French Navy 1870

Marine Française 1870 Marine Francaise

Marine Impériale 1870: World’s second largest

The Marine Nationale (French Navy) did not existed yet in 1870 as the name was changed during the installation of the third Republic. Belonging to the Emperor Napoleon III, the French Navy of that time was nevertheless the second world’s largest, in line with grand colonial ambitions (France also had the second largest Empire behind Britain). There were two problems for it to equal -not yet surpass- the British Royal Navy: Bring its industrial power to parity, a very long way ahead as France was still largely a rural economy, and the ever-lasting problem of frontiers with potential adversaries, the more likely being Prussia and Austria-Hungary. The latter forced the use of a strong army, detrimental to the Navy, as Great Britain could divert mire funds to the Navy, including powerful Marine troops forces.

Steamship of the line Austerlitz (engraving by Lebreton).

The French Navy however at that time had everything to be satisfied. In tonnage and technology she largely dwarved any other navies in the world, being equal to the third and fourth navies combined. The Crimean war would show her opposed to the Prussian Navy, way, way below in tonnage. And indeed, fights at sea were very rare. Nonetheless in this British Century of “Pax Britannica”, it was a reminder that naval battles in Europe were quite rare. In the 1860s, at Lissa, both the Italians and Austrians fought however and south America saw one of the largest riverine battle of all times (the victory of Riachuelo). The only naval combat between France and Prussia has been a duel between the gunboats SMS Meteor and the Bouvet. Hardly a grand scale naval battle. Therefore it was of little use for naval historians of the time. But 1870 was interesting anyway for two reasons: The conversion to steam power and ironclads as the new kings of the seas.

Context: The second French Empire

Bretagne 1855
The Bretagne, 130 steamship of the line (1855), showcased in the 1859 naval review, since 1866 a training ship. Painting by Jules Achille Noël (London).

French Innovation

France was able to show the world in 1850 the first purpose-built steam battleship, from one of the most gifted engineers of the age: Henri Dupuy de Lôme. Showing its usefulness during the Crimean War this forced the British Empire to revise its plan and swap to steam power for all its fleet, not to be undone, while the French were equally busy converting or building new large steamship for their fleet.

In 1859, the same engineer stroke again, with a ship that resonated like a thunder-strike in the house of commons: The Gloire was a rather small wooden-hulled frigates of no importance as a warship, but she was entirely cladded in iron plates, making her impervious to cannonballs. The ironclad was born, and thus, the battleship, which would soon make obsolete all classic wooden ships-of-the-line. The idea was showcased by the Secession and Union fleets at war on the other side of the Atlantic, and again at Lissa in the Mediterranean.


If this was not enough, Captain Siméon Bourgeois, associated with builder Charles Brun in 1863 made the first submarine in the world to be propelled by mechanical power. This made France a leader in submarine development overnight and the only field of the three the Royal Navy was slow to recognise and follow. Indeed, Great Britain was not long at converting or building in the 1850s quantities of first rank steamships, and to the Gloire, showed its industrial muscle by building not one, but a pair of giant, revolutionary ships, the first all-metal ironclads, humbling the Gloire. Nevertheless, French naval construction mass-built this model, and others behind. The Gloire was followed by two sister-ships, the Provence class in 1861, Couronne (1861) and Magenta (1861), the latter being the first two gun decks ironclads, but still, wooden-hulled. During these ten years, UK maintained its superiority both in technology and numbers.

In 1870, the French were building the Océan class ironclads. Still wooden-hulled, there were the first however with a central battery, four main guns and iron watertight bulkheads. However in August the war was lost an Napoleon III defeated, but hostilities only ended in May 1871 after negotiations led by the new Government of Adolphe Thiers and the commune in Paris, a civil war.
Also this year saw the launch of the Bélier, followed in 1871 by the Tigre and 1872 by the Bouledogue. The same year also, the French were building at Brest, Rochefort and Toulon the La Galissonière class central battery ironclads, laid down in 1868-69. These 4500-4600 tonnes vessels were less armoured and well armed than regular ironclads and has been assimilated by many authors, like the Alma that preceded them, as armoured “cruisers” though the term was not used then.


