Admiral Boue de Lapeyrere
Minister of the Marine 1909-1911
Augustin Boue de Lapeyrere (1852-1924) was a contemporary of, and in many respects as dynamic as his Royal Navy equivalent, Admiral John Fisher. Both were energetic proponents of naval reform. Similarly both were keen exponents of battleship construction. Indeed de Lapeyrere, the dominant French naval figure prior to the First World War, effectively reversed French strategy in placing submarine (and anti-submarine) construction firmly secondary to the production of large shipping while Minister of Marine from 1909-11.
M. Gaston Thomson, whose administration was in several respects marked both by an improvement in construction and in the training of the fleets, was succeeded as Minister of Marine by M. Alfred Picard, a man of scientific ability and considerable organizing power, from whose efforts much was hoped. He had, however, scarcely taken office before the Government again changed, and Admiral Boue de Lapeyrere became Minister of Marine. From this date the real renaissance of tho French Navy began.
When he became Minister of Marine he had already made a reputation as a naval administrator, as well as having had much sea experience. He was also the youngest officer of his rank in the French Navy. It was a daring experiment after a succession of civil administrators to put a seaman at the helm, but it proved entirely successful.
He made his name on the little gunboat Vipere, which took an active part in operations against the Chinese ; and he waited only eight years for his ship, instead of the usual fourteen. Lapeyrere had had no experience in the command of a battle fleet, but he had been flag-captain to Admiral Fournier, who was the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean from 1898 to 1900. He had also seen war service in China, and had commanded the Newfoundland and Atlantic divisions, as well as having been in charge of the naval establishment at Rochefort, and acted as Maritime Prefect at Brest.
To Admiral Boue de Lapeyrere belonged the credit of restoring discipline and mutual confidence to officers and men. The senior French Admiral was a typical sea-dog, a vieux loup de mer, in the French phrase. He was never happier than when pacing his quarter-deck, and had few pleasures away from it. He prefered the starlit sky to any painted ceiling, and the rude breath of the sea to the well-bred tones of the drawing-room. His experience and attainments made him the technical guide as well as the spiritual confessor of his fleet. Simple in manner, he was adored by his sailors and addresses them in the language they can understand and appreciate. His active temperament would have desired some brilliant engagement as apotheosis to his career.
He had the advantage of a double training under Fournier, whose flag-captain he was, and under Courbet. Both were excellent masters : the former, still green at seventy-two (nine years senior to Lapeyrere), recalled with pleasure his talks with King Edward, just as the "Father of the Fleet," to-day, counted amongst his pleasant memories the presence of the Prince of Wales on his flagship during maneuvers in the Mediterranean.
Though of aristocratic family, he was persona grata with Republicans, a fact that had its importance in a service said to be "honeycombed with Reaction." His tact and knowledge of economic conditions stood him in good stead as director of the naval yards of Rochelle and Brest - excellent preparation for his work in Paris, whither he came with the reputation of a man able to handle the State workman. The Admiral set himself about the task of the reforming of the Navy with the same high sense of professional duty and resolute firmness which had already characterized his naval career. Among his first acts was the importation of fresh blood at the Rue Royale, where he formed something in the nature of the British Admiralty Board.
The real period of reform began with Admiral Boue de Lapeyrere. It was an innovation to confide the Ministry of Marine to one who knew the service professionally, but success was the outcome of it. The sailor-Minister worked miracles, both inside and out of the Rue Royale, in the name of reform. Great changes were effected during the eighteen months of his reign. He reorganized the squadrons and he reorganized his Ministry. He effected the latter by forming a Navy Board on the lines of the British Admiralty, giving departmental responsibility to experts, instead of continuing the autocracy of the Minister without real oversight and control - a battered legacy from Colbert. The Admiral brought the country to see the folly of a policy which had lost France her naval rank in the world. He imposed a regular programme upon Parliament, instead of haphazard construction, which had made the squadrons a collection of samples. He gave the country homogeneous fleets, constantly renewed by the most perfect types.
Concentration in the Mediterranean resulted from changed political circumstance. England was no longer the enemy to be feared, but the friend to be trusted - to defend both sides of the Channel in the event of attack. Thus the naval problem was simplified for France; her beat became the Midland sea. The change came about gradually, when Admiral de Lapeyrere was at the Ministry.
Admiral Boue de Lapeyrere also instituted a policy of concentration, bringing all the newer ships into one fleet in the Mediterranean, entrusting the task of training it to Admiral Caillard. In every way he set himself, by a courageous sweep of abuses, to dissipate the conservatism, sloth, and inertness which so far had hampered the efforts of those who oelieved it incumbent on France to strengthen her naval forces without delay. A new building program, which became eventually an organic law, was proposed, the public and private arsenals and dockyards were urged to further efforts, their organization was improved, and money spent on the renewal of their plant and equipment to accord with modern requirements.
The inevitable political crisis sent M. Delcasse to the Minister's cabinet [1911-1913] to continue the work and the Admiral to his quarter-deck.
Boue de Lapeyrere, when war began Commander-in-Chief of the French Navy afloat, was a man of great initiative, restless energy, and stubborn determination. Involved in endless command squabbles with both British and Italian allies, he suddenly resigned on 10 October 1915. Vice-Admiral Boue de Lapeyrere, "being seriously ill, was relieved of his command by his own request," and was succeeded by Vice-Admiral Dartige du Fournet who had first commanded the Syrian squadron and subsequently the Dardanelles squadron. Such was the shock of de Lapeyrere's resignation that President Raymond Poincare was prompted to formally deny involvement in forcing de Lapeyrere out of office.
Boue de Lapeyrere died in 1924.
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