French Navy 1914

La Royale

An introduction: Origins to the XIXth Century
“La Royale”, literally, “The Royal” (navy) is still the old nickname of the French Navy today -the most conservative of the three army branches- dating back from Francis the 1st, then in open rivalry with Henry VIII, it was later expanded and formalized in 1624 by Cardinal of Richelieu (Louis XIII) and later by able ministers of Louis XIV, Colbert in particular. With the revolution, most of the officers (appointed nobles) were comprehensively guillotined or fled the country. Under Napoleon, the Navy was in poor shape due to neglect and had to ally with the the Spanish Armada. This was disaster first at Abukir then Trafalgar in some of the most defining moments of British history and fateful for the world.

Battle of Virginia Capes
Battle of Virginia Capes (Chesapeake), 1782. The Franco-British Naval Rivalry was about empire building worldwide in the XVIIIth century, and one of its consequences was the birth of the United States.

The French fleet had been in the XVIIth and even more at the time of the seven years war (under louis XV) arguably on par with the Royal Navy at least in terms of numbers. Admiral De Grasse intervention on the Chesapeake bay and Yorktown famously helped George’s Washington’s army besieging Lord Cornwallis which had to surrender, giving in effect the United States its independence. However, after the Napoleonic Wars, despite of light constructions, it has fallen well behind its former glory. The situation was long maintained to a gradual return to “half-parity” and the industrial revolution, but the French Navy was still well above most countries at that time, many small divided kingdoms (Italy, Germany etc.).

Napoleon, the first screw-propelled steamship of the line (cc)

In the 1830s was invented the Paixhans gun, an explosive shell that quickly proved devastating (battle of Vera Cruz 1838) and was widely adopted as a standard. In 1849, talented naval engineer Dupuy De Lôme created the first sea-going first steam-propelled ship of the line, the Napoleon, screw-propelled. It was tested in Crimea, as well as armoured floating batteries. The Royal Navy was not long to follow and both navies launched in a frenzy of steamships constructions or reconversions until the 1870s. In between, De Lôme stroke again, with the first sea-going ironclad, the Gloire in 1859, and revealed later a working submarine, the Plongeur (“Plunger”) in 1863.
Given the state of French naval industry at that stage, the Gloire was only a modest converted frigate, cladded with armour plates from the waterline to the upper deck over the wooden hull.

Ironclad La Gloire
Engraving of the first sea going ironclad La Gloire, 1859. (cc)

The British already gathered crucial intelligence on the matter and launched the HMS warrior, the first sea-going all-metal ironclad. Soon a new arms race began, the one that will led to ww1 battleships. Later on in 1876, France would launch the first all-steel battleship, Le redoutable, and in 1887, the Dupuy de lôme, claimed to be the first modern armoured cruiser.
France’s mindset was influenced largely by the Republican ideology, positivism, great confidence in science. Victorian Great Britain and the other hand, had a practical fleet made as large as all other navies combined, and in general much more conservative and pragmatic in its approach to innovation.

La Guerriere frigate in the Tonkin 1866
La Guerriere, frigate in the Tonkin 1866 (cc)

The French Navy prior to the Great War
Much to the dismay of Admiral Boué de Lapeyrère, seconded by Durand-Viel, the French Navy started to re-emerge in 1912 from a long eclipse, a poor state which saw it fall to the 4th rank. In between the American, Russian, German, and Japanese Navy all raised to new levels. What happened ? First off, internal reasons prevented either a strong coordination or strong will as this period following the fall of the second empire (Franco-prussian War) and the Paris Commune in 1870, was strife with political instability.

Indeed the third republic was a parliamentary regime plagues by weak governments and fragile alliances in perpetual recomposition. The waltz of ministerial offices and therefore the secretariats in the Navy there were many in the turnaround of the technical choices and orientations. Indeed decisions were taken, to be later cancelled. Added to this the “Jeune école” (“Young School”) largely theorized naval warfare aspects, traducing into singular battleships and cruisers, to the point that the french fleet in the 1880-1890s was called by derision the “prototypes navy”.
Battleship Vauban
Ironclad Vauban (1882) – Coll. Musee de la marine

There was indeed no real coherence or true classes, despite a distinctive “French style” of battleships. Characteristic with their four single-guns, two main caliber turrets in lozenge, thick military masts, narrow hulls with large tumble homes, tall superstructures…

The “Hoche” nicknamed “Grand Hotel”. France entered the war in 1914 with an ageing “fleet of prototypes” of dubious military value compared to the standards of the time. The Hoche was perhaps the most mocked by cartoonists. “What a splendid Target” was presumably said by Kaiser Wilhelm II (1895) then a host at a French Naval Review.

