French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part I

French cruiser Chasseloup Laubat, on the Hudson River, New York.

The maritime strategy of the Third Republic in the years before the First World War falls into two very different phases.

From 1871 to the last decade of the 19th Century strategic thinking has been described by one French historian as a ‘Cold War’ against the traditional enemy Great Britain. Naval thought in this period believed that this must sooner or later end in full open warfare between the two nations. Although Emperor Napoleon III did not personally subscribe to this view his early 1860s navy was one of the finest in French history, leading the world in technology and superior to a neglected Royal Navy. Almost at the end of his reign a largely unexpected factor in naval strategy appeared with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Naval policy moved to the Mediterranean with Toulon as the major base. For ‘Cold War’ theorists a capability of closing the Canal to British merchants and warships was tempting and led to the quest for a Red Sea naval base. Paradoxically, though the trade and strategic common interests of Britain and France was to lead to joint French-British naval operations to ensure free movement through the Canal in 1881, 1915, 1939-40 and 1956.

By the end of the 1870s many French warships had been overtaken by technological developments and become obsolescent while the Royal Navy had returned to development. It was becoming clear that a major warship construction programme to match Great Britain was out of the question. Thinking and policy had therefore to be reviewed, and on both land and sea argued for the building up of colonial and naval force that would make France so close a second-ranking power after Great Britain and the Royal Navy that French interests would be secure, particularly in the Mediterranean. The colonial empire was to provide resources, additional military manpower and bases. These base ports were to constitute points d’appui, of strength from which blue water warships could set forth to harry British commercial shipping in a guerre de course war of attrition. For the defence of the Atlantic and Channel coasts much cheaper vessels, coast defence floating battery ships and light forces would suffice. The head of government, Jules Ferry, in his first 1880-81 and second 1883-85 administrations strongly supported the acquisition of colonies, though this policy was later to be the prime cause for his fall from power. The governments that followed him over the next fifteen years were only relatively less enthusiastic. Alliance with Russia, cemented with exchange naval visits, was seen as an important part of the containment of British expansions. A Russian naval visit to Toulon in 1893 provided a political ‘naval scare’ reaction in London. A group of naval theorists headed by Rear Admiral Aube, author of an important work, La Guerre Maritime et les Ports Français, and mostly composed of young officers, the Jeune École, envisaged an encircling chain of worldwide bases extending from Tunis, Obock (later Djibouti), Madagascar, Mayotte (Comoros), Saigon, a base in Tonkin, Nouméa, Tahiti, Tuamatu (Papua), the Panama Canal and Guadeloupe. By 1890 a rationalisation had proposed three major fortified bases, Martinique, Dakar and Saigon, with seven smaller and only lightly defended sally ports, Guadeloupe, Haiphong, Nouméa, Diego-Suarez, Port Phéton (Tahiti), Libreville and Obock. For the defence of the metropolis Dunkerque, Brest, Lorient and Toulon were to continue their traditional functions, Toulon benefiting from concern over Italian naval building. Anti-British feeling reached a crescendo at the time of the Fashoda crisis in 1898, with increased support for all the overseas bases. But already the growing military and naval threat of Imperial Germany was beginning to concentrate minds on the much more serious threat to the nation.

Warship construction was to reflect the changes in policy. The government that immediately followed the end of the Second Empire still aspired to follow the traditional naval policy of a fleet equal or superior to Britain’s Royal Navy based on a line of capital ships, called ‘First Rate Armoured Ships’ at the time. These capital ships were to be supported by ‘Second Rate Armoured Ships’ for coastal defence, by ‘armoured cruising ships’ and a number of sloops and gunboats. In 1872, before the drive for colonial expansion had come to dominate policy, the Minister for the Marine, Admiral Pothuau, set out a traditional and modernisation programme for the decade. This programme was almost immediately faced with the problems to bedevil French naval construction for the next hundred years, the ever-increasing costs of the technological advances needed for warships, inadequate access to iron and steel and, compared with Great Britain the small number of shipbuilding yards. Construction of major warships often took five or six years, sometimes even longer. Politically the public saw spending on the Army as the priority and the navy greatly reduced, some even arguing for its abolition. Pothuau’s options were limited.

The Marine 1879-80

The Marine’s line of capital battle ships that France could put to sea at the end of the 1870s was in consequence formed of obsolescent ships built in the years before or during the Franco-Prussian War, with the few more modern vessels completed in the following eight years, much but not all of the 1872 programme, forming a total of twenty-one (not including one purchased from the United States which proved to be valueless).

The ships were a very mixed collection. The earliest sixteen were old-fashioned broadside ironclads, the latter five were central battery vessels. The mix of construction patterns and different armaments created difficulties of maintenance and supply of the 1870s ships still in service, the oldest was Solferino completed in 1862, a sister ship had earlier been destroyed in a fire. These were designed by the pioneer of ironclad ships, Henri Dupuy de Lome, they displaced 6,700 tons and were built with a massive ram bow, to be a feature of French capital ships for the next twenty years, they were well armoured, equipped with ten 9.4-inch guns and could manage a top speed of 13 knots but still retained a full barque rig of sail. Following Solferino were the ten ships of the Provence class completed between 1865 and 1867; these were Flandre, Gauloise, Guyenne, Magnanime, Provence, Revanche, Savoie, Surveillante, Valeureuse, and Héroine averaging 6,000 tons. Their armaments varied and were altered from time to time in the 1870s being usually eight 9.4-inch and four 7.6-inch guns, their speeds varied between 13 and 14 knots, all again were barque rigged.

