1816-1830: Rebuilding a Fleet
        The French navy emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in a gravely weakened condition. It lost almost a third of its ships of the line in the fall of Napoleon's empire. Its personnel was in disarray because of a shortage of seamen and the return from exile of many royalist officers. It had no money, because France was bankrupt from the war and had to pay an enormous indemnity to the victors before their troops would leave her soil. Most important, its naval policy had not worked: after 22 years of concerted French efforts to destroy the British navy and merchant marine, Britain on 1 January 1815 had 214 ships of the line built and building and a merchant marine that was larger and more prosperous than ever, while France was left with a navy and a merchant marine that had been all but driven from the seas.
        The navy's main remaining assets were its ships and its administrative structure, but the ships disappeared rapidly. In mid-April 1814 the navy still had a large force of 104 ships of the line and 54 frigates afloat or under construction. By August this had fallen to 73 of the line and 42 frigates, due primarily to the surrender of ships located in European ports and building in shipyards outside France's new borders. By late 1819 the fleet had shrunk to 58 of the line and 34 frigates afloat or on the ways, most of the others having been found to be too rotten to be worth repairing. In 1817 the navy estimated that, at this rate of decay, the fleet would disappear completely in ten years.
        In response, Baron Portal, minister of marine from 1818-1821, developed the Program of 1820, the first of the comprehensive plans which shaped the evolution of the navy during the next forty years. This program defined the composition of a realistically attainable fleet, set a target date for its completion, and determined the amount of money required per year to meet the target. In its final form, promulgated in 1824, the program provided for a fleet of 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates afloat. Portal calculated that this force could be created in ten years with an annual budget of 65 million francs (including 6 million for the colonies). He secured a political consensus to work towards this fiscal goal, even though only 50 millions could be provided in 1820. Portal's program is listed along with the sail portions of subsequent French naval programs in table 1.



Ships of the Line    
1st class1010101
2nd class1010101
3rd class1515154
4th class5554
1st class1717155
2nd class1717206
3rd class1616159
Open battery512205
Brigs and Avisos    
Large brigs10103025
Brig Avisos1520209
Smaller types--503044

NOTES TO TABLE 1 The sailing ships listed in the 1857 program were those then in existence and were all expected to disappear without replacement during the next eight years.
The numbers refer to ships to be maintained essentially complete, either afloat or on the ways. The Programs of 1820 and 1837 also provided for 13 ships of the line and 16 frigates under construction, and the Program of 1846 included 4 and 16 respectively.

        Portal's program took advantage of the few weaknesses that could be seen in Britain's naval position. It reversed the traditional relationship between battleships and cruising ships in the fleet--as recently as 1814, France had had twice as many ships of the line as frigates. The new program emphasized frigates to exploit the enormous problems that Britain would face in trying to defend worldwide trade and colonies. It retained a battle fleet, not to stand up to Britain alone, but to serve as a nucleus for an anti-British coalition fleet. This battle fleet was also designed to ensure that France would face no other maritime challenges: if she could not be number one, she could at least be an undisputed number two.
        Refinements were soon made to the program. The navy soon realized that ships left on the building ways, if properly ventilated and covered by a protective shed, would last almost indefinitely without decaying and would also have a longer service life after launching because their timbers would be better seasoned. Equally important, maintaining ships in this way was highly economical. The navy eventually decided that a third of the planned 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates would not be launched but would be kept complete on the ways. An additional 13 battleships and 16 frigates would be on the ways at less advanced stages of construction. These decisions led to a large increase during the 1820s in the number of building ways in the dockyards and in the number of ships laid down on them. At the same time the navy's ordinary budget slowly increased, finally reaching the 65 million franc goal in 1830.
        One reason the French navy survived the lean years after the Napoleonic Wars was the constant demand for its services. Within a few years naval stations were established in the Antilles, the Levant, and off the east coast of South America, and others were later created in the Pacific and in the Far East. Reoccupation and development of the few colonies left to France was given high priority. One of the navy's most famous shipwrecks occurred when the frigate Méduse was lost in 1816 while leading a force to reoccupy Senegal. A few small ships were assigned to each of the reoccupied colonies for local duties. Among these were the navy's first two steamers, Voyageur and Africain, built for Senegal in 1819. Scientific activities were also prominent. In 1820 (a relatively typical year), one corvette was in the process of circumnavigating the globe, two ships were surveying the Brazilian coast, three were producing definitive charts of the French coast, and one was charting the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
        A series of crises gave the navy some new operational experience. In 1823 French troops invaded Spain to put down a revolution which had begun in 1820. Over 90 ships including four ships of the line supported this operation. In 1827, during the Greek war for independence, a French squadron joined British and Russian forces in annihilating the Egyptian fleet in the battle of Navarino. In 1830, following several years of diplomatic disputes, the navy landed an army and took the city of Algiers. The invasion force included 11 ships of the line and 25 frigates.
        Less sensational activities, including support for French occupation troops in Spain, Greece, and Algeria, large diplomatic missions to Haiti in 1825 and Brazil in 1828, and an expedition to Madagascar in 1829, created constant demands for additional ships and men. The active fleet of 76 ships planned in the 1820 budget exceeded the number of ships in commission in 1789, and unanticipated requirements increased the number of ships actually used during all or part of 1820 to 103. By 1828 this figure had exactly doubled to 206 ships, and it remained at this high level during the extensive operations in 1829 and 1830.