Also in 1870 were in construction a serie of 19 composite frigates, all laid down in 1866-69. These were the four Infernet class, the three Sané class, the ten Bourayne class, and Hirondelle. Ranging from 1,100 to 2,000 tonnes, they came from three Atlantic coast yards, Brest, Cherbourg, and Nantes. The Infernet were the last with a clipper bow, the following being fitted with rams. Not armoured, they counted on some large artillery pieces to take their opponents down, and speed. The Bourayne for example had a single 6.4 in BL guns, completed by 5.5 in and small 1-pdr revolver guns. Also, the French were building sloops (others would describe them as gunboats) for their colonial ports, notably the Boursaint, a modified version of the preceding Bruix (launched 1867).

They were also studying replacement for their older gunboats with the future Crocodile class, laid down after the war – The first was launched in 1873. These eight ships were better armed and had a longer range and speed. In 1875, the torpedo would enter French vocabulary and Claparède Yard would create a prototype, called “number one” in 1876. A new era started as these fast and cheap vessels were much simpler than submarines. Indeed, since the plongeur, there was no new prototype before 1888 and the all-electric Gymnôte by engineer Gustave Zédé, a quarter of a century after.

The 110-guns Hoche (ex-Prince Jérôme), steamship of the line.

The war at sea

When the Franco-Prussian war broke out on 19 July 1870, following the famously rewritten dispatch of Ems (by a shrewd Otto Von Bismarck), the Navy was mobilized as well. However there was little she could do to capitalize on her superiority.
Indeed, the French had 17 first rank ironclads (including the ex-US Rochambeau) built to boost the navy, 8 second class ironclads, 12 armored floating batteries (plus 5 older), 2 ironclad rams, 26 modern composite frigates, 8 colonial sloops, 13 gunboats, but also 3 screw three-deckers, 21 screw two-deckers, 12 screw frigates, 8 paddle frigates, 10 screw corvettes, 5 paddle corvettes, 13 screw sloops, 10 paddle sloops and 51 screw gunboats, so 219 modern screw vessels.
To this, the fleet also add at least a part of old sailing fleet (not converted, most gradually reformed after 1860): 8 ships of the line (including the 114 guns Valmy, two 90-guns, three 82 guns, one 80 and one 70 guns), 27 sailing frigates (38 to 56 guns), 12 sailing corvettes (16-22 guns), and 22 brigs, for a total of 69 sailing vessels.
This was a grand total of around 280 ships, and with transports and smaller vessels, about 470 ships in all.

Compared to this, the Prussian navy was alone (as unification of German states was not made yet, and therefore their own fleets). Only the Prussians had a considerable maritime facade.
In 1860 it had just 2 steam corvettes, 3 steam paddle frigates, 2 sailing frigates, 1 sailing corvette, 1 armed yacht, 1 transport, 2 schooners, 42 smaller sailing and rowing vessels and the Royal steamer Viktoria. In all about 55 vessels and 270 guns. However in the last decade preceding 1870, Prussian industries were building-up. In 1865 at last, Prussia took delivery of a former British ironclad ram made for the Confederates and resold after the latter lost the war: SMS Prinz Adalbert, joined in 1865 by Arminius and the French-built Friedrich Carl in 1867, the British-built Kronprinz and König Wilhelm in 1867-69, so five armoured vessels, including three large sea-going ones. The Prussian fleet also added to this 5 screw frigates and 4 screw corvettes, with more in construction, plus the 15 Jäger and 8 Chamaleon class gunboats. This made for a total of 91 vessels, which was not ridicule, but nowhere near what was necessary to beat the French at sea, despite the fact the French had spread their forces between their extensive colonial empire (notably in Chinese waters), and the main port of Brest and Toulon in the Mediterranean.

