French Pre[Post]-Dreadnoughts

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Le polyglotte, unique et moche ….

The Naval Defense Act battleships were the nine Majestics of
the Spencer program of 1893, the largest single class of battleships ever
constructed to one design: Majestic, Magnificent, Prince George, Mars, Jupiter,
Hannibal, Victorious, Caesar, and Illustrious. The gun-loading arrangements
were such an improvement over any previous designs that these battleships could
get off nearly two rounds per minute, as opposed to the best of the past-2.5
minutes per round. Like the Royal Sovereigns, the Majestics were the
best-designed battleships of their time. All survived to engage in secondary
active-duty service in World War I. They continued the Royal Sovereigns’ basic
design principles of center-line heavy guns and a respectable freeboard, the
main difference being that the latter class protected its main guns in lightly
armored structures. (Two of the class had no protection for the main battery,
just sheet steel structures to keep out spray and splinters.) These two classes
of battleships reverted to Devastation principles (except for the lack of
armored turrets), reestablishing a battleship design that would prevail until
battleships ceased to be built.

The French resisted this design trend, favoring their
exaggerated fierce face, piled-on appearance, with high freeboard, enormous
unprotected superstructures, deep tumble-home to achieve end-on fire (still
thinking of ramming), along with single guns poking out of tiny turrets and
exaggerated ram bows (probably as much for buoyancy as for ramming, considering
the extremely short French forecastles). More tangibly, these battleships were
almost unarmored above the waterline, except for their turrets, barbettes, and
a waterline belt. The tumble-home reduced stability, and the large
superstructures presented vulnerable targets and raised the center of gravity
of the warships. The reasons for such bizarre designs are unclear, although
they undoubtedly had much to do with the ram. The French themselves finally
realized that these steel fantasies were a dead end, as seen in later French
battleship designs that gradually moved closer to Royal Navy models. However,
the French were never able to build their warships as quickly or as cheaply as
the British, although their material quality was high.

The Naval Law of 1891 was France’s last attempt to challenge
British battleship domination and was foredoomed by France’s lesser industrial
development; French battleships themselves seemed destined to overall design
inferiority. They usually turned out to be above their design weight, as
compared to Royal Navy capital ships, which held to the strict controls
introduced by Sir William White. French battleship construction was also
hampered by inefficient shipyards, as well as financial restraints that only
became worse as the French army was expanded to counter Germany’s post-Bismarck
belligerency. French naval policy vacillated between challenging the Royal Navy
with an oceangoing fleet or with a guerre de course based on torpedo boats and
cruisers; or withdrawing into coastal defense with its dwarf armorclads and,
again, torpedo boats. Neither they nor the Russians ever completed a battleship
construction program before fiscal and technological realities caught up to
them. Finally, after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the
French felt compelled to build up the army at the expense of the navy. (It
didn’t help matters that there were 31 different ministers of marine in the three
decades after 1870.) The French were equivalent to or ahead of the Royal Navy,
however, in two important areas: heavy guns and their mountings, and watertube