While all other navies followed the British Navy with coherent class of uniform ships, stable with full hulls, low profile, and two double turrets of a single caliber. Production of armour cruisers and cruisers fared not much better, however it was a field that leverage this up: French torpedo boats program, which was quite successful with large coherent class of coastal and sea going models. The blind faith in the revolutionary theories of Young School, led to abandon construction of series of battleships to move towards a destroyers and TBs-based fleet, able to deal with the Royal Navy in an unconventional way.

Le Redoutable Brest
Ironclad Le Redoutable 1876 in Brest – credits: Photo Neurdein – Histoire de la Marine française illustrée, Larousse, 1934.

Despite of all this, in 1914, the French navy still was sure of its power, modernism and effectiveness. By tonnage, in 1885-1895, she was second in the world. As “warming” relationships and collaborations with arch-enemy UK took place, the two marines were still compared as late as 1904, but naval experts rather looked toward the three major rising powers, the German Reich, the US and Japan. It was time to put a breakpoint in these experiments and to return to a traditional standardized fleet in 1904, secured by the signing of the Entente Cordiale between the two old foes.
French Battleship Justice (1906)
French Battleship Justice (1906) at anchor in the USA – credits USN National Archives

France could then turn to the defense of its colonial empire and take better account of the rising threats in the Mediterranean, the Italian and Austro-Hungarian fleet. But encased in its certainties, instability and waste of public funds, the situation of the navy still at its lowest. In 1906, the first time in years, UK was taking a technological advantage in presenting the Dreadnought.
However by 1908 previous designs in construction were already obsolete, whereas in 1910, the French navy still do not possessed any dreadnoughts or battle cruisers, nut instead a collection of old battleships and cruisers, slow and poorly protected. The only tangible progress came with the late pre-dreadnought of the homogeneous class Patrie, république and Danton, which arrived too late.

In 1909, Admiral Boue de Lapeyrère, who had had every opportunity to decry the carelessness that had brought down France fourth naval rank, arrived at the Ministry and managed to get his massive plan naval rearmament approved. He Focused on the rapid modernization of the fleet. The plan, which was voted in 1912, involved the construction of 28 dreadnoughts, 10 fast light cruisers (scouts), 52 destroyers, 94 submarines and and 10 gunboats and corvettes. The plan theoretical completion was scheduled in 1920, but was abruptly stopped by August 1914.
This plan included the Courbet class battleships, but also the Bretagne, Normandy and Lyon, the last to be completed between 1916 and 1918-1919. The first adopted the “standard” 305 mm caliber, the second 340 mm and the latest 356 mm. The first two classes were completed in time to be thrown into the fire, but the other were cut short by the consequences of the the 1921 Washington Treaty.

Battleship Courbet in Toulon, modernized in 1932, Illustration by Francis T. Hunter, Coll. Beatty, Jellicoe, Sims & Rodman. (cc)

In August 1914, France returned with a navy composed of old and mismatched ships, but crews were well trained and of high morale despite the poor consideration of the navy, that always passed in second behind the Army. Best proof that without the construction plan being canceled, shipyard workers joined the front, or were converted to the production of guns and shells. The plan had to resume in 1918, but at that date, naval strategy already has gone great lengths the planned ships were already somewhat outdated in design.

Fleet composition in 1914


The workforce of this high sea fleet included 25 modern battleships, but only 4 dreadnoughts of the Courbet class, the last (Paris) was being tested at the time of Sarajevo assassination. The three Bretagne were then under construction. The rest of capital ships consisted of pre-dreadnoughts, 6 Danton (1909-1910), the 3 Liberté (1904-1905), 2 République (1903). (Liberté was sunk in 1911 following a boiler explosion, and Jena for the same reasons in 1907).

