French Navy 1870-1890

The French Navy in 1890

About 160 ships, world’s second largest navy

International context

Prior to the 1898 war which saw an old European Empire crumbling when facing a young upstart, the world order was very much shaped by navies, reflecting the ambitions, aspirations or capabilities of their countries, often decades old. In 1890, old Europe was content maintaining the old status quo under the Victorian “Pax Britannica”: The Royal Navy ruled the seven seas, twice as large to any contender, and its old rival, the French Navy, rebuilding its strenght to contest the British on the globa sphere, with an unstoppable colonial drive. In 1890 also in Europe, Spain maintained perhaps the second largest navy after Italy, followed by a unified German Empire on the path of radical increase. The naval dominance of Europe however was now contested, on both sides of the hemisphere: In Asia, the Beyiang fleet was in full modernization and grew to the largest fleet in Asia, contested by Japan, another upstart that was gearing up towards a larger, modern fleet under guidance of the French. On te American continent, outside the rivalry between Brazil, Argentina and Chile, the United States was putting an end to its “old fleet” inherited from the cival war and starting to create a modern navy, under the guidance of Mahan.

⚠ Note: This post is in writing.

Relations with Great Britain


Bouvines present when a British squadron visited Brest in the late 1890s

Relations with “perfid albion” (the nickname given to Great Britain by the French at the time) were neither cold not too hot; The internal bickering of the 3rd Republic seemed inocuous to Buckingham, less so than in the 1860-1870 with a Napoleon in power (the third). They however kept a watchful eye on developing alliances and bouts of French nationalism (like General Boulanger’s sudden popularity in 1886), as well as France’s unrelentless colonial drive, which would end with the Fachoda crisis in 1898. And of course its industrial development and military innovations, like the Devastation in 1879, world’s first all-steel and largest central battery ship even built.

Before 1890, there was no such thing as an “entente cordiale”, only occasional partneships with common interests like for the Crimean war. The defeat of 1870 was received with mixed feelings at 10, Downing Street. On one hand, a Napoleon was out again, and the old rival lost its power and prestige in continental Europe. On the other hand, this was counterbalance by a growing upstart from a former ally during the Napoleonic era, Prussia, now creating an Empire driven by industrial might and colonial ambitions, which changed the balance of power in Europe.

The traditional France-Russia-Austria troika found equilibrium, but this new Empire drawn to it all Germanophones of Europe, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and even a recently independent Italy. The new “central empires” axis was born. Naturally to this vertically-ordered axis, Great Britain found an alliance with France (after all, a buffer against Germany) preferrable, even though the latter choose the Russian Empire to counterbalance this axis to the east, relations of the latter with Great Britain in the 1880-90s decade remaining icy.

All these alliances, creating a cross throughout Europe, was like an ominous sign of the developments leading to WWI, with the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration in the equation. Despite some ease in 1891 with a famous goodwill visit (see below), in 1898, the “Fashoda Incident”, on the remote upper reaches of the White Nile, was an event close to provoke war between the two. In 1905, the Russian Navy sank by error a bunch of British trawlers while underway to the Mediterranean, and the pacific fleet. At the time, Imperial Russia was France’s objective ally to counterbalance the central empires, while the British Empire allied with Japan (before the war). A complex order which shifted again during the 1912 Balkan war and ended with the current 1914 alliances.


Colbert, photo by Neurdein


Ocean by F.Roux


Ocean, by Neurdein


Coastal Battleship Valmy (color postcard)

The Marine Nationale in 1890


The strange battleship Hoche, perhaps one of the most typical product of the young school, built during the 1881-1890 decade.

