French Navy 1850-60
The Marine Impériale before the Crimean War
The French Navy under Emperor Napoleon III had the rank of the world's second largest, as France was a long standing rival to Britain, but now with appeased relations, was in full colonial expansion wth the goal to create the second largest Empire. There was no question of surpassing the British Royal Navy, not only because of industrial capabilities, as France lagged behind, but also because of the necessity to maintain a large -and-costly- land army. Its now well-established foes on the continent being Austria and Prussia.
Steamship of the line Austerlitz (engraving by Lebreton).
The French Navy neverthess had a brillant university network and was well able to excel in science and technology to compensate for its numerical inferiority to Britain by innovation and quality. Napoleon III arrive din power in 1852, elected and replacing the contested Louis-Philippe I, on a social background. The Emperor knew that a strong navy was the only way to built to repair france's prestige internationally and be the instrument form building and maintaining a global colonial empire. A powerful Navy was also necessary to counted British traditional blockade and trade war. France's industrial might was largely due to the effort of a new bourgeoisie encourage by King Louis-Philippe, and despite social reforms, the effort was maintained.
Military research during Napoleon III ws relaunched, both in the army and navy and there were largely enough talented engineers from the elite technical schools founded by Napoleon Bonaparte fifty years before. France was ready to launch a serie of breakthrough, notably in naval warfare.
Dupuy de Lôme and Paixhans for example were both engineers and techy officers, giving France respectively the first steamship of the line (Napoleon) and a high explosive shell, called the "Paixhans bomb", devastated for wooden ships. In 1840 still, dispatch vessels and gunboats were the only ones propelled by steam power. Larger naval assets, ships-of the line, were sail-only. Many in the admiralties believed it was impossible to marry a steam engine with a large military vessel. The sidewheel system was the only way to propel a ship and was way too vulnerable to enemy fire. Therefore the adoption of the screw propeller, already desmonstrated in Britain with the dispatch vessels HMS Archimedes in 1837, started to show a way forward. Even before, all-metal screw-propelled steamships (like Brunel's SS Great Britain
) showed a way to be more innovative with steal and metal in 1843. But the Royal Navy did not followed. This was not lost on the other side of the channel however.
The French Navy goes full steam
was the first steam two-decker (plus one incomplete) ever to use steam propulsion and a lifting screw, as well as beeing fully rigged. It was based on the usual first class warship of the time, the 90-guns.
The SS Great Britain in fact impressed Dupuy de Lôme so much, he decided in 1845 to present King Louis Philippe a new major warship with a screw, called by then the "Prince de Joinville". It was ordered in 1847 and started in Toulon, and then was renamed "24 Février" during the French Second Republic and the King's abdication, and then "Napoléon" in May 1850, a few days before launch. She was eventually commissioned in May 1852, and a few months later (In december) Louis Napoléon was elected.
Despite some strong septicism from the admiralty, the enthusiastic future Napoleon III visited the yard and the ship later during her sea trials. It impressed all present so much that it became obvious this was a way forward. Plans to convert more ships commenced, but the war in Crimea started in between.
The French Navy in Crimea (1853-56)
French naval forces, order of battle.
- Screw three deckers : Montebello (114 guns, converted in 1852) in service as 1854.
- Screw two deckers : Napoleon (1850), Charlemagne (1851), Jean Bart (1852), Austerlitz (1852), two Fleurus class (1853), two Duquesne class (1853), three Navarin class (1854).
- Screw frigates : Isly (1849, 2690 guns, 40 guns), Bellone (1853, 2350 tons, 36 guns) and Pomone (1845, 1900 tons, 36 guns).
- Screw Corvettes : The two D'Assas class (1854, 2100 tons, 16 guns), the three Primauguet class (1852, 1900 tons, 10 guns), Roland (1850, 1970 tons, 8 guns), and three iron hull ships : Reine Hortense (1846), Caton (1847), and Chaptal (1845).
- Screw Devastation class armoured floating batteries : Five purpose-built ships launched in 1855 and ready in time for the end of the war.
- Paddle frigates : 19 ships, all from 1841 to 1848. Ranging from 20 to 8 guns, and 2460 to 2820 tons.
- Paddle corvettes : 14 ships, from 1838 to 1851, ranging from 900 to 1600 tons, and from 4 to 10 guns, two were Iron hulled.
- Screw sloops : 5 ships : Biche, Corse, Lucifer, Marceau class, and Sentinelle. From 400 to 900 tons, 120-150 nhp, 2-6 guns. 13 other built after the war.
- Paddle sloops : 37 ships from 1830 to 1855, 400 to 900 tons, and 2-6 guns.