To access Prussian waters, the French needed to access the Baltic via the Skagerrak strait, guarded by neutral Denmark and watched over by Sweden and Norway as well. But they could have setup a naval blockade for the limited merchant traffic of Prussia with the rest of the world, notably the Americas. This was of limited reach, but Napoleon III took the decision to make one, inspired by many other examples, including the recent Union blockade against the Confederacy.

The North German coast was blockaded and this lasted for most of the war. The Prussian Navy could attempted to break it with its three large ironclads but they showed with engine troubles and only SMS Arminius made sorties. The French fleet was gone when at last the Prussian ironclads were in order again. The blockade was at least partially successful, but not totally due to many oversights.

Indeed, reservists of the navy that were needed in case of war were by then working in Newfoundland fisheries and Scotland. Only part of the blockading navy was ready on 24 July. Moreover, the French navy ran short of coal, with a need for 200 short tons (180 t) per day and limited bunker capacity in the fleet. Wilhelmshaven was not blockaded efficiently whereas conflicting orders for the Baltic Sea fleet made things harder. French naval efforts therefore came to nil. Coal shortages were so bad that only sailing ships could be able to chase blockade-runners, so much steamers frequent chases at the beginning of the blockade had depleted their reserves.

French Fleet 1870

Napoleon III however had another plan for the navy. In order to relieve pressure, the high command planned a seaborne invasion of northern Germany. The French expected this invasion to relieve pressure and divert troops, but also to encourage Denmark to take a revenge and divert even more troops in this area. At the time Denmark still had about 50,000 men and sizeable Royal Danish Navy.

Alas, French intelligence was weak and it was reported later that Prussia just recently built significant defences around main North German ports, with long range, Krupp heavy coastal artillery, capable of battling French vessels at 4,000 yards (3,700 m), double the range of the best French naval guns. The French Navy was therefore found unable to engage these coastal defences. The French admiralty also argued that the German topography in this area made a seaborne invasion impossible.

In view of these developments, the plans were dropped, and French Marines and naval infantry were reallocated to to the army of Châlons. They were later captured at Sedan along with the Emperor. To compound this, most navy officers were captured like the rest of the professional French army at the Siege of Metz and later at Sedan. Naval officers indeed were recruited to command reservists of the Garde Mobile at home after the losses. Autumn storms in the North Sea also forced the return of the remainder of blockading French ships, which gradually dwindled until September 1870, where it was completed halted for the winter. The fleet therefore stayed in ports for the rest of the war.

The corvette Dupleix

Meanwhile, in Pacific and Caribbean, the French corvette Dupleix located the German corvette SMS Hertha in Nagasaki and blockaded her for the remainder of the war, whereas at Havana the same situation took place between the Prussian gunboat SMS Meteor and the French aviso Bouvet. But this time, as both ships were of equal class, a duel was proposed, and accepted, which took place in November 1870 in Cuban waters and ideal conditions.

Meteor vs Bouvet
Painting of the duel of the Meteor vs Bouvet, November 1870, painted by Robert Parlow in 1892.

This was the “battle of Havana” (9 novembre 1870) which ended as a draw, and was the only fair fight between vessels of both nations at sea during this short war.
read more: The French however saw this as a victory since they badly damaged the Prussian ship’s rigging and in effect maintained the blockade effective until the end of the war, avoiding the latter preying on French merchant traffic.

Read More:
R. Gardiner Conway’s all the world’s fighting ships 1860-1905

French Ironclads 1870

Gloire class



Provence class

Océan class class

On 21 July 1870, just as the war started, the first of three ironclads was completed.

French armoured cruisers


Alma class

French Coast Defence ships 1870

Palestro class

Arrogante class

Embuscade class

Taureau (ironclad ram)

Cerbère class ironclad rams

French composite frigates 1870

Armorique class

Cosmao class



Vénus class





Limier class

French corvettes & gunboats 1870

Curieux class sloops

Adonis class sloops

Guichen class sloops


Bruix class sloops

Pique class gunboats

Etendard class gunboats