Reeling from the 1870s defeat, France’s third Republic took a decade to modernize its largely untapped fleet, notably under the guise of a new fad that dominated its naval thinking: Theories of the “Jeune Ecole” (“young school”) – see later. This was an interesting decade, France transitioning to masted central battery ships to barbette ships, but already taking the path of experimentation, a large fleet of cruisers for home and colonial waters, a coast defence component, and sloops, gunboats and misc. ships in abundance. Like the Royal Navy, the Marine Nationale also kept its older hulls, basically all its old ironclads, most being wooden-hulled, were still in limited service as utility hulks and pontoons, as well as still many of its older steamships of the line.


The Redoutable in 1889. One of the world’s Largest masted central battery ship, and first built in steel, when launched in 1879.

After the Napoleon in 1850, first steamship of the line, the Gloire in 1859, first sea-going ironclad, the 1863 Plongeur, first pneumatic-powered submarine, France’s engineers were still pushing the envelope and in 1875 was laid down a class of massive ships, the 10,450 tonnes central battery ships of the Devastation class, followed by armoured barbette ships, the ancestors of the turret battleships. Still, these ships were few in numbers and did not represented a numerical threat to the Royal Navy. Instead of competing on the same level, France, a continental country bound to keep a massive standing army driven by its revanchard spirit (revenge for the 1870 defeat), was obliged unlike Great Britain and its infinitely superior industrial output and finances, to divert large funds from the Navy to the Army.

In the year 1890, France had five modern battleships in construction, most of which will not see WWI: Hoche (started 1881), the Marceau class (started 181-83), and Brennus (1889) the first of a new serie of pre-dreadnoughts that defined the French Navy in 1908. On the cruisers side, famous engineer Dupuy de Lôme innovated by proposing the Navy staff his 1887 design of a completely armoured commerce raider designed to prey on commerce (either British or German): Arguably the world’s first armoured cruiser, named after his inventor passed out. Many more were to follow, like the Amiral Charner class (all laid down 1889-1890). These were a complete departure of the old masted barbette and central battery ships of the 1870s-early 1880s still in service.


The revolutionary Dupuy de Lôme, first armoured cruiser (launched October 1890).

Alongside these, France also built “classic” protected or unprotected cruisers inherited from its 1860s frigates. France’s first protected cruiser was Sfax, launched 1884, and followed by single vessels: Amiral Cecille, Tage, Davout, Suchet, but also the Forbin, Troude and Alger class, all built in the 1880s for a total of 14 cruisers. The first were masted vessels, transitioning to heavy military mast ships in the 1890s. Alongside there was a considerable list of Colonial masted cruisers in service, the Talisman, Résolue, Decrès, Desaix and Limier class, Chateaurenault and Linois, Infernet, Sané, Bourayne and Rigault de Genouilly class, Hirondell and Duguay-Trouin, the large Duquesne and Tourville, Lapérouse and Villars classes, Iphigénie, Naiade, Aréthuse, Dubourdieu and Milan. These made for a total of 53 cruisers. More on these early French cruisers on the dedicated WWI French cruisers page. Milan was built quickly as a light scout, unlike capital ships between 1882 and 1885, but also she was the last French unprotected cruiser. From then on, France concentrated on Protected and later armoured cruisers. The Navy only went back to these light cruisers in 1912, planning a class of scouts that was eventually never constructed (to be continued).

Dupleix in China, 1886
Dupleix in China, 1886
Amiral Cecille
Amiral Cecille


⚠ Note: This post is in writing. Completion expected later in 2022.

Articles to cover (In service by 1890 and/or discarded before 1914)

Battleships

Friedland Central Battery ship (1873)
Richelieu Central Battery ship (1873)
Colbert class Central Battery ships (1875)
Redoutable Central Battery ship (1876)
Courbet class Central Battery ships (1879)
Amiral Duperre barbette ship (1879)
Terrible class barbette ships (1883)
Amiral Baudin class barbette ships (1883)
Barbette ship Hoche (1886)
Marceau class barbette ships (1888)