1830-1840: Retrenchment and Experimentation
        In 1830 a liberal revolution brought to power King Louis Philippe. The new king's backers believed that high government spending was one of the main causes of economic distress and political disorder, and they immediately imposed major budget cuts. The navy, which had just reached the expenditure level of 65 million francs per year called for by the Program of 1820, was ordered to cut its budget request for 1831 to 60.5 millions. The restrictions on spending continued in effect throughout the 1830s, and the ordinary navy budget did not reach 65 million francs again until 1838. Even more serious, extraordinary appropriations, which had funded the remarkable expansion of the navy's operations in the 1820s, were even more severely limited and did not reach the level of 1828-30 again until the crisis of 1840.
        The impact of these cuts was particularly evident in the shipbuilding program because the navy's other expenses, notably personnel and operations, were relatively inflexible. In late 1834 the navy increased the proportion of Portal's fleet to be kept on the ways from one third to one half to allow the dockyards to begin a few new ships with funds which otherwise would have been used to maintain some older ships. This change, along with other changes made to Portal's program during the 1820s, was formalized in a new program promulgated by royal ordinance on 1 February 1837. The program also confirmed the navy's need for two ship classes, the 74-gun ship of the line and the 3rd class frigate, which some politicians wanted to abolish.
        Despite the new program, the strength of the fleet declined in the late 1830s. The program called for 53 ships of the line and 66 frigates afloat and on the ways, but between December 1834 and December 1839 the total number of battleships fell from 51 to 46 while frigates fell from 60 to 56. The deficit was in the number of ships under construction, a situation which was aggravated by the fact that operational requirements kept the number of frigates afloat substantially higher than in the new plan. The strength of the French fleet is summarized in Table 2 for the period 1818-59.




NOTES TO TABLE 2: Data are as of the end of the year and are comparable to British figures for the beginning of the following year. ACT = active at any time during the year, RES = not used at all during the year. "Line" and "frigates" include screw ships; other steamers are in the steam column. The frigate figures for 1859 also include the first "ironclad frigates."
An expanded version of this table is provided in Appendix A with data for each year.

        The distribution of the fleet during the 1830s remained essentially as it had been at the end of the 1820s. The station cruisers remained busy, and were augmented by special forces sent in response to disputes with Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, and Argentina. An expeditionary force bombarded the fortifications of Vera Cruz in Mexico in 1838. The South Atlantic station began a blockade of Buenos Aires in the same year, and a special expedition finally secured a treaty from the Argentines in 1840. In Africa, the navy took posession of the mouth of the Gabon River in 1839 and subsequently established a few trading posts in the Gulf of Guinea. The navy was particularly active in scientific expeditions in the late 1830s, undertaking several circumnavigations of the globe.
        The navy was also very active in Europe. In 1831 a squadron fought its way up the Tagus to Lisbon in a dispute with Portugal. Another squadron supported Belgian independence against the Dutch between 1831 and 1833, and another occupied Ancona following insurrections in Italy in 1832. Naval stations in Spain were reestablished in 1834 in response to the Carlist revolution in Spain. In 1836 and 1837 a fleet was maintained off Tunis to prevent interference with the French occupation of the interior of Algeria. In 1838 this force was shifted to the Levant as relations between the Sultan of Turkey and his nominal vassal, Mohammed Ali of Egypt, approached the breaking point.

