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THE FRENCH NAVY OF THE CRIMEAN WAR

This chapter is after the second world biggest navy in the world. Despite the complete loss of the old, royalist french fleet during the revolution and the napoleonic era, the new kings reestablished its rank while building a constant array of sailing corvettes, frigates and ships of the line. When Napoleon III came to power, it was obvious that a strong navy was the only way to built and sustain a colonial empire, as to be a threat over English seatrade net. The industrial weight of France was built mostly since the arrival of a new bourgeoisie under king Louis-Philippe. By its size, it was far below the level attained by the United Kingdom, but still capable of making good steal plates and complex artillery pieces. The military research during Napoleon III, both for the army and navy,was well-favored and well-deserved by skilled engineers from the elite technical schools founded by Napoleon Bonaparte fifty years before. So in 1850, everything was ready for some breakthrough in naval warfare in france.

Dupuy de Lôme and Paixhans : These two frenchmen, one a succesful engineer, the other a resourceful officer, gave France the edge in military technology, the first while conceiving the very first steamship of the line (the Napoleon), and the second, the naval high explosive shell. As Paixhans guns were quickly adopted by many navies, the Napoleon was the very first of its kind. Until then, naval conservatism and defiance toward steam prevented any such attempt. In 1840, the only military steamships were light dispatch vessels, and gunboats, only fielding a handful of medium and light guns. The only reliable propeller available then was the sidewheel system. A single hit in one of these, and the ship was doomed. So not only these ships were always fully rigged, but they never fully included in the naval fleets or admitted in exercises. But the adoption of the screw (by the british Archimedes in 1837) began to change the way steam power could be used onboard ships. The very first screw steamships were civilian liners and dispatch (mail) ships. This was usually a lifting screw, and by windy weather, the ship ususally proceed by sail only. The first major screw steamship ever to be built was Brunel SS. Great Britain, which was also the first all-iron liner. It was to impress so much the French that Dupuy de Lôme decided to plan a major warship with a screw. This led to the Napoleon. Despite some strong septicism from the admiralty, the enthusiastic Napoleon III ordered one to be built in 1848. And then, the very first was ready for the end of 1850, quickly followed by several sister-ships, and commtied succesfully in trials and naval exercises.

napoleon steamship

The Napoleon was the first steam two-decker (plus one incomplete) ever to use steam propulsion and a lifting screw, as well as beeing fully rigged. It was based on the usual first class warship of the time, the 90-guns.
In fact the Napoleon was followed by Algésiras, Arcole, Imperial and Redoutable launched in 1855-56, all beeing 5040 tons in displacement. In 1853, two 80-guns of 4330 tons were launched (Duquesne and Tourville), and the three Wagram class in 1854 (4560 tons), 90 guns. The Charlemagne (80 guns, 4060 tons) was launched in 1851, Jean Bart (76 guns, 4010 tons) and Austerlitz (86 guns, 4430 tons) in 1852. Many other steam ships-of-the-line were built during the crimean war (see 1870 records), as well as nine other sailing two-deckers of 90-guns converted as steamships from 1857 to 1860. Some three-deckers were also converted, in fact, all four of the Friedland class (5170 tons, 114 guns) in 1854-58, and the Montebello (4920 tons, 114 guns), converted in 1852 was the only one which served during the Crimean war. The very first purpose-built steam three-deckers was the impressive Bretagne, a 6770 tons, 130 guns. Unfortunately she was launched only in 1855 and therefore was not in service before the war ended. Depite of this, she demonstrated that even such gigantic ships could be propelled by steam power. Of course, cumbersome boilers and an enormous amount of coal in such ships led to gave them a deeper hull below waterline, thus reducing their habilities to be anchored in many shallow water ports.
The Crimean war allowed this new breed of warship to be put on the test. The Napoleon, as well as its sister-ships performed well against the Russian forts. In fact, one episode was so famous that it changed completely the way the British admiralty seen these French experiments... Heavily pounded and its rudder disabled, one of the french sailing three deckers was pushed by the current near the forts and the reefs, when she was took in charge and towed by Napoleon out of any danger(the weather was sunny and very calm, perfect for gunnery practice, but all windless sailing ships were unable to evolve). This episode proved that the steam power, not only still allowed the ship to bombard succesfully the forts, but also to save an almost doomed traditional three-deckers.

The Paixhans guns were also put to the test. During the Sinope naval engagement, the Russian fleet famously burned most of the Ottoman fleet, which was almost unable to respond. Later in Crimea, some relatively light, french floating batteries were able to bombard the forts, blewing up their magasines and burning the unprotected crews from above (they fired on parabolic angles). The batteries, of the Devastation class, were specially built for this task, and were also heavily protected, in fact, they were armoured floating batteries, and remained all safe from the Russian replies...

French naval forces, order of battle :
- Screw three deckers : Montebello (114 guns, converted in 1852) in service as 1854.
- Screw two deckers : Napoleon (1850), Charlemagne (1851), Jean Bart (1852), Austerlitz (1852), two Fleurus class (1853), two Duquesne class (1853), three Navarin class (1854).
- Screw frigates : Isly (1849, 2690 guns, 40 guns), Bellone (1853, 2350 tons, 36 guns) and Pomone (1845, 1900 tons, 36 guns).
- Screw Corvettes : The two D'Assas class (1854, 2100 tons, 16 guns), the three Primauguet class (1852, 1900 tons, 10 guns), Roland (1850, 1970 tons, 8 guns), and three iron hull ships : Reine Hortense (1846), Caton (1847), and Chaptal (1845).
- Screw Devastation class armoured floating batteries : Five purpose-built ships launched in 1855 and ready in time for the end of the war.
- Paddle frigates : 19 ships, all from 1841 to 1848. Ranging from 20 to 8 guns, and 2460 to 2820 tons.
- Paddle corvettes : 14 ships, from 1838 to 1851, ranging from 900 to 1600 tons, and from 4 to 10 guns, two were Iron hulled.
- Screw sloops : 5 ships : Biche, Corse, Lucifer, Marceau class, and Sentinelle. From 400 to 900 tons, 120-150 nhp, 2-6 guns. 13 other built after the war.
- Paddle sloops : 37 ships from 1830 to 1855, 400 to 900 tons, and 2-6 guns.
- Screw gunboats : 26 mixed sail-steam 2 to 4 guns ships, and 31 iron hulled one-gun, steam only batteries.
- Sailing ships of the Line : Valmy (114 guns), Hercules and Jemmapes (90 guns), Iéna, Inflexible and Sufren (82 guns), Jupiter (80) and Duperré (70).
- Sailing Frigates : 27 ships ranging from 38 to 56 guns.
- Sailing corvettes : 11 ships of 22 guns and one of 38 guns.
- Brigs : 21 ships equipped with 8 to 14 carronades and one with two heavy paixhans Mortars.

See also :