French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part II

French battleship design had a style all of its own, backed up by intensive work and study on ship behaviour, though this was often of a theoretical rather than practical kind.

Change and Modernisation, 1890-1904

The next fifteen years were an era of unprecedented and dramatic technological developments in all aspects of naval warfare, in guns and ammunition, in torpedoes and mines, in electricity, searchlights and wireless, in triple expansion engines and water-tube boilers and the appearance of the first operational submarines. Ships completed in the 1880s were already obsolescent when they first put to sea, totally obsolete a few years later as the speed of change quickened.

For the Marine the fifteen years were also to involve a major change in strategy, the full implications of which took time to be fully accepted, no longer a guerre de course against Great Britain but urgent attention against the new and more dangerous enemy nearer home. After Fashoda it was clear that a colonial war with France could not be a success and possibly lead to a loss of colonies. The colonial powers had secured their areas of control or interest, the few remaining flashpoints were either manageable or of less importance. Britain was making it clear that she intended to retain control over the Suez Canal but would not stand in the way against French ambitions in Morocco, a territory where Germany was showing disturbing signs of interest. More serious was the evident wider ambitions of the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who had come to the throne in 1888 and in two years had dismissed his Chancellor, Bismarck, and begun the building of an ocean navy. Faced with this new challenge in the North Sea together with the threat of a triple alliance, Italy, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean, the need for an efficient modern balanced navy was now obvious and recognised by most politicians. Despite some vocal political opposition and a few areas where interests clashed, by the time of the formal 1904 Anglo-French Convention much had been achieved.

With the plaques for Alsace and Lorraine in the Paris Place de le Concorde covered with black cloth, a permanent reminder of the defeat of the French Army in 1870, the admirals had always to fight their corner against the generals. Until 1901 battleship design reflected only modification and improvement on the 1880s classes, otherwise similar in armament and performance but differing in deck and mast layout. The first five, Carnot, Charles Martel, Jauréguiberry, Masséna and Bouvet all displaced around 11,400 tons and were armed with one single 12-inch gun turret fore and aft together with two 10-inch guns in turrets on each sided amidships as main armament, all could reach 17.5 knots, and were in service by 1898. Completed in 1895-6 were also the last of the ‘Second Rate’ coast defence ships, two 6,200 ton ships armed with a single 12-inch gun turret fore and aft. As the threat of an all-out Royal Navy blockade attack on French ports receded no further ships of this type were built.

With the next class of battleships, Charlemagne, St Louis and Gaulois French builders produced ships that began to measure up to the pre-Dreadnought battleships of the Royal Navy. They had the British style twin 12-inch gun turrets fore and aft, they displaced 11,000 tons, carried a powerful secondary and torpedo armament and could steam at 18 knots. They were followed by a reversion, the Henri IV of 8,000 tons whose main armament was limited to single 10.8-inch guns in turrets fore and aft and her speed only 17 knots. To save weight this ship’s quarterdeck was only four feet above the waterline, often invisible. Iéna that followed was slightly larger with 4 12-inch guns.

In place of the Coast Defence ships the concept of the modern armoured cruiser, later after the First World War to evolve into the heavy (8-inch gun) cruiser, began to appear with the construction of the Dupuy de Lôme completed in 1895, a ship immediately conspicuous by an exaggerated ram bow. Displacing 6,700 tons she was armed with two 7.6-inch and six 6.11-inch guns and two 18-inch torpedo tubes, lightly armoured, no rigging for sail and a maximum speed of nearly 20 knots Dupuy de Lôme marked an important stage in modernisation. Five slightly smaller vessels followed, all with a main armament of two 7.6-inch guns and were succeeded by the 11,000 ton Jeanne d’ Arc, the first of what was to become a familiar sight in the First World War, the five or six funnelled French warships. She carried a mixed gun armament, two 7.6-inch guns and fourteen 5.5-inch guns but could make the speed remarkable for its time of 21.5 knots. Eleven more armoured cruisers in three classes, three of the 9,200 ton Gueydon and 9,800 ton Gloire classes armed with two 7.6-inch and eight 6.4-inch guns, and five of the smaller Dupleix class with eight 6.4-inch only. All had maximum speeds of 20.7 to 22 knots and were completed between 1902 and 1904.

