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.”
The French treated shipbuilding as an imaginative art. The very finest brains in the kingdom were exercised in the planning and creation of ships of beautiful model. Admirable workmen, and the best talents of France, produced, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a number of sailing men-of-war which were more beautifully proportioned, faster on every point of sailing, stronger, and with larger batteries, than the ships built in this country at that time. A French 80-gun ship at the close of the eighteenth century was bigger, more roomy, faster, and a finer ship in every way, than our 98-gun ships. Our own men-of-war were so badly designed and proportioned that they were said to have been built by the mile, and cut off as required. They were very cramped between-decks, yet they were nearly always pierced for more guns than they could conveniently fight. They were very crank ships, and so “weak“ that they could not fight their lower-deck guns in anything like weather. They were slow at all points of sailing, and slack in stays. In heavy weather they sometimes rolled their masts out, or sprung them by violent pitching.
As we have to ask ourselves with any other statement made by Masefield, is this true?
The correct answer would seem to be “not so much.”
Like any other bureaucracy, the Navy Board produced and kept tons of records. Some of the most important were the surveys of ships coming into one of the dockyards for a refit. These surveys were made variously at the end of a commission, after heavy damage, or when a prize was bought into the service. Not only were French built ships more expensive at overhaul, they were also more expensive to keep at sea under routine conditions.
From the aforementioned NavWeaps link:
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.
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.
The light construction of French ships included framing timbers spaced much farther apart than the British custom which resulted in structural inferiority in battle. Part of the reason that French ships struck so readily may be directly related to the fact that a broadside into their hull, the preferred practice in the British navy, resulted in much greater damage than a comparable broadside fired into a British ship.
Admiralty reports from the era indicate French ships were very fast and handy under pleasant weather conditions, but in heavy weather they drifted leewards much more than British ships and they took on much more water. Even in realtively mild weather, the pumps on French ships were constantly in use.
All of this was critical to a British fleet attempting to bottle up the enemy in the face of the terrible storms and prolonged periods of gales which are common in the North Sea and the Bay of Biscay.
Admiral Bridport, commanding the Channel Fleet, quoting here from Gardiner’s Frigates of the Napoleonic Wars, complained to the First Lord of the Admiralty in the spring of 1798 that too many captured French frigates were being assigned to his command:
The Channel frigates should be strong and in perfect condition. What occasioned my desiring English build frigates arose from the consideration of the boisterous seas they had to encounter and knowing that I have six French build frigates already with me and that I find them oftener and longer in port at a time than our own build frigates.
…it is supposed that French frigates sail faster than English build ones. But they are confessedly weaker, are oftener in port and not able to keet the sea on long cruises as they stow little and, having no orlop deck, they must move their cables whenever they want to get at the water that is stowed under them, which is sometimes difficult at sea.
So, it is fair to relegate this meme to the dustbin of history, to coin a phrase. French naval architects and shipwrights did produce some beautiful frigates and frequently they represented the cutting edge of design. In general, however, French frigates were less seaworthy than British ships. They were less able to withstand storm or battle. And the cost of maintaining them over their life-cycle was much higher than that associated with British made frigates.