The French Navy After 1815 Part II

An Anglo-French squadron of steamers bombards Odessa in the Black Sea, 22 April 1854. Left to right, the attacking ships are: Terrible (RN), Vauban, Mogador, Sampson (RN), Descartes, Retribution (RN), Tiger (RN) and Furious (RN).

Impératrice Éugenie with the Escadre de la Méditerranée between May and December 1859. When this fleet anchored off Venice on 9 July 1859, without Impératrice Éugenie but with her sister Impétueuse, included the fast three-decker Bretagne, the fast 90-gunners Algésiras, and Arcole, and the corvette Monge, all of which are probably visible here. Impératrice Éugenie sailed in May 1860 for the Far East where she remained until 1867

1852 to 1861: Towards a New Fleet

On 2 December 1851 Louis Napoleon carried out a coup d’état which gave him control of the government and made him, a year later, Emperor Napoleon III. The new regime quickly embarked on a revolutionary transformation of the battle fleet from sail to steam, which it finally codified in 1857 in a new naval programme just before another technological revolution took place.

In early 1852, the first French screw ship of the line to run trials, Charlemagne, demonstrated that the large screw-propelled warship was a practical reality. At this time, the navy estimated that Britain had afloat or under construction 10 such ships compared to 3 for France. Shortly thereafter, the new French government substantially increased the funds available to the navy for shipbuilding in 1852 and 1853, and in mid-1852 the navy decided to use the funds to convert seven more ships of the line along the lines of Charlemagne.

In justifying this programme, the Minister of Marine (then Théodore Ducos) told his senior advisory council in May 1852 that he felt France’s strategy in a war with Britain should be to strike hard at British commerce while threatening a rapid, unexpected landing on the coasts of the United Kingdom. The need for speed and carefully coordinated operations ruled out the construction of additional sailing ships. Converted ships like Charlemagne could make a substantial contribution with their dependable speed of around 8 knots. (They were also a practical necessity, as they made use of existing materiel and could be completed more quickly than new ships.) Fast ships of the line like Napoléon would be even more appropriate, but the navy avoided committing itself to this type before the trials of the prototype. The sensational success of Napoléon in August 1852 caused the navy to start additional ships of the type as quickly as possible. Five new ships and one conversion (Eylau) were begun in 1853 alone.

In Britain, the return of a Bonaparte to absolute power in France aroused old fears and triggered a full-blown naval scare in 1852 and 1853. Between August and November 1852 the Admiralty responded to developments in France by ordering the conversion to steam of eleven additional ships of the line, and more soon followed.

Ironically, this period of rivalry soon gave way to a period of close cooperation as the two nations combined their efforts in the Crimean War against Russia. In September 1853 the fleets of the two powers entered the Dardanelles together, and they continued to coordinate their operations in the Black Sea and the Baltic until the end of the war in 1856. They also shared some of their latest technological developments, the British receiving the plans of the French armoured floating batteries and the French receiving plans of British gunboats.

In October 1853 Napoléon gave dramatic proof of the importance of steam by towing the three-decker sailing French flagship Ville de Paris up the Turkish straits against both wind and current while the British fleet had to wait for more favourable conditions. Subsequent operations reinforced the lesson that only screw steamers could be considered combatant warships. In October 1854, while preparing the list of construction work to be undertaken in 1855, the ministry of marine proposed converting to steam all 33 of its remaining sailing ships of the line in the next several years. One-third of the resultant fleet was to be fast battleships like Napoléon (including a few conversions like Eylau), and the remainder were to be conversions like Charlemagne. Conversions of existing ships of the line were carried out as quickly as the ships could be spared from war operations.

