Central Powers:
French Dreadnoughts

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
October 2015

In Great War at Sea: Triple Alliance, we looked at the naval war plans formulated by Germany, Italy and Austria-Hungary in 1912 and 1913, and how they might have been carried out had Italy gone to war alongside her alliance partners in 1914. The scenarios start in August 1914, following the war plan, and then proceed onward along the much vaguer lines the plan directs.

I took the planners at their word when writing the scenario set, and the Mediterranean naval war is very active, with the Austrians and Italians taking a very aggressive stance, one matched by their British and French opponents. The 45 scenarios – all that would fit into the book – covered the first full year of action. But the war was far from over at that point, and I’d already written many more scenarios. So we decided to do a second book, called Central Powers.

Central Powers has more scenarios, since it uses the same special rules as Triple Alliance, and more new ships, because more new ships. Where Triple Alliance drew only on Mediterranean for additional pieces (and maps), Central Powers also uses pieces from Dreadnoughts and Jutland, because the story line just couldn’t be contained in one game. Central Powers also includes its own set of pieces with additional late-model battleships for France and Italy, a new British battle cruiser, some Americans and Japanese, some upgraded Austrian cruisers and an Italian seaplane carrier.

Today, we’ll take a look at the French battleships and battle cruisers of Central Powers.

French Battleships
All five battleships of the Normandie class are present. Laid down in 1913 (with one ship laid down in January 1914), they probably would have been completed sometime in 1916 had the war not intervened. We’ve posited that in the face of a naval war, all of the participants would have given shipyards much greater priority for labor and materials than was the case in the actual conflict, so all five battleships become available as planned, some of them slightly earlier (wartime urgency and all).

The Normandie design looked like a radical departure from earlier practice, but beneath her skin she was quite conservative. The biggest change was the adoption of a quadruple turret; three of them held a total of a dozen 13.4-inch guns; ten of the same weapon had armed the preceding Bretagne class. Normandie also adopted the same hull as Bretagne, slightly lengthened (which was, in turn, an enlarged version of Courbet, France’s first dreadnought design). She had somewhat improved armor protection, most importantly a functional torpedo bulkhead.

Normandie took a step backward with her propulsion, featuring a strange mixture of turbines driving a pair of inner propellers and vertical triple-expansion engines driving two outer propellers. Bretagne had been driven by turbines, as had the preceding Courbet class and France’s semi-dreadnought Danton class. Yet turbines consumed huge amounts of fuel, restricting a ship’s range. No other nation appears to have even considered solving that problem with a mix of turbines and VTE engines, though German designers tried to add a diesel “cruising engine” to increase the range of their dreadnoughts (a concept abandoned when the diesel contractor could not meet their delivery deadlines).

For their next class of battleships, French designers planned to retain the mixed power plant. The Lyon class design was an enlarged Normandie with a fourth quadruple turret for a total of sixteen 13.4-inch guns. Four ships were to be laid down, two in January 1915 and two more in April, on slipways vacated by Normandie-class ships. By then, workers had either been diverted to more pressing war work or drafted into the armed forces, and materials likewise diverted to other needs.

Central Powers takes the viewpoint that a war with Italy in the Triple Alliance would have been more of a naval war than was the Great War with Italy in the Allied camp. So the new battleships would be laid down as soon as possible, and then given priority during their construction, to appear in early 1918 (just like a wargame, at least a good one, it still takes a long time to build a battleship, at least a good one, no matter how hard you wish for it).

The Lyon class would have provided the same maintenance headaches as Normandie with their odd mixed power plants. They did have enormous firepower, but preliminary plans called for no improvements in armor over the Normandie class other than an unspecified new scheme for underwater protection.

Both classes would have carried an enormous number of 138mm (5.4-inch) secondary guns, but many of these would have been placed in citadels directly under the 13.4-inch turrets, exposing them to terrific blast effects.

We included all nine ships of these two classes in the old U.S. Navy Plan Gold game. In Central Powers they have new ratings for their secondary gunnery to reflect the useless positions of many of those. And they have brand-new, far more attractive drawings. Which isn’t really a factor in game play, but it does make for a much nicer set of pieces.

Battle Cruisers
France built no battle cruisers during the time of the Great War, but did study the concept. Among several proposals was one from Paul Gille, the naval engineer supervising construction of the Normandie class. Gille, the brightest rising star of French naval architects, had taken a leading role in the design of France’s last armored cruisers and first dreadnoughts while still in his mid-20’s. After a 1911 visit to British shipyards, he returned with a novel view of the battle cruiser.

British designers, Gille believed, were mistaken in thinking that speed replaced the need for armor. Instead of a well-armed cruiser, Gille proposed a fast battleship with armor equivalent to that of the new dreadnoughts, but a much greater speed. He based his sketches on the new Lyon class, with the midships turret removed to make room for a larger power plant: one powered by oil fuel (unlike the coal-burning dreadnoughts) and consisting only of turbines.

Gille’s design showed great promise, but work on it came to a halt with the outbreak of war. The Army’s personnel bureau declared that naval architects would not be needed for the duration of the war, and in the spring of 1915 Gille was drafted into the Army. His superiors could not obtain his release from service, but did manage to get him assigned to the engineering branch and he spent the war building and repairing bridges for the French Third Army. Horrified by what he witnessed during the war, Gille gave up naval architecture and devoted his talents to helping rebuild the Turkish city of Izmir, sacked and burned by Greek troops in 1922, and constructing a new mosque in Paris. He volunteered to rejoin the Army engineers during the Second World War, and died in 1970.

Without Gille to promote the design, the idea for a French battle cruiser stalled and would remain forgotten for a generation. But in the war posited by Central Powers, Gille would not have been drafted into the Army but rather held a very important place in the naval war effort. Having faced German battle cruisers and Austrian fast battleships, the French would have faced the need for a heavy ship capable of cruiser speeds.

We’ve provided two examples of the Gille design in Central Powers, and they are very capable ships: fast, well-protected and very well-armed. They’re posited to have been laid down at the same time as the Lyon class, at the two remaining dreadnought-capable shipyards that did not receive an order for one of the battleships (Gironde and Penhöet). That would have brought them into service at about the same time as the big dreadnoughts, perhaps slightly later (since they would have required much larger, and more difficult to manufacture, power plants).

And that’s the roster of French capital ships in Central Powers. But there’s more stuff to come.

Click here to order Triple Alliance right now.

Click here to order Central Powers right now.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.