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The French Fleet: Ships, Strategy and Operations 1870-1918

07 Mar 23

This large and handsomely illustrated volume will be of great interest to students of French naval policy, and those wishing to examine the development of alternative strategic choices for weaker powers facing a dominant sea-control navy. For much of the period between 1815 and 1870, the French Navy, easily the second most powerful, after the Royal Navy, engaged in full scale arms races, latterly in wooden steam battleships and ironclads in the 1850s and 1860s. The rise of Bismarck’s Germany in the mid -1860s forced the Second Empire to focus on military strength. Defeated by Prussia in 1871 France was seriously reduced in size, prestige, and power, facing a massive war indemnity, and an obvious primary policy aim, the recovery of lost provinces and lost prestige. Without an obvious ally, the new Third Republic shaped a Navy that could be used against Germany, including shallow draught ‘coast defence’ ironclads for offensive operations in the Baltic, while maintaining a powerful strain of left-wing republican Anglophobia linked to colonial expansion.

Unable to fund a navy capable of challenging Britain, and unwilling to renounce the imperial ambitions that enabled Bismarck to balance Paris and London, post-1870 France faced a third problem, a newly unified Italy with a potent Navy.  The Italian authors, one a retired naval officer, emphasise the intermittent but intense rivalry with the new Italian Navy for dominance in the Mediterranean. This perspective is essential to any assessment of the post-1871 French battlefleet, normally concentrated at Toulon, watching the large, fast and heavily armed Italian units, while coast defence ironclads and ocean-going cruisers were massed in the northern and western ports respectively, as asymmetric responses to British dominance. In the 1880s and 1890s French policy emphasised coast defence, with small, locally-based torpedo boats, and pioneer submarines – the latter compromised by using steam power plants for surface propulsion, they took 10-15 minutes to prepare to dive. The submarine had been promoted by proponents of the Jeune Ecole strategy of commerce destroying (ideas that influenced German choices in 1917) urged by Navy Minister Admiral Aube. Aube relied on cruiser operations against merchant shipping and torpedo boat attacks in the Channel, to generate panic and economic collapse in London, defeating Britain without the need for a fleet battle, or an invasion. The cruisers lacked the speed, reliability and standardisation to be effective, their over-stressed machinery prone to failure, while their consumption of high-grade steam coal (almost entirely provided by Britain) was excessive. Despite those problems the French cruiser ‘threat’ pushed up Royal Navy budgets, while the torpedo boat challenge in the Channel prompted ‘Jacky’ Fisher to invent the torpedo boat destroyer.

The political clash between the radical republican Jeune Ecole and those advocating conventional fleet operations split the Navy, brought down at least one Government, and compromised construction policy for more than two decades. It left France with a fleet of samples that lacked the unity provided by a single strategic concept. This primarily political battle persisted into the 20th century. The expansion of French colonial rule in Africa and Indo-China generated periods of Anglo-French antagonism that served the interests of Imperial Germany, this culminated in the Fashoda Crisis of 1898, a clash over the headwaters of the Nile that exposed the weakness of France’s global position, and the limits of the French navy. Within six years an Anglo-French Entente had resolved outstanding differences, to counter German ambitions in Europe. When war broke out in 1914 Britain and France were allies, but the French Navy was still shaped by decisions made in the period before 1898, and only took delivery of its first dreadnoughts in 1913-14. The war shifted the centre of effort to the land, delaying or cancelling naval projects, redeploying seamen and guns to the land front, while naval infrastructure supplied military equipment. Pre-war thinking about fleet battle and cruiser warfare were set aside for amphibious assaults, anti-submarine warfare, convoys and air operations. Post-war procurement benefited from war experience, access to surrendered German cruisers, destroyers and submarines, and enlarged dry docks to service longer, faster ships.

This book is a fine complement to Theodore Ropp’s older account The Development of a Modern Navy, recent works on French Battleships and Cruisers by John Jordan and Philippe Caresse, and Stephen Roberts’ superb French Warships in the Age of Steam of 2021. The assessment of emerging new ship types and their strategic roles is excellent, while the French Navy appears to have had an advantage over the Royal Navy in the quality of photography, and the dramatic appearance of French warships. While the Royal Navy’s stately battleships represented stability and order, those of France seem purpose built to pose a radical challenge to the status quo.