The Crimean War placed heavy operational demands on the navy. Fleets were required in both the Black Sea and the Baltic. The French used 12 ships of the line in the Baltic during 1854 and 3 in 1855; they used 16 in the Black Sea in 1854 and 31 during 1855 (including about 19 as transports). The principal naval engagements involving the French were all against fortifications: the capture of Bomarsund in the Baltic in August 1854, the bombardment of Sevastopol in the Black Sea in October 1854, the capture of Kinburn in the Black Sea in October 1855, and the bombardment of Sveaborg in the Baltic in November 1855. The bombardment of Sevastopol was carried out by ships of the line and was a failure – Napoléon, one of many ships damaged, was forced to withdraw after a shell produced a large leak in her side. In contrast, the bombardment of Kinburn exactly a year later made extensive use of technology developed during the war and was a success. The French armoured floating batteries proved practically impervious to the Russian shells, while groups of gunboats, mortar vessels, and armed paddle steamers also inflicted heavy damage on the defenders.

In May 1855 the Minister, Admiral of France Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, circulated to the ports a list of questions raised by the October 1854 memo regarding the composition of the battle fleet. In August 1855 a navy commission, formed at the Emperor’s direction to examine the responses, drafted a formal programme for the modernisation of the fleet. The key elements of its programme were a combat fleet of 40 fast battleships and 20 fast frigates and a fleet of transports large enough to transport an army of 40,000 men. While the combat fleet was being built, the navy was to rely on a transitional fleet of screw ships converted from sail, which was to be completed as quickly as possible. This plan called for the expenditure of 245 million francs in 13 years beginning in 1857. The commission was reconvened in December 1855 to consider the implications of the success of the armoured floating batteries at the bombardment of Kinburn in October. It completed the technical and fiscal details of the programme in November 1856, and the Emperor referred the plan to the Conseil d’Etat in January 1857 for study. Three changes were made during 1857. Two ship of the line conversions were deleted (Friedland and Jemmapes). The number of transports was reduced from 94 to 72, probably reflecting a decision to abandon all but five of the frigate conversions and instead convert some sailing frigates to steam frigates. The financial arrangements were also changed to provide for the expenditure of 235 million francs over 14 years beginning in 1858. The final programme was promulgated by imperial decree on 23 November 1857.

While refining the technical portion of the programme in late 1856, the navy’s engineers under Stanislas-Charles-Henri-Laur Dupuy de Lome, designer of Napoléon, had included a clause allowing the Minister of Marine to replace ship types in the programme with others equivalent in military strength and construction cost. Dupuy de Lome knew better than most how quickly the programme would become obsolete, because he was already working on the plans for the world’s first `armoured frigates’. In March 1858 the Minister (Hamelin) ordered the first three of these, including Gloire, and simultaneously cancelled construction of two fast 70-gun ships of the line, Desaix and Sébastopol, which had not yet been laid down and a proposed class of fast 40-gun steam frigates. By October 1858 the navy had decided that the new armoured frigates were not just equivalent but superior to line of battle ships. At the same time, it replaced the fast frigates in the programme with smaller `cruising frigates’. (Two similar `station frigates’, Vénus and Minerve, followed by a series of `armoured corvettes’, were eventually built in the 1860s.) The Programme of 1857 remained the legal basis for the modernisation of the French fleet to the end of the 1860s, but the ships built under it bore little resemblance to those in the initial 1855 proposal.

The navy saw considerable action in the 1850s besides the Crimean War. In 1851 a French force carried out a reprisal bombardment of the Moroccan port of Salé. In 1853 the navy occupied the Pacific island of New Caledonia. In 1855 the French in Senegal began to expand their control upriver into the interior of Africa. In 1856 Britain and France agreed upon joint operations for the revision of their treaties with China, and two joint naval and military campaigns were conducted before another treaty settlement was made in 1860. During this operation, the French occupied Saigon in 1859 and over the next few years took control of all of Cochinchina.

Elsewhere, the traditional Anglo-French rivalry was quick to revive. A French naval and military intervention in the Danube principalities after the Crimean War aroused British fears of a Franco-Russian alliance. The Franco-Austrian war of 1859, in which France helped Italy become independent, antagonised British conservatives as much as it delighted liberals. The French navy helped transport and supply the French armies in Italy and blockaded the northern Adriatic ports. Such activity focused British attention on the naval balance, and they found that France had reached near parity in fast steam ships of the line and had an advantage in the number of ironclad warships under construction. In February 1859 the Admiralty triggered the third major Anglo-French naval scare since 1844, which intensified in 1860-61 as France led the world into the ironclad era.