All Posts

Maurice de Saxe and Canadian Clothing

Maurice de Saxe
Maurice de Saxe secured his reputation as a skilled general with his brilliant success in campaigns during the War of Austrian Succession, 1740-1748.

While General Montcalm is the most famous and influential French officer in North America, on the continent of Europe, Marshall-General Maurice de Saxe was France’s most famous and successful officer during the middle of the 18th century. Like many officers in the French Army, he was of foreign birth, a son of the Elector of Saxony. He actually fought against the French army as a teenager in the Netherlands, and served with the Austrian, or Imperial, Army fighting the Turks in Hungary in the 1710’s. At the conclusion of that war, he moved to France and rose steadily to the rank of General. His military achievements culminated in his highly successful campaigns through Belgium and the Netherlands in the War of Austrian Succession, known in British North America as King George’s War. Maurice de Saxe was known personally for being kind and irreverent, but he was also a military innovator, and blunt critic of all matters military in his time. He did not enjoy his military success for long. Merely two years after peace by the Treaty of Aix-Chappelle in 1748, Maurice de Saxe succumbed to a fever. However, his posthumously published, Reveries or Memoires Concerning the Art of War encapsulated his half-century of military experience and his vision for a new reformed military system.

An English translation of his memoires was first published in 1759 in London, and remains an important text for students of military history. Saxe’s extensive discussions of military organization, tactics, and the concept of the combined arms, “legion,” make this a very important work. He also critiqued French clothing and its utility on campaign, designing a new plan for clothing soldiers. It is fascinating for those studying the French Army in North American during the subsequent war, that clothing issued in New France closely mirrors his recommendations. Maurice de Saxe prefaces his discussion of clothing bluntly.

Our dress is not only very expensive, but most inconvenient; the soldier is neither shod nor clad. The love of appearance prevails over the regard due to health, which is one of the grand points demanding our attention.

Soldier wearing simple wool hat
Hardly a Roman helmet, these simple knit wool hats answered the practical concerns that Saxe raised about the felt hats commonly used.

Saxe has nothing good to say about soldiers’ hats. Of these black felt cocked hats, he states, “The hat soon loses its agreeable shape; is not strong enough to resist the rain and hard usage of a campaign, but presently wears out.” He complains that the men try to sleep in their hats, whereupon they fall off leaving a soldier’s head exposed during the dewy night. Given an extensive classical education and abiding love of the topic, Maurice de Saxe recommended a Roman or Greek styled helmet as the solution to these problems. While this idea did catch on in the French army, especially among the dragoons, service in Canadaprompted an interesting solution to headwear. The diary of Chevalier de la Pause of the Guyenne regiment records that each soldier and sergeant received, “1 bonnet,” upon arriving in Quebecon June 27th, 1755. Based on subsequent issues of clothing to French soldiers in New France, this bonnet appears to be the ubiquitous Canadian knit wool toque. While hardly a glittering bronze helmet this thick boiled wool hat answered the needs for a durable, warm, uniform headwear that remained on soldiers head at all times.

Man wearing Turkish robes/cloak
Maurice de Saxe envisioned long Turkish robes made in wool as the perfect outer garment. With an additional hood this would provide great protection for French soldiers.

While a soldiers’ coat or justacorps was an essentials part of a soldiers’ uniform, Saxe had little good to say about it. The coat was attractive and potentially warm but, “when wet, the soldier not only feels it to the skin, but is reduced to the disagreeable necessity of drying it upon his back. It is therefore no longer surprising to see so many diseases in an army.” In place of the coat Saxe recommended a, “Turkish cloak, with a hood to it.” Contemporary images of Turks show a loose fitting sleeved robe overlapping and closed by a sash. Saxe promotes this garment stating:

These cloaks cover a man completely, and do not contain above two ells and a half of cloth; consequently are both light and cheap; the head and neck will be effectually secured from the rain and wind; and the body, when laid down, kept dry; because they are not made to fit tight, and when wet, are dried again the first moment of fair weather.

It is almost as if Saxe perfectly imagined the Canadian capot, which Chevalier de la Pause records issued to every man in the Guyenne regiment on the 4th of October in 1755. Perhaps if Maurice de Saxe travelled to Canada, he would have seen more value in the capot than Lieutentant Jean-Baptiste d’Aleyrac who had no love for the garment.

