FRENCH ARMOURED CRUISERS 1887-1932

Reviewed by: ANDREW LAMBERT

This striking book addresses a largely forgotten era of rapid technological progress. The armoured cruiser was a short-lived type, and the French, who invented the concept, were their most enthusiastic exponents. They exploited new face-hardened steel armour to provide adequate protection for the hulls and weapons of warships, while water-tube boilers raised steam pressures and increased speed. Armoured cruisers were capital ships emphasising speed and endurance over the firepower of contemporary battleships. In the pre-Dreadnought era they could be used as a fast division in fleet battle, or operate as powerful commerce raiders.

In the mid 1880s Anglo-French relations deteriorated, the resulting Jeune Ecole naval strategy envisaged using fast armoured cruisers to attack Britain’s global commerce, while torpedo boats harassed shipping in the English Channel, and defended French ports against the British battlefleet. The torpedo boats proved unseaworthy, and the early armoured cruisers were too small for their role. French strategic choices drove technology choices, the organisation of naval procurement, technical development of guns, boilers, engines, fire control and the wider design process. The greatest weakness of seeking technological solutions to strategic problems in a period of rapid technological change was France’s consistent inability to match the pace of British construction. Frequently the British could observe, respond and take delivery of a solution before the French ship was in service.

While the first of the new ships, Dupuy de Lome, was a relative failure it created a strategic sensation, generating a British response. Between 1887 and 1905 France ordered 26 of these ships, of increasing size, speed and firepower, along with a number of smaller protected cruisers. Two armoured cruisers were named for eminent historians…. others for naval heroes and contemporary republican statesmen. The City of London, alarmed by the threat the ships, and the ideology they espoused, posed to its’ business model, demanded a response. The French armoured cruiser programme’s impact can be traced in the massive increase in British spending on similar ships in the 1890s and early 1900s. French armoured cruisers drove a large section of British strategic thinking for 15 years, and shaped the largest British ships, notably the Powerful and Drake classes, both focussed on high sustained speed to counter French designs.

In the 1890s French naval policy became a political football, successive Navy Ministers shifting the emphasis from the battlefleet to cruisers and torpedo boats, and back again, leaving the fleet without enough of any type for a war with Britain. This weakness was exposed by the crisis at Fashoda in 1898, which concentrated minds, opened the national coffers and prompted serious policy debates. Between 1898 and 1901 France laid down thirteen armoured cruisers, completing nine of them by 1904 when the signing of the Anglo-French Entente effectively removed the raison d’etre for these costly ships. By 1900 France prepared plans for wars with Britain or Germany, wars in which it would be either grossly inferior at sea, or dominant. It seemed the armoured cruiser was the ideal type. A dramatic increase in the dry-docks, defences and coal stocks at France’s overseas colonies demonstrated the Navy’s primary focus remained Britain, whatever the French Army might have thought. Yet by the time the bulk of these ships were in service Britain was no longer a potential enemy. Two last ships ordered in 1905, the Edgar Quinet class, were 13,800 ton 23 knot ships mounting fourteen 9.4 inch guns, on a high freeboard hull, topped off with six funnels. The British contemporary HMS Minotaur offered the same combination of size, speed and firepower.

When the cost of an armoured cruiser navy, in addition to the essential battlefleet, threatened the stability of Britain’s national finances, a key target of the Jeune Ecole, and drove the decision to appoint ‘Jacky’ Fisher First Sea Lord in October 1904. Fisher promised to cut the budget, he squared the circle by building radically new, all-big-gun capital ships to deal with French cruisers or German battleships. By the time the first French armoured cruisers put to sea they had been rendered obsolescent by HMS Invincible, with eight 12 inch guns and turbine machinery capable of 25 knots.

How long the large and mechanically complex French cruisers, which consumed prodigious quantities of high-grade Welsh steam coal, could have sustained an oceanic raiding campaign is uncertain. That Britain was planning to seize or destroy all of France’s overseas cruisers bases is not. The key cruiser bases were at Oran, Bizerte, Martinique, Dakar, Madagascar, and Saigon. The more pressing weakness was France’s absolute dependence on British coal. The Admiralty knew to the ton how much Welsh steam coal France was buying, and how it was being moved.

The book ends with a detailed study of how these costly ocean raiders were used during the First World War. The older units patrolled the outer fringes of the war and provided shore bombardments, others acted as ocean escorts in the Atlantic, while the most modern served with the battlefleet, because France had no modern light cruisers. Several were sunk by torpedoes and mines, against which they had little protection: not one engaged a similar warship. After the war the survivors carried on while France built new cruisers, the last of old ships coming home from the Far East in the early 1930s.

This is by far the best study of these striking ships in print, a work that combines a mastery of technical detail, policy debate and operational experience with comparative analysis of rival forces, and the structures of the French Navy. It will enhance attempts to understand the strategy of the Jeune Ecole, and British responses. It is also a work of art, with striking illustrations, fresh new drawings and the usual Seaforth standards of design and production. Essential reading for all those engaged with the period, and wider debates about commerce protection across the ages.