British vs. French Shipbuilding During the Napoleonic Era

By Peter Lineau and Stuart Slade

Chatham Dockyard, mid 18th century, by Joseph Farrington. Though he never actually visited the area, his painting is quite accurate.

Throughout our beloved series, Patrick O’Brian makes many references to the apparent superiority of French ships and shipbuilding. Indeed, our own dear Surprise was originally French. O’Brian’s references are consistent with those of many historians, but they are by no means accepted as absolute fact. This excerpt was brought to my attention by a visitor (thanks Bernard!) and is a bit of a departure from what might normally be found on this site; it’s an editorial, an opinion piece, and the authors are certainly trying to convince the reader to agree with their point of view. I am offering it merely as something interesting and well worth reading, not to prove the truth of the matter. Please let me know if you agree with the authors’ analysis!

British vs. French Shipbuilding
The Baden Analysis
By Peter Lineau and Stuart Slade


The alleged superiority of French ships in this [the Napoleonic] era is a myth that evaporates on close examination. I know its repeated over and over again in virtually every popular history one can read but the reality is that it is a myth that has grown up on the basis of anecdote without any solid evidence to support it. In fact, solid evidence on this matter does exist; a lot of it. Let’s have a look at some.

Admiralty records: bless them. The Admiralty keeps records like they were going out of fashion. One aspect of this is that we have details of the maintenance and repair of every ship that has ever served in the Royal Navy. In those days there was a thing called a “Great Repair” – the modern equivalent of a mid-life upgrade. We have records for every such repair. They can be tabulated. They show a very clear pattern; French prizes in Royal Navy service had Great Repairs more often than British built ships and those repairs tended to be more expensive and require work that was more fundamental in nature. The expenses resulting from keeping French prizes in Royal Navy service are much greater than the equivalent cost for maintaining and supporting a similar British-built ship.

Its also interesting to read the surveys of work needed during a Great Repair because they tell us much about how those ships were built. Surveys of French ships make continual reference to the ship’s frame hogging, sagging and racking. They refer to decks sagging. Frames were cracked and broken. It’s very rare to read this sort of structural damage on a British ship unless she’s being repaired after a severe action. Also interesting are the comments on structural practices. British ships had their joints grooved and rebated, secured by a peg and reinforced with a futtock. The French equivalent was to butt the two members together and nail them in place. The use of nails was extensive in French building and was a major cause of failure. There was a thing called nail sickness – a nail would rust in place with the rust seeping into the wood greatly weakening it. Stamp on a joint with nail sickness and the components would separate – not a good idea. Another very common reference is to the French using green timber rather than seasoned wood in the construction of their ships.

These reports also give us a new look at how the ships were armed. In every case, French ships were downgunned after capture. 24 pounders were replaced by 18s and 18s by 12 pounders (the French pound was larger than the British). Why? Because the structural components of the decks were incapable of taking the strain caused by the heavy armaments the French put on them. Once again, we have a direct reference to extensive structural weakness in French ships of the era and one that suggests inexperience (to put it politely) on behalf of their designers.

This is all pretty devastating. Lets see if we can cross-check it. We can from another source – the people who served on the ships. Not the officers, the sailors. They were a pretty voluble, outspoken and literate lot. They wrote to the Admiralty all the time with complaints, suggestions, comments and advice – much of which was acted on. The idea that the crew of a British ship were a bunch of illiterate yokels who were driven into action by brutal and stupid officers in the equivalent of a floating concentration camp is about as wrong as its possible to get. The degree of literacy aboard British warships of the era was about comparable or slightly greater than that in the population as a whole. As a result, we know quite a lot about what the inhabitants of the gun decks actually thought and believed.

Those letters to the Admiralty make fascinating reading. A lot are personnel matters – complaining about specific issues or officers (and just as often praising their Captain and asking to serve with him again). What’s relevant here are the comments on the ships. Complaints about French prizes are extensive and far outweigh those about British ships. Main complaints are lack of headroom on the lower decks (the crew complaining in many cases that they can’t stand upright and/or have no room in which to hang their hammocks), pervasive leakage through decks and overheads (meaning that the crew’s possessions were never dry). They complain about poor ventilation (British ships had systems installed to ventilate the lower decks; French ships did not). They complain about the frightful smell of French ships (not helped by the French habit of burying their dead in the sand ballast). Most interesting of all they complain about the noise of French ships; the constant creaking and groaning of the structure. All this supports the evidence of severe structural weakness in French warships (leakage and noise are both evidence of the structure working). However, it doesn’t affect how the ships sailed. Lets look at some solid evidence there.

More Admiralty reports, this time on the sailing and handling characteristics of French ships. Astonishingly, these are very unfavorable. They usually describe the ships as being pleasant and good sailers in ideal conditions with the wind and seas in ideal aspects. However, their performance drops off very badly once conditions deviate from ideal and they are described as being “unweatherly” – in other worlds incapable of coping with bad conditions. These reports make mention of shipping large amounts of water, of flooding, of the pumps having to be run constantly even in mild conditions. In other words, sailing trials under controlled conditions do not support suggestions that French ships were good sailers.

We have evidence to back that up to. This time combat evidence. During the Napoleonic Wars, British ships habitually attacked and destroyed ships much their superior in force. They harried and hunted down ships that on paper were by far their superiors. This reached a peak with the two-day hunt and destruction of the Droite Du Homme by Sir Edward Pellew – the only case on record of a 74 being attacked and sunk by a frigate. The conventional explanation tends to talk of crew training experience etc., etc., but the pattern is so pervasive (and affects events where the portside nature of French sailors was not exhibited) that there must be more to it than that. If French ships were such better sailers and fighters than the British, why were they hunted down and destroyed with such ruthless efficiency? Seen in the light of the evidence above the picture becomes a lot clearer. An unweatherly ship can be hunted down more easily than one that performs reasonably in all condition. A ship that is structurally weak and poorly built will take terrible damage when hit by a broadside; one that is solidly built will give her crew some element of protection. A ship that is already overgunned and whose decks are already sagging under the weight will have difficulty in handling those guns in the heat of an action. Add in the benefits of a trained, experienced and hardened crew and the reason why the British habitually won actions fought against the odds becomes explicable.

So what do we make of French ships? The reality seems to be that they were lighter than British ships of the same nominal type and size and their hull lines (and sail plans) were optimized for running under ideal conditions. On the other hand they were structurally weak, unhealthy, expensive to maintain, over-armed, badly built and poorly arranged. So where does the legend (and it is a legend) of their superiority come from? It’s anecdotal. There is NO solid evidence of it. What we have are sea stories and assertions with nothing to support them. The only solid material we have is action reports from British Captains that usually end with the French ship being defeated and taken for prize. And therein lies our first clue. Two words. Prize Money.

When a British captain took a French ship, his first priority was to sell his prize to the Admiralty so she could be taken into service. This was by far the most remunerative option. So the Captain had a direct financial interest in presenting the capabilities of his prize in the best possible light. Another word, Honor. Defeating a French ship was a sure path to honors, promotion and, eventually, an Admiral’s flag. It did no harm to an officer’s career to present his defeated opponent in the best possible light.

By now, the message should be clear; the myth of French naval superiority is based on the action reports of officers who had a vested interest in emphasizing the capabilities of their opponents reinforced by sea stories and tales that have grown with each repetition. In contrast, hard data and expert witness all point to exactly the opposite conclusion. French ship design in the Napoleonic era was not superior to British; in reality it was far inferior.

Courtesy of Bernard Steak and NavWeaps. The complete article, including information about British and German warship construction during WWI and WWII, can be found here.

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