Battleship Carnot in completion and engines trials – Alexandre Bougault coll. (18 January 1896), Engraving by A Bell – L’Illustration, 18 January 1896, No. 2760, p 53. University of California/Hathitrust

Beyond this, is the realm of “collection”. No ship can indeed be formally attached to a particular class, as all differ on armaments, machinery, armour, superstructures arrangements… By chronological order were found the Suffren (1899), the three Charlemagne (roughly similar, 1896), Bouvet (1896), Massena (1895), Jaureguiberry (1893), Carnot (1894), Charles Martel (1893), Brennus (1891), and reserve ships Marceau, Magenta, Neptune, Hoche (1886-1890), thus not counted, but maintained to be quickly serviceable just in case …

French Cruiser Renan
French Cruiser Ernest Renan at full speed circa 1909 – Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers. Washington, DC: R. Beresford. 21. 1909 (cc)

Armoured Cruisers:

The French fleet in 1914 totalled 19 armoured cruisers, however much more vulnerable than their name let suppose, especially for underwater protection. Most were conceived before the entente cordiale, destined to lead commerce raiding against the British Merchant lines. Nineteen were in operation, which constituted a more homogeneous classes. These were the two Edgar Quinet (1907), Ernest Renan (1906), Jules Michelet (1905), the three Gambetta (1901-03), the four Gloire (1900-1902), the three Dupleix (1900-1902), the three Gueydon (1900), Joan of Arc (1899), Pothuau (1895); The three Admiral Charner (1892-1894) in reserve, and the Dupuy de Lôme.

Protected Cruisers:

These were ten protected cruisers in all, quite old for most (pre-1900) and especially heterogeneous, surviving ships from classes of three units. In 1914 these were the Jurien de la Gravière (1899), Estrées, Chateaurenault, Guichen, D’Entrecasteaux, Cassard, Du Chayla, and Descartes. The Friant was in reserve, as well as Lavoisier, Cosmao and Surcouf, in theory too old to serve effectively (1888-1892), but the Friant and Lavoisier were soon back again into active service after the war erupted such was the lack of ships.

coastal battleships:

Built following the strict coastal defensive stance of the “Young school” these units were almost scaled down battleships, still with heavy caliber pieces. This included the Bouvines (1893), all the others being removed from service because of their age. However the three ancient ironclads of the Terrible class (1881-1885), were removed from the reserve after the war broke out, were completely rebuilt and returned as fire support ships in the Mediterranean.

Seaplane carrier La Foudre
Seaplane carrier La Foudre, an innovative vessel first built as a torpedo-boat mothership. Public Domain (cc)


From concepts dating back to 1885, these ships were of little use in 1914. Many of those who remained in service as gunboats overseas. 6 were active, the two Dunois (1897), (school ship or artillery support), the three D’Iberville, (two used as mine-layers) and La Foudre, a strange torpedo-boat carrier/mothership developed by the young school but not followed by any other navy. At the time or operated as such, she could embark 8 small TBs. It was converted into a a seaplane carrier in 1911, the first of its kind.

TB Destroyers:

Many but of too modest tonnage to venture out of the Mediterranean, these vessels could be compared to the oceanic TBDs of the Germans rather than the British ones. In service were units of the Bisson (6) class, Bouclier (12), Chasseur (4), Voltigeur (2), Spahi (7), dating from 1909, to which were added by August 9, 1914 the four Adventurier built for Argentina and requisitioned. There were also the Branlebas class (10) Claymore (13), Arquebuse (20), Pertuisane (4), Framee (3) and Durandal (3). This total represented 80 ships, but some figures states of 85 units, as we could include 4 requisitioned in 1914, but that only goes for 84.

French Navy 1914
French Navy 1914

Torpedo Boats:

First are the modern “high seas TBs” powerful and fast, the Mistral (6), Cyclone (5), and the old Forban, Ariel, Aquilon, Arverne, and Chevalier. Actual destroyers are present in homogeneous, impressive numbers: 75 units of type “38 meters” (1905-1908), 92 of the type “37 meters” (1897-1904) type. Yet this figure is much lower in reality, as between 20 and 50 because many units were withdrawn from the lists and placed in reserve. The ‘126’, which included two classes of 25 and 29 units (1891 to 1895), and 15 of the 35 meter type (1890), had all been removed from the lists, but two remained active, N ° 133 and 158. in total this torpedo force should have been between 100 and 120 units in 1914, all for defensive postings in the French Rivieria.


In this area, the French were pioneers, although not alone: Whether one thinks of the Spanish Ictíneo I (1860s), the Turtle of Bushnell (1760s), the Faidy sub-bicycle (1830), the Confederate Hunley (1863), among others. Engineer Drzewiecky from Russia, and Laubeuf and Zédé for France were instrumental in this quest, as John Holland was for the Americans and the British. Two schools for thinking, two approaches existed. The Anglo-Saxon one which defined a “true” submarine, as fast underwater as in surface and capable to go deep, and the French and Russian schools preferred instead a “submersible TB”.

