The Beaux Arts Of War
French naval designers as a school of art
When I took the Danton-class kit from the box, I did not intend to paint her in horizon blue. Made in Russia and purchased before the current hostilities in Ukraine, the kit is supposed to represent the Vergniaud, commissioned in 1911 and (in)famous for the crew mutiny that took place when she was deployed to intervene in the Russian Civil War.
By the time I was ready to apply paint, the color choice had made itself for me. Instead of wartime haze gray, it made more sense to represent the “semi-dreadnought” phase of French battleship development history in its most striking shade. As my potted history takes form, it more and more resembles the academic premise behind its construction: the “art” of these ships was not at all accidental to their engineering. It was essential.
From the beginning of the modern period, art was everything to the French shipbuilder. French engineers “all wanted to leave [their] imprint on an original piiece of work,” writes Arne Røksund in The Jeune École: The Strategy of the Weak, a history of the 19th Centiry French Navy.
Shipwrights of 16th Century France learned their trade as a craft by whittling wooden models. Functionally illiterate, they became numerate first, by necessity, the ship being built of so many pieces of wood and canvas and rope and so on. Every great shipbuilder was a great artist first. Every shipyard had its own senior wrights with their own styles, and sailing ship forms varied from wright to wright.
“It was all very much rule of thumb and the only real opportunity he had for design discretion was when it became necessary to produce a slightly larger or smaller ship than heretofore and it became necessary, therefore, to modify volume, proportion, related dimensions, scantlings and the like,” maritime historian William German explains.
As a result, he suggests, “the real difference between the shipwright and the naval architect” — meaning, the difference between the French shipwright of 1640 and the French engineer of 1740 — “was the difference in the use of a model based on form and extrapolation from previous hulls versus plans or draughts based on calculation.”
It was still art, but now it was done by the numbers. Englishman Mathew Baker first developed this method during the 1580s. French shipyards adopted it at the beginning of the 17th Century, yet the art remained.
French shipbuilding art produced great fighting ships. Their superiority in battle, one-on-one, crews being equal, against British vessels of the same caliber, requiring teams of two or more British ships to overcome a single French opponent, was too obvious to ignore.
“I have never seen or heard since my knowledge of things that one of our ships alone singly opposed to one of the enemy’s of equal force has taken her,” Adm. Sir Charles Knowles wrote during the Seven Years’ War, “and I have been in almost every action and skirmish since the year 1718, and yet we are daily boasting of the prowess of our Fleet.”
Knowles titled his letter “The Defects of the British Battle-Ship.” He was calling for Britain to catch up with the French shipwrights, and in fact many expatriate French naval specialists were already working in Britain. This trend would accelerate after the Revolution, during the Napoleonic period, without ever creating a real shortage of trained engineers in France. French ships captured in battle were especially prized for their agility and seakeeping.
The characteristic “tumblehome” hull shape of French sailing ships in this era was less stable in the water than a “flared hull” design. However, in the context of naval gunnery battles fought in line-ahead formation at the range of gunpowder cannons, that instability was an advantage.
Using my model of the ironclad Solférino below, I have attempted to illustrate why this was the case. Because the ship oscillates faster on its long axis than a more stable craft, the guns of the ship also point at the target more often during the battle. To overcome this French superiority at ranged gunnery, the Royal Navy adopted tactics of sailing right up close to their enemies, where accuracy mattered less than crew drill and sheer rate of fire.
From the moment Cardinal Richelieu became chief minister to Louis XII and resolved on a naval construction program, state authority and centralization played a role in this development. It was hard to keep talented engineers in France, such was the demand for their services abroad, so this was a key challenge.
Holding the same office under Louis XIV in 1683, just before his own death, Jean-Baptist Colbert extended titles of nobility to the chief ingenieurs-constructeurs de la marine for the first time. Successors more or less followed this policy.
A royal corps of naval engineers was established by royal decree in 1765, with a complex, top-down, consular hierarchy at the three major naval arsenals. To attend the naval engineering school in Paris, students needed a royal appointment.
Even in the 19th Century, rigorous examinations at the École du génie maritime ensured that the profession was closed to dilletantes. These measures had the effect of making naval ship design into a middle class profession, one that guarded its prerogatives jealously.
They earned their keep. So superior was the French design school and its technological base that Napoleon stopped funding innovations in either area when he embarked on global conquest.
His wars left the French Navy depleted versus its historic competitor, the Royal Navy, in both numbers and quality. Britain also had the advantage of being an island, whereas France had to maintain many expensive fortresses and large standing armies because so many continental enemies shared a border with them. If France was to have any hope of meeting Britain on equal terms at sea ever again, they would need better, more powerful ships to make up for inferior numbers.
They would have to choose quality over quantity. In their minds, that meant the most beautiful ships.
The mid-19th Century revolution in ship construction also kept wood and sail competitive for international shipping into the 20th Century. Most of these advances, such as the use of detailed plans, were actually earlier naval innovations. Economists have studied this “sailing ship effect” ever since to understand how obsolete technologies can thrive under the right economic conditions.
In his book Bridging the Seas: The Rise of Naval Architecture in the Industrial Age, MIT professor Larrie Ferreiro explains that technological advances only came through conscious application of such “scientific” techniques as were understood and being improved at the time from the art of military naval construction.
The breakthrough iron ship Great Eastern, though a commercial vessel, “was, in sum, the first ship ever designed that synthesized all the elements of theoretical naval architecture — strength, stability, hydrodynamics, and seakeeping — into an integrated whole,” Ferreiro writes.
