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The Top 10 Books about the French Royal Navy

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When one says the words "Royal Navy," one's mind goes instantly to the Royal Navy - to the fleet of the United Kingdom, the preeminent naval power for centuries, whose exploits and feats of arms have penetrated deep into Anglophone popular and historical culture. But at the end of the 17th century, if there was a navy which was the most powerful in the world, it was probably La Royale, the great fleet of Louis XIV built up as an instrument of state, war, and commerce, the tool of Colbert which constructed itself from a small and heavily outmatched force to the challenging all of Europe in just a few years. Despite a troubled 18th century, the French Royal Navy would prove to be a formidable force and a dangerous - and often victorious in its long struggle against Britain - one which deserves far more recognition and attention than it often gets. Finding sources, books, and material on the French navy from this period can be hard, so much so that some papers on it have self-consciously titled it the "forgotten service," and yet there does exist an impressive variety of scholarly research on the French fleet which deserves recognition. The 10 best secondary works in the English language are shown here, aiming to provide an understanding of the near century and a half of the French Royal Navy, from its rocky actions during the French Wars of Religion, the massive expansion under Colbert, up until the revolution which rocked France after 1789 did away with the ancien regime fleet and the monarchy which it served.

These are a mixture of studies on its internal administration, warfighting, and internal events. Although there are many, perhaps far more, good books in French on this subject, this is only about the English language. All of them are useful in their own way, but it is ranked so that the most important are more highly ranked, and I recommend reading from books ranked closer to #1 to #10. Hopefully, after reading them, they will enable the reader to have a good picture of the best secondary sources on the French fleet and a firm understanding of its operational history, strategy, doctrine, organization and strength, and composition.

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#10 The Influence of Seapower on History

Alfred Mahan is the most famous naval writer of all time, whose works tremendously influenced not just the study of the history of naval warfare, but naval warfare itself. He both encapsulated and inspired an age of navalism, as newly industrialized nations poured vast resources into building up powerful battle fleets, convinced that mastery of the sea was the route to naval power and influence. Mahan emphasized that battles between fleets would decide the outcome of war, by gaining control of the sea for one side or another, and once control of the sea was gained, commerce could be promoted and the enemy's commerce throttled and annihilated. Mahan's writings were centered around praising the Royal Navy, focused on battles of annihilation, and arguing that the French navy's focus on commerce raiding and mission-oriented operations to protect trade or accomplish objectives rather than destroy the enemy fleet was an inferior strategy. Mahan's book which deals with the French Royal Navy, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783 ignores key financial and organizational aspects of the French navy as well as providing insufficient space for technological development or changes in mentality, but it still is a useful general history of the wars fought by the French against the Dutch and the English in the period - provided that it read with a firm understanding of the French Navy and its strengths and weaknesses provided by other, more developed and recent books, which enable a firmer grasp of both Mahan's strengths and weaknesses. For its overwhelming influence, Mahan still deserves a read as a capstone to a study of the French Navy.

  • Is Mahan Still Worth Reading?
    Alfred Thayer Mahan was one of the world's most important naval writers in the 19th century. After the passage of more than a century, is his work still worth reading for his strategic insight and historical understanding?
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#9 French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786

After extensive reading upon strategic, administrative, infrastructure, material, and personnel sides of the navy, a useful subject is the ships of the fleet. French Warships in the Age of Sail 1626-1786 is a highly specialized tome which lists essentially every vessel which the French Navy put to sea during this era, and is a useful source to see the changes in naval architecture, particularly in frigates. It furthermore has a good general overview of the navy. Although not necessary for most purposes, it does make for a useful crowning book for a complete understanding of the technical characteristics of the French navy.

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#8 Fighting Ships and Prisons: The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV

It is easy to forget that naval power is designed to promote more than just the military interests of a state. One of my favorite quotes from George Washington is "War - an act of violence whose object is to constrain the enemy, to accomplish our will." The point of war is to force the enemy to carry out what we wish, and the tool to do this is almost always navies and armies. But navies and armies exist for reasons other than just war, and the French Galley Corps is a perfect example of this, as is well shown in Paul Bamford's excellent book Fighting Ships and Prisons: The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV. Bamford provides a very good picture of living conditions, recruitment, operations, structure, command, infrastructure, and other factors making up the French Galley Corps, and shows that they fit into Louis XIV's strategic objectives of establishing himself as the grandest and most prestigious of any of the princes of Christendom, marrying together foreign, religion, and domestic policy - this despite the increasingly obvious fact that galleys were of severely limited military use, even in the Mediterranean. Even if the French Galley Corps might not have had the same military impact as the French navy, it still had tremendous influence and importance, attested by the continuing presence of words such as galère in French to indicate misery and their cultural resonance, and Bamford's book is an excellent look into the subject.

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#7 The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787

War is politics by other means, as Clausewitz famously said. While battles may be the fanciest side of military struggles, the ultimate objective of military conflict is to secure political and diplomatic objectives: Jonathan Dull's flagship study of the relationship between the French Navy, diplomacy, and strategy during the American Revolution The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 is an enduring testament to this lesson. It brilliantly shows why the French entered into the American War and why they chose to support the Americans, and what their alternative options were, and does an impressive job of showing French operational and strategic operations. Although there is very little about the battles in the war itself, in line with Dulls' other work, it is still a very good integrated naval, diplomatic, and strategic history of the war which enables a comprehensive understanding of the cardinal triumph of the French fleet in the 18th century.