France leisurely built its first pre-dreadnought battleship,
Brennus, between 1889 and 1896. Brennus mounted a mere three 13.4-inch guns on
11,000 tons, but those guns were arranged in the modern center-line mode, and
the warship had no ram bow. The following Jauréguiberry class (Jauréguiberry,
Charles Martel, Carnot, Bouvet, and Masséna, laid down between 1890 and 1892)
was something of a throwback to the excesses of earlier French ironclad design,
with their low displacement, fierce face, exaggerated tumble-home on lofty,
relatively unprotected hulls, cluttered, unprotected upperworks, and single
guns in tiny turrets. Their main battery was a mixed bag of two 12-inch and two
10.8-inch guns, the latter sponsoned over the hull tumblehome, presumably to
give ahead-fire, even though the naval powers were going over to line-ahead
capital ship formations that emphasized broadside fire. Bouvet and Masséna,
however, should be credited for pioneering the triple shaft-engine arrangement
for battleships. Only with the Charlemagne class (Charlemagne, St. Louis, and
Gaulois, laid down 1894-1896) did French battleship design seem to come to
terms with the new long-range, line-ahead demands of big gun naval battle. Yet
they still retained the tumble-home, confused and vulnerable upperworks, and
turrets that seemed too small for their guns. The Charlemagnes took some four
to five years to complete (and the Brennus seven), while the contemporaneous
Majestics were completed in an average of two and a half years. Not until
Republique and Patrie (laid down 1901-1902) were French battleships given
sufficiently generous dimensions to achieve speed, armament, and protection
roughly comparable to contemporary Royal Navy battleships. Their similar
successors, Démocracy, Justice, Liberté, and Verité (laid down 1902-1903) were
fine monuments to the lofty civic virtues they commemorated but were soon
rendered obsolete by the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought.

In stark contrast to the rivalry in ship types and numbers
that had previously characterized competition between France and Britain, the French
decided not to immediately follow the lead set In the introduction of
Dreadnought Over the course of 1907 and 1908, they defied the trend and laid
down six pre dreadnought battleships of the Danton class designed around the
old standard of four 12-inch (305-mm) guns. 18,000 ions, a speed of 18 knots li
was not until 1910 that their first dreadnoughts were laid down. These were four
ships of the Courbei class, mounting twelve 12-inch guns in tour superfiring
turrets fore and aft and two wing turrets The three ships of the Bretagne Class
followed in 1912 to an improved design of five twin 13.4-inch (340-mm) turrets
mounted on the centre line These were to be the last French dreadnoughts
completed before the outbreak of World War I This effort was not enough.
however, to prevent France slipping from second largest navy, as measured in
battleships, to fifth after the US, Russia and Germany.

Further battleships were planned to help restore the French
fleet’s international standing, including five Normandie Class and four Lyon
Class These interesting and unusual dreadnoughts reverted to a non-superfiring
layout of the main armaments, with all turrets on the centre line. The 13.4-inch
(340-mm) gun was retained but mounted in quadruple turrets, the first lime such
an arrangement had been proposed. Difficulties expected in manufacturing fuel-efficient
turbines resulted in a mixed turbine reciprocating machinery installation. All
the Normandies were laid down and launched but were effectively abandoned after
the outbreak of World War I. With the exception of one. Beam, which was
convened into an aircraft carrier in 1923/27, they were scrapped during the
early 1920s.

French PrePost Dreadnoughts

The loss of the Bouvet

In 1914, the British ships that were to engage the
Dardanelles forts were fitted with Armstrong/EOC guns and also those made by
Vickers Limited, a relative newcomer to British arms manufacturing that started
in this business in 1887. The main armaments of the British capital ships were
of three calibres: 10-inch (254mm) on the Swiftsure and Triumph; 15-inch (381mm)
on the Queen Elizabeth; 12-inch (305mm) guns being fitted to the remainder of
the warships. The main armament of the French pre-dreadnoughts Bouvet, Verite,
Gaulois, Charlemagne and Suffren were also 12-inch (305mm) (see Appendix Six,
British and French Battleships used in the Dardanelles campaign up to the 18
March 1915).

The accepted reason for the loss of the Bouvet is that she
hit a mine in Erenkoi Bay, and this may well be true. Her rapid sinking in
something less than two minutes with smoke pouring from amidships suggests that
she sank due to an internal explosion, probably a magazine blowing up, but was
this caused by striking a mine or by a shell penetrating the ship? The Bouvet was
hit by at least eight shells, two of which may have been from a 355mm gun, and
her main armament forward gun was put out of action. The four French ships of
the Third Division had been as close as 10,000 yards (9,100m) from the Narrows,
and many of the Turkish heavy shells fired that day were the armour-piercing
New type, which had the range to reach to Erenkoi Bay. Shells from the
6-inch/45s at Rumeli Mesudiye Battery at Suandere Bay also hit the ship,
causing serious damage.