Despite the ending of colonial rivalries with Great Britain and the new threats nearer home the protection of some overseas as well as home bases was still regarded as a priority despite the costs and reduced threats. Debate over the number and degree of developments and protection led to a reduction in those overseas considered essential, by 1902 some twelve had been reduced to five Martinique (Fort de France), Dakar, Diego-Suarez, Saigon and Nouméa with one possible, Han Gay in Tonkin. For these there were to be two cruiser ‘Flying Squadrons’, one based at Brest for the Atlantic and one at Diego-Suarez for areas east of Suez, with single ships based on the others now seen as of secondary value.8 More radical changes were to follow in the next ten years.

For this strategy thirty-two cruisers, in the category of Protected Cruisers entered service. These varied in tonnage, two very small of 2,400 tons, the majority between 3,300 and 5,000 and four of 7,000 tons or over. Most had four 6.4-inch guns as main armament, all except three were fitted with torpedo tubes, four were equipped for mine-laying, only the D’Entrecasteaux with two 9.4-inch guns carried major fire power. All had speeds of 19 to 22 knots with the exception of Châteaurenault, a very distinctive ship in appearance being built to resemble a four funnelled passenger liner in silhouette, and with a speed to reach 24 knots. Four small ‘torpedo cruisers’ of 1,280 tons were also built, to prove of little value.

The Jeune École obsession with torpedo boats continued with an initial programme of two hundred and ninety-four boats of between 90-100 tons armed with a single spar or two of the much improved torpedoes in tubes. A second programme ordered in 1904 and begun in the following year provided for a further seventy-five boats to be fitted with a third tube. The poor sea-keeping qualities of these small boats led, to the annoyance of on-going Jeune École purists, to a parallel programme of torpilleurs de haute-mer, slightly larger sea-going boats. These were given names rather than numbers. Except for the first nine inadequate boats the remaining thirty-six varied in tonnage between 120 to 170, two, three, a few four torpedo tubes and two or three light 37mm guns for self-defence. Except for the first nine speeds rose to twenty to twenty-five knots. A number were still in service in the early 1920s, but the very limited success of Japanese torpedo boats in their attack on Port Arthur in 1904 was to show up their deficiencies.

The construction of this very large number or torpedo boats created alarm across the Channel culminating in another nervous ‘naval scare’ in London in 1897. The Royal Navy saw a danger of swarms of small torpedo boats dashing around making simultaneous co-ordinated attacks from different directions on British battleships, confusing the big ships gunners defensive fire. The British Admiralty ordered the design and construction of the first of an entirely new class of warship, the Torpedo Boat Destroyer, at the time referred to as T.B.D., but later shortened simply to ‘destroyer’. The first, Havock, entered service in 1894, she displaced 240 tons, was armed with a 12 pdr gun and three 18-inch torpedo tubes and claimed a world record working speed of 26.7 knots. Havock was regarded as a great success. Her size, speed, mix of guns and torpedoes in a gamekeeper-poacher combination set the pattern for successive generations of destroyers, British and world-wide.

The Marine was not slow to follow. Four proto-types were launched in 1899-1900, followed by twenty-eight more between 1899 and 1904. Tonnage averaged 300 tons and armaments for all were a 65 mm and six 47 mm guns, two 15-inch torpedo tubes and speeds of 20 to 21 knots.