1840-1852: Ferment
        The Levant crisis gave the French navy its biggest test between 1815 and the Crimean War in 1854. War between Turkey and Egypt broke out in 1839, generating a crisis between France, which supported Mohammed Ali, and Britain, which supported Turkey. The French Levant squadron reached an average level of 16 ships, including nine ships of the line, during the first half of 1840. It also reached a level of operational readiness that was admired even by British naval officers. In the meantime, the French decided to launch three ships of the line from its reserve of ships on the ways and take other measures to raise the number in commission to the 20 called for under the Program of 1837.
        Despite this array of French naval strength, the English in July 1840 succeeded in forming a coalition with Austria, Prussia, and Russia to force Mohammed Ali to withdraw. An intense diplomatic crisis between England and France ensued, but France found it had no choice but to back down. The English squadron in the Levant was larger than the French (it contained about 14 ships of the line to the French 9) and it was backed by much greater resources at home in money and men. France tried to launch and commission 12 frigates then on the ways, but suspended the effort when it realized it would not be able to find enough seamen to man them until the fishing fleet returned from the Grand Banks at the end of the year.
        The crisis showed that the naval policy followed by France since 1815 had grave weaknesses that could no longer be ignored. It demonstrated that the fleet of the 1837 program could not cope with the British battle fleet in cases such as 1840 in which France had no allies. It also showed that the policy of retaining ships on the ways for rapid launch during a crisis was an illusion. On the positive side, the crisis led to a relaxation of the fiscal constraints on the navy--it was clear that the navy's requirements had outgrown Portal's standard 65 million franc budget. The resources made available to the navy between 1816 and 1859, both money and men, are listed in Appendix B.
        In the 1840s the navy focused its attention on steam as an alternative way to offset British seapower. The program of 1837 had included 40 steamers of a single type (150nhp and above), but since then much larger steamers had become practicable. In 1842 the French navy established a program for a steam navy that would parallel the sail navy. It was to include 40 combat steamers: five "steam frigates" of 540nhp, fifteen of 450nhp, and twenty "steam corvettes" of 220nhp. The smaller ships already on hand (mostly the 160nhp Sphinx class) remained useful for messenger, transport, and colonial duties, and thirty were included in the program.
        At first, not much progress was made with the new program because of lack of construction facilities and money, but studies of the role of steam in the fleet continued. The most famous was a pamphlet published in 1844 by the Prince de Joinville, a son of the king who had chosen the navy as his career. Joinville claimed that steam would allow France to offset British supremacy in numbers by concentrating its forces at a point of its choosing, overwhelming local opposition, and either ravaging the coast or landing an army. His pamphlet triggered a major naval scare in England and the construction of many new fortifications along the English coast.
        Joinville went on to direct a commission whose work led to a new steamer program at the end of 1845. This program increased the size of the planned steam fleet to 100 ships, including 10 frigates and 20 corvettes. Joinville wanted steam frigates to be true combatants, with an armament of 30 large guns and engines of 600nhp or more. His steam corvettes were also to be combatants, but were expected to serve primarily as avisos. They were to have around eight large guns and engines of 400nhp. The plans for the frigate Isly and the corvette Roland conformed to these guidelines. The remaining 70 ships were to carry out the now-traditional messenger and transport duties of steamers and were assigned two guns at most and engines ranging from 300 to 90nhp. This program is listed along with the steam portion of other French naval programs in table 3.