- Screw gunboats : 26 mixed sail-steam 2 to 4 guns ships, and 31 iron hulled one-gun, steam only batteries.
- Sailing ships of the Line : Valmy (114 guns), Hercules and Jemmapes (90 guns), Iéna, Inflexible and Sufren (82 guns), Jupiter (80) and Duperré (70).
- Sailing Frigates : 27 ships ranging from 38 to 56 guns.
- Sailing corvettes : 11 ships of 22 guns and one of 38 guns.
- Brigs : 21 ships equipped with 8 to 14 carronades and one with two heavy paixhans Mortars.
Algésiras, Arcole, Imperial and Redoutable launched in 1855-56, all beeing 5040 tons in displacement. In 1853, two 80-guns of 4330 tons were launched (Duquesne and Tourville), and the three Wagram class in 1854 (4560 tons), 90 guns. The Charlemagne (80 guns, 4060 tons) was launched in 1851, Jean Bart (76 guns, 4010 tons) and Austerlitz (86 guns, 4430 tons) in 1852. Many other steam ships-of-the-line were built during the crimean war (see 1870 records), as well as nine other sailing two-deckers of 90-guns converted as steamships from 1857 to 1860.
Some three-deckers were also converted, in fact, all four of the Friedland class (5170 tons, 114 guns) in 1854-58, and the Montebello (4920 tons, 114 guns), converted in 1852 was the only one which served during the Crimean war. The very first purpose-built steam three-deckers was the impressive Bretagne, a 6770 tons, 130 guns.
Unfortunately she was launched only in 1855 and therefore was not in service before the war ended. Depite of this, she demonstrated that even such gigantic ships could be propelled by steam power. Of course, cumbersome boilers and an enormous amount of coal in such ships led to gave them a deeper hull below waterline, thus reducing their habilities to be anchored in many shallow water ports.
The Crimean war allowed this new breed of warship to be put on the test. The Napoleon, as well as its sister-ships performed well against the Russian forts. In fact, one episode was so famous that it changed completely the way the British admiralty seen these French experiments...
Heavily pounded and its rudder disabled, one of the french sailing three deckers was pushed by the current near the forts and the reefs, when she was took in charge and towed by Napoleon out of any danger(the weather was sunny and very calm, perfect for gunnery practice, but all windless sailing ships were unable to evolve). This episode proved that the steam power, not only still allowed the ship to bombard succesfully the forts, but also to save an almost doomed traditional three-deckers.
The Paixhans guns were also put to the test. During the Sinope naval engagement, the Russian fleet famously burned most of the Ottoman fleet, which was almost unable to respond. Later in Crimea, some relatively light, french floating batteries were able to bombard the forts, blewing up their magasines and burning the unprotected crews from above (they fired on parabolic angles). The batteries, of the Devastation
class, were specially built for this task, and were also heavily protected, in fact, they were armoured floating batteries, and remained all safe from the Russian replies.
The French Navy after Crimea
The Bretagne, 130-guns three-decker steamship of the line (1855), showcased in the 1859 naval review, since 1866 a training ship. Painting by Jules Achille Noël (London).
Napoleon in Toulon 1852, painted by Lauvergne
The steamship Napoléon showed its usefulness during the Crimean War, and pushed the Royal Navy to revise its position towards this new type. Quickly, even during the war, bith navies launched a wave of steam conversions of their fleet, which was in full swing when the war ended in March 1856, with new constructions as well;
In 1859, De Lôme unveiled yet anoher grounbreaking ship, the ironclad frigate Gloire
. Rather small and wooden-hulled, this was no an impressive warship compared to traditional 3-deckers, that could obliterate her by firepower alone - but with the difference they could not, as she was entirely cladded in iron plates. The concept of the "ironclad" (in French "cuirassé") was born. This new ace in Napelon's III fleet game cards was to render obsolete overnight all wooden ships-of-the-line.
Great Britain was already informed of the construction in Toulon by 1858, and started conversions plans of its own, but with even more innovations to boot: The Warrior class indeed was the first all-steel propeller-driven ironclad class, with a tonnage twice as heavier as Gloire. Immediately previous stemahips of the line in conversion were then reconsidered for conversion as Ironclads. All this happened in the span of five years and admiralty had a hard time following the technological ballet. Westminster also made it was clear the Royal Navy needed twice as many Ironclads as France, but still on budget. This led to a mishmash of carefully built, all-iron vessels, but a flurry of slower wooden ships conversions, like HMS Achilles and Minotaur.
French Ironclad Gloire
The French Navy 1856-1870
R. Gardiner Conway's all the world's fighting ships 1860-1905