French Warships in the Age of Steam 1859-1914 – Design, Construction, Careers and Fates, Stephen S. Roberts

French Warships in the Age of Steam 1859-1914 – Design, Construction, Careers and Fates, Stephen S. Roberts

In 1859 the French launched the world’s first ironclad ocean-going warship, Gloire, and in a single blow made the wooden battleship obsolete. This book looks at all of the French warships that were built between the arrival of the Gloire and the outbreak of the First World War, a period in which the French Navy went through a great deal of turmoil, from the disaster of the Franco-Prussian War to the impact of the ‘Jeune Ecole’.

The book is split into three parts, each covering a different period in French naval history. Part I looks at the original attempts to adapt the traditional fleet of wooden sailing ships to the age of steam power and iron armour. The ships produced here are similar to those produced over the Channel with a few unusual exceptions. Part II looks at the brief era of the ‘Jeune Ecole’, where the emphasis moved away from the battleship and towards large numbers of small, heavily armed warships, torpedo armed ships and submarines. Part III looks at the period that is judged to have seen the influence of the ‘Jeune Ecole’ fade, and the French make belated attempt to resume the construction of the same larger ships as their naval rivals. The argument here is that this was done in response to the impact of the Fashoda crisis, where the French discovered they couldn’t counter the larger battleships of the Royal Navy and the growth of German naval power. 

The impact of the Jeune Ecole can be seen in the battleships covered in part two, which were restricted by an obsession with keeping size down as far as possible. This period saw the appearance of the first recognisable pre-Dreadnought battleships, with the Royal Sovereign class in Britain and the Brennus class in France. The French ships were 4,000 tons lighter than their British rivals, with fewer guns and thinner armour, and this gap remained in place until the Republic class entered service in 1907! The Jeune Ecole gained influence just as the previous period of uncertainty and experiment was coming to an end, with the casemate turret armed pre-Dreadnoughts replacing the mix of casemate ships, central battery ships and early heavy turret ships covered in Part 1.

This is very much a reference book rather than something most people will read through from end to end. Some 1,400 warships are covered in this book, so even at it’s massive size (500 large pages) that still comes to three per page. The focus of the text is on the design process, so we get sizable sections on ships that were designed but not built, while some of the longest entries are for ships that were redesigned several times. This is followed by detailed technical specifications, and then by a brief summary of each ship’s service career. The focus here is on key dates in the construction process, when they were commissioned and when and how they went out of service, with only the briefest mention of what they actually did.

If you are interested in the French navy of this period or in the history of warship design, then this will be an essential reference work, tracing the development of the warships of one of Europes main naval powers.


Part 1 – The Traditional Fleet Updated, 1859-1882
1 – Squadron Ironclads, 1859-1882
2 – Station and Coast Defence Ironclads, 1859-1882
3 – Cruisers, 1859-1882
4 – Avisos, Special Ships and Gunboats, 1859-1882
5 – Torpedo Boats, 1859-1882
6 – Transports, 1859-1882
7 – Paddle Steamers and Sailing Vessels, 1859-1882

Part 2- The Fleets of the Jeune Ecole, 1882-1897
8 – Battleships and Coast Defence Ships, 1882-1897
9 – Cruisers, 1882-1897
10 – Avisos and Gunboats, 1882-1897
11 – Torpedo Boats and Submarines, 1882-1897
12 – Transports and Sailing Vessels, 1882-1897

Part 3 – Towards a Modern Battle Fleet, 1897-1914
13 – Battleships, 1897-1914
14 – Cruisers, 1897-1914
15 – Torpedo Boat Destroyers, 1897-1914
16 – Torpedo Boats, 1897-1914
17 – Submarines, 1897-1914
18 – Minor Combatants and Auxiliaries

Author: Stephen S. Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 512
Publisher: Seaforth
Year: 2021

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