1 Feb 1837 (Program of 1837)        
 40 steamers of 150nhp and above
11 Feb 1842        
  5 steam frigates, 540nhp
 15 steam frigates, 450nhp
 20 steam corvettes, 320-220nhp
 30 steamers of 160nhp and less
10 Nov 1845        
 10 combatant steamers, 1st class (frigates), 600nhp
 20 combatant steamers, 2nd class (corvettes), 400nhp
 20 light steamers, 1st class, 300nhp
 30 light steamers, 2nd class, 200-180nhp
 20 light steamers, 3rd class, 100-90nhp
22 Nov 1846 (Program of 1846)        
 10 frigates, 600-450nhp, 30-20 guns
 20 corvettes, 1st class, 400-320nhp, 12-8 guns
 20 corvettes, 2nd class, 300-220nhp, 6-4 guns
 30 avisos, 1st class, 200-160nhp
 20 avisos, 2nd class, 120nhp and less
  2 floating batteries, 500-400nhp, 50-40 guns
8 Jan 1857 (Program of 1857)        
The Combat Fleet        
 25 ships of the line, large, 900nhp, 90 guns
 15 ships of the line, small, 700nhp, 70 guns
 20 frigates, 650nhp, 40 guns
 30 corvettes, 400nhp, 14 guns
 30 avisos, 1st class, 250nhp, 4 guns
 30 avisos, 2nd class, 150nhp, 4 guns
The Transport Fleet (to carry 40,000 men)        
 27 sail frigates converted to screw transports,
  250-200nhp, 4 guns
 20 paddle frigates
 47 other screw transports
The Transition Fleet (Existing, not to be replaced)        
 26 sail ships of the line converted to steam
  3 "mixed propulsion corvettes" (Biche, Sentinelle, Zélée)
  7 paddle corvettes
 40 paddle avisos

NOTES TO TABLE 3: The principal modifications to the Program of 1857 between January 1857 and its promulgation in November 1857 were the deletion of two ship of the line conversions (Friedland and Jemmapes) and the reduction in the number of sail frigates to be converted to transports from 27 to 5. Many of these were converted instead to steam frigates.

        The main strength of the navy remained in the sail fleet, however. In the mid-1840s Parliament became concerned about its deterioration. The minister of marine, Vice Admiral de Mackau, took advantage of the opportunity and presented a new naval program in 1846. In essence, it combined Portal's sail fleet and Joinville's steam fleet in a single program which was to be achieved in 7 years with the navy's regular budgets and special appropriations totaling 93 million francs.
        The program contained several innovative features, all involving steam. While drawing up the program, the navy decided to reduce the number of ships of the line under construction over and above the programmed 40 from 13 to 4, on the grounds that the progress of steam made it prudent not to build up too big a reserve of these expensive ships. (The corresponding reserve of 16 sail frigates was retained.) It also decided to adopt one of Joinville's recommendations and give part of the sail fleet auxiliary steam propulsion. Parliamentary pressure caused the navy to increase the horsepower of these ships, and the final plan (not incorporated in the royal ordinance) called for four ships of the line with 500nhp engines, four frigates with 250nhp machinery, and four corvettes with 120nhp auxiliary machinery. This decision led, through many permutations, to the conversion of the ships of the line Austerlitz and Jean Bart and the construction of the corvettes Biche and Sentinelle. Parliamentary pressure also caused the navy to add to the program two floating batteries of around 450nhp in response to the British blockships of the Blenheim type. These, however, were soon cancelled.
        The execution of the Program of 1846 was interrupted by the revolution of 1848, in which Louis Philippe was overthrown and replaced by a republic. The revolution ushered in a new period of fiscal retrenchment, which severely slowed down naval shipbuilding. The budgets of 1847 and 1848 had each included the planned annual installments of 13.3 million francs, but the 1849 budget included only 2.7 million for the program and later budgets included nothing. By the time naval activity revived in the early 1850s, further advances in steam technology had rendered the Program of 1846 obsolete.
        The navy's operations in the 1840s were concentrated first and foremost in the Mediterranean. The Levant crisis of 1840 was succeeded by a series of operations associated with the conquest of North Africa, including an expedition led by Joinville which bombarded the Moroccan port of Mogador in 1844. A new crisis in Portugal caused the French to send another expedition to the Tagus in 1847. Elsewhere, Joinville in the frigate Belle Poule brought the ashes of Napoleon back to Paris from St. Helena in 1840. Expeditions were dispatched in 1842 and 1843 to occupy the Marquisas Islands in the Pacific, and French control was extended to the Society Islands in 1844. In 1843 the French occupied the islands of Nossi Bé and Mayotte off Madagascar, and a joint Anglo-French force bombarded Tamatave in 1845. In 1845 the French signed a treaty with Britain which required them to retain a force of 26 ships on the West African coast to help suppress the slave trade. Between 1845 and 1852 the navy was also involved in operations in Argentina, the dispute with that country having flared up again.
        The 1848 revolution in France triggered revolutions throughout Europe which kept the navy busy in European waters, especially in Sicily, at Rome, and in the Adriatic. Fiscal retrenchment, however, soon led to a substantial reduction in the number of ships in commission. Among the casualties was the West African station, which declined from 26 ships at the end of 1847 to its pre-treaty strength of around 8 ships at the end of 1849 and then to 3 ships at the end of 1851.