Design then moved from broadside main armament to broadside barbette battery ships with the Océan class completed in 1872-3, Océan, Marengo and Suffren. Much thicker armour protection had raised tonnage to an average of 8,800 tons. Their main armament included four 10-inch and four 9-inch guns, their speeds remained at 13 to 14 knots, their rig for sail was reduced to barquentine. They also carried dropping gear for four 14-inch torpedoes.

Two further ships, Friedland and Richelieu were the last to be under construction before the fall of Napoleon III, each taking nine years in building and only entering service in 1876. Friedland displaced 8,800 tons with armour and speed similar to the Océan class but with a main armament of eight 10.8-inch guns. Richelieu and the last three ships to be at sea by the end of the decade, Colbert, Trident and Redoutable were slightly larger but otherwise similar, these too lost their sail rigging after entry into service.

In support of this battle fleet were a variety of vessels, eleven ‘Second Rate’ coast defence vessels armed with 6.4-inch guns, four armoured rams with 9.4-inch guns and a speed of 12 to 13 knots to provide force behind the rams, and six coastal bombardment monitors armed with two 9.4 or 10.8-inch guns. All these, less expensive than the ‘First Rates’ and therefore welcomed politically were thought to be useful as a second line, capable of dealing with damaged enemy ‘Frist Rates’ and chasing enemy cruisers away.

The three classes of ‘armoured cruising ships’ ranged for 3,500 to 4,000 tons in size. The five smaller vessels were armed with four or six 7.6-inch guns, the six larger with six 9.4-inch and one 7.6-inch gun. The ‘First Rates’ were mostly based at Toulon, the coast defence ships at Cherbourg and cruisers at Brest poised for a sortie into the Atlantic. In addition there were thirty-eight ‘unprotected cruisers’ with tonnages and armaments varying greatly. The majority were armed with 6.4, 5.5 or 4.7-inch guns depending on their size, the larger last three had 7.6-inch guns. The earlier ships speeds did not exceed 14 knots, the last could raise 16 knots.

Much thought and experimentation was given to torpedo boats, the possibilities of the torpedo as an excellent naval defence weapon against the known ‘close blockade’ strategy of the Royal Navy in the event of war becoming even more clear. In 1875-6 nineteen small torpedo boats were built, twelve in Britain. Their tonnage ranged from 10 to 26 tons and they were poor sea boats. In 1877 a further twenty-eight all over 30 tons were built in France. The torpedoes carried were carried in a variety of ways, some as spars in the bow of the boat, others in bow tubes, others in a launching gear to be slung over the side of the boats. The boats speed was some 18 knots with crews of eight to ten men. They were presented as a mobile defence ‘David’ against an adversary’s battleship ‘Goliath’ attacking ports, and also as ‘democratic’ in comparison with the ‘reaction’ of battleships. They were very popular among young officers, a posting infinitely preferable to being a junior officer on a ‘First Rate’ even if at this stage they only served in home ports. Critics of the torpedo boats pointed out that they were dangerous for crews who became exhausted very quickly in anything approaching a choppy or rough sea, and that their chances of striking an opponent’s big ship were doubtful, especially if their target warship and others subjected them to a hailstorm of light weapon fire. Some also argued that smoke from their funnels would provide the torpedo boats with cover for a close approach, others said that smoke would confuse the torpedo boat’s aim.

Warship Construction 1880-99

The next fifteen years became ones of controversy over the structure that the Marine should adopt in the increasingly bitter ‘Cold War’ with Great Britain. At international level as well as Russia other possible naval allies were sought, one was Japan when the highly skilled designer Emile Bertin was at work in the Japanese arsenal at Yokosuka. In France in rigorous, at times passionate, debate admirals and strategists, notably Étienne Lamy, argued over the bases and ships most likely to mount a successful challenge to the Royal Navy’s two-power standard and battleship building programme. The Jeune École with Admiral Aube briefly Minister for the Marine in 1886-7 saw the battleships as expensive, vulnerable to torpedoes and a naval guerre de course as the future pattern of naval warfare. They argued that over fifty torpedo boats could be built for the cost of one battleship and small fast cruisers could sail out from worldwide points d’appui to attack British trade while all that was needed to secure metropolitan and overseas ports were flotillas of torpedo boats. Others believed that effort would have to be concentrated on a smaller number of more powerful bases, particularly if those overseas were going to require a land force garrison. Interest became focused on three areas, the Atlantic where ships from Dakar together with others in Martinique from where ships in the Caribbean could jointly threated Britain’s trade with the New World, and the Indian Ocean where Britain’s links with India could be cut and French links with Indochina made more secure. The difficulties facing the French economy in the 1880s fuelled debate at the political level. Imperialists favoured expansion into Tunisia – partly to forestall Italian ambitions – and Indochina together with designs upon Madagascar. Operations were to follow, although many argued that they were not affordable. Many naval officers too were concerned that so much of the Marine’s budget was being spent on bases and colonial interior occupation rather than on ships, while Italy was now a growing menace.

