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"French frigates: “confessedly weaker, are oftener in port…”" Topic


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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP12 Dec 2017 9:55 p.m. PST

"We often encounter references to the high esteem the British navy had for French men o' war. In novels they are reputed to be faster and handier than their British counterparts and highly valued by the British navy and coveted commands.

Like most other stories, this can be traced with some certainty to John Masefield's notoriously uninformed "Sea Life in Nelson's Time."…"
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Amicalement
Armand

BrianW13 Dec 2017 12:06 a.m. PST

Brian Lavery talks about this in Ship of the Line volume i, printed in 1985. His arguments is that while Captains might have wanted French frigates to command because of their sailing qualities, the Admiralty bureaucracy did not like them because of the maintenance issues.

During the French Revolutionary Wars, this problem was noted among the captured frigates, because the British navy was not maintaining a close blockade at the beginning of the wars. This meant that the frigates were at sea while the ships of the line were in port waiting. Later on, when the SOLs were expected to be at sea on close blockade, the problems of construction became evident in them as well.

Blutarski13 Dec 2017 8:00 a.m. PST

Slade's essay errs in important factual respects (see the reader comments). Its argument also assumes that France was designing its warships to meet the same budgetary constraints, operational requirements, service longevity standards and had the same degree of access to raw material (especially timber) as Great Britain.

The fact is that the naval designers of Great Britain were largely playing "catch-up" throughout the 18th century. It was continental designers who introduced the 74, the two-decked 80, the big frigate, larger overall warship dimensions and better overall speed capabilities. French and Spanish naval designers were not stupid people and the merit of their abilities can be confirmed by the number of captures taken into service by the Royal Navy and then committed to first-line service during wartime. Count the number of French and Spanish captures that fought at Trafalgar under the ensign of St George.

Closing on a slightly snarky note – HMS Implacable, disposed of in 1949 at 150 years of age as the longest-lived 74 gun ship in the Royal Navy, was in fact the French designed and built Duguay Trouin, launched in 1800 at Rochefort, France.

B

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP13 Dec 2017 10:46 a.m. PST

Good points my friend!.

Amicalement
Armand

Personal logo Virtualscratchbuilder Supporting Member of TMP Fezian13 Dec 2017 5:00 p.m. PST

The British were not real impressed with the stowage of French ships either. The sharp entry and steep deadrise that gave them their speed came at the price of stowage.

Personal logo Virtualscratchbuilder Supporting Member of TMP Fezian13 Dec 2017 5:14 p.m. PST

Count the number of French and Spanish captures that fought at Trafalgar under the ensign of St George.

Three French SOLs and a cutter, no Spanish.

Ironically, When Villeneuve set out from Toulon he had three ex-British and two ex-Spanish SOLs in his fleet. By Trafalgar he was down to 2 and 1 respectively.

StarCruiser13 Dec 2017 7:37 p.m. PST

French ships were designed for the "guerre de course" and were not usually expected to stay at sea for extended periods.

They didn't worry about stowage – or apparently habitability – as much as the British did.

There is also a general sense that construction quality dropped after the revolution (probably having something to do with Madame Guillotine?).

gladue13 Dec 2017 7:46 p.m. PST

Supposedly they had issues with a lack of seasoned wood. Probably relating to a need to build a neglected fleet.

Blutarski13 Dec 2017 10:11 p.m. PST

Exactly my point – 3 of the 27 line-of-battle-ships (11 pct) selected for Nelson's command in the most important single naval operation of the war were French captures.

Belleisle 74 – lasted 20 years.
Spartiate 74 – lasted 60 years.
Tonnant 80 – lasted 21 years.

B

Charlie 12 Inactive Member14 Dec 2017 7:37 p.m. PST

The issue is more subtle than the blog's authors rather broad and wrongheaded take. The French were early adopters of the groundbreaking work of Fredrik af Chapman (called, and rightfully so, the Father of Naval Architecture). The results were ship DESIGNS that were superior to the what the British were turning out in terms of sailing qualities, stability, etc. Now, where the British excelled was CONSTRUCTION. The British were masters in building strong, robust ships using the best methods and materials of the time. And if anyone thinks the French were inferior designers than why did the British so readily copy captured French ships? For example, the Leda class of RN frigates (47 built) used the lines of the French Hebe (captured in 1782). And the French Invincible became the model of British 2 deck, 3rd rates for decades.

It was once said that the best ship would be a French design built in a British yard. Which is what the British did, repeatedly.

StarCruiser15 Dec 2017 6:42 p.m. PST

Yep – British ships used plenty of "scarfed joints" along the strakes, along with thicker and more closely spaced ribs and so on and so forth…

They were building ships that could stay at sea for months at a time to -control- the sea, not just cruise around little causing a bit of trouble here and there.

huevans01116 Feb 2018 2:10 p.m. PST

Willis's view is that the French were faster, but the British more stoutly and strongly built including the frame and – more importantly – the wooden "skin" of the ship. The British taste for close action was partly founded on the idea that British gunpowder was better and British ships more thickly built than a Frenchman. So if they closed for hard pounding, the British would inflict exponentially greater casualties until the Frenchman was forced to strike.