The average Canadian hardly wears French clothing, but one species of, “capots” crossed in front with lapels. The buttons and collars are of another color. A sash around the capot: simple and impractical clothing.

French soldier wearing Maurice de Saxe's ideal uniform
With both a long outer waistcoat and an additional under waistcoat, French soldiers in Canada nearly had Maurice de Saxe’s ideal uniform.

In Saxe’s ideal uniform the primary garment was to be a long sleeved-waistcoat, or veste. This veste would have been worn in conjunction with a short under-waistcoat. He describes this garment as akin to a, “short doublet.” Along with the knit bonnets, French soldiers arriving in Canada received exactly this, a gilet or simple under-waistcoat to wear with their uniform sleeved-waistcoat. He imagined with this uniform, that this Turkish cloak could be rolled up on the back when not in use, in a manner eerily similar to the tumplines described in Canadian and Native use. Saxe described this scheme and advantages in detail.

But to return to the cloaks: As the quantity of cloth required is small; and they are light, they can be rolled up, and fastened along the knapsack upon the back; in which position they will be very far from having a bad effect, at the same time that the men under arms, and in fair weather, will find themselves easy, and unencumbered by them;

Most of all Maurice de Saxe detested the leg wear and footwear commonly worn in the French army. Of the poor soldier he said, “in regard to his feet, they, with stockings and shoes rot in a manner together.” Of the gaiters commonly worn by soldiers he said, “White gaiters are only fit for a review, and spoil in washing; they are also very inconvenient, hurtful, of no real use, and very expensive.” In the ideal uniform Saxe envisioned, “shoes made of thin leather, with low heels; which will fit extremely well.”  The low heel was important for the posture and comfort of the men, “because low heels oblige men to turn out their toes, to stretch their joints, and consequently to draw in their shoulders.” Across the Atlantic Ocean, the Canadian soulier de beouf  issued to French soldiers in summer clothing issues bears striking similarity to this ideal shoe. Lieutenant d’Aleyrac was quite favorable in his assessment.

The souliers de boeuf are made entirely different than those in France, they have a sole as thin as the uppers that surrounds the entire foot, to the height of the quarters; then, we sew another smaller a strip of leather upon them which covers the top of the foot; this fashion allows marching more conveniently in the woods and mountains.

Soldier wearing wool leggings and mocassins
Perhaps not exaclty what Saxe envisioned, the combination of wool leggings and mocassins parallels his idea of leather bottomed stockings for winter dress.

In place of the tall canvas gaiters Saxe recommended a knee high leather gaiter, supported by the breeches buttons, instead of an additional leather garter. However, for winter dress Saxe envisioned a heavy woolen stocking to be issued every November first. This woolen stocking was to be large enough to pull on over the shoes and gaiters and, “soled with a slender leather; and the sole to be brought a little over the sides and toes of the feet.” In overall effect this garment is similar to the combination of wool Native American leggings and moccasins.  Lieutenant d’Aleyrac described these leggings or mittasse as follows:

The leggings are a type of very broad gaiters whose two sides are sewn together, about four fingers from the edge without buttons or buttonholes. This is another native invention.

In the diary of Chevalier de la Pause wool mitasse were issued to officers starting in the summer of 1755, and to enlisted soldiers by the spring of 1757. New England diaries, like Sergeant Aaron Barlow, even called native leggings, “Indian stockings.” Inventories from Fort Carillon in October of 1757 list stores of leggings as made of, “molton,” or very thickly fulled wool, not unlike Saxe’s winter stockings. The, “slender leather sole,” pictured by Saxe is similar both to native moccasins, or soulier savage and the Canadian made soulier de beouf.

There is no evidence to show any causation between the recommendations of Maurice de Saxe, and Canadian issued clothing in the French Army. Whatever similarity that existed appears to be merely correlation. One can look at later French uniforms and perceive the influence of Maurice de Saxe, but his overall uniform scheme was not adopted. It is interesting none less that one of France’s most experienced and successful officers of the first half of the 18th century envisioned an ideal uniform that had such parallels to that dictated by the culture and climate extremes ofNew France in the Seven Years War.