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#6 The French Navy and the Seven Year's War

The Seven Years' War was the great French defeat of the 18th century, which lost to France its colonial empire in North America, India, much of its prosperous Caribbean empire, and cemented the United Kingdom's ascendance in international politics and its naval dominance. At the heart of this was the defeat of the French navy, the shield of the French Empire, whose defeat entailed the destruction of France's empire. Dull's book, like all of his works, is more than just the French Navy, and is actually a very broad history of the Seven Years' War centered on France and particularly the French Navy, and which is an excellent look into French strategy during the war, the financial limitations which so plagued the French war effort, and the global diplomatic aspects which defined the conflict. Although the books is probably too broad for its titular focus on the French Navy, it still is an invaluable source to understand the strategic defeat of the French fleet.

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#5 The Navy and Government in Early Modern France 1572-1661

The mythology of the French navy is based upon its creation, tabula rasa, by Colbert, the famed French naval and financial minister who led a vast effort of reform and naval construction which would catapult France into briefly being the strongest naval power in the world. Like many foundation myths, it contains an element of truth, but also grievous oversights and inaccuracies - for there was a French navy before Colbert, and James' book The Navy and Government in Early Modern France, 1572-1661 does a great job of rehabilitating it. Not only does it show that the French fleet played an important role in projecting the crown's strategic interests, it sheds valuable light on how Richelieu's organization of the navy is reflective of Early Modern government practices, and gives the reader a better understanding of the interests and priorities of French maritime communities through its incisive look at the Huguenots and La Rochelle. A very good revisionist picture of the early years of the French fleet.

  • Navy and Government in Early Modern France, 1572-1661 Review
    An excellent history which attempts to understand the early modern French Navy in its own context, its role in French strategy, relationship to local power holders, and which shows the nature of Richelieu's government and administration, this is an i
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#4 Louis XV's Navy 1748-1762: A Study of Organization and Administration

In the middle of the 18th century the French Navy was in a period of tremendous change. The long years of peace during the regency in France had led to the navy atrophying, but with the War of Austrian Succession and the looming threat of future conflict with the United Kingdom, the French Navy was engaged in a massive program of reconstruction and rebuilding. Pritchard's authoritative and comprehensive book Louis XV's Navy 1748-1762: A Study of Organization and Administration both examines the structure of French naval administration and the nature of the navy's men, ships, and supplies, but also demonstrates the crucial weakness of the navy, its financial problem which was the greatest issue with its military capability. A very good work to gain a fine understanding of the mid-century French fleet and its makeup.

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#3 Forests and French Seapower, 1660-1789

A navy must have ships, and in the age of sail these ships were built of wood. Naval construction used up vast quantities of very specific, most often very high quality, timber, for building ships. This required a comprehensive policy to secure these resources, either from within, from within a nation's colonial empire, or from other nations - and the nature of this policy and its effects would have profound effects on any navy. Bamford's excellent book Forests and French Seapower, 1660-1789 is both a very good examination of the structural evolution of French state power and how the French navy went about harvesting and supplying timber for its warships, but also is a valuable insight into why the French navy functioned the way it did, showing that limited quantities of naval supplies encouraged a defensive mindset and impacted French doctrine. A very holistic and integrated book, it is an irreplaceable study of the material side of the French navy.

  • Forests and French Seapower 1660-1789 Review
    An excellent look into the material factors underlying the French navy, the quest for supplies and the effect on combat operations, and the development of forest management in France, Forests and French Seapower is a necessary book to fully understan
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#2 - Anatomy of a Naval Disaster: The 1746 French Expedition to North America

It is hard to imagine the woes and travails involved in naval expeditions and operations in the 18th century. Prey to winds, currents, storms improperly prepared food, poor naval administration, and after attempting to brave this all, the enemy! One of the best books to understand the problems behind naval expeditions, with an excellent snapshot into some of the weaknesses and structural features of operations of the mid 18th century French navy is Anatomy of a Naval Disaster: The 1746 French Expedition to North America by James Pritchard, which covers the French d'Anville expedition to Nova Scotia in the War of Austrian Succession. Not only does it give excellent coverage of this mostly forgotten French military expedition, it gives a real feel and understanding of how French naval operations proceeded in the mid 18th century, making it an invaluable source for being able to visualize and place into context the rest of the books dealing with a more general picture of the navy's war. Although dedicated to only a single event, its lessons are applicable throughout the entire period.

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#1 The Crisis of French Seapower 1688-1697

With a number of very impressive works, it is very hard to choose what to rank the most highly, but I think that it is clear that Geoffrey Symcox's work The Crisis of French Sea Power 1688-1697: From the Guerre d'Escadre to the Guerre de Course deserves the spot. This is an excellent book which covers the peak of the French navy and the reasons behind its power, brilliantly analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of French seapower and organization, provides a very good operational history of its actions during the Nine Years' War with particularly useful analysis of its missed opportunities and strategic problems, and above all else does a superb job of covering what the broader impacts of changing French naval doctrine and policy were on broader French society. Smycox shows that the movement to a raiding war, the guerre de course was driven not by incomprehension of the battle fleet or incompetence, but rather in response to economic limitations on France and the opportunities opened by commerce war for economic advantage for broad swathes of French elites, which was bound up with a transformation of French society which increasingly privileged parts of society away from the central court and nodes of power in Paris. For understanding the French navy at its height, its subsequent decline, and its relationship to French society, this is the best book which exists, and one I recommend highly.