Coast Defence Ships

Cerbere class armoured ram (1870)
Tonnerre class Breastwork Monitors (1875)
Tempete class Breastwork Monitors (1876)
Tonnant Barbette ship (1880)
Furieux Barbette ship (1883)
Fusee class Armoured Gunboats (1885)
Acheron class Armoured Gunboats (1885)
Jemmapes class Coastal Defense ships (1892)
Bouvines class Coastal Defense ships (1892)

Protected Cruisers

La Galissonière Cent. Bat. Ironclads (1872)
Bayard class barbette ships (1879)
Vauban class barbette ships (1882)
Prot. Cruiser Sfax (1884)
Prot. Cruiser Tage (1886)
Prot. Cruiser Amiral Cécille (1888)
Prot. Cruiser Davout (1889)
Forbin class Cruisers (1888)
Troude class Cruisers (1888)
Alger class Cruisers (1891)
Friant class Cruisers (1893)
Prot. Cruiser Suchet (1893)
Descartes class Cruisers (1893)
Linois class Cruisers (1896)
D’Assas class Cruisers (1896)
Catinat class Cruisers (1896)

Light Cruisers

R. de Genouilly class Cruisers (1876)
Cruiser Duquesne (1876)
Cruiser Tourville (1876)
Cruiser Duguay-Trouin (1877)
Laperouse class Cruisers (1877)
Villars class Cruisers (1879)
Cruiser Iphigenie (1881)
Cruiser Naiade (1881)
Cruiser Arethuse (1882)
Cruiser Dubourdieu (1884)
Cruiser Milan (1884)

Sloops, Gunboats and Misc.

Parseval class sloops (1876)
Bisson class sloops (1874)
Epee class gunboats (1873)
Crocodile class gunboats (1874)
Tromblon class gunboats (1875)
Condor class Torpedo Cruisers (1885)
G. Charmes class gunboats (1886)
Inconstant class sloops (1887)
Bombe class Torpedo Cruisers (1887)
Wattignies class Torpedo Cruisers (1891)
Levrier class Torpedo Cruisers (1891)

The Young School

(More to come)

1891 Goodwill visit to Britain

There were rare, intermittent and usually short times in the 900 years-long tumultous relations between Britain and France and just 40 years after the fall of Napoleon in 1815 (a generation) Britain and France (with Piedmont) intervened to save Turkey from the Russians in the Crimean War in 1854-56, with mutual suspicions relaxed. Until 1890, Buckingham still saw France a first rate threat, with Russia a close second. Coastal fortifications in addition of the Navy were constantly bolstered and a naval arms race ongoing since 1860. In 1891, there was however a surprising gesture of good will:

In this period of lowered tension, a French Naval squadron was sent by order of the government (President Sadi Carnot, PM Charles de Freycinet, both moderate anglophiles) to make a marking goodwill visit to Britain, at times it was rare. This was an event of first magnitude at the time, a novelty marked by a reiew given by Queen Victoria herself. This event was in some way identical to the 1858 similar Britsh visit to France in the aftermath of the Crimean War. In 1959, France launched an arms race and relationed became icy again. Paintings and illustrations showed just how spectacularly naval technology advanced during these 30 years.

This 1891 French visit to Britain trigerred a massive interest, especially as it was in the great anchorage of Spithead, facing Portsmouth, at the time, the main Royal Navy base, surrounded by massive fortifications in the 1860-70s. This arrival in Portsmouth in August 1891 saw Marengo (an obsolete wooden ironclad) leading the French line with, Requin and Marceau and Surcouf on the wing. The Illustrated London News depicted a grand event and the French squadron was flanked by the most modern British battleships of the time, like the HMS Camperdown, later famously rammed HMS Victoria in the Mediterranean in an infamous incident.

The Requin was one of the latest French coast defence ironclad, but the jewel ws rather the brand new Marceau of 1887.

Officers and specialists from both sides happily visited each others’ ships and gauge respective technology and organisations. The Spectator magazine (22nd August 1891) commented in detail about the French mounting of heavy guns compared to British barbettes and personnel/officers differences, like the comparatively larger crews. With French embarrassment, the cruiser Surcouf ran aground and was assisted by British seamen and marines. It was still equipped with a capstan rather than a steam winch, whereas new French designs already made the swap, and long before in the RN.