Submarine Narval – Public Domain (cc)

Maxime Laubeuf in particular won an important contract and secured his model for the years to come, the Narval (“Narwhal”), as fast as a TB in surface, but capable to dive quickly and operate underwater for some time, although at slower speeds than the complex Holland types. It allowed to focus less on complex submersion techniques to manufacture destroyers equipped with fillable ballast tanks with air compression systems, electric installation.

Such was influential this design (There was a “before” and “after” the Narval, as most models, including those of Holland, were at least inspired by it at some degree.) that the Germans soon purchased it to produce their first U-boats under licence. This type eventually won and generalized worldwide. The “true submarine” type however will make a return in Germany at the end of the war with the Type XIV and Type XXI, which prefigurated postwar subs until the arrival of the nuclear power.

Gustave Zede
Gustave Zédé, experimental submarine (1894), launched at Toulon. (cc) Public Domain

Less known is the fact than in France, prior to 1914, these two visions existed and competed, encouraged by the Young School. This generated a number of patents of complex engineering and systems which reliability was sometimes questionable. History clearly grants Laubeuf the merit of the first effective, reliable and modern French submersible. The Narval was revolutionary, and won from a subscription, a public contest in 1899.

She was not on the lists in 1909, but deserves attention as well as the old “plongeur” (1863) mentioned higher, closer to a confederate “david” than a real submarine, while the Gymnôte (1888), built by Gustave Zédé, introduced the fins allowing it to dive. It was followed by submersible Zédé by Romazotti, named after the former engineer (1893), the Morse in 1899, followed by the X, Y and Z in 1904-1905.

In 1914, French submarines were quite heterogeneous, combining various classes of ships designed by Laubeuf, Zédé, Romazotti, Maugas, Bertin, and Petithomme. To simplify things let’s talk first about the series: These were the Sirène (4), Farfadet (4), Morse (2), but mostly 20 “Naïade” (widely criticized, they were overly complex and utterly unreliable, accumulating fatal accidents to the point of being nicknamed “Noyade” (“drawning”) by derision by their crews).

They were relatively old (1901-1905), and coastal. Also were commissioned the two Egret (1904), two Circe (1907), six Emerald (1907-1908), 18 Pluviôse (1907-1909), 16 Brumaire (1911 to 1912), the two Clorinde (1913) and Zédé II (1914). To this must be added the Omega prototypes (1905), the single Archimedes, Mariotte, Admiral Bourgeois, Charles Brown (1909-1910). Others will be constructed during the conflict.

gunboat zelee
Zelee in 1912. She would fight the Emden in Papeete, French Polynesia – Public Domain (cc)


This category included three composite gunboats of the Surprise class (1895-1899), of which the Zélée was opposed to the cruiser Emden, and the composite corvette Kersaint (1897), plus the 2 riverine gunboats of the Vigilante class (1900), operating in China, as well as the Doudart de la Grée (1909), and scores of other local small units located in Indochina and China, as the Pei Ho (1901), Doucet (1886) and Jasquin (1884).

Tonnage in 1914:

  • 26 Battleships
  • 35 Cruisers
  • 84 Destroyers
  • 120 Destroyers
  • 120 TBs
  • 83 Submarines
  • 32 Misc. ships

Part II – Wartime Constructions:

As previously reported, France chooses to strip its shipyards from workers, send on the front line or to manufacture ammunitions (until women replaced them). The activity did not came to a standstill, however, as progress for planned ships continued at a weak pace, often giving way to guns and ammunition manufactured for the front.

Battleship of the Lion class design. With a 16 x 340 mm broadside, these would have bring much more steel on the target than the British Revenge or Queen Elisabeth class. None was ever completed. We can only dream of what if they had been so, moreover modernized in the 1930s.

The constructions of the 1912 ambitious plan continued, and so the Bretagne class of which three were launched in 1915 and 1916 were followed by the five Normandy, well advanced in 1918. But the Washington Treaty and its limitation to 175 000 tonnes for France, condemned them. They could have been chosen to replace the four obsolescent Courbet class, but those were not the choices made, and the most advanced of all, the Béarn, would be later converted into an aircraft carrier. There would have been followed by the impressive Lyon class (16 x 340 mm main guns in four quadruple turrets). There were also battle cruisers projects, designed by engineer Gilles in 1913 and planned for 1914, or those of Durand-Viel, planned for 1915-1916 but which remained as paper projects.

