Understanding French Army Uniforms

At a distance the Guyenne Regiment looked quite similar to the Bearn Regiment, but differences in the construction of the coat would have been clearly understood back in 1757. Collection of the Musée de l’Armée 

This year Ticonderoga is very excited to be bringing to life 1757 and the French cannon crews that prepared to defend the walls of Fort Carillon, later named Ticonderoga. Looking at French uniforms in 1757 can be confusing. If you are used to modern military uniforms with patches and badges sewn onto a camouflage fabric suit, the array of colors is dizzying. Even if one is used to the uniforms of the Revolutionary War or War of 1812, the lack of regimental numbers or insignia on the metal buttons makes these 1750s French uniforms equally vague. Be assured, there was a method to regimental distinctions in the French army. At the time, these would have read as clearly as the number on a badge today.

It may be subtle, but the collars of the Royal-Roussillon Regiment weren’t attached for the final inch at either end, created an open or hanging appearance to the collar. Collection of Fort Ticonderoga.

In general, French army uniforms were white; that is regular French Infantry regiments wore white uniforms. Foreign regiments were often distinguished by different colors. German regiments often wore blue coats, Swiss and Irish regiments wore red, and Maison du Roi or household regiments had their own distinctive colors. A French infantry uniform could be plain white. In fact, the Bourgogne Regiment, which served at Fortress Louisburg, wore habits or regimental coats which were completely white. While it may not seem like it, unbleached white wool cloth, often described as gris-blanc, cost less than dyed cloth, especially on the  vast scale of the French army. There was expense inherent in dying wool to make the distinctive colors of a regiment. The 1747, Royal Ordonnances for clothing mentions this cost stating, “The expense of the dye, as well as that for the facings, will be in the future part of the regimental fund.”  French regiments were distinguished by the colors of the collar and cuffs or the facings of their habits, as well as the color of their vestes, the sleeved jackets worn under the habit. The French infantry regiments that served at Carillon had red or blue regulation facings. Only the Volontaires Étrangers, or foreign volunteers which sent a few hundred men to Carillon in the summer of 1757, broke the mold with green coat facings and vestes.

Regiment Habit

Cuffs and Collar

Veste Button Color
La Reine Red Blue White Metal
Languedoc Blue Blue Brass
Royal Roussillon Blue Blue Brass
Bearn Red Red Brass
Guyenne Red Red Brass
La Sarre Red Blue Brass
Berry Red Red Brass

 

The Bearn Regiments’ two vertical pockets didn’t function, they served to identify the regiment. The actual pockets were set into the pleats of the coat.  Collection of the Musée de l’Armée 

A quick glance at the repetition of these colors creates the impression that these regiments’ uniforms were barely distinguishable. However, more than these colors were subtle details in the construction of uniform garments. The cut of the collars, pocket flaps, cuffs, vestes, and the placement of buttons on these, were just as important to a regiment’s uniform as the color of their facings. By regulation, the Bearn Regiment and Guyenne Regiment both had red vestes, cuffs, and collars, Bearn had two vertical pocket flaps on each front of the coat, with three buttons each. Guyenne had simply one horizontal pocket flap with three buttons upon it.  When the French navy supplied uniforms to French army regiments arriving in 1755, these facing colors were negotiable, but regiments’ distinctions were adhered too.  In fact, the Bearn received blue vestes and blue cuffs, though no mention was made about there regulation vertical pocket flaps. These pocket flaps served only for identification, the actual coat pocket openings were in the pleats at the side of the coats. A few generations earlier, these diverse styles of pocket flap were high fashion. These details incorporated into the uniforms of these regiments in the 1670s through 1710s, but remained long after.

The cut of the vestes was also part of a uniform’s distinctions. Arriving to Carillon in 1758, the Berry Regiment had red facings and two vertical pocket flaps like Bearn, but appeared very different with a double-breasted veste. In addition to two rows of small brass buttons closing the veste down the front, the coat cuffs of the Berry Regiment featured six buttons on each cuff as a further distinction. Albeit with blue facings, this detail was shared with the Royal-Roussillon Regiment, which arrived at Carillon in the summer of 1756. More obvious details like the shape of pocket flaps and buttons on the cuff were complimented by even more subtle distinctions. While the 1747 Royal Ordonnances ordered a collar for the habit, the shape of it was left as a regimental distinction. Careful examination of images of the Royal Roussillon Regiment reveals a hanging collar, with an inch to either end left unattached to the neckline. The La Reine Regiment, with its red collar and cuffs, but a blue veste, shared this odd collar detail.