Going by the casualty lists, it seems their Lordships in Admiralty had a point. Frenchmen suffered far more dire casualties than the British in battle.

Blutarski16 Feb 2018 4:49 p.m. PST

Hi huevans -
A couple of thoughts:

It is absolutely true that British frigates were built more sturdily than their French counterparts ….. going all the way back to the 1740's ….. and exhibited considerably different performance characteristics (See Robert Gardiner's very good multi-part essay on this topic, which appeared in Warship Volume III). It is also true (at least during the 1794-1815 period) that British gunpowder was of better quality (on the order of 10-15 pct more powerful per unit of weight)

On the other hand, having investigated this topic of frigate versus frigate actions in some detail, I would suggest that the casualty differentials (I assume we are talking about the 1794-1805 timeframe) could be accounted for simply as a function better British gunnery – faster rate of fire, doctrine of hulling fire from close ranges, and widespread British use of carronades.

I do not have time at the moment to go into deepest detail, but some points to consider -

> Go here – PDF link – for some details on penetration capabilities of naval muzzle-loading cannon of the period versus oak. Massive over-penetration characteristics at the close ranges (</= 300 yards) within which hulling fire was typically conducted.

> Consider that the greatest producer of crew casualties aboard a wooden-hulled warship was not the cannon-ball, but the splinters generated by the cannon-ball when it pierced the hull of the ship … and that the greatest volume of splinters was produced by a cannon-ball striking at the minimum velocity necessary for penetrating the ship's side.

If you do the math comparing the damage produced by ship A whose guns fire every three minutes with 2/3s of hits scored upon the hull of the opponent versus ship B whose guns fire once every four minutes with 1/3 or 1/4 of hits scored upon the hull of her opponent (and reducing gunnery volume of the respective ships to a degree commensurate with hull damage suffered) I bargain that you will observe a dramatic differential in hull damage (hence crew casualties by inference) after an action of, say, 60 minutes duration.

FWIW.

B

StarCruiser17 Feb 2018 8:41 a.m. PST

Still love this video of a Wasa gun being fired off at a simulated ship:

YouTube link

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP18 Feb 2018 3:19 p.m. PST

Many thanks!.

Amicalement
Armand

huevans01122 Feb 2018 6:09 a.m. PST

On the other hand, having investigated this topic of frigate versus frigate actions in some detail, I would suggest that the casualty differentials (I assume we are talking about the 1794-1805 timeframe) could be accounted for simply as a function better British gunnery – faster rate of fire, doctrine of hulling fire from close ranges, and widespread British use of carronades.

I do not have time at the moment to go into deepest detail, but some points to consider -
> Consider that the greatest producer of crew casualties aboard a wooden-hulled warship was not the cannon-ball, but the splinters generated by the cannon-ball when it pierced the hull of the ship … and that the greatest volume of splinters was produced by a cannon-ball striking at the minimum velocity necessary for penetrating the ship's side.

If you do the math comparing the damage produced by ship A whose guns fire every three minutes with 2/3s of hits scored upon the hull of the opponent versus ship B whose guns fire once every four minutes with 1/3 or 1/4 of hits scored upon the hull of her opponent (and reducing gunnery volume of the respective ships to a degree commensurate with hull damage suffered) I bargain that you will observe a dramatic differential in hull damage (hence crew casualties by inference) after an action of, say, 60 minutes duration.

That is the mainstream view and I certainly shared it. However, I also recall that Willis notes that little gunnery drill and practice was performed by Hood's fleet during the cruise before the Glorious First of June.

This makes me wonder if British gunnery skill and speed were not more a function of myth and national legend than actual historical fact?

On another issue, it's odd that the scientifically adept French did not understand and copy the use of carronades, given how devastating those weapons were.

StarCruiser22 Feb 2018 8:24 a.m. PST

I suspect that part of the reason the French were loath to adopt the carronade due to it's short useful range.

Remember that they tended to prefer to shoot for the rigging and sails since most missions were meant to support land operations, not control the seas.

Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP22 Feb 2018 11:27 a.m. PST

Good point!.

Amicalement
Armand

Blutarski24 Feb 2018 1:36 p.m. PST

Hi huevans011 -

"That is the mainstream view and I certainly shared it. However, I also recall that Willis notes that little gunnery drill and practice was performed by Hood's fleet during the cruise before the Glorious First of June."

