FRENCH WARSHIPS IN THE AGE OF STEAM 1859-1914: DESIGN, CONSTRUCTION AND FATES

Reviewed by: ANDREW LAMBERT

Reproduced with kind permission of the Society for Nautical Research

This outstanding book completes a trilogy, the first two volumes French Warships in the Age of Sail, covering the periods 1626-1786 and 1786 to 1861, were written jointly with Rif Winfield. Anyone who has worked on the French navy in the age of steam and iron will be familiar with Stephen Roberts’ work, his Ph. D and his edited edition of Theodore Ropp’s The Development of a Modern Navy are landmark texts. Like the earlier volumes in the series, it exploits Seaforth’s mastery of large format publishing: high quality paper, excellent use of contemporary images, and expert analysis of designs, careers and naval policy. The book is divided into three sections, the updated fleet of 1859-1882, the radically different ‘Jeune Ecole’ fleet of 1882-1897, and the modern battlefleet of 1897-1914. Each section is subdivided by type. Ten appendices detail French guns and torpedoes, naval ministries, shipbuilding Directorates, a selection of senior constructors, annual programmes, budgets and expenditure, and fleets. These details are essential, the French economy was in recession for much of the period after 1872, limiting expenditure, while the trauma of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71, shifted national priorities to the land.

Nor is the significance of the subject restricted to France. French ideas, technologies, designs and strategies were studied, and developed across the world, notably in Japan, which began its modern navy with French designs. While each ship, from battleships to river gunboats, has a full design and operational history, including major modifications, this is far more than a ship list. The archival riches of the French Navy and the author’s expertise ensure the ships are understood in the context of policy and strategy, as well as technology. The level of detail provided is striking, including extracts from policy papers, design specifications and trial reports. The adoption of iron construction transformed the ability of navies to acquire ships that met their specific needs. From the 1860s French warships reflected French needs, not the constraints of wooden shipbuilding, while their nationality determined the architectural ensemble of funnels, bridges, guns and turrets. Among the many highlights of the book is a detailed history of the development of French submarines, from the first projects in the 1860s, emphasising the distinct concepts that produced battery powered submarines for local defensive operations, and steam/electric designs with extended range to attack British or later German bases. France persisted with steam powered submersibles because it lagged in the development of reliable large diesel engines.

Throughout this period the Royal Navy was the obvious potential enemy, the interaction of French and British design, technology and strategy is a central theme of the text. The Royal Navy used French boiler designs, while the first French torpedo boats were built in Britain. Yet the only major war that France fought was against Prussia/Germany. Although powerful French armoured fleets assembled in the North Sea and the Baltic, they were unable to penetrate German mine and artillery coast defences, and stripped of the all-important 30,000 man amphibious strike force, which was sent to the land front. In a short war the navy achieved little, beyond keeping open the supply lines. Caught between the demands of being a continental European Great Power and a Colonial Empire France required more than one navy, the colonies needed river gunboats and sloops, the enduring rivalry with Britain demanded either a battlefleet or a ‘Jeune Ecole’ force based on fast cruisers and coastal torpedo boats, while another war with Germany, the most likely major opponent, opened up the possibility of offensive operations by a dominant French fleet down to the turn of the 19th century. The emergence of Italy as a Great Power added fresh complications, fast Italian battleships with the heaviest artillery put the entire Mediterranean coast at risk.

The balanced fleet of the 1870s was thrown into chaos by the advent of a left-wing republican government which appointed Jeune Ecole enthusiast Admiral Aube to head the Naval Ministry in 1882. Aube believed a ruthless cruiser, torpedo boat and submarine campaign to disrupt the British economy by sinking merchant ships without making provision for the safety of passengers and crew would cause chaos in London, bring down the Government and secure French aims. More conventional officers correctly observed that such actions were illegal, and would alienate neutral powers.

While there are obvious headline items, the ebb and flow of the battlefleet, the development of fast armoured cruisers for oceanic warfare, and the massive fleet of coastal torpedo boats that was spread among the smaller ports of France, the evolution of French coast defence battleships, provides a striking window into French thinking about naval warfare. Alarmed by the offensive power of British and Italian capital ships France built powerful small battleships that emphasised firepower and protection, but sacrificed the speed, range and seaworthiness needed to act with the main fleet. As the Italian challenge ebbed the majority of these vessels were concentrated, along with a host of torpedo boats and submarines, at Cherbourg, the main French base in the Channel, a key cruiser station, and an attractive target for a dominant British fleet to bombard. While the British also built coastal battleships, whose designs the French studied and copied, they did so to project power, not protect their own coast. In 1898 the Fashoda Crisis highlighted the limits of French naval power as a diplomatic asset. This led to another round of ‘Jeune Ecole’ decision-making, destabilising the service, and disrupting more conventional programmes for a second time.

The Anglo-French Entente of 1904, and the German bellicosity that sustained it, had begun to reshape the French Navy by 1910. The new battleships used British turbines, and British designed turrets for their 12-inch guns, while light cruisers and fleet escort destroyers were being developed when the war broke out in 1914. The Great War forced the Marine Nationale to fight with what it had in hand; shipyard resources were switched to support the all-important war on land. That reality has to be borne in mind when assessing French choices right across the period. The Navy was never France’s senior service.

This outstanding book will be essential for future studies of naval policy in the period between la Gloire and the Great War, because warships were and remain the obvious physical manifestation of policy and strategy.