Terre, leaving only a small garrison to hold the town of Basseterre. On April 19, after a long struggle, Guadeloupe finally surrendered. During this long and strenuous campaign, the Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine distinguished themselves. Their losses are not known but must have been quite important considering the harshness of the ceaseless engagements. Nevertheless the remains of Liancourt's company returned to Martinique where they joined the first company of Canonniers-Bombardiers. Martinique was clearly the next objective of the British High Command.
Indeed, in January 1762, a large British amphibious force proceeded to the invasion of Martinique. The first company of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine, reinforced with the remnants of the second company who had returned from Guadeloupe (a total of 60 to 80 gunners) took part in the defence of the island. On January 24, a detachment of Canonniers-Bombardiers, under the command of Captain de Liancourt and Lieutenant de la Pagerie, distinguished itself in the defence of Morne Tortenson. The citadel of Fort Royal surrendered on February 3. By February 12, the entire island was in the hands of the British. Once more, the Canonniers-Bombardiers had distinguished themselves in front of vastly superior forces. Unfortunately, their losses are not known. The survivors were sent to Saint-Domingue.
Service in Louisiane
In 1753, considering the lack of means and the poor state of the colony, its new governor, the Chevalier de Kerlerec (1704-1770) who insisted at Versailles who finally decided to send him reinforcements.
In 1754, when he heard of the death of Jumonville during the operations on the Ohio River, Kerlerec expected a British attack on Louisiane in the coming years..
By 1759, the colony could field 35 Compagnies Franches de la Marine and militia who had to cover a huge territory. Furthermore, on November 1, a company of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine was created in Nouvelle-Orléans. Most of these troops (artillerymen as well as soldiers) were based in Nouvelle-Orléans, Mobile and Fort de Chartres. Smaller detachments served in the fort along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.
In 1762, expecting a British attack, France made a last effort and sent 10 companies of Angoumois Infanterie which were posted at Nouvelle-Orléans from April 1762 to October 1763. Indeed, after the conquest of Martinique in 1762, Great Britain was planning an expedition against Louisiane. However, when Spain joined the conflict, British plans were re-examined and priority given to the expedition against Cuba. These were good news for the Chevalier de Kerlerec because his small force was in no situation to resist the type of large amphibious operations that Great Britain had conducted against the islands of the West Indies.
At the end of the Seven Years' War, the company of Canonniers-Bombardiers serving in Louisiane was disbanded and incorporated into the Corps Royal de l'Artillerie.
Service in Guyane
It seems that no company of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine was present in French Guyane. It is very probable that in this colony artillery pieces were handled by infantrymen stationed there (mostly soldiers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine).