So there’s an important question that needs to be asked in this crazy story about the evolution of the battleship. Or, at least, there’s a part of the story that I feel like telling that hasn’t yet been told and I have every intention of telling it by introducing it with an important question.
What, exactly, happened to the French?
If you’ve noticed, I haven’t mentioned them much over the course of this narrative. They got play as the builders of the floating batteries and La Gloire, which kind of kicked off the whole ironclad thing. They built CSS Stonewall. They inspired the front-line Russian battleships at the time of the Russo-Japanese War. But the narrative really seems to be the story of a four nation race between the British, Americans, Germans, and Japanese. There’s a really good reason for this. It was.
France built a grand total of seven dreadnoughts in the lead up to the Great War. The first class of ships they laid down after the launch of HMS Dreadnought were the Danton-class. These ships were unique in that they were pre-dreadnoughts. The nation that had once held pretensions of matching or exceeding the Royal Navy and had actually managed to take a 1-0 lead in the ocean-going ironclad warship race was reduced to laying pre-dreadnoughts down after the launch of Dreadnought.
By the time the French laid down the four ships of the Courbet-class and the three Bretagnes the United Kingdom had launched Dreadnought, her three half-sisters of the Bellerophon class, the three St. Vincents, Neptune, the two Colossuses, and at least one of the Orions. Moreover, the four King George Vs and four Iron Dukes were launched within two years and the five Queen Elizabeths were only about three years away. All but two of the Iron Dukes and the Queen Elizabeths were commissioned before the Paris, meaning that by the time the French had four commissioned dreadnoughts the RN had 24.
The United States had commissioned the two South Carolinas, the two Delawares, the two Floridas, the two Wyomings, and the two New Yorks. The Germans had the four Nassaus, the four Helgolands, the five Kaisers, and two of the four Konigs (the other two would be in service within three months). Also, the Italians had the Alighieri, Giulio Cesare, and Leonardo da Vinci.
The French were out of the arms race. Britain and Germany were well ahead, the United States was closer to Germany than France, and the Italians were right behind. The Japanese were still working on moving their battleship production home, so they weren’t really ready yet and the Russians were still reeling from Tsushima, so the French technically possessed the fourth most powerful navy in the world. But they were barely going to keep it that way.
Again, the question is, “Why?”
For that we need to talk about the Jeune Ecole.
For the vast majority of history the only way to sink an enemy ship was to ram it or set it on fire somehow. Oar powered galleys were built with ram bows specifically for that purpose. With the advent of cannon a new possibility was added. As ships got bigger to mount more cannon they moved from oar to wind power and the idea of ramming another ship went out the window. It’s basically impossible to conceive of a scenario where a sail powered, wooden warship can gain enough speed or maneuver accurately enough to ram another wooden warship and cause it to sink.
Setting enemy ships on fire remained an option, but it was incidental. Round shot can’t reliably start fires. The technique of fire ships was used often, wherein a ship would be set ablaze and left to drift towards an enemy fleet. But this only works if the enemy fleet is concentrated and unable to maneuver. It’s a siege technique unless you’re fighting the Spanish Armada in the English Channel.
The exploding shell changed everything, as I’ve already partially discussed. But I’ve only brought it up in terms of its usefulness as a projectile from a ship’s cannon. The American Civil War saw the first wide-spread use of a new weapon: the torpedo.
The original torpedo wasn’t actually a torpedo as we often think of it today, with a motor and explosive warhead. It was actually what we’d call a mine and was an exclusively defensive weapon used to deny enemies access to harbors. It is from this that we get Admiral David Farragut’s cry of, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” at the Battle of Mobile Bay.
During the Civil War the torpedo took the first step in the evolution to the weapon we’ve come to know and love today. This was the spar torpedo, an explosive shell mounted on a boom that projected in front of a ship and was designed to detonate on impact. The best-known use of the spar torpedo was in the sinking of USS Housatonic by the H.L. Hunley, also known as the first successful submarine.
The Confederate also deployed CSS David, which nearly sunk the ironclad New Ironsides. David looked a lot like a modern submarine, but never submerged. The Confederates had, in effect, invented the first torpedo boat.
In the classic Age of Sail maritime concept there were really only two options for warships: small and maneuverable or large, ungainly, and powerful. The only real counter to guns was more guns. Moreover, given the limitations of the technology, the only counter to a ship of the line was another ship of the line. Ten ten-gun sloops really weren’t the equivalent of a 100 gun first-rate. The ship of the line could simply shatter the smaller ships one at a time. Moreover, line of battle tactics were such that there would almost never be a situation where ten sloops could find a first-rate on its own. Ships sortied in squadrons at all times and squadrons often formed fleets.
Either way, the only options during the Age of Sail were to build more ships than your opponent or avoid fighting. It was this stark reality that drove the arms races of the day. But the Civil War changed all that.
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. The Confederacy needed to build a fleet capable of keeping its ports free from scratch. So they turned to the ironclad ram. If the rams failed or couldn’t be built they turned to such crazed inventions as Hunley and David.
It wouldn’t be far wrong to say that the Confederacy invented the modern navy. It certainly wouldn’t be wrong to say that they were the greatest influence on the Jeune Ecole.
The ideas espoused by the Jeune Ecole went back to the invention of the first Paixhans gun in 1823, which fired the first exploding shell. Henri-Joseph Paixhans saw his weapon as the great equalizer against the British. The exploding shell would rip through the wooden warships of the Royal Navy and leave the French in charge of the oceans.
This, plus the steam engine, lead to the ironclads. As we’ve seen, the French hit the first blow, but the British got every hit after that. So for the French and British it was more of the same. The concept of dominating the oceans was again about who could put the most guns on the most warships. Bigger warships meant more armor meant more survivability meant more overall firepower meant domination. And the British were in the dominating business.
Then came the torpedo. Hunley’s celebrated attack sunk a wooden warship. David’s nearly forgotten attack almost sunk an ironclad. This was an invention worth considering. Except the spar torpedo was nearly as deadly to the attacker as the attackee, as Hunley and David discovered.
It was up to an Austrian named Giovanni Luppis and an Englishman named Robert Whitehead to take the next big step. Luppis drew up a plan for a self-propelled, clockwork torpedo. Whitehead realized it wouldn’t work, but the idea was sound, so he switched the weapon to a compressed air design.
Self-propelled torpedoes were rapidly improved and by the 1880s they were a legitimate threat. It was now that the Jeune Ecole came in to play.
Jeune Ecole (“Young School”) was comprised of a cadre of influential young French Navy officers and military innovators who believed new technology would render the battleship obsolete. They envisioned a navy built around torpedo boats for coastal defense, submarines to engage battleships from relative safety, and long range, fast commerce raiders to disrupt an enemy’s ability to wage war. This was a system of combat expressly designed to defeat the British on the high seas without actually engaging their navy. Even though the ideas fell out of favor, even with the French, the attempts to build a Jeune Ecole-style navy basically took France out of the battleship race.
The real innovation of the Jeune Ecole was the creation of a new class of ship: the armored cruiser. This was a ship designed to travel long distances quickly and be able to engage enemy shipping and any escorts. Jeune Ecole also had the unintended consequence of bringing about a second new class of warship.
As soon as the torpedo boat became a clear and present danger the need to counter them became obvious. At first there was simply a tendency to build larger torpedo boats. In 1885, however, the Japanese launched Kotaka, followed shortly by the Spanish Destructor and then the British Havock. These ships were capable of engaging torpedo boats and travel on the high seas. They were classed as “torpedo boat destroyers.” Eventually the name was shortened to simply “destroyer.”
Battleships. Cruisers. Destroyers. Submarines. We’ve officially reached the age of the modern navy.
If we count La Gloire as the beginning of the evolution of the modern navy and the creation of the torpedo boat destroyers as the point where we can truly say that we’re looking at the modern navy, the total time comes in at thirty years.
Three decades from having wooden frigates with full rigging mounted with balky steam engines to turreted, steel armored warships. If we extend the period back to the invention of the exploding shell or the screw propeller it only adds about four decades to the timeline. So we extend from one generation to one lifetime. It’s not too much time to see the world completely change.
We’re used to that now. The internet has changed the world since I was in grade school. I have no idea what I’d do without Google and it was only a few years ago that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to use an internet search engine. We take breathtakingly fast change for granted.
But sometimes we should make sure we take stock of how the world changed before we got here.
This is why we need to preserve our history. It’s also why we need the artifacts and not just pictures in a book or words on a page. There’s something about standing on the deck of USS Texas that can’t be duplicated by looking at pictures posted on the internet. The wonder of the question, “How did this get here?” just can’t be properly transmitted.
USS Texas is the only dreadnought-era battleship left in the world. Mikasa is the only pre-dreadnought. The Peruvian/Chilean ironclad Huascar is the only ship left of that awkward pre-pre-dreadnought period. USS Cairo, one of Grant’s river gunboats, is the only Civil War-era ironclad. And the British had the foresight to preserve HMS Warrior.
Fifty years of breathtaking change in battleship design represented by five ships.
It’s sad, really.
They were also spectacularly French in their naming schemes. The United State named its battleships after states. The Brits named them after kings or with words like, “victory,” “revenge,” and “devastation.” The Germans went with the names of heads of state and geographic regions. The Japanese went with provinces, alternate names for Japan, and mountains. The French named the Danton-class battleships after Marquis de Condorcet, Denis Diderot, and Voltaire.
Of course there’s just a bit of palpable irony in the naming of a battleship after Voltaire. There is that bit in Candide where the Brits kill an admiral because one has to be killed every once in a while as an example to the others…
The last Courbet to be commissioned. In 1914. The Bretagnes weren’t commissioned until 1915-1916.
Also awesome. They named their first dreadnought after a poet and one of their next three after an artist. Although ad Vinci invented a lot of war machines, so that makes some amount of sense.
And I’m not even getting in to the battlecruiser race. Or the HMS Canada…
He didn’t actually say it that way. But the paraphrase is nice and pithy, so it works.
Relatively speaking, as Hunley didn’t survive the mission.
The explosion blew out the fires in David’s steam engine and the crew thought she was sinking. The New Ironsides’ crew tried to help it along with small arms fire. Eventually the engines were re-started and David headed for home.
Much to the chagrin of the steampunk community…
And it was used quite effectively by the Germans in both World Wars.
After a fashion. The ship barely survived scrapping and was used as a floating oil depot. In the 1960s she was rescued and restored during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Really, foresight is too strong of a word. The British accidentally kept Warrior around, then the Duke of Edinburgh had the foresight to say, “Hey, maybe we should consider the importance of the ship…”
There are a few other ships of the non-battleship variety scattered around. Notables include the Russian protected cruiser Aurora from Tsushima, USS Olympia, which was Dewey’s flagship, Holland I, the first modern submarine, HNoMS Rap, one of the first torpedo boats, and Jylland, the last wooden screw frigate. But we’re still only talking about a dozen or so preserved warships for the period from 1859 to 1912, which was basically the most important period for the development of modern naval technology.