French Pre[Post]-Dreadnoughts

Le polyglotte, unique et moche ….

The Naval Defense Act battleships were the nine Majestics of the Spencer program of 1893, the largest single class of battleships ever constructed to one design: Majestic, Magnificent, Prince George, Mars, Jupiter, Hannibal, Victorious, Caesar, and Illustrious. The gun-loading arrangements were such an improvement over any previous designs that these battleships could get off nearly two rounds per minute, as opposed to the best of the past-2.5 minutes per round. Like the Royal Sovereigns, the Majestics were the best-designed battleships of their time. All survived to engage in secondary active-duty service in World War I. They continued the Royal Sovereigns’ basic design principles of center-line heavy guns and a respectable freeboard, the main difference being that the latter class protected its main guns in lightly armored structures. (Two of the class had no protection for the main battery, just sheet steel structures to keep out spray and splinters.) These two classes of battleships reverted to Devastation principles (except for the lack of armored turrets), reestablishing a battleship design that would prevail until battleships ceased to be built.

The French resisted this design trend, favoring their exaggerated fierce face, piled-on appearance, with high freeboard, enormous unprotected superstructures, deep tumble-home to achieve end-on fire (still thinking of ramming), along with single guns poking out of tiny turrets and exaggerated ram bows (probably as much for buoyancy as for ramming, considering the extremely short French forecastles). More tangibly, these battleships were almost unarmored above the waterline, except for their turrets, barbettes, and a waterline belt. The tumble-home reduced stability, and the large superstructures presented vulnerable targets and raised the center of gravity of the warships. The reasons for such bizarre designs are unclear, although they undoubtedly had much to do with the ram. The French themselves finally realized that these steel fantasies were a dead end, as seen in later French battleship designs that gradually moved closer to Royal Navy models. However, the French were never able to build their warships as quickly or as cheaply as the British, although their material quality was high.

The Naval Law of 1891 was France’s last attempt to challenge British battleship domination and was foredoomed by France’s lesser industrial development; French battleships themselves seemed destined to overall design inferiority. They usually turned out to be above their design weight, as compared to Royal Navy capital ships, which held to the strict controls introduced by Sir William White. French battleship construction was also hampered by inefficient shipyards, as well as financial restraints that only became worse as the French army was expanded to counter Germany’s post-Bismarck belligerency. French naval policy vacillated between challenging the Royal Navy with an oceangoing fleet or with a guerre de course based on torpedo boats and cruisers; or withdrawing into coastal defense with its dwarf armorclads and, again, torpedo boats. Neither they nor the Russians ever completed a battleship construction program before fiscal and technological realities caught up to them. Finally, after their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, the French felt compelled to build up the army at the expense of the navy. (It didn’t help matters that there were 31 different ministers of marine in the three decades after 1870.) The French were equivalent to or ahead of the Royal Navy, however, in two important areas: heavy guns and their mountings, and watertube boilers.

France leisurely built its first pre-dreadnought battleship, Brennus, between 1889 and 1896. Brennus mounted a mere three 13.4-inch guns on 11,000 tons, but those guns were arranged in the modern center-line mode, and the warship had no ram bow. The following Jauréguiberry class (Jauréguiberry, Charles Martel, Carnot, Bouvet, and Masséna, laid down between 1890 and 1892) was something of a throwback to the excesses of earlier French ironclad design, with their low displacement, fierce face, exaggerated tumble-home on lofty, relatively unprotected hulls, cluttered, unprotected upperworks, and single guns in tiny turrets. Their main battery was a mixed bag of two 12-inch and two 10.8-inch guns, the latter sponsoned over the hull tumblehome, presumably to give ahead-fire, even though the naval powers were going over to line-ahead capital ship formations that emphasized broadside fire. Bouvet and Masséna, however, should be credited for pioneering the triple shaft-engine arrangement for battleships. Only with the Charlemagne class (Charlemagne, St. Louis, and Gaulois, laid down 1894-1896) did French battleship design seem to come to terms with the new long-range, line-ahead demands of big gun naval battle. Yet they still retained the tumble-home, confused and vulnerable upperworks, and turrets that seemed too small for their guns. The Charlemagnes took some four to five years to complete (and the Brennus seven), while the contemporaneous Majestics were completed in an average of two and a half years. Not until Republique and Patrie (laid down 1901-1902) were French battleships given sufficiently generous dimensions to achieve speed, armament, and protection roughly comparable to contemporary Royal Navy battleships. Their similar successors, Démocracy, Justice, Liberté, and Verité (laid down 1902-1903) were fine monuments to the lofty civic virtues they commemorated but were soon rendered obsolete by the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought.

In stark contrast to the rivalry in ship types and numbers that had previously characterized competition between France and Britain, the French decided not to immediately follow the lead set In the introduction of Dreadnought Over the course of 1907 and 1908, they defied the trend and laid down six pre dreadnought battleships of the Danton class designed around the old standard of four 12-inch (305-mm) guns. 18,000 ions, a speed of 18 knots li was not until 1910 that their first dreadnoughts were laid down. These were four ships of the Courbei class, mounting twelve 12-inch guns in tour superfiring turrets fore and aft and two wing turrets The three ships of the Bretagne Class followed in 1912 to an improved design of five twin 13.4-inch (340-mm) turrets mounted on the centre line These were to be the last French dreadnoughts completed before the outbreak of World War I This effort was not enough. however, to prevent France slipping from second largest navy, as measured in battleships, to fifth after the US, Russia and Germany.

