The French Navy After 1815 Part I

In the post-1815 era the French Navy was employed on numerous overseas operations, supporting French colonial expansion or in the service of foreign policy objectives. In 1837-38, for example, France demanded reparations from Mexico for the sufferings of its expatriate citizens caught up in Mexico’s political upheavals. Failing to obtain satisfaction, France sent a squadron of frigates and smaller vessels to bombard the fortress of San Juan de Ulua (Saint Jean d’Ulloa) at Veracruz on 27 November 1838, which surrendered. It was an early outing for Paixhans’ new shell guns, and combined with mortar fire from bomb vessels, their success against strong stone-built fortifications took naval observers by surprise. This print is after a painting by Théodore Gudin.

A eyewitness pencil drawing from the sketchbook of Captain George Pechell Mends, RN depicting the fifteen-strong French fleet rendezvousing with the British in Besika Bay on 14 June 1853, prior to the joint squadrons entering the Black Sea. As a naval officer Mends meticulously recorded the details of the French ships, which he listed (from the head of the line, right to left) as: Ville de Paris 130 Vice Flag, Sané [paddle frigate], Jupiter 90, Bayard 100, Caton, Henri IV 100, Magellan, Valmy 130 screw Rear Flag, Napoleon screw 90, Mogador, Montebello 120, Charlemagne screw 90.

1816 to 1830: Rebuilding a Fleet

The French navy emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in a gravely weakened condition. It had lost almost a third of its ships of the line in the fall of Napoleon’s empire. Its personnel were in disarray because of a shortage of seamen and the return from exile of many royalist officers. It had no money, because France was bankrupt from the war and had to pay an enormous indemnity to the victors before their troops would leave her soil. Most important, its naval policy had not worked: after 22 years of concerted French efforts to destroy the British navy and merchant marine, at 1 January 1815 Britain had 214 ships of the line built and building and a merchant marine that was larger and more prosperous than ever, while France was left with a navy and a merchant marine that had been all but driven from the seas.

The navy’s main remaining assets were its ships and its administrative structure, but the ships disappeared rapidly. In mid-April 1814 the navy still had a large force of 104 ships of the line and 54 frigates afloat or under construction. By August this had fallen to 73 of the line and 42 frigates, due primarily to the surrender of ships located in European ports and building in shipyards outside France’s new borders. By late 1819 the fleet had shrunk to 58 of the line and 34 frigates afloat or on the ways, most of the others having been found to be too rotten to be worth repairing. In 1817 the navy estimated that, at this rate of decay, the fleet would disappear completely in ten years.

In response Pierre Barthelémy, Baron Portal, Minister of Marine from 1818 to 1821, developed the Programme of 1820, the first of the comprehensive plans that shaped the evolution of the navy during the next forty years. This programme defined the composition of a realistically attainable fleet, set a target date for its completion, and determined the amount of money required per year to meet the target. In its final form, promulgated in 1824, the programme provided for a fleet of 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates afloat. Portal calculated that this force could be created in ten years with an annual budget of 65 million francs (of which 6 million were for the colonies). He secured a political consensus to work towards this fiscal goal, even though only 50 million francs could be provided in 1820.

Portal’s programme took advantage of the few weaknesses that could be seen in Britain’s naval position. It reversed the traditional relationship between battleships and cruising ships in the fleet – as recently as 1814, France had had twice as many ships of the line as frigates. The new programme emphasised frigates to exploit the enormous problems that Britain would face in trying to defend worldwide trade and colonies. It retained a battle fleet, not to stand up to Britain alone, but to serve as a nucleus for an anti-British coalition fleet. This battle fleet was also designed to ensure that France would face no other maritime challenges: if she could not be number one, she could at least be an undisputed number two.

