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French Navy 1852-1870 - Second Empire

It was during the reign of Napoleon III, in the 19th century, that the French Navy reached its zenith. The boldness with which its chiefs, aided by a great engineer, Depuy de Lome, took advantage of the new fields opened up to them through the progress made in artillery and especially in defensive weapons, gave for a time a marked superiority to the French fleet, of which, however, Imperial politics did not take full advantage. It can be stated that from about 1862 to 1868 the armor-plated French squadron had no rival, Great Britain merely following the movement with hesitation and tardiness.

The Crimean War, having been conducted by an alliance of France and Great Britain against Russia, would seem to have shown that British naval anxieties were exaggerated. But the rivalry which is inherent in the very position of states possessing sea coasts and maritime interests could not cease. The French imperial government was anxious to develop its navy. By the construction of the armored floating batteries employed in bombardment of Kinbura in October 1855, and by the launch of the first seagoing ironclad "La Gloire" in 1859, it began a new race for superiority at sea.

The first iron-clads used in battle wore the French floating-batteries Devastation, Lave, and Tonnante (1855), built for special service in the Crimea. Particulars : length, 171 feet 9 inches; beam, 43 feet 1 inch; draught, 8' 8"; hulls of wood ; armor, 4.33 inches thick; armament, 16 guns of "50," carried 2 feet 11 inches above water-line. They formed part of the fleet, carrying 1500 guns, which destroyed Fort Kinburn, an inferior barbette work. The iron-clads engaged at 700 yards; at that range they were proof against 32-pound shot with 10-pound charges.

Ironclad reconstruction became imperative, and M. Dupuy occupied a distinguished position. He realized his scheme of 1845 with certain modifications. His eminent services led to his appointment in 1857 to the highest office in the Constructive Corps - Directeur du Materiel - and his design for the earliest seagoing ironclad, La Gloire, was approved in the same year. In the design of La Gloire, as is well known, he again followed the principle of utilizing known forms and dimensions as far as was consistent with modern conditions, and the Napoleon was nearly reproduced in La Gloire so far as under-water shape was concerned, but with one gun deck instead of two, and with a completely protected battery.

Initially the instrument of propulsion, the screw-propeller, would be lifted out of the water, so as not to impede her progress. As it could be so lifted, it could, of course, be replaced on board the ship in case of its being broken accidentally. As the theory was that a damaged screw could be hoisted out of the water and replaced by an undamaged one, the supply of a complete spare screw-propeller became a fixed arrangement of the ship's fittings. The complete spare propeller was necessarily very heavy, and occupied a great deal of space. As the theory was that the screw-propeller in a sailing steamer was to be continually in the water and out of the water, the methods of raising and lowering it engaged much attention, and exercised the talents of many inventors. The apparatus arranged for lifting screws out of the water, when it was intended to convert the steamer into the sailing vessel, was that a great square tube was cut from the upper-deck of the ship down to the water, immediately over the place where the screw was to work. Was it necessary to go much out of the way on behalf of preparation for remedying the defect of a damaged screw? Was the screw, in fact, often damaged ? It was not. In September 1861 the Royal Navy recommed that the idea of lifting the screws of ironclad ships sbould be wholly given up. But in the French navy lifting screws had been entirely discontinued for two years. The ships of the French navy obtained a speed equal to that of the British with less power, for their engines were worked up to only double their normal power, whereas the British would generally achieve four times that amount. This result was due to the fineness they gave to the after-body, and this induced them to give up the screw-well.

Once started, the French pressed on the construction of their ironclads with all haste, and in the autumn of 1863 they had at sea a squadron of five ironclads, not including in this list La Gloire. To the energy and great ability of M. Dupuy de Lome must be largely attributed the fact that France took, and for a long time kept, such a lead in ironclads.