Even more far-reaching for the future than the destroyer was serious experimental work on under-water craft, much favoured by the Marine Minister, Pelletan. At the outset opinion was divided between arguments for submersibles and arguments for submarines. Submersibles were generally steam propelled surface warships with a record of being more easy to direct and control while on the surface, but also more conspicuous and taking some ten minutes before they could close down and dive for the brief periods during a battle when they were required to submerge and attack the enemy vessels. The submarine was designed to be a fully submerged warship, slow but a boat that could approach a sea combat on the surface awash, and then dive very quickly and by the technology of the time only be located if its periscope was visible. Submerged underwater, though, the problems of clean-air breathing and hygiene generally were proving difficult. The specialist underwater naval constructor Gustav Zédé produced a small 30 ton electrically driven submarine, Gymnote in the 1880s. In 1893 a larger boat, the Gustav Zédé appeared and proved a success. She was followed by the 120 ton Narval, a steam-driven submersible with speeds of 11 knots on the surface and 15 knots submerged. In 1899 the steam-driven slightly larger submarine Farfardet later renamed Follet was built, 185 tons on the surface and 200 submerged and carrying four 15-inch torpedoes in the old ‘Dog Collar’ external launching gear. She was electric powered and reached speeds of 12 knots and 8 knots surface and underwater. Farfadet was followed by four Sirène class submersibles of 157 tons surface and 200 tons submerged to be propelled by steam petrol fuelled engines on the surface and motors submerged. These followed an order for twenty submarines of the very small Naiade class of only 68 tons to be propelled by petrol motors on the surface and electricity while plunging, but these were soon seen to be valueless and only one or two were actually build with instead in their place three purely experimental larger boats with tonnages varying between 168 and 232 tons. The designer of the Narval, Laubeuf, returned to the cause of submersibles with two Aigrette class boats of 172 tons surface and 371 submerged. The slightly larger Omega (later Argonaut) diesel propelled followed. Another project, one with low costs in mind were the two very small submarines of the Guêpe class designed to be carried on a transporter. Orders for more were later cancelled but the political preference for boats, small and cheap remained. Two more small experimental boats, Circe and Calypso, both generally similar to the Aigrettes followed, petrol driven and armed with six improved torpedoes. However, all these boats had seriously limited range of action and none could stay submerged for very long. Seen as an answer to these handicaps an old cruiser, Foudre, was fitted with deck cranes to be used as a transport for smaller submarines but the practical difficulties and delays in dropping the boats in the midst of a battle were obvious. Eyes turned to Royal Navy construction. The idea that submersibles and submarines could be another inexpensive form of defence (there were even plans for a total submarine force of one hundred and thirty boats by 1919) became discredited. Submarine theory began to move towards the British pattern of larger and faster boats designed for offensive operations.

Organisation of the Marine

After a number of unsatisfactory earlier arrangements a proper professional organisation for the Marine headed by a general staff was set up in 1882. It included directorates (bureaux) for movement and operations, statistical surveys for the Marine and foreign navies, for reserves, for mobilisation and for coast defence with a little later one for personnel. In 1899-1902 much of the authority of the Chief of Staff was transferred to the Minister’s office leaving the Chief of Staff concerned with little more than day to day administration. Personality, doctrine and strategic friction and opinion clashes led to frequent changes at Chief of Staff and fleet command levels. A Conseil Supérieur de la Marine composed mainly of serving officers advised the Minister on national policy as a figurehead body, the Minister did not have to follow its recommendations. Until 1902 naval officer inspector-generals watched over the day-to-day efficiency of ships and bases, this was replaced by an administrative control corps who reported direct to the Minister and was principally concerned with budgetary matters.

The manpower strength of the Marine rose from some 42,000(including pilots, bandsmen and boys) in 1880 to some 52,000 by 1904, the total not including reservists. Recruitment of seamen was based on men from the coastal areas where their youth had been spent at sea in fishing or as crew members of a larger ship. Some ten per cent of these men were illiterate. They could in theory be required to serve for as long as five years, thereafter they were placed on a reserve up to the age of fifty and liable for recall. In return these men, known as inscrits the whole system being called inscription militaire, received certain privileges including special fishing rights, reduced rail fares, the opportunity of contributing to a not very generous pension scheme and exemptions of their homes from any military billeting. The system led to acute drafting problems, ships going to sea with men hurriedly moved from one vessel to another, or with inadequate crews.