Refinements were soon made to the programme. The navy realised that ships left on the building ways, if properly ventilated and covered by a protective shed, would last almost indefinitely without decaying and would also have a longer service life after launching because their timbers would be better seasoned. Equally important, maintaining ships in this way was highly economical. The navy eventually decided that a third of the planned 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates would not be launched but would be kept complete on the ways. An additional 13 battleships and 16 frigates would be on the ways at less advanced stages of construction. These decisions led to a large increase during the 1820s in the number of building ways in the dockyards and in the number of ships laid down on them. At the same time the navy’s ordinary budget slowly increased, finally reaching the 65 million franc goal in 1830.

One reason the French navy survived the lean years after the Napoleonic Wars was the constant demand for its services. Within a few years naval stations were established in the Antilles, the Levant, and off the east coast of South America, and others were later created in the Pacific and in the Far East. Reoccupation and development of the few colonies left to France was given high priority. One of the navy’s most famous shipwrecks occurred when the frigate Méduse was lost in 1816 while leading a force to reoccupy Senegal. A few small ships were assigned to each of the reoccupied colonies for local duties. Among these were the navy’s first two steamers, Voyageur and Africain, built for Senegal in 1819. Scientific activities were also prominent. In 1820 (a relatively typical year), one corvette was in the process of circumnavigating the globe, two ships were surveying the Brazilian coast, three were producing definitive charts of the French coast, and one was charting the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

A series of crises gave the navy some new operational experience. In 1823 French troops invaded Spain to put down a revolution which had begun in 1820. Over 90 ships including four ships of the line supported this operation. In 1827, during the Greek war for independence, a French squadron joined British and Russian forces in annihilating the Turco-Egyptian fleet in the Battle of Navarino. In 1830, following several years of diplomatic disputes, the navy landed an army and took the city of Algiers. The invasion force included 11 ships of the line and 25 frigates.

Less sensational activities, including support for French occupation troops in Spain, Greece, and Algeria, large diplomatic missions to Haiti in 1825 and Brazil in 1828, and an expedition to Madagascar in 1829, created constant demands for additional ships and men. The active fleet of 76 ships planned in the 1820 budget exceeded the number of ships in commission in 1789, and unanticipated requirements increased the number of ships actually used during all or part of 1820 to 103. By 1828 this figure had exactly doubled to 206 ships, and it remained at this high level during the extensive operations in 1829 and 1830.

1830 to 1840: Retrenchment and Experimentation

In 1830 a liberal revolution brought to power King Louis-Philippe. The new king’s backers believed that high government spending was one of the main causes of economic distress and political disorder, and they immediately imposed major budget cuts. The navy, which had just reached the expenditure level of 65 million francs per year called for by the Programme of 1820, was ordered to cut its budget request for 1831 to 60.5 million francs. The restrictions on spending continued in effect throughout the 1830s, and the ordinary navy budget did not again reach 65 million francs until 1838. Even more serious, extraordinary appropriations, which had funded the remarkable expansion of the navy’s operations in the 1820s, were even more severely limited and did not reach the level of 1828-30 again until the crisis of 1840.

The impact of these cuts was particularly evident in the shipbuilding programme because the navy’s other expenses, notably personnel and operations, were relatively inflexible. In late 1834 the navy increased the proportion of Portal’s fleet to be kept on the ways from one-third to one-half to allow the dockyards to begin a few new ships with funds that otherwise would have been used to maintain some older ships. This change, along with other changes made to Portal’s programme during the 1820s, was formalised in a new programme promulgated by royal ordinance on 1 February 1837. The programme also confirmed the navy’s need for two ship classes, the 74-gun ship of the line and the 3rd Class frigate, which some politicians wanted to abolish.

Despite the new programme, the strength of the fleet declined in the late 1830s. The programme called for 53 ships of the line and 66 frigates afloat and on the ways, but between December 1834 and December 1839 the total number of battleships fell from 51 to 46 while frigates fell from 60 to 56. The deficit was in the number of ships under construction, a situation which was aggravated by the fact that operational requirements kept the number of frigates afloat substantially higher than in the new plan.