Dupuy de Lme undertook the cuirasse frigate which he stated that in the midst of a fleet of wooden ships, it would resemble a "lion dropped in the middle of a herd of sheep". La Gloire was, in other points than armor, a wide departure from the conventional and time-honored war-vessel. There was no vestige of ornamentation; the stern, in order to increase the ram-power, inclined somewhat back ward; to lessen tho labor of bending and fitting the heavy iron plates, the hull at bow and stern was of the plainest form. The rig was very simple; it consists of three masts, with very long mastheads to give support to top m asta which, with the short bowsprit, could be housed at pleasure; tho foremast carries a square sail; all the others are plain fore-and-aft sails, the idea being to have as little rigging ?? possible to be shot away and foul the screw. The sail-area was 11,810 square feet; an ordinary war-vessel of the same tonnage would have 35,000 square feet in the principal sails. This showed that with tho iron-clad came increasing dependence on steam, sails becoming an auxiliary that will never be used in action. Tho speed was reported to be 12.8 knots; the bunkers carried five days' fuel. After La Gloire came two iron-clads of the same dimensions and material. In 1863-64 the Magenta and Solferino were completed; these carried out the emperor's idea of a large number of medium-calibre guns ; they were armed with fifty-two 6.3-inch rifles. In 1865 eight floating batteries were built, each carrying sixteen medium guns, protected by 4 and 5 inch plates. In 1867 the Alma class of corvettes, seven in number, were commenced; hulls of wood; armament, six 7.48-inch rifles; armor at water-line, 5.91 inches, over the battery, 4.72 inches. About the same time the Provence class, eleven in number, were in progress, all of the same dimensions, but differing in armament and method of mounting it. One of these, the Surveillante, carried eight 0.5-inch rifles, capable of piercing 10-inoh armor up to 500 yards. During 1867-69 the Marengo class, four in number, were put afloat; with one exception, the Friedland, the hulls were of wood ; they carry eight 10.6-inch rifles, which could pierce 12-inch armor up to 600 yards, and six 7.6-inch guns which are mounted in semicircular iron shields projecting their full semi-diameter from tho vessel's sides - an arrangement adopted to give increased horizontal range, and suited to the peculiarities of breech-loading, on which plan all heavy French naval guns were made. The armor is 7.87 inches at the water-line, and over battery 6.3 inches thick.

By 1878 the Colbert, Richelieu, and Redoubtable, the largest so-called ocean-going iron-clads in the French navy, were nearly completed : the two former carry eight 10.63-inch rifles, which use SS-pound charges and 470-pound projectile. The rams Tonnerre and Tempte had the thickest arraor in the French navy; it is 8.66 inches at tho water-line and 6.3 inches over the battery. All of these (except rams) were masted broadside iron-cluds ; most of them carried their guns on one deck.

Tho Cerbre, Belier, and Bouledoguo were coast-defence rams; they were without rigging, and were intended to be fought head on ; they carried two ?. 5-inch rifles in fixed turrets. The armor on the sides was 8.66 inches thick. The Taureau, similar to there, but with her upper deck formed like the back of a tortoise, carried one gun of the same calibre. The Tonnerre and Tempte, the latest ram-vessels, had monitor hulls and fixed turrets; they carried two 12.6-inch rifles, which use 136-pound charges with 760-pound projectiles; these are said to he able to pierce 15-inch armor up to 300 yards. Their armor was the heaviest in the French navy, being 11.81 inches thick. Very exaggerated opinions were prevalent not only in the public mind, but in the House of Commons, in the beginning of 1865, with respect to the progress the French navy was making in strength, efficiency and improved organisation, as compared with the British navy. The British Parliamentary Return dated 15th February 1865, showed, that at that date there were 445 British screw and paddle steam vessels afloat; and that 26 were building; and that there were 69 effective sailing ships and mortar vessels afloat, making a total of the British navy of 540. As of 1865 France had only 81 screw steam vessels afloat, with 831 officers, independently of the attached staff, and 17,234 sub-officers and seamen, and the total annual cost of these 81 screw vessels is 11,373,712 frs., or 454,949, and this included the commissariat, medical and clerical officers, and additional pay and table money for the officers, and that sum also includes 1,571,073 frs., or 62,843, for clothing.

