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

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Tango0112 Dec 2017 8:55 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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BrianW12 Dec 2017 11:06 p.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 7:00 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.


Tango0113 Dec 2017 9:46 a.m. PST

Good points my friend!.


Personal logo Virtualscratchbuilder Supporting Member of TMP Fezian13 Dec 2017 4:00 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 4:14 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 6:37 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 6:46 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 9:11 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.


Charlie 1214 Dec 2017 6:37 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 5:42 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.

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