Few Ships, Many Classes:
French Pre-Dreadnoughts in Great War at Sea
By David Hughes
Compared with the smooth if unimaginative arrival of new British pre-dreadnoughts, the French response was very uncertain. There were excellent reasons for this. In France l’Armee was far more important than La Navale. The real danger was from the land, never more so than in the years after the disastrous Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Were it not for the need to protect the large and growing colonial empire, the fleet could be disregarded as a luxury. A further distraction was the belief in “la Guerre de Commerce,” that all the French could successfully achieve would be to damage British trade and commerce, which required armoured cruisers (of which the French built large numbers of excellent ships), not battleships. As a result while the British built 42 pre-dreadnoughts from 1891 on (the effective starting point for the game series), the French only constructed 24. Less explicable is the fact that the British ships were in nine classes, while the French built theirs in no less than 12 groupings.
We can see this in the earliest ships that appear in the game. The five are sometimes known as the Charles Martel class, named after the lead ship laid down in 1891 at Brest. The two ships for which we have counters are the Jauréguiberry built at La Seyne near Toulon and the Bouvet built at Lorient. In most navies these three as well as Carnot and Massena would be exact sisters. But not in France, where they were the product of the designer at each building yard. Since Carnot was built at the government shipyard at Toulon and the Massena on the Loire, this resulted in five ships, none of them the same. Except, that is, for the guns, which were supplied and installed by the government. These numbered two 12-inch each in a single turret fore and aft as well as one 10.8-inch turret on each beam, both types being excellent high-velocity weapons. The heavy guns were backed up by four 5.5-inch guns on each beam, also in modern turrets. In most other respects, each ship differed, even in their armor. Bouvet, for example, was the only one to have Harvey armor, which did not help when she was sunk by a combination of gunfire and mines at Gallipoli, going down in two minutes with the loss of 650 men.
The next group, the Charlemagne class of 1894, adopted the classic layout of one two-gun turret fore and aft. However, she and her sisters, the St. Louis and Gaulois, displayed another French weakness of the period. They were too small, about 11,000 tons compared with the 14,500 tons of the contemporary British Admiral class, resulting in a weaker secondary armament of ten 5.5-inch guns as well as poor stability and internal subdivision. Gaulois nearly sank when hit by a single shell at the Dardanelles. She did not survive much longer, being sunk the next year by a torpedo. The merits and weaknesses of their “tumble-home” design also apply to Russian battleships, many of French design but, unlike the French ships, built without regard for tonnage limitations.
There followed three ships, each of a different class. The Henri IV, laid down in 1897, was really a coast defense warship, too small at 8,800 tons to be considered a battleship. But she was the first warship to have a superimposed turret, in this case a 7.5-inch firing over a 10.8-inch at the stern. The Iena was an enlarged Charlemagne, with the secondary guns now a much more impressive eight 6.4-inch. She does not appear in the game, having blown up in 1907 while in dock at Toulon. She was the first of a series of ships to be destroyed due to decomposing (or badly maintained) gun propellant. The Suffren was even bigger, at 12,750 against 11,800; with some of her secondary guns in turrets, well ahead of British practice. But she was still not big enough and was sunk with all hands in 1916 when a German torpedo caused her main magazine to explode.
With the République and Patrie of 1901, French ship designers were at last able to show what they could do when not constrained by limits on the size of their vessels. From now on French battleships match or exceed their contemporaries in all other navies when designed, just as they had done in previous centuries. The only problem was that they took much longer to build. The two ships were finally able to use Krupp rather than the inferior Harvey armor. It seems that national pride had previously prevented the French from using a German product! They had an efficient secondary armament of 18 6.4-inch guns, like the 12-inch main battery a new design, 12 of them in turrets rather than the far less efficient battery mounts. The famous and controversial tumble-home had almost gone.
The Liberté class was laid down in 1902, their secondary armament changed to 10 very powerful 7.6-inch guns (194mm) all in twin turrets. Just like the République, they featured three irregularly spaced funnels and names associated with the French Revolution. Liberté blew up in dock in 1911, for the same reason as Iena had four years earlier. The three other members — Démocratie, Justice and Verité — are all given counters in Mediterranean, reflecting where they spent the war.
The final French pre-dreadnoughts were the impressive Danton class; the other five being Condercet, Diderot, Mirabeau, Vergniaud and Voltaire, visually distinctive as being the only five-funnel battleships ever built. But the sluggish French building rate remained a problem. By the time they and the last of the Liberté class were completed between 1906 and 1908, over a dozen dreadnought battleships were in service, scattered between Britain, Germany, Brazil and the United States. Nevertheless the Danton class were admirable and powerful warships. They were much heavier (18,500 tons), and added no fewer than a dozen 9.5-inch (240mm) weapons in two-gun turrets. Like the British Lord Nelsons, with their ten 9.2-inch guns they are often defined as “semi-dreadnoughts.” Armor, with a 10.7-inch belt, was acceptable and the only serious weakness was that like all French pre-dreadnoughts they were slow, with even these vessels only capable of just over 19 knots. Danton herself was sunk by a German submarine off Sardinia in 1917. In contrast, Voltaire survived two torpedo hits the following year, unusual for a pre-dreadnought in any navy. Like the later British pre-dreadnoughts, they were considered part of the battle line and their gunnery modifiers in the game should reflect this. Their gunnery values also need to be amended. The two Lord Nelson class had their gun rating changed between their initial appearance in Mediterranean and their final in Jutland: from 4-0-0 to 3-6-2. It seems only fair to do the same for the six Danton class warships. In hindsight it is clear that the French made the right decision on building battleships. While the battle-fleet performed a secondary if useful function in the Mediterranean, the Army of the Republic was the most formidable and successful force involved in defeating the Imperial Army of Germany.
You can download the variant French battleships here.
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