The old status or condition of both the English and French navies was rapidly altering, by the substitution of iron-clad vessels of all rates for the wooden vessels previously employed, whether sailing, paddle, or screw. The French had first commenced the change some years back. As it would necessarily neutralize Britain's vast numerical superiority in wooden ships, that had rendered her masters on the ocean, Britain was compelled to enter into the new race of competition with all the energy of the English character, otherwise the deference hitherto conceded to her, as the leading maritime power, would have been endangered.

By 1865 the French navy had 17 seagoing ironclads, namely, the Magenta, with a displacement of 6,737 tons, and Solferino, both of wood and partially plated, Magnanitne, Valeureuse, Provence, Surveillante, Gauloise, Guienne, Bevanche, Savoir, Flandre, and Heroine, all timber ships, except the Heroine of 1,000 horse power, but not wholly armor-clad. The Invincible, Gloire, Normandie, of 900 horse power and displacement of 5,630 tons, and Couronne and Belliqueuse of 1,000 horse power, were wholly iron-clad, but the Belliqueuse was built of wood.

During the whole period of the Second Empire the reconstruction of the French fleet was conducted with a skill and determination which bade fair to render her Britain's equal, or at any rate Britain's most formidable rival. The result is that at the end of 1869, she possessed a Navy not inferior in numbers to Britain, although of less power either for attack or defence. The guns with which the French ships were armed are of a much smaller caliber, and the armor-plates with which they were protected rarely exceeded five inches in thickness.

The total number of ships in the French Navy at the end of 1869 was 501, including steam vessels and sailing ships of all classes. Of these, fifty-three were ironclads, carrying their armament in broadside batteries, and nine were ironclad turret ships. The largest armored vessel in the French Navy was the Rochambeau, which was purchased of the United States Government at the conclusion of the civil war. This monster floating battery had a burthen of 5,090 tons, and is propelled by engines of 1,000 nominal horse-power. She was constructed to serve as a powerful ram, and carried her armament of fourteen guns.

The only other class of ironclads in the French Navy which called for especial notice is that of the batteries flottantts demontables. These extraordinary little vessels, eleven in number, each carrying two guns, were in fact portable gunboats. They could be taken to pieces, and transported overland when required for distant service, or in time of peace can be stowed away in the warehouses of the arsenals.

The personnel of the French Navy, as far as mere numbers were concerned, was very greatly superior to that of Great Britain. In the Navy, as in the Army, the great difficulty of obtaining a sufficient supply of men is met in France by conscription, while in Britain the voluntary system of enlistment prevailed in both services. The lists of men and youths who were enrolled in the Imperial Navy of France in 1869 amounted in all to about 170,000, but of these only 74,400 were actively employed. These figures did not include the marine and colonial troops, which amounted in the same year to another 26,600 men, but they embraced the engineers, dockyard laborers, and civilians employed in the service of the fleet.

Unfortunately this fine fleet had one drawback which made itself seriously felt in 1870 when it became a question of attacking the German coast. Many of the floating batteries of 1855-60 were useless; neither the Onondaga. the Rochambeau [bought in 1869 from America and recast in France] nor the spar-ships of 1864 (of a rather low water displacement) had any weapons capable of opening curved fire. Nearly everything concerning coast warfare - in which connection mines already played an important part - had been neglected. An ineffective blockade was the result. The failure of the French Navy to accomplish anything visible to the naked eye in 1870 caused sea power to be held in light estimation in comparison with land power

In 1870 M. Dupuy devoted a large amount of time and thought to perfecting a system of navigable balloons, and the French Government gave him great assistance in carrying out the experiments. It does not seem, however, that any sufficient success was reached to justify further trials. Since the fall of the Second Empire his connection with the naval service was terminated, but his professional and scientific standing was fully maintained, and his energies found scope in the conduct of the great and growing business of the Forges et Chantiers Company. M. Dupuy De Lome died on the 1st Feb., 1885, at the age of 68.

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