1852-1859: Towards a New Fleet
        On 2 December 1851 Louis Napoleon carried out a coup d'état which gave him control of the government and made him, a year later, Emperor Napoleon III. The new regime quickly embarked on a revolutionary transformation of the battle fleet from sail to steam, which it finally codified in 1857 in a new naval program just before another revolution took place.
        In early 1852, the first French screw ship of the line to run trials, Charlemagne, demonstrated that the large screw-propelled warship was a practical reality. At this time, the navy estimated that Britain had afloat or under construction 10 such ships compared to 3 for France. Shortly thereafter, the new French government substantially increased the funds available to the navy for shipbuilding in 1852 and 1853, and in mid-1852 the navy decided to use the funds to convert seven more ships of the line along the lines of Charlemagne.
        In justifying this program, the minister of marine told his senior advisory council in May 1852 that he felt France's strategy in a war with England should be to strike hard at British commerce while threatening a rapid, unexpected landing on the coasts of the United Kingdom. The need for speed and carefully coordinated operations ruled out the construction of additional sailing ships. Converted ships like Charlemagne could make a substantial contribution with their dependable speed of around 8 knots. (They were also a practical necessity, as they made use of existing matériel and could be completed more quickly than new ships.) Fast ships of the line like Napoléon would be even more appropriate, but the navy avoided committing itself to this type before the trials of the prototype. The sensational success of Napoléon in August 1852 caused the navy to start additional ships of the type as quickly as possible. Five new ships and one conversion (Eylau) were begun in 1853 alone.
        In England, the return of a Bonaparte to absolute power in France aroused old fears and triggered a full-blown naval scare in 1852 and 1853. Between August and November 1852 the Admiralty responded to developments in France by ordering the conversion to steam of eleven additional ships of the line, and more soon followed.
        Ironically, this period of rivalry soon gave way to a period of close cooperation as the two nations combined their efforts in the Crimean War against Russia. In September 1853 the fleets of the two powers entered the Dardanelles together, and they continued to coordinate their operations in the Black Sea and the Baltic until the end of the war in 1856. They also shared some of their latest technological developments, the British receiving the plans of the French armored floating batteries and the French receiving plans of British gunboats.
        In October 1853, Napoléon gave dramatic proof of the importance of steam by towing the French flagship Ville de Paris up the Turkish straits against both wind and current while the British fleet had to wait for more favorable conditions. Subsequent operations reinforced the lesson that only screw steamers could be considered combatant warships. In October 1854, while preparing the list of construction work to be undertaken in 1855, the ministry of marine proposed converting to steam all 33 of its remaining sail ships of the line in the next several years. One third of the resultant fleet was to be fast battleships like Napoléon (including a few conversions like Eylau), and the remainder were to be conversions like Charlemagne. While the policy implications of the proposal were considered, conversions of existing ships of the line were carried out as quickly as the ships could be spared from war operations.
        The Crimean War placed heavy operational demands on the navy. Fleets were required in both the Black Sea and the Baltic. The French used 12 ships of the line in the Baltic during 1854 and three in 1855; they used 16 in the Black Sea in 1854 and 31 during 1855 (including about 19 as transports). The principal naval engagements involving the French were all against fortifications: the capture of Bomarsund in the Baltic in August 1854, the bombardment of Sevastopol in the Black Sea in October 1854, the capture of Kinburn in the Black Sea in October 1855, and the bombardment of Sveaborg in the Baltic in November 1855. The bombardment of Sevastopol was carried out by ships of the line and was a failure--Napoléon, one of many ships damaged, was forced to withdraw after a shell produced a large leak in her side. In contrast, the bombardment of Kinburn exactly a year later made extensive use of technology developed during the war and was a success. The French armored floating batteries proved practically impervious to the Russian shells, while groups of gunboats, mortar vessels, and armed paddle steamers also inflicted heavy damage on the defenders.