The French cruisers were already outdated in 1914. No new construction in this area had been undertaken since 1903, although the 1912 plan included 12 “scouts”, in line with the kind of ships launched by other marines, very fast and well armed. The class prototype, to be named Lamotte-Picquet, was scheduled for 1915, but the order never came. So, the name will be revived for the next three light cruisers of 1922-1923.

As smaller, less-work intensive ships, a single yard managed to deliver the two Enseigne Roux and Enseigne Gabolde. But the lack of manpower led France to buy 12 Japanese destroyers of the Kaba class, rename Arab class, loaned in 1917.

By contrast, submersible construction fared much better with the release of 6 Amphitrite (1915 -16), 3 Bellone (1915-1917), 2 Dupuy de Lome (1915-1916), of 2 Diane (1915), 2 Joessel (1915), 4 Lagrange (1917), 3 Armide (1916 ) and after the armistice of 3 O’Byrne (1919), Maurice Callot (1921) and Pierre Chailley (1921).

However, production and conversion of escort units was entrusted to private civilian yards, rescuing a number of small vessels, but also conventional arsenals, including Lorient, Cherbourg, Rochefort, La Seyne (Toulon). Entering service during the war were 6 corvettes of the Marne class (1916-1917), 30 Amiens (1916-1917), the 2 Ailette, 3 Scarpe, 6 Dubourdieu, and Flamand (1917-1918); Gunboats such as the 23 Ardent (1916-1917) class, 9 Luronne/Friponne (1917-1918), the 2 Valiant (1918).

Also were built minesweepers, of the classes Harrow, Granite and Alabaster (16 units), 17 submarine hunters type C101 at the end of the war in 1918-19 in addition to those sent from the USA, and numerous patrol boats, converted tugs, trawlers and coasters, Navarino (12) Bouvines (8), Jacques Coeur (10), Gardon(9), Barbeau (8), Mauviette (30), Hippopotamus (4), Pluvier (15), Aurochs (4), Clameur (6) Athlete (3) and Crabe (12). All returned to civilian service in 1919-1920, but some were still enlisted in the French Navy in 1939. Also worth mentioning were the river gunboat Balny, (same type as the Doudart de la Grée), and 73 light sub-chasers (1916-1918) built in the USA (V1) or France (V41 and V54).

Wartime Constructions:

  • 3 Battleships
  • 3 Destroyers
  • 18 submersibles
  • 257 Misc.

Part III: The French navy in operations

Certainly shadowed by the epic British and German clashes of shining, fast battle cruisers, it is generally believed that the French fleet did little at sea in 1914-18. In fact, as a tacit agreement with the British, French assets first operated in the theater that best matched the composition of its fleet, the Mediterranean. She never participated in large naval battles in particular because of the combined weight of the Franco-Italian fleet, that dwarfed the modest Austro-Hungarian fleet, rarely venturing outside the Adriatic or away from the safe harbor of Pola. However, the French took an active part in the bombing of the Dardanelles, loosing several capital ships due to mines. Later other losses amounted because of the U-Bootes at large.

French Battleships in the Dardanelles, 1915, near Anzac cove, taking care of Turkish forts.

The first task of the Mediterranean battle squadron was to escort transport ships carrying troops from the North African Colonies to France, or conducting patrols in the Adriatic Sea to prevent any attacks by the Austro-Hungarian Navy. But above all, the French Navy waged war to roaming German U-boats with patrols and escorts. In December 1916, the fleet bombarded Athens and landed a party of Fusiliers Marins, forcing the pro-German Greek government to change its policies. At the end, most critical losses were three pre-dreadnought battleships, one semi-dreadnought, four armored cruisers, one protected cruiser, twelve destroyers, and fourteen submarines.

Gallery: Colorized French battleships

By Hirootoko Jr.
Bretagne WW1
Battleship Bretagne – CC colorized by Hirootoko Jr.
Battleship Jean bart ww1
Battleship Jean bart ww1 – CC colorized by Hirootoko Jr.
Battleship Paris 1914
Battleship Paris 1914 – CC colorized by Hirootoko Jr.
Battleship France 1914
Battleship France WW1 – CC colorized by Hirootoko Jr.
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Battleship Courbet – CC colorized by Hirootoko Jr.


The ww1 French Navy on wikipedi