The distribution of the fleet during the 1830s remained essentially as it had been at the end of the 1820s. The station cruisers remained busy, and were augmented by special forces sent in response to disputes with Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, and Argentina. An expeditionary force bombarded the fortifications of Veracruz in Mexico in 1838. The South Atlantic station began a blockade of Buenos Aires in the same year, and a special expedition finally secured a treaty from the Argentines in 1840. In Africa, the navy took possession of the mouth of the Gabon River in 1839 and subsequently established a few trading posts in the Gulf of Guinea. The navy was particularly active in scientific expeditions in the late 1830s, undertaking several circumnavigations of the globe.

The navy was also very active in Europe. In 1831 a squadron fought its way up the Tagus to Lisbon in a dispute with Portugal. Another squadron supported Belgian independence against the Dutch between 1831 and 1833, and another occupied Ancona following insurrections in Italy in 1832. Naval stations in Spain were re-established in 1834 in response to the Carlist revolution in Spain. In 1836 and 1837 a fleet was maintained off Tunis to prevent interference with the French occupation of the interior of Algeria. In 1838 this force was shifted to the Levant as relations between the Sultan of Turkey and his nominal vassal, Mohammed Ali of Egypt, approached breaking point.

1840 to 1852: Ferment

The Levant crisis gave the French navy its biggest test between 1815 and the Crimean War in 1854. War between Turkey and Egypt broke out in 1839, generating a crisis between France, which supported Mohammed Ali, and Britain, which supported Turkey. The French Levant squadron reached an average level of 16 ships, including 9 ships of the line, during the first half of 1840. It also reached a level of operational readiness that was admired even by British naval officers. In the meantime, the French decided to launch three ships of the line from its reserve of ships on the ways and take other measures to raise the number in commission to the twenty called for under the Programme of 1837.

Despite this demonstration of French naval strength, the British in July 1840 succeeded in forming a coalition with Austria, Prussia, and Russia to force Mohammed Ali to withdraw. An intense diplomatic crisis between Britain and France ensued, but France found it had no choice but to back down. The British squadron in the Levant was larger than the French (it contained about 14 ships of the line to the French 9) and it was backed by much greater resources at home in money and men. France tried to launch and commission 12 frigates then on the ways but suspended the effort when it realised it would not be able to find enough seamen to man them until the fishing fleet returned from the Grand Banks at the end of the year.

The crisis showed that the naval policy followed by France since 1815 had grave weaknesses that could no longer be ignored. It demonstrated that the fleet of the 1837 programme could not cope with the British battle fleet in cases such as 1840 in which France had no allies. It also showed that the policy of retaining ships on the ways for rapid launch during a crisis was an illusion. On the positive side, the crisis led to a relaxation of the fiscal constraints on the navy-it was clear that the navy’s requirements had outgrown Portal’s standard 65 million franc budget.

In the 1840s the navy focused its attention on steam as an alternative way to offset British sea power. The programme of 1837 had included 40 steamers of 150nhp and above, but since then much larger steamers had become practicable. In 1842 the French navy established a programme for a steam navy that would parallel the sail navy. It was to include 40 combat steamers: five `steam frigates’ of 540nhp, fifteen of 450nhp, and twenty `steam corvettes’ of 220nhp. The smaller ships already on hand (mostly the 160nhp Sphinx class) remained useful for messenger, transport, and colonial duties, and thirty were included in the programme.

At first, not much progress was made with the new programme because of lack of construction facilities and money, but studies of the role of steam in the fleet continued. The most famous was a pamphlet published in 1844 by François Ferdinand Philippe Louis Marie d’Orleans, Prince de Joinville, a son of the king who had chosen the navy as his career. Joinville claimed that steam would allow France to offset British supremacy in numbers by concentrating its forces at a point of its choosing, overwhelming local opposition, and either ravaging the coast or landing an army. His pamphlet triggered a major naval scare in Britain and the construction of many new fortifications along the British coast. Joinville went on to direct a commission whose work led to a new steamer programme at the end of 1845. This programme increased the size of the planned steam fleet to 100 ships, including 10 frigates and 20 corvettes.