During the 19th Century, the science of metal support structures would transition from wooden to all-steel construction, a change-through-continuity similar to the evolution of clinker-built ships into carvel hull designs during the Atlantic Renaissance.
Rapid advances in mechanical steam propulsion and rational standardization made it possible for centralized systems of procurement to create many ships of any one class from copies of one blueprint at different locations, allowing economies of scale. While the French school understood standardization was key to success, those standards were shaped by the individual engineers, all of whom considered themselves artists within the tradition of a school.
That is how the textbook learning of wooden naval construction got used to invent the modern steel navy.
Few wooden shipyards transitioned to working with steel. Instead, craft occupations such as blacksmith were eliminated by the 1880s. Only the shipwright’s craft had survived in the form of the mathematical naval engineer-as-artist.
It was characteristic of the transition to anticraft, the complete separation of design and construction into discrete phases, where “the form of every plate must be sketched before it is ordered” and fit together with the other parts, according to American shipbuilder William Cramp in 1880.
You know. Parts fitting together. Like a model kit.
As Ferreiro explains, this was the way worked out in wood before 1800 and explained in the teaching texts of the French school. For example, the opening stanza of Honoré-Sébastien Vial Du Clairbois’s Traité élémentaire, a core text of the French naval architecture school before the Revolution, describes “the ship ascending in twisted wood:”
Pour faire la description des objets des arts, & sur-tout de ceux qui ont rapport aux differences constructions, on s’aide ordinairement de divers dessins, qu’on appelle Plans, parce que les objects en sont representes sur un plan. / To describe the objects of these arts, and especially those relating to difference constructions, we usually use various drawings which we call plans, because the objects are represented on a plane.
Clairbois’s work includes an extensive series of descriptions of the various parts of the ship, and all the sub-parts, as structural systems. He is concerned with the need to ensure the pieces all fit together — his book is a verbal construction diagram of the sailing ship as a model kit.
“We must leave enough distance between the lower bed of the bolster & the first bridge, the top of the upright of the bollards & the beams of the second deck for the cable to turn easily on the bollards,” for example.
Students of the École special du génie maritime were still learning from his books in the 1840s when his students were sending the first iron ships out of French yards.
As acknowledged in the title of Geometric and Practical Essay on Naval Architecture, another Clairbois work, his classical geometry was at the same time a practical and artistic impulse.
While he was the chief constructor at Lorient, however, Clairbois also discovered the mathematical basis to understand buoyancy as a force. No surprise, then, that his students also looked to analytical and mathematical models in search of working theories about hydrodynamics, stability, and seakeeping.
Although this was not science yet, its practitioners had a self-conception that was as scientific as it was artistic.
At Corfu, Napoleon’s shipwright, Pierre-Charles-François Dupin, reasoned that stability was a function of gravity pressing the hull surfaces against the water. He then wrote an entire volume, Applications de Géométrie, to prove his thesis that hull geometry — that is, the French curves of the hull as designed by a particular shipwright — affected flotation, hydrodynamics, and stability.
Dupin’s memoir inspired the next generation of French naval designers to adopt several important inventions, such as the system of X-trusses first designed by English naval architecht Robert Seppings. It was one of the revolutions in shipbuilding that prolonged the viability of wooden sailing ships.
Nevertheless, Dupin’s thesis was a developmental dead end that did not survive the steel transition. As Ferreiro relates, shipbuilder John Scott Russell wasted his career trying to prove his own “wave line theory” that was supposed to improve on Dupin.
Only with the advent of wave tanks and precision measurement instruments was it possible to discover which hull forms actually do work best at different speeds and in various sea states. Nevertheless, Dupin had influenced generations of engineers by that time.
Dupin called ship design a “beaux-art,” an architectural art form characterized by the recall of historic or classical forms, elaborate decorative detail, and monumentalism in conception.
It is therefore a great irony that French battleships are the most aesthetically-hated category among hobbyists of the pre-dreadnought today; modelers and naval history buffs alike love to hate them. Victorian livery (the black and gold buff paint) is an eyesore on clunky machinery that, while steampunk, is too busy with cranes and boats.
Yet one can survey the sundry samples of the French pre-dreadnought fleet and still recognize something of them in Le Richelieu, France’s final completed masterpiece battleship, for the French aesthetic has survived despite all the changes. Just as archaeologists can discern the culture that created a watercraft, it would be possible for a future archaeologist to discern that Frenchmen built all the vessels in this collection, if they still existed.
Models will have to do.
Artistic doctrines of form and proportion could not withstand real science. Theory gave way to experiment. Evidence-based design replaced design by pure reason.
After the HMS Dreadnought sailed in 1907, forever changing the battleship, France continued building their own, new battleships anyway, even though the designs were already obsolete. Horizon blue was a striking color choice, even a defiant one, but it pointed to another problem that French engineers were having: a navy that kept making bad bets about tactical evolution.
Blue is really only better than gray in daylight, and at one kind of distance — one or two miles — which proved far too short after 1914. Gunnery ranges zoomed far beyond the expectations of the French Navy, which somehow managed to learn this wrong lesson from the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 while still absorbing the total destruction of a French-designed Russian fleet at the hands of a much smaller, British-built one.
Stubborn to the last, sure of their own superiority despite the chastening, French naval engineers stuck to their art, choosing quality over quantity. If it is not the most advanced battleship, they reasoned, it should still be the most beautiful one: a sentiment as old as their profession.
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