Far more serious though was the indiscipline, frequently open, and a legacy from the Post-Revolution rift in French society. The petty officers (sous-officiers) were not obeyed, officers obeyed only in an insubordinate or perfunctory way. One naval officer commented that he often heard the Internationale sung in the seamen’s mess decks and saw real hatred in the eyes of the individual sailors. On some occasions men simply stayed on the quayside refusing to embark. The petty officers were in despair, the officers dismayed and discouraged. The traditional paternalistic officer-sailor bonding with officers ‘tutoying’ to sailors had gone. Little attention seems to have been given to individual sailors welfare nor much sport organised. Ashore, many sailors activities centred on more traditional relaxations in areas of bases and ports known collectively as the Rue d’Alger. Ships went to sea not only inadequately crewed but with inefficient stores and incomplete ammunition holdings to add to the poor morale.

A number of sous-officiers were later commissioned as officers, but the majority of deck officers were products of secondary schools, some of which had a ‘navy stream’ for those wanting to join the Marine. Again in the majority most were middle class with some ten per cent from the aristocracy. Breton names frequently appear. Candidates had to have passed a preparation naval baccalauréat examination at almost invariably a fee-paying school. Those accepted were then sent to the officers training establishment at Brest which took the form of an old wooden hulk, the Borda, still armed with muzzle-loading guns. Cadets slept in hammocks and were treated and trained as ordinary sailors, there does not seem to have been any academic professional teaching. After a year as aspirants the bordaches as they proudly called themselves were sent to sea in a training ship, usually an old cruiser where their treatment differed little from that of the Borda. After a further period back on Borda still as aspirants a return to sea as enseignes 2e classe for two years followed, ships proceeding on long voyagers visiting foreign ports. Finally as enseignes de vaisseau and still very much under supervision the young officer received his first appointment as a ship’s officer. Engineer officers were mostly recruited from merchant shipping—and were paid very much better. A small number had had a measure of professional training at a civilian college.

For career development young officers were then sent on specialist training, torpedo, gunnery or signals. Mid-career wider training in naval strategy and tactics was opened in 1895 at an École Supérieure de la Marine which supervised instruction initially at sea on three cruisers. It was, however, very quickly replaced, following a change of government by an École des Hautes Études de la Marine in Paris in a course lasting eight months, only to be wound up with a return to the 1895 arrangement following another change of government. Old school officers held such training with disdain and it did not seem to have served any real value.

Only a minority of career officers practised religion and the abolition of naval chaplains in 1907 was not opposed. For many naval service was a career move, especially if it led to marriage with a daughter of a senior admiral or general, or the wealthy. A series of improvements in naval medicine began in 1875, ships doctors were required to have a professional qualification. The standard of the professional qualification was raised in 1895 and proper fully professional naval schools opened at Bordeaux in 1890 and in Toulon in 1896.

The metropolitan naval bases in 1904 remained Calais, Cherbourg, Brest, Lorient, Rochefort and Toulon with Dunkerque for torpedo boats. Dry docking facilities were only slowly developed despite the increasing size of ships. Both management and industrial relations were poor. The use of private dock facilities at Le Havre, St Nazaire and Marseille was of only limited value. The major shipbuilding slipways and fitting out yards were at Brest and Lorient for larger ships, with Cherbourg, Rochefort, on the Gironde near Bordeaux and at La Seyne near Toulon for smaller vessels. Other smaller yards included one at Le Havre and one for torpedo boats as far inland as Nantes. In the rapidly developing international naval construction race France with its limited shipbuilding capabilities, together with obsolete organisation and recruitment arrangements was fast falling behind.

In the colonial empire even the five bases given priority in 1902 were now appearing more as aspirations than realities as the size of warships increased. Facilities adequate for small warships were inadequate for the larger vessels entering service which might need dry-docking, particularly if damaged in battle. Thinking became increasingly concentrated on North Africa, especially Bizerte, with significant developments to follow in the last ten years before the First World War.

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