Joinville wanted steam frigates to be true combatants, with an armament of 30 large guns and engines of 600nhp or more. His steam corvettes were also to be combatants, but were expected to serve primarily as avisos. They were to have around eight large guns and engines of 400nhp. The plans for the frigate Isly and the corvette Roland conformed to these guidelines. The remaining 70 ships were to carry out the now-traditional messenger and transport duties of steamers and were assigned two guns at most and engines ranging from 300 to 90nhp.

The main strength of the navy remained in the sailing fleet, however. In the mid-1840s Parliament became concerned about its deterioration. The Minister of Marine, Vice-Adm. Ange-René-Armand, Baron de Mackau, took advantage of the opportunity and presented a new naval programme in 1846. In essence, it combined Portal’s sail fleet and Joinville’s steam fleet in a single programme which was to be achieved in seven years with the navy’s regular budgets and special appropriations totalling 93 million francs.

The programme contained several innovative features, all involving steam. While drawing up the programme, the navy decided to reduce the number of ships of the line under construction over and above the programmemed 40 from 13 to 4, on the grounds that the progress of steam made it prudent not to build up too big a reserve of these expensive ships. (The corresponding reserve of 16 sail frigates was retained.) It also decided to adopt one of Joinville’s recommendations and give part of the sailing fleet auxiliary steam propulsion. Parliamentary pressure caused the navy to increase the horsepower of these ships, and the final plan (not incorporated in the royal ordinance) called for four ships of the line with 500nhp engines, four frigates with 250nhp machinery, and four corvettes with 120nhp auxiliary machinery. This decision led, through many permutations, to the conversion of the ships of the line Austerlitz and Jean Bart and the construction of the corvettes Biche and Sentinelle. Parliamentary pressure also caused the navy to add to the programme two floating batteries of around 450nhp in response to the British blockships of the Blenheim type. These, however, were soon cancelled.

The execution of the Programme of 1846 was interrupted by the revolution of 1848, in which Louis-Philippe was overthrown and replaced by a second republic. The revolution ushered in a new period of fiscal retrenchment, which severely slowed down naval shipbuilding. The budgets of 1847 and 1848 had each included the planned annual instalments of 13.3 million francs, but the 1849 budget included only 2.7 million for the programme and later budgets included nothing. By the time naval activity revived in the early 1850s, further advances in steam technology had rendered the Programme of 1846 obsolete.

The navy’s operations in the 1840s were concentrated first and foremost in the Mediterranean. The Levant crisis of 1840 was succeeded by a series of operations associated with the conquest of North Africa, including an expedition led by Joinville which bombarded the Moroccan port of Mogador in 1844. A new crisis in Portugal caused the French to send another expedition to the Tagus in 1847. Elsewhere, Joinville in the frigate Belle Poule brought the ashes of Napoleon back to Paris from St. Helena in 1840. Expeditions were dispatched in 1842 and 1843 to occupy the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific, and French control was extended to the Society Islands in 1844. In 1843 the French occupied the islands of Nossi Bé and Mayotte off Madagascar, and a joint Anglo- French force bombarded Tamatave in 1845. In 1845 the French signed a treaty with Britain which required them to retain a force of 26 ships on the West African coast to help suppress the slave trade. Between 1845 and 1852 the navy was also involved in operations in Argentina, the dispute with that country having flared up again.

The 1848 revolution in France triggered revolutions throughout Europe, which kept the navy busy in European waters, especially in Sicily, at Rome, and in the Adriatic. Fiscal retrenchment, however, soon led to a substantial reduction in the number of ships in commission. Among the casualties was the West African station, which declined from 26 ships at the end of 1847 to its pre-treaty strength of around 8 ships at the end of 1849 and then to 3 ships at the end of 1851.