The Bouvet’s dated design of a pronounced tumblehome hull,
which had been common on wooden-walled warships for centuries but was still
peculiar to French battleships built in the 1890s, may have offered an almost
flat surface to a plunging shell. The ship was armed with two 305mm/40 guns,
one forward and one aft, plus two 274mm/45 guns amidships set on either side of
the tumblehome. Also, eight 138mm/45 guns were mounted on the tumblehome, four
each side. The magazines were below each gun, which meant that the magazines
for the tumblehome guns were close to the hull of the ship: was one of them
detonated by an exploding contact mine? The Bouvet’s sides were armoured,
ranging from 400mm thick amidships tapering to 200mm along the ship’s length,
but this was only a metre or so above and below the waterline. If she did
strike a submerged mine then her main armour belt would have offered no
protection. Above the main armour was a 100mm belt carried up one deck to
protect the ammunition hoists, together with another below this known as a splinter
deck, but would these have been able to resist a 725kg armour-piercing shell
from a Krupp 355mm L/35 falling at a steep angle at the end of its flight?
However, there were parts of the deck devoid of armour: companion ways on the
ship’s centreline midway between the 274mm turrets. If a shell had plunged into
the ship via this access, then it could have readily reached the magazine decks
before exploding.

The ship had watertight compartments along her length, and
also longitudinal bulkheads, which would have made her likely to capsize with
any significant water ingress on one side only. The resulting explosion of a
magazine, whatever the cause, would have opened the hull, probably exposing
more than one of the ship’s watertight compartments, causing her to fill with
water and roll over, as she did. Other ships hit mines that day and did not
sink quickly, slowly filling with water, enabling the crews to be evacuated or
for the ship to be saved. In 1937, French naval historian Paul Chack described
the moment of the explosion:

At that moment a violent jolt shook the hull armour.
Lieutenant Quernel said ‘We have taken a heavy calibre shell.’ A spray of water
throws up at the starboard 274mm turret. By the doorway thick yellow smoke
makes people believe that the explosion is from a projectile inside the ship.
‘I rather believe that it is a mine,’ responds Captain Rageot de la Touche.

Captain Rageot de la Touche did not survive the sinking but
five officers did, including Lieutenant Quernel, who described a huge gap in
the deck caused by a shell that struck near to the rear turret. The ship was on
fire below deck, but men remained at their stations in the awful conditions
that asphyxiated many of them. The second in command, Commander Autric,
believed that the ship had been torpedoed, and went to investigate. He did not

Sir Julian Corbett wrote a significant description of the

The French flagship (Suffren) had just passed through the
British line, and the Bouvet was about to do so, when a huge column of reddish
black smoke shot up from under her. Whether it was from a shell or a mine could
not be seen. It was followed almost immediately by another, higher and more
dense, which seemed to tell a magazine had gone. As the smoke cleared she was
seen to have taken on a heavy list, and then in two minutes she turned turtle
and went down.

The acclaimed Turkish diver Tosun Sezen dived on the Bouvet
in 1968, when working for the Ministry of Finance to remove metal from the
wreck. The ship had taken four days to locate using photographs of the sinking
to spot for landmarks and a magnetometer to detect the mass of steel. He
reported that the ship is lying by the stern and at an angle with the starboard
propeller shaft visible, so revealing that side of the hull where a massive
rent is located amidships which has almost ripped the ship apart. He also dived
on the wreck of the Irresistible, recovering more than 100 tons of bronze, and
the hole caused by the mine that sank this ship is only about a metre in

It is beyond reasonable doubt that a devastating internal
explosion sank the Bouvet, but we may never know if this was as a result of
striking a mine, from a shell or shells penetrating her hull to cause a
terrible fire that detonated a magazine, or from a cruel combination of both.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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