While the Royal-Roussillon Regiment was to have 6 buttons on the cuff, Sergeants in the French army were to have three loops as a distinction. Their rank superseded the regimental cuff distinction. Collection of Fort Ticonderoga.

Wool and metallic tape or galon was used for regimental and rank distinctions. Most of the French army regiments at Carillon had brass buttons which was matched in the faux gold binding of their hats. La Reine, the only army regiment with white metal buttons, had its hats bound in faux silver tape. This was true of the ranks of soldat, corporal, and anspessades (roughly equivalent to a modern private first class or lance corporal). When a soldier reached the rank of Sergeant, their hat was instead be bound in fin or real gold or silver tape. Beyond their hat and a special sword, Sergeants were distinguished by their coat’s cuff being “trimmed on the facing with three loops or a wide gilded or silver border, & only one of the two…” by the 1747 Ordonnances.  By regulation, a Colonel had to choose either a band of this gold or silver lace at the top of the cuff or three loops of that trim. However, a painting of the Royal Roussillon Regiment in 1748 shows one of their Sergeants with both. Corporals were distinguished by three loops of woolen tape on the cuffs, like a lower quality version of the Sergeants’ distinction. Interestingly, the three loops–and buttons to go with them– superseded the regiments’ arrangement of buttons on the cuffs. Though Royal-Roussillon’s coats had six buttons on their cuffs, their Sergeants had only three as per their rank’s distinction.

Were it not for their double-breasted vestes and 6-button cuffs, Berry Regiment soldiers looked very similar to Bearn soldiers. Collection of the Musée de l’Armée

The French army, as with many armies at the time, set apart artillerymen in blue coats with red distinctions. For the fourteen artillerymen and four officers of the Regiment of Royal-Artillery who arrived at Carillon in the summer of 1757, their uniforms with red breeches and red vestes were further set apart with unique details. Their double-breasted vestes featured pocket flaps closing with four buttons and buttonholes. Their habit featured many details unique to the artillery corps, including a, ‘bande,’ a separate strip containing the buttonholes to close the coat down the left side of the front.

As fascinating and intricate as the French Army artillery uniform was, most of the artillerymen at Carillon were from the Colony of Canada’s Cannoniers-Bombardiers, completely separate from the French army and with their own uniform. The April 10, 1750 “Ordonnances Concerning the Establishment of a Company of Cannoniers-Bombardiers in Canada” explained their uniform.

…Et à chacun des Canonniers un habit de drap bleu commun avec des parements rouges, boutons blancs de métal d’allemagne argenté veste, culotte et bas rouges, un chapeau bordé d’argent faux… …And to each of the Artillerymen a coat of common blue wool with red facings, white German-silver buttons, red veste, breeches and stockings, a hat bordered in faux silver…

The 1758 Code Militaire includes descriptions of each French regiments’ uniform, including the Royal Artillery. In addition to blue coats and red distinctions, the artillery had many subtle details on the coat and veste. Collection of Fort Ticonderoga.

Blue and red was a common distinction of the artilleryman across many armies. For this recreated uniform of a Cannoniers-Bombardiers the rank of Corporal is signified by the band of white worsted tape around the cuff.

Within this company, sergeants received higher-grade cloth, real silver buttons, and fine silver lace for their hats and cuffs. Oddly like anspessades in the infantry, for this company Corporals had a band of plain lace at the top of their cuffs.  As complete as these uniform regulations seem, knowing the wide array of shapes and finishes to so many details on the cuffs, pockets, and all, the exact uniform is open to interpretation. As Fort Ticonderoga portrays the Cannoniers-Bombardiers as part of our recreated year of 1757, we have opted for the simplest arrangements of facings, pockets & other details.

All of this attention to subtle differences in buttons, trimmings, and the finish of pieces of a uniform may seem silly, but at the time they were important regimental traditions. Just as we understand a unit’s patch or badge today, the meaning of uniform details in the French army were well understood by soldiers. Relative to civilian clothing at the time, many of these cuff and pocket shapes were old-fashioned or odd, serving to set apart military dress while tapping into a regiments’ heritage over generations of soldiers. Some regiments tenaciously hung onto distinctions like their old pocket flap shapes even as reforms of the French army in the 1760s prohibited them.  As our staff wears these fascinating uniforms every day in 2017, guests will have the opportunity to look through 18th century eyes and read these distinctions for themselves, and appreciate the significance they carried at the time.

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