The French Navy 1914-18

The French navy had emerged from the nineteenth century with what was contemptuously dubbed “a fleet of samples,” the reflection of a confused naval policy resulting from the constant turmoil caused by politics or surrounding the debate over the theories of the Jeune École. The French had seemed on the road to recovery with the passage of the naval law of 1900, which would have provided for a fleet of 28 battleships, 24 armored cruisers, 52 destroyers, 263 torpedo boats, and 38 submarines.27 The law appeared to establish a firm plan for the future, including the construction of homogeneous classes. Unfortunately the minister of marine from June 1902 to January 1905 in the government of the noted radical Emile Combes was Camille Pelletan, another radical who revived the controversies of the late nineteenth century in his attempt to democratize the navy. Pelletan retarded construction of the battleship program, for he was another believer in “cheaper” naval means, such as torpedo boats and submarines. Submarines may have been the weapon of the future, but they were no substitutes for a balanced fleet, and Pelletan played havoc with the naval program at the very moment the dreadnought-type warship was to come into service. French construction fell far behind in both quantity and quality of capital ships. The French built six semidreadnought Danton-class battleships while the other navies were building real dreadnoughts. The first French dreadnoughts were not laid down until 1910, which was not only well after the British and Germans but after the first dreadnoughts of their Mediterranean rivals as well.

The French navy returned to the proper course with a pair of able naval ministers, Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère and Théophile Delcassé, and the naval law of 1912 provided for a French fleet by 1920 of 28 first-class battle ships, 10 scout cruisers, 52 destroyers, 10 ships for overseas stations, and 94 submarines. The French accelerated this program in 1913 with newer and larger dreadnought classes, but none were ever completed. When war broke out, the French had only two dreadnoughts in service and two still completing their trials. Eight more had been laid down, of which only three were completed. The French had a relatively large number of armored cruisers, but these were big, vulnerable targets, expensive to man, too slow for real cruiser work, and too weak to stand up to real battleships. The program’s scout cruisers also had not been laid down yet—they were scheduled for 1917—and the French suffered severely from lack of this type, which proved invaluable to the British and Germans in the North Sea. Lapeyrère, who followed his term as minister by commanding the 1ère Armée Navale—the major French fleet in the Mediterranean—from 1911 to 1915, also complained of the quality of the destroyers. And many of the submarines were outmoded, their achievements during the war a disappointment despite the gallantry of their crews. To compound their difficulties, the French had the problem of unstable powder, which caused the loss of two battleships before it was solved. The Austrians and Italians had a real chance to catch up, at least on paper. On the other hand, the French retained an advantage in older classes of warships.

On the eve of the war the French navy numbered:

Many of the older ships or smaller torpedo boats or submarines were of little value, suitable only for local defense. In realistic terms, in a fleet action the major French force in the Mediterranean—the 1ère Armée Navale—would probably include:

Once again it is difficult to predict how many of the older battleships and protected cruisers would actually have been included.

France’s first dreadnought-type battleships, designed to counter Germany and Austria-Hungary, the Courbet class (Courbet, France, Jean Bart I, and Paris, completed 1913-1914) had a curiously predreadnought appearance with their high freeboards and five funnels. But they were turbine-driven, carried 12-inch guns, were much larger than their immediate predecessors, and in some cases were even more long-legged than their RN contemporaries. All four units served in the Mediterranean, where the Austrian submarine U-12 torpedoed Jean Bart in its wine store, although it survived this cruel blow. Courbet sank the Austrian cruiser Zenta on 16 August 1914.

France also produced few cruisers in the years leading up to 1908, although the reason for the stagnation in construction was not the result of perceived strategic requirements. The decline of the French cruiser program was the result of the confusion in strategic thought that stemmed from the ideological conflict of the late nineteenth century between the Jeune École, which held to a navy of smaller ships no larger than cruisers, and traditionalists, who believed in a navy centered on battleships. It was also a product of the frequent changes of ministers of marine, each with a program that differed from the previous administration. Cruiser construction and the French Navy as a whole consequently experienced a period of decline.

Between 1896 and 1911, the French Navy slipped from the second most powerful to fourth place. Even so, five armored cruisers were laid down between 1905 and 1908. Only one, Jules Michelet, was completed before the end of 1908. This 13,105-ton ship was essentially a larger version of the Leon-Gambetta-class. This vessel and those that remained on the stocks by the end of this period would be the last French cruisers built until 1922. Although the French Navy would experience a revival after 1909 with the appointment of Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrere as minister of marine, his program did not yield cruisers. The building schedule set out by Lapeyrere called for the completion of 10 scout cruisers by 1920, but this plan was greatly disrupted due to the onset of World War I in 1914.

