The armoured cruisers was one of the key classes of warships in the last decades of the Ninetenth Century. They combined impressive speed for the period with fairly powerful guns and reasonably thick armour. The idea was that they could outfight anything that could catch them, and run away from any of the battleships that could sink them, making them potentially dangerous opponents for the Royal Navy, which relied on large numbers of lighter cruisers to protect the extensive sea lanes. For some smaller navies they even became an alternative to the battleship (and in many cases were just as large as the battleships built alongside them).
This is an excellent study of these unfamiliar warships. The author knows his material, and gives us an indepth account of the often complex design process. One interesting feature of the French system was a desire to make each ship slightly different, in a misjudged attempt to prevent them all becoming obsolete at the same time. In the end all this achieved was to slow down the design and construction of these ships, increase their cost, and make it more difficult to maintain them as it was often impossible to swap parts between sister ships. It also failed to achieve its main purpose, as the minor differences between ships in the same class didn’t have any real impact on their usefulness. The overly complex organisation of the French navy, with several bodies having a say on the design of these ships also caused problems, at least until some of the committees began to be ignored.
The book is splendidly illustrated, although I would have liked some pictures of the interiors of these ships (although I suspect those pictures are very rare). The plans are some of the best I’ve ever seen, and combine detail with clarity to give a really clear picture of the internal layout of these ships. This is particually the case with the plans of the gun turrets, casemates and associated magazines and shell rooms, which go as far as showing the location of individual shells. This helps give a much clearer picture of how these ships actually operated in battle.
These French armoured cruisers would have held their own against their British equivilents, but unlike the British ships they were never tested in a major battle. This was probably fortunate for the track record of the British armoured cruisers in surface battles wasn’t great. Their most famous defeat came at Coronel, where HMS Monmouth and HMS Good Hope were easily sunk by more modern German armoured cruisers. They also suffered at Jutland, where three (Warrior, Defence and Black Prince) were sunk by the German battle fleet. In both cases the problem was that the older ships were outgunned and lacked the speed to either dash in to short range where they might have done some damage or to escape. However the French (and British) armoured cruisers did suffer at the hands of the U-boats, having been designed before the submarine was anything other than a novelty.
The battlecruisers outclassed these armoured cruisers in two key areas – speed and firepower. The first of the type, the British Invincible class ships, were armed with eight 12in (305mm) guns and their turbine engines gave them a top speed of 25 knots. The last French armoured cruisers did see a move to a single calibre of main gun, but were armed with fourteen 194mm guns, giving them much less firepower. They could reach 23 knots, so weren’t much slower, but the difference was significant. However both types carried a similar level of armour, so despite the clear advantages of the battlecruiser, the two types shared the same disadvantages. They were both so big and too expensive that it was difficult not to use them in the battle line, but also too thinly armoured to survive in that environment.
The book ends with a detailed look at the service careers of these ships. They never got to fight the Royal Navy, the opponent they were designed to face, and the Anglo-French agreement that the Royal Navy would face the Germans in the North Sea while the French fleet focused on the Meditteranean meant that they didn’t see much service against the Imperial German fleet. However they were used in the Dardanelles, and in the early attempts to block the Austro-Hungarian fleet in the Adriatic. However they were too vulnerable to the U-boats, and by the end of the war they were spending most of their time in port.
This is an excellent study of some of the most powerful warships of their time.
1 – First Steps: Dupuy-De-Lôme and the Amiral Charner Class
2 – The Cruiser Flagships Pothuau and D’Entrecasteaux
3 – The Fast Armoured Cruiser Jeanne d’Arc
4 – The Station Cruisers of the Dupleix Class
5 – The Fleet Cruisers of the Gueydon Class
6 – The Fleet Cruisers of the Gloire Class
7 – The Large Fleet Cruisers of the Léon Gambetta Class
8 – The Quest for Speed: Jules Michelet and Ernest Renan
9 – The Last Armoured Cruisers: Edgar Quinet and Waldeck-Rousseau
10 – Organisation
11 – The Great War 1914-1918
12 – Postscript
Author: John Jordan and Philippe Caresse