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Book Review, NRJ 69.1

May 06, 2024 6:15 AM | JAMES HATCH (Administrator)

The French Fleet: Ships, Strategy and Operations 1870 - 1918

By Michele Consentino and Ruggero Stanglini

This book examines the development of the French Navy subsequent to the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and follows its evolution through until the end of World War I. The authors’ approach starts with scene setting chapters that address French foreign policy and the Navy, naval budgets and shipbuilding programs, industry and technology, and the organization which supported the structure and operation of the French Navy. This is followed by chapters on ship types ranging from battleships to minor combatants and auxiliary ships, naval aviation and an outline of the French fleet at war from 1914 to 1918.

The authors provide the strategic and doctrinal context to the French fleet’s development up until 1918. Much of the early history saw naval funding eroded to meet the higher priority accorded to the French army and social measures. However, renewed government interest in colonial expansion around 1880 raised the navy’s profile. The conquest of new overseas territories saw it charged with transport of troops, ensuring the lines of communications at sea, and dealing with real and potential adversaries. Colonial expansion created new rivalries with Britain and a deterioration of relations with Italy. These developments resulted in a push for a more effective use of resources; a reconsideration of fleet composition; and a need to identify the most useful type of warships. The result was a decreased emphasis on battleships, an increase in cruiser strength, and increased emphasis on troop transports and torpedo boats. This change in philosophy was similar to what the Jeune Ecole had been arguing for, namely a move away from expensive and vulnerable battleships to new technology, and an emphasis on torpedo boats, gunboats, and fast cruisers.

Limitations in the performance of the torpedo boats ultimately led to a more balanced approach being adopted to French naval force structure. The foray into small craft did, however, lead to a French fleet with some major deficiencies as it entered World War I. By August 1914 the French Navy had but forty-four. This shortage resulted in an order being placed with Japan for twelve destroyers in November 1916.

The French Navy devoted considerable resources to the development of submarines. A combination of a lack of strategic direction for submarine policy and an often-illogical industrial policy resulted in excessive spending on experimental boats. From 1863 the French Navy acquired a total a total of one hundred and eleven submarines of varying utility. Most of the boats were built before World War I, with submarine production slowing during the war, owing to the priority of other warships, especially escort vessels.

Industrial performance, especially in the early years, was problematic. Construction was slow and expensive in the Navy Arsenals, which provided most of the management, updating and shipbuilding. Owing to a lack of control by the central naval administration there were significant differences between warships of the same class entrusted to different arsenals. The resulting lack of standardization lasted until the end of the century, and had serious consequences for operations, training, and logistics.

This book is well written and researched, drawing on extensive primary and secondary sources. It analyses the French Navy’s development in a broad context addressing strategic, political, financial, naval administration, industrial and technological issues. The text is supported with numerous high-quality photographs which appropriately illustrate the ships being discussed. Coverage of the ship classes is extensive and provides an assessment in most cases of the pros and cons of their development, capabilities and performance. The authors do not hesitate to offer criticism of matters and provide sound justification for their views. Overall, this book is a welcome addition to the history of the French Navy.

  • Barnsley: Seaforth Books, 2022
  • 10” x 11-3/4”, hardcover, 320 pages
  • Photographs, tables, appendices, bibliography, index. $79.95
  • ISBN: 9781526701312

Reviewed by: Sebastian Robichaud, Louisiana State University

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