Revolutionary French Navy


The Glorious First of June by Philip James de Loutherbourg.


In 1789 the French Navy was at the peak of its strength for the eighteenth century, but with only 60 ships it was not even close to the 120 it had had during the reign of Louis XIV. During the American War of Independence (1775-1783) it enjoyed a number of successes, particularly in the Indian Ocean and above all in Chesapeake Bay, thus making possible the decisive victory at Yorktown. Nevertheless, that conflict was very expensive for France-costing a billion livres-and the inability to repay this debt was one of the main causes of the French Revolution. Nonetheless, Louis XVI’s navy pursued a course of modernization by adopting the construction of classes of 74-, 80-, and 116-gun ships, following the plans of the engineer Jacques Noel Sané.

The navy was seriously affected by the outbreak of revolution in 1789, first at the dockyards and then among the crews and their officers. Dockyard workers, who were badly paid, revolted in Toulon in December 1789 and then at Brest in June 1790. The seamen, in turn, rose up at Brest the following month. In the face of this instance of disorder and of similar instances elsewhere, most officers returned to their homes until, after the arrest of Louis XVI, they emigrated. Thus, in January 1792 only 210 officers out of 610 were still at their posts. To solve the manpower shortage and open the naval service to a wider spectrum of society, the National Assembly offered posts to officers of the merchant marine, who had not attended any professional schools, and gave command of the dockyards to ordnance officers in lieu of career officers.

Unrest occurred at Toulon, the principal Mediterranean port, when on 10 September 1792 the commander of the fleet was hanged by Revolutionaries. The Republic was nonetheless able to outfit a small squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Laurent Jean François Truguet, who was able to support General Jacques Bernard d’Anselme’s troops during their attack on Nice, the site of more pro-royalist unrest. Nice capitulated on 29 September, but in the meantime royalists took control of Toulon, including the naval shipyards. The British hoped to profit from these circumstances, and on 27 August 1793 Vice Admiral Lord Hood entered the port in support of the revolt. The problems faced by the Republic were compounded when, in the Atlantic, Admiral Justin Bonaventure Morard de Galle’s squadron revolted on 12 September. As of that date, France had only the squadron at the port of Rochefort, a dozen ships, against the 135 ships of the line of the Royal Navy.

The crisis spread to Paris, as well, where navy ministers succeeded each other without being able to reinstate their authority. Gaspard Monge, a famous mathematician but an incompetent minister, was succeeded by Jean Dalbarade, a brilliant privateer who was overcome by the size of the task before him. On 18 December 1793 the British evacuated Toulon, menaced by artillery that the young Napoleon Bonaparte had situated above the port. They took three ships with them but burned ten others and destroyed the stocks of the naval arsenal. The French Mediterranean fleet had effectively ceased to exist. The Republic was under attack on all fronts-in Holland, along the Rhine, in Italy, and along the Pyrenees, while royalist revolts within France multiplied, especially in the Vendée.

The Convention tried to reestablish order by sending representatives on mission (political commissars) to the ports. Representative Jean Bon Saint-André turned out to be outstanding in this role and appealed for aid from the few pre-Revolution professional officers who had continued to serve the Revolution. The changes wrought in the officer corps were obvious, with experience and training woefully lacking: At Brest in 1794, of twenty-six captains, only three had served as lieutenants (the preceding rank) and eleven as second lieutenants; the others had come from the merchant marine. Half the crews had never even been to sea in a warship. Not surprisingly, the first encounter between British and French fleets during the war, the Battle of the Glorious First of June (known as such by the British, in any event), was a tactical victory for the British, who captured seven ships. However, the accompanying convoy of 150 ships bearing desperately needed grain, commanded by Admiral Pierre Jean Vanstabel, entered Brest safe and sound. It may be said with some justice that on this occasion the French Navy saved the Revolution, and Maximilien Robespierre remained in power.