By 1892, France had experimented heavily with the torpedo and built large numbers of torpedo boats as a consequence of Jeune École thought. Among the types pursued by the French, in tandem with the continued construction of torpedo boats, was a design for a ship that was much like the British Havock. France’s first true destroyers were the four ships of the Durandal class that were launched between 1899 and 1900. The hull of Durandal measured 188 feet, 8 inches by 20 feet, 8 inches by 10 feet, 5 inches and displaced 296 tons; its appearance resembled that of the British boats through its turtleback bow. Its armament consisted of one 2.5-inch gun and six 1.8-inch weapons as well as two 15-inch torpedo tubes. Like all of France’s first destroyers, the ship was equipped with triple-expansion engines that produced a maximum speed of 26 knots.

The intended use of the Durandal-class destroyers was ambiguous owing to chaos in the strategic planning of French naval officials by the turn of the century. The influence of the Jeune École had declined somewhat, but debate raged between advocates of it and traditionalists who based naval power on numbers of capital ships. As a result, the intended purpose of the early destroyers wavered between the Jeune École’s commerce warfare and the concept of protection of battleships as succeeding ministers of marine pursued their own policy on how best to combat Britain in time of war. Nevertheless, the general value of torpedo craft did not waver and resulted in the launching between 1899 and 1902 of another three classes of destroyers that numbered a total of 32 ships. Regardless of their purpose, these ships and the torpedo boats in existence continued to pose a threat to Britain.

From 1902 to 1908, the French Navy, which had been eclipsed in numbers by Germany in 1905, launched 23 more destroyers. The relatively small number in comparison to other naval powers was partially the result of construction delays that plagued French shipyards in this period. These destroyers were not wellsuited to action at sea as their hulls were very lightly built. This design aspect was the result of a French belief at the time that destroyers were primarily coastal defense vessels.

The one significant French destroyer class in this period was the Branlebas class. The 10 ships of this group, launched between 1907 and 1908, were equipped with deck armor. This was a very unusual feature in destroyers due to their relatively small hulls in comparison to capital ships that did not allow for such an increase in weight. Nevertheless, the French were among the most technologically innovative of the age and managed to incorporate it. Their armor consisted of .75-inch steel plating over the deck that covered the propulsion machinery of the craft. This feature was designed to protect against small-caliber plunging shellfire that could punch through the deck and disable the destroyer. The feat was particularly impressive, as the maximum speed of the units of this class was 27.5 knots.

These ships, however, were also too small to maintain station at sea. In an attempt to catch up with the larger destroyer designs of other powers, the French next launched the Spahi class comprising seven vessels. Launched between 1908 and 1912, the hull of Spahi measured 212 (pp) by 19 feet, 10 inches by 7 feet, 7 inches, displaced 550 tons, and was powered by a triple-expansion engine that could generate 28 knots. It mounted six 2.5-inch guns and three 17.7-inch torpedo tubes. The idea of the armored deck was discarded. Two similar classes comprising six destroyers were launched afterward that were virtual repeats of the Spahi class, although the units of the Chasseur class are significant for being the first turbine-powered and completely oil-fueled French destroyers. The final two peacetime classes of 18 ships were larger versions and carried heavier guns, but their value was limited. The ships carried only two 3.9- inch guns and had weak hulls that made their use in heavy seas a problem.

The French Navy was the most enthusiastic advocate of submarines prior to 1900. Its first boat, the Plongeur, was designed by Charles Brun and Siméon Bourgeois, entering service in 1867. It used an 80-horsepower compressed-air engine for propulsion and relied on small stern diving planes and an elaborate water transfer system, also compressed-air operated, to maintain position. This system proved ineffective, and the Plongeur soon was set aside. Electric propulsion underwater seemed a superior solution and was demonstrated by Claude Goubet in two small private venture boats that otherwise were unsuccessful. The French Navy’s return to submarine construction was also all-electric. The Gymnote , designed by Gustave Zédé, entered service in 1888 and was followed by Gaston Romazzotti’s Gustave Zédé five years later. Both boats were largely experimental, relied wholly on batteries without onboard recharge equipment to power their electric motors (severely restricting their range), and required many modifications, especially to their diving plane arrangements, to become effective.

In 1898 the French Navy announced an open international submarine design competition. Maxime Laubeuf’s design, the Narval , was the winner, and, although many of the boat’s features were short-lived, it established the essential characteristics of the vast majority of the world’s naval submarines until the end of World War II. Laubeuf designed the Narval as a double-hulled craft; the inner hull was strongly constructed to resist water pressure, while the outer hull was lightly built and optimized for surface performance. The space between the hulls accommodated ballast and trim tanks. The Narval, like almost all submarines for the next 50 years, was essentially a surface torpedo boat that could submerge to attack and make its escape. Like many French submarines of the next 25 years, it was steam powered: the French Navy was uncomfortable with using gasoline engines in submarines because of the explosion hazard. In 1904 the Aigrette became the first submarine to be fitted with a diesel engine, and with few exceptions all later French submarines used either diesel or steam plants. Steam engines remained attractive because France did not have access to sufficiently powerful diesel engines for its large boats.


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