The “Spectator” newspaper admitted the French engine-room crews seemed to show a marked superiority in education and intelligence compared to british stokers and assistants and the officers are educated gentlemen ‘brimful of the latest theories of naval war and practice and, exceedingly competent in the practical management of their ships’. This was demonstrated by a show of squadron manoeuvers in Portsmouth.

But the visit highpoint was of course the official visit by Queen Victoria. A complete contrast with the fleet she visited at Cherbourg in 1858. In 1891 the younger officers present, both British and French, would learn that the rapprochement ten years latter (despite Fachoda) would lead to the entente cordiale, and agreements between the fleet against the central empires prior to 1914 to who was in charge of the Mediterranean and the north sea/atlantic coast. Both Navies fought as allies in WWI and WWII as well, despite the sad episode of Mers-el-Kebir that soured relations with the Vichy Government (to which the Navy, Army and Air Force obeyed) until late 1942 and Darlan’s swap.

Read More/Src

The French Navy’s goodwill visit to Britain in 1891


French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part I
French Navy: 1870s to 1904 Part II
https://alexcolorsstudio.home.blog/ many colorized 19th cent. French warships

French ironclads

Friedland Central Battery ironclad (1873)



Richelieu Central Battery ironclad (1873)



Colbert class Central Battery ironclads (1875)



Redoutable Central Battery ironclads (1876)



Courbet class Central Battery ironclads (1879)



Amiral Duperre barbette ironclad (1879)



Terrible class barbette ironclads (1883)



Amiral Baudin class barbette ironclads (1883)



Barbette ship Hoche (1886)



Marceau class barbette ironclads (1888)



French Coastal armoured ships

Cerbere class armoured ram (1870)



Tonnerre class Breastwork Monitors (1875)



Tempete class Breastwork Monitors (1876)



Tonnant Barbette ship (1880)



Furieux Barbette ship (1883)



Fusee class Armoured Gunboats (1885)



Acheron class Armoured Gunboats (1885)



Jemmapes class Coastal Defense ships (1892)



Bouvines class Coastal Defense ships (1892)


French Protected Cruisers

La Galissonière Cent. Bat. Ironclads (1872)



Bayard class barbette ships (1879)



Vauban class barbette ships (1882)



Prot. Cruiser Sfax (1884)



Prot. Cruiser Tage (1886)



Prot. Cruiser Amiral Cécille (1888)



Prot. Cruiser Davout (1889)



Forbin class Cruisers (1888)



Troude class Cruisers (1888)



Alger class Cruisers (1891)



Friant class Cruisers (1893)



Prot. Cruiser Suchet (1893)



Descartes class Cruisers (1893)



Linois class Cruisers (1896)



D’Assas class Cruisers (1896)



Catinat class Cruisers (1896)


French Unarmored Cruisers

R. de Genouilly class Cruisers (1876)



Cruiser Duquesne (1876)



Cruiser Tourville (1876)



Cruiser Duguay-Trouin (1877)



Laperouse class Cruisers (1877)



Villars class Cruisers (1879)



Cruiser Iphigenie (1881)



Cruiser Naiade (1881)



Cruiser Arethuse (1882)



Cruiser Dubourdieu (1884)



Cruiser Milan (1884)


French small ships

Parseval class sloops (1876)



Bisson class sloops (1874)



Epee class gunboats (1873)



Crocodile class gunboats (1874)



Tromblon class gunboats (1875)



Condor class Torpedo Cruisers (1885)



G. Charmes class gunboats (1886)



Inconstant class sloops (1887)



Bombe class Torpedo Cruisers (1887)



Wattignies class Torpedo Cruisers (1891)



Levrier class Torpedo Cruisers (1891)