Until the middle 1890s the capital ships completed for the Marine were the nine whose construction had begun in the 1870s, together with thirteen that were completed in this period. Except for the first three, the two Courbet class, Courbet and Dévastation and the Admiral Duperré none were rigged for sail. They and others to follow in the 1890s merit their description by Oscar Parkes, the British battleship historian

Since the seventies French design had exhibited a strong leaning towards the bizarre and ‘Fierce face’. Piled up superstructures, preposterous masts, uncouth funnels, tumblehome sides and long ram bows with no attempt at achieving any symmetry or balance in profile produced an aggressive appearance …

Perhaps subconsciously the Vauban tradition had entered into the minds of constructors; it was certainly a period of great uncertainty over design and experimentation.

Courbet, a central battery ship after nine years of building entered service in 1886. She and her sister Dévastation completed in 1882 displaced 10,500 tons and were armed with four 13.4-inch guns and had a speed of 15.5 knots. Admiral Duperré of 11,000 tons was of a more advanced design with four 13.4-inch guns mounted in pairs in barbetttes near the bow and stern. Her speed was slightly slower. All three ships carried four torpedo tubes. The next six ships, four of the smaller Terrible class of 7,500 tons, Caiman, Terrible, Indomptable and Requin and two of the next class Admiral Baudin and Formidable of 11,700 tons, all followed the centre line barbette plan, the Terrible ships with two huge 16.5-inch guns and the Admiral Baudin ships with three 14-inch pieces, all with speeds of 14 knots. The next ship, Hoche was the first to have her two 13.4-inch gun main armaments in single turrets with a further armament of two 10.8-inch guns; as a ship she was faster reaching 16 knots but unstable in a seaway. Equally unstable, spoken of as ‘submarines’ were the next three ships, completed after ten years in building in 1893, were the 10,500 ton Marceau, Magenta and Neptune with twin 13.4-inch guns, two each in in barbettes fore and aft. The last ‘First Rate’ laid down in the 1880s was the 11,000 ton Brennus, with three 13.4-inch guns in two centre line turrets, two forward, on aft. Brennus also carried four of the much improved 18-inch torpedo tubes and had a speed of 18 knots. In general, all the 1880s ships were unstable, too much having been attempted on the displacement and the 13.4-inch gun was unsatisfactory, replaced in many ships by 10 or 12-inch later in service.

Less expensive than the ‘First Rate’ were ten ‘Second Rate’ coast defence ships, two of the 5,000 tons Tonnant class were armed with two 13.4-inch guns, the remaining eight of the Fuseé and Achéron classes with a single 10.8-inch weapon. Four armoured cruising ships were completed in the 1880s, all rigged for sail with armaments of four 9.4-inch and one or two 7.6.-inch guns; they were obsolete in both design and speed, 14.5 knots, before they were even completed. Of more use was the first Protected Cruiser, Sfax, of 4,000 tons armed with six 6.4-inch and ten 5.5-inch guns, torpedo tubes and a speed of 16.7 knots. Sfax represented the Jeune École plan for point d’appui based commerce raiders. Thirteen Unprotected Cruisers of tonnage between 2,360 and 3,700 tons armed with 5.5-inch guns, some also with four 6.4-inch weapons and one with only 3.9-inch all joined the fleet. As an experiment four ‘Torpedo Cruisers’ with 3.9-inch guns and five torpedo tubes and eight fast torpedo gunboats were also built, along with a small number of sloops and conventional gunboats.

The arguments of the Jeune École were to take shape in the form of the seventy small torpedo boats that entered service in the 1880s. the first twelve were all under 30 tons, some only 9 tons, all except for two could only carry one 14-inch torpedo mounting, most could manage 17 to 19 knots. The remaining fifty-eight were larger, capable of operating in open seas, with tonnage moving from the 43 tons of the earlier boats to the 53 tons of the last. These carried four torpedoes and most reached speeds of 20 knots or more.

Much still remained experimental. It was thought at first that the smaller boats could be carried into action aboard larger warships, but it soon became clear that this idea was unworkable. The larger warships would have to come to a halt to drop the boats, causing disorder and risks to themselves, seas might be too rough, few large ships had the space to carry torpedo boats particularly if the boats themselves carried spar torpedoes, and in any case spar torpedoes could be fixed on the bows of their own picket boats. Instead a merchant transport ship, Japon, was modified as a torpedo boat carrier, carrying six small boats. But to the middle 1890s it was still claimed that the continued onset of a mass of torpedo boats would prevail over battleship squadrons though critics developed the argument that the development of searchlights would illuminate the boats for easy destruction by battleships guns.

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