The slow reconstruction of the French Navy then began, but it lacked an officer cadre, crews, and supplies; worst of all, its orders originated in Paris, issued by a government with no experience of naval administration. France had neither an admiralty nor a naval staff capable of formulating policy. Indeed, the Convention in Paris was so utterly ignorant of naval affairs that it considered the navy a kind of “naval army” that could be easily moved from one sea to another depending on immediate strategic needs. Some of the handicaps experienced by the navy are instructive: Admiral Pierre Martin’s squadron, for instance, tried to convey troops to Corsica, but money and resources were lacking, and some of his ships carried supplies sufficient for only fifteen days.

The paradox for the navy was that it was not totally eliminated from the sea by Britain’s all-powerful Royal Navy. Indeed, the French Navy had its share of successes. In 1794 the French recaptured Guadeloupe thanks to a successful landing by Victor Hugues. The Directory restarted the privateer war on 15 August 1795, sending out large numbers of these vessels, together with warships themselves, to prey on British commerce. Admiral Zacharie Jacques Allemand’s squadron patrolled off the African coast, Corentin-Urbain de Leissegue’s operated in the Antilles, Honoré Ganteaume’s in the Levant, Joseph de Richery’s off Newfoundland, and Pierre-César Sercey’s in the Indian Ocean. The success of the French Navy forced the British to evacuate Corsica and to abandon the Mediterranean altogether in 1796.

In that year, too, the Directory prepared for a landing in Ireland. The military forces to be disembarked were commanded by General Louis Hoche, who had no knowledge of naval affairs. Thanks to the efforts of his deputy chief of staff, Admiral Eustache Bruix, the squadron of seventeen warships and twenty-two transports left Brest on 15 December 1796 under the command of Morard de Galles. The ships were poorly provisioned, and the crews were poorly trained. The landing in Ireland failed, but it caused considerable consternation in Britain. The French tried again in May 1798, during the Irish Rebellion. They succeeded in landing 1,000 men in Donegal, but Hoche was captured together with Wolfe Tone, one of the principal rebel leaders, who was aboard his ship.

Even as these threats were averted, the Royal Navy had implemented its traditional strategy against France: the close blockade of the naval ports of Brest, Rochefort, and Toulon, the last of which contained only about twenty ships, all in poor condition. This strategy was hard on the men and ships, as well as costly, but it succeeded in ensuring that the French could not combine their various squadrons into a substantial fleet. This was essential, for only a fleet was capable of protecting Britain against a French landing. This threat was real: In March 1798 the Directory assembled a flotilla for precisely this purpose, composed primarily of small transports and merchantmen. Bonaparte was appointed commander of this optimistically named Army of England, but he abandoned the project in favor of an expedition to Egypt. Mistakes made by Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson allowed the sortie of the fleet and 36,000 troops on 19 May. Malta was taken on 9 June, and Bonaparte landed virtually unopposed at Alexandria. The destruction of the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile, fought in Aboukir Bay on 1 August, did not prevent Bonaparte’s victories on land, but, crucially, it left his army stranded in Egypt.

In 1799 the Directory dispatched the Atlantic fleet from Brest, consisting of only twenty-five ships of the line, commanded by Bruix. He was able to resupply General Jean Moreau’s army in Liguria and managed to return before the British reinstated the blockade of his home port. In 1800 the Directory failed to resupply the army in Egypt and resumed preparations for the planned invasion of England, conceived by the naval engineer and minister of the navy, Pierre Alexandre Laurent Forfait, and to be carried out by Louis-René Levassor de Latouche-Tréville. Eight hundred flat-bottomed boats, gunboats, and barges needed for the landing were constructed. On two occasions Nelson suffered setbacks at Boulogne at the hands of Latouche- Tréville, most notably in August 1801. With the Peace of Amiens in on 15 March 1802, the French Navy resumed its program of reorganizing its shipyards and dispatched an army of 35,000 to recapture St. Domingue (shortly thereafter to become independent Haiti). The navy’s budget was 130 million francs, but by the end of 1803, France had only 37 ships of the line, of which only 16 were actually serviceable and 6 were under construction. Britain, on the other hand, had 189 ships of the line, of which 95 were ready for service and 17 were under construction.


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