        In May 1855 the minister circulated to the ports a list of questions raised by the October 1854 memo regarding the composition of the battle fleet. In August 1855 a navy commission, formed at the Emperor's direction to examine the responses, drafted a formal program for the modernization of the fleet. The key elements of its program (shown in tables 1 and 3) were a combat fleet of 40 fast battleships and 20 fast frigates and a fleet of transports large enough to transport an army of 40,000 men. While the combat fleet was being built, the navy was to rely on a transition fleet of screw ships converted from sail, which was to be completed as quickly as possible. This plan called for the expenditure of 245 million francs in 13 years beginning in 1857. The commission was reconvened in December 1855 to consider the implications of the success of the armored floating batteries at the bombardment of Kinburn in October. It completed the technical and fiscal details of the program in November 1856, and the Emperor referred the plan to the Conseil d'Etat in January 1857 for study. Three changes were made during 1857. Two ship of the line conversions were deleted (Friedland and Jemmapes). The number of transports was reduced from 94 to 72, probably reflecting a decision to abandon all but 5 of the frigate conversions and instead convert some sail frigates to steam frigates. The financial arrangements were also changed to provide for the expenditure of 235 million francs over 14 years beginning in 1858. The final program was promulgated by imperial decree on 23 November 1857.
        While refining the technical portion of the program in late 1856, the navy's engineers under Dupuy de Lôme, designer of Napoléon, had included a clause allowing the minister to replace ship types in the program with others equivalent in military strength and construction cost. Dupuy de Lôme knew better than most how quickly the program would become obsolete, because he was already working on the plans for the world's first "armored frigates." In March 1858 the minister ordered the first three of these, including Gloire, and simultaneously cancelled construction of two fast 70-gun ships of the line, Desaix and Sébastopol, which had not yet been laid down and a proposed class of fast 40-gun steam frigates. By October 1858 the navy had decided that the new armored frigates were not only equivalent but superior to line of battle ships. At the same time, it replaced the fast frigates in the program with smaller "cruising frigates." (Two similar "station frigates," Vénus and Minerve, followed by a series of "armored corvettes," were eventually built in the 1860s.) The Program of 1857 remained the legal basis for the modernization of the French fleet to the end of the 1860s, but the ships built under it bore little resemblence to those in the initial 1855 proposal.
        The navy saw considerable action in the 1850s besides the Crimean War. In 1851 a French force carried out a reprisal bombardment of the Moroccan port of Salé. In 1853 the navy occupied the Pacific island of New Caledonia. In 1855 the French in Senegal began to expand their control upriver into the interior of Africa. In 1856 England and France agreed upon joint operations for the revision of their treaties with China, and two joint naval and military campaigns were conducted before another treaty settlement was made in 1860. During this operation, the French occupied Saigon in 1859.
        Elsewhere, the traditional Anglo-French rivalry was quick to revive. A French naval and military intervention in the Danube principalities after the Crimean War aroused fears of a Franco-Russian alliance. The Franco-Austrian war of 1859, in which France helped Italy become independent, antagonized British conservatives as much as it delighted liberals. The French navy helped transport and supply the French armies in Italy and blockaded the northern Adriatic ports. Such activity focused British attention on the naval balance, and they found that France had reached near parity in fast steam ships of the line and had an advantage in the number of ironclad warships under construction. In February 1859 the Admiralty triggered the third major Anglo-French naval scare since 1844, which intensified in 1860-61 as France led the world into the ironclad era.






NOTE TO APPENDIX B: The amounts budgeted and actually disbursed (columns 2 and 3) are in millions of francs.

Copyright © Stephen S. Roberts 2004-2015.