> One must take into account the chaotic state of the French Navy in 1794 as a result of the Revolution. The officer corps had been gutted. Administration was in a state of collapse, replaced by indiscipline and mutiny. William Laird Clowes ("The Royal Navy") conducted a detailed evaluation of the frigate actions of the French Revolutionary War period which is worth reading. There is also a good assessment provided by Peter Padfield in his very fine book, "Guns at Sea". See also Julien de la Graviere's "Sketches of the Last Naval War" in which he cites Admiral Kerguelen's complaint to the Revolutionary Convention that their disbandment of the specialized corps of naval gunners established under Choiseul's naval reforms and their drafting of available naval gunnery specialists for the army had placed the French navy at great disadvantage in terms of its gunnery efficiency. Certainly, there were lax and hidebound captains in the Royal Navy; not everyone was a Douglas. But, in comparison to the French navy of the Revolution, the RN was a much more efficient organization on all levels.

The dissimilar gunnery doctrines (or technical abilities) of the British and French must also be taken into account: hulling fire on the part of the British; disabling fire on the part of the French. Hulling fire, by definition, produced casualties, whereas disabling fire directed aloft would cause relatively few.

- – -

"This makes me wonder if British gunnery skill and speed were not more a function of myth and national legend than actual historical fact?"

> It is my opinion that great care must be taken when reading accounts from the 19th century British school of triumphalist naval history. Nevertheless, when reduced to unarguable basics, it is extremely difficult to dispute the case that the Royal Navy enjoyed periods of material ship versus ship tactical superiority over the navies of France and Spain in the period from about 1750 to 1805 or somewhat thereafter – in specific: the Seven Years' War, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War. Contemporary commentary from serving British officers observed that British rate of fire, particularly in close action, was more rapid than that of their French and especially Spanish opponents. French and Spanish accounts, circa Trafalgar, also commented upon the superior ability of British gun-crews to maintain a strong rate of fire over time … something that was attributed by some to a better health and diet of British crews.

After 1805 or so, British quality went into a slow decline due to its massive expansion of the navy and post-1805 "victory disease"; much of this decline in quality was, however, masked by the RN's massive superiority in numbers of ships at sea.).

On the other hand, in the period prior to the Seven Years' War and during the American Revolutionary War, the French navy was every bit as efficient as the RN. (the persistent problem traditionally confronting the French Navy was the inability of France to resolve the budgetary challenges of simultaneously maintaining both a strong land army and a strong navy).

- – -

"On another issue, it's odd that the scientifically adept French did not understand and copy the use of carronades, given how devastating those weapons were."

> I don't believe that the French Navy necessarily failed to grasp the utility of the carronade. By the start of the French Revolutionary War, all standard classes of ships in the French Navy counted two to six 36-lbr brass carronades ("obus") among their armament (see James' "Naval History of Great Britain", Vol 1, p.54 for details; also Winfield's "French Warships in the Age of Sail 1786 – 1861"). The first generation French "obus" design was a somewhat clumsy design, but a re-designed and more efficient weapon became available during the Napoleonic War. It is undeniable that the French Navy of the Napoleonic War period did not embrace the carronade to the same enthusiasm as the Royal Navy, but that might have something to do with doctrine – the Royal Navy maintained a "Fight at close range" doctrine; the French Navy maintained a "Flight" doctrine whereby the mission was always paramount and dictated that battle was justifiable only when failure to do so would jeopardize accomplishment of the mission. That having been said, Napoleon's post-Trafalgar fleet reconstruction program actually included a very large increase in the number of carronades to be carried by French warships of all classes.

An interesting aside to this is that not every British warship in the carronade era was necessarily groaning under the weight of innumerable carronades on its of weather-decks. In the early period (American Revolution through French Revolutionary War), the large majority of carronades were found aboard non-battle-line ships of lesser rates (frigates, ship-sloops, brigs, etc). The line-of-battle ships carried only a limited number of (in general) smaller caliber carronades, if they carried them at all. Carronades remained in fairly modest numbers in the line of battle as late as the Glorious First of June. It really was not until the Napoleonic War period that line-of-battleships began to appear with really heavy carronade armaments, and even then there does not appear to have been much discernible rhyme or reason to the outfitting program – for every heavy ship generously fitted out with carronades, one would find a number with very modest outfits and some (usually old ships) still with none at all. Carronade armament in the Royal Navy is a very frustrating topic to research, as they seem to appear and disappear in unpredictable ways from one re-fit to another.

- – -

OK, I've gone way off the deep end here. Hope this helps.

B

huevans01126 Feb 2018 3:48 p.m. PST

Again thank you for taking the time to assist us with your research. Much appreciated, B.

Blutarski26 Feb 2018 6:11 p.m. PST

Hi huevans011 -

Do let me know when I get too annoying … ;-)

B

Fatuus Natural09 Mar 2018 5:50 a.m. PST

Do let me know when I get too annoying … ;-)

It's always a pleasure to read posts from someone who really knows the subject.

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