Further battleships were planned to help restore the French fleet’s international standing, including five Normandie Class and four Lyon Class These interesting and unusual dreadnoughts reverted to a non-superfiring layout of the main armaments, with all turrets on the centre line. The 13.4-inch (340-mm) gun was retained but mounted in quadruple turrets, the first lime such an arrangement had been proposed. Difficulties expected in manufacturing fuel-efficient turbines resulted in a mixed turbine reciprocating machinery installation. All the Normandies were laid down and launched but were effectively abandoned after the outbreak of World War I. With the exception of one. Beam, which was convened into an aircraft carrier in 1923/27, they were scrapped during the early 1920s.

The loss of the Bouvet

In 1914, the British ships that were to engage the Dardanelles forts were fitted with Armstrong/EOC guns and also those made by Vickers Limited, a relative newcomer to British arms manufacturing that started in this business in 1887. The main armaments of the British capital ships were of three calibres: 10-inch (254mm) on the Swiftsure and Triumph; 15-inch (381mm) on the Queen Elizabeth; 12-inch (305mm) guns being fitted to the remainder of the warships. The main armament of the French pre-dreadnoughts Bouvet, Verite, Gaulois, Charlemagne and Suffren were also 12-inch (305mm) (see Appendix Six, British and French Battleships used in the Dardanelles campaign up to the 18 March 1915).

The accepted reason for the loss of the Bouvet is that she hit a mine in Erenkoi Bay, and this may well be true. Her rapid sinking in something less than two minutes with smoke pouring from amidships suggests that she sank due to an internal explosion, probably a magazine blowing up, but was this caused by striking a mine or by a shell penetrating the ship? The Bouvet was hit by at least eight shells, two of which may have been from a 355mm gun, and her main armament forward gun was put out of action. The four French ships of the Third Division had been as close as 10,000 yards (9,100m) from the Narrows, and many of the Turkish heavy shells fired that day were the armour-piercing New type, which had the range to reach to Erenkoi Bay. Shells from the 6-inch/45s at Rumeli Mesudiye Battery at Suandere Bay also hit the ship, causing serious damage.

The Bouvet’s dated design of a pronounced tumblehome hull, which had been common on wooden-walled warships for centuries but was still peculiar to French battleships built in the 1890s, may have offered an almost flat surface to a plunging shell. The ship was armed with two 305mm/40 guns, one forward and one aft, plus two 274mm/45 guns amidships set on either side of the tumblehome. Also, eight 138mm/45 guns were mounted on the tumblehome, four each side. The magazines were below each gun, which meant that the magazines for the tumblehome guns were close to the hull of the ship: was one of them detonated by an exploding contact mine? The Bouvet’s sides were armoured, ranging from 400mm thick amidships tapering to 200mm along the ship’s length, but this was only a metre or so above and below the waterline. If she did strike a submerged mine then her main armour belt would have offered no protection. Above the main armour was a 100mm belt carried up one deck to protect the ammunition hoists, together with another below this known as a splinter deck, but would these have been able to resist a 725kg armour-piercing shell from a Krupp 355mm L/35 falling at a steep angle at the end of its flight? However, there were parts of the deck devoid of armour: companion ways on the ship’s centreline midway between the 274mm turrets. If a shell had plunged into the ship via this access, then it could have readily reached the magazine decks before exploding.

The ship had watertight compartments along her length, and also longitudinal bulkheads, which would have made her likely to capsize with any significant water ingress on one side only. The resulting explosion of a magazine, whatever the cause, would have opened the hull, probably exposing more than one of the ship’s watertight compartments, causing her to fill with water and roll over, as she did. Other ships hit mines that day and did not sink quickly, slowly filling with water, enabling the crews to be evacuated or for the ship to be saved. In 1937, French naval historian Paul Chack described the moment of the explosion:

At that moment a violent jolt shook the hull armour. Lieutenant Quernel said ‘We have taken a heavy calibre shell.’ A spray of water throws up at the starboard 274mm turret. By the doorway thick yellow smoke makes people believe that the explosion is from a projectile inside the ship. ‘I rather believe that it is a mine,’ responds Captain Rageot de la Touche.

Captain Rageot de la Touche did not survive the sinking but five officers did, including Lieutenant Quernel, who described a huge gap in the deck caused by a shell that struck near to the rear turret. The ship was on fire below deck, but men remained at their stations in the awful conditions that asphyxiated many of them. The second in command, Commander Autric, believed that the ship had been torpedoed, and went to investigate. He did not survive.

Sir Julian Corbett wrote a significant description of the sinking:

The French flagship (Suffren) had just passed through the British line, and the Bouvet was about to do so, when a huge column of reddish black smoke shot up from under her. Whether it was from a shell or a mine could not be seen. It was followed almost immediately by another, higher and more dense, which seemed to tell a magazine had gone. As the smoke cleared she was seen to have taken on a heavy list, and then in two minutes she turned turtle and went down.

The acclaimed Turkish diver Tosun Sezen dived on the Bouvet in 1968, when working for the Ministry of Finance to remove metal from the wreck. The ship had taken four days to locate using photographs of the sinking to spot for landmarks and a magnetometer to detect the mass of steel. He reported that the ship is lying by the stern and at an angle with the starboard propeller shaft visible, so revealing that side of the hull where a massive rent is located amidships which has almost ripped the ship apart. He also dived on the wreck of the Irresistible, recovering more than 100 tons of bronze, and the hole caused by the mine that sank this ship is only about a metre in diameter.

It is beyond reasonable doubt that a devastating internal explosion sank the Bouvet, but we may never know if this was as a result of striking a mine, from a shell or shells penetrating her hull to cause a terrible fire that detonated a magazine, or from a cruel combination of both.

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