The French Fleet Ships, Strategy and Operations 1870-1918


The French Fleet Ships, Strategy and Operations 1870-1918. By Ruggero Stanglini and Michele Cosentino, Seaforth publishing 2022.

Reviewed by John Mortimer

This book examines the development of the French Navy subsequent to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and follows its evolution through until the end of World War 1.

The authors approach starts with scene setting chapters which address French Foreign Policy and the Navy, Naval Budgets and Shipbuilding Programmes, Industry and Technology, and the Organisation which supported the structure and operation of the French Navy. This is followed by chapters on ship types ranging from battleships to minor combatants and auxiliary ships, naval aviation and an outline of the French Fleet at War in 1914 – 1918.

The authors provide the strategic and doctrinal context to the French fleets development up until 1918. This volume complements other Seaforth publications on the subsequent French Fleet, which in combination provide an extensive and detailed review of the development of the French Navy up until 1956. The related volumes are: “French Battleships of World War One” by John Jordan and Philippe Caresse; “French Battleships 1922-1956” by John Jordan and Robert Dumas; “French Armoured Cruisers 1887-1932” by John Jordan and Philippe Caresse; “French Cruisers 1922-1956 by John Jordan and Jean Moulin;  and “French Destroyers 1922-1956” by John Jordan and Jean Moulin.

Much of the early history saw Navy funding eroded to meet the higher priority accorded to the French Army and social measures. However, renewed Government interest in colonial expansion around 1880 raised the Navy profile. The conquest of new overseas territories saw the Navy charged with transport of troops, ensuring the lines of communications at sea, and dealing with real and potential adversaries.  Colonial expansion created new rivalries with Britain and, after the occupation of Tunisia in 1881 a deterioration of relations with Italy.  These developments resulted in a drive by government for a more effective use of resources; a reconsideration of fleet composition; and a push to identify the most needed type of warships. The result was a decreased emphasis on battleships, an increase in cruiser strength, and increased emphasis on troop transports and torpedo boats. This change in philosophy was similar to what the Jeune Ecole had been arguing for, namely a move away from expensive and vulnerable battleships to new technology, and an emphasis on torpedo boats, gunboats and fast cruisers – the latter being needed for attacks on trade and protection of sea lines of communication. The torpedo and gun boats would be used for coastal defence.

Several trials occurred during the mid to late 1880s of the torpedo boat and cruisers employment with mixed results, especially in relation to the torpedo boats. In the war with China in the mid 1880s French torpedo boats and two steamships equipped with spar torpedoes inflicted heavy damage on enemy ships. In contrast French battleships on 12 February 1885, because of their slow speed, were unable to intercept faster Chinese cruisers trying to break a blockade. Limitations of the torpedo boats were exposed in terms of their seakeeping, endurance, the distances to cover before reaching the operational area and co-ordination among the torpedo boats.

Limitations in the performance of the torpedo boats ultimately led to a more balanced approach being adopted to French naval force structure. The foray into small craft did, however lead to a French fleet with some major deficiencies as it entered the First World War. Only in 1895 did the French Navy begin to deal with the issue in terms of destroyer speed, range and armament to counter the British initial torpedo boat destroyers. By August 1914 the French Navy had 31 destroyers of 800 tons and 13 ships of 450 tons. The shortage of available destroyers and the growing requirement for convoy escorts, resulted in an order being placed with Japan for 12 destroyers in November 1916. By October 1916 all ships had been delivered to France. The French Navy continued to focus on destroyers of limited size, even during the First World War, whereas other countries, such as Great Britain, Germany and the United States of America were building larger more capable ships for the protection of commerce and the Main Fleet. After the war and with access to German’s larger destroyers France embarked on a construction program of larger more capable destroyers.

The French Navy devoted considerable resources to the development of submarines. A combination of a lack of strategic direction for submarine policy and an often illogical industrial policy resulted in excessive spending on experimental boats. From 1863 the French Navy built, commandeered and captured a total a total of 111 submarines of varying utility. This included: 7 experimental prototypes; 87 boats whose completion occurred in part during the First World War; 15 boats built during the First World War; and 4 boats 3 of which were commandeered by the French Navy and the captured former German UB-26 renamed Roland Morillot. Most of the boats were built in the period 1910 – 1920, with submarine production slowing during the war, owing to the priority of other warships, especially escort vessels.

Industrial performance, especially in the early years, was problematic. Construction was slow and expensive in the Navy Arsenals, which provided most of the management, updating and shipbuilding. Owing to a lack of control by the central naval administration there were significant differences between warships of the same class entrusted to different arsenals. The resulting lack of standardisation lasted until the end of the century, and had serious consequences for operations, training  and logistics.

Overall, this book stimulates many questions about navies. Clearly it demonstrates the need for a strategy to guide naval force structure development, the importance of industrial capacity and its strict oversight and direction by a Navy. It also raises considerations about ship construction and the advantages of a staged approach – rather than having many ships under construction concurrently, without first evaluating a prototype, to see if things work and how the build of subsequent vessels might need to be modified or updated to meet unforseen issues, or technological and threat variations.  In the extreme a prototype might, as in the case of the small torpedo boat with the French Navy, demonstrate a flaw in the overall concept, or at best the need for ship growth coupled with technological and performance development of the proposed weapon fit.

In some respects the changes in direction of French strategic perspectives during the coverage of this book is not all that dissimilar to Australia’s current and recent experiences. While the French responded to these changes, there is little evidence of Australian changes resulting in any significant variation to its naval force structure, with the possible exception of greater attention being devoted to cyber security and a growing interest in remotely operated vehicles.

The slow gestation period of major naval and other equipment proposals such as the new frigates and nuclear powered submarines seem likely to result in outdated ships arriving to a possibly changed strategic environment. This is reminiscent of the Anzac ship project, where there was a 20 year gap between the initial approvals to completion of the last vessel. Long lead items including some of the major weapon systems and sensors were ordered early in the project. This timescale raises the matter of the ongoing strategic relevance of the ships and their technological currency when delivered. Indeed the Anzac class ships were delivered with some systems fitted for but not with capabilities. With the rapid growth of technology being experienced in recent decades there could be a case for adopting a phased procurement approach rather than a single batch approval.  Something akin to the USN approach with the evolution of the Burke class and the Japanese approach to on-going destroyer evolution and construction, might result in proven ships being delivered which are strategically relevant to our needs.

This book is well written and researched, drawing on extensive primary and secondary sources. It analyses the French Navy’s development in a broad context addressing strategic, political, financial, naval administration, industrial and technological issues. The text is supported with numerous high quality photographs which appropriately illustrate the ships being discussed. Coverage of the ship classes is extensive and provides an assessment in most cases of the pros and cons of their development, capabilities and performance. The authors do not hesitate to offer criticism of matters and provide sound justification for their views.  Overall, this book is a welcome addition to the history of the French Navy and its lessons have considerable relevance to current navies, their administration and their ability to influence and cooperate in the production of new ships.


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