Updated date:

Why Did the 18th French Navy Lose to the Royal Navy?

The French Fleet at Quiberon Bay, one of the most unfortunate defeats for the French navy in the 18th century

The French Fleet at Quiberon Bay, one of the most unfortunate defeats for the French navy in the 18th century

In 1690, the French navy under the command of the famous French admiral Tourville smashed a combined Anglo-Dutch fleet at Beachy Head, leaving England open for the possibility of invasion and giving the French command of the sea. Although left unexploited, the French navy of the Sun King, Louis XIV, showed itself as a potent fleet, one which rivaled the combined might of the traditional maritime powers, and which over the continuing course of the Nine Years War, despite fighting against Spain, the Netherlands, England, and with much of France's resources diverted to fighting against the Austrians, Germans, and Italians to the East, managed to retain strategic relevance and even at the very end of the war was vital in the conquest of Catalonia, as well as wreaking dreadful damage on the Allied merchant marines by the famous French corsairs. Louis XIV's navy had shown its capacity in its greatest trial by fire, despite the terrible odds against it.

Fast forward sixty years, and in the Seven Years War the French navy was swept from the seas, confined to ports, its colonies taken, and rendered all but irrelevant by the British Royal Navy. With Spain and the Netherlands as well as American colonists on its side it won a victory, albeit not a decisive one, against England in the American Revolution, but in the Napoleonic Wars the old problems rose specter-like from the past, and the French were ultimately unable to challenge the English at sea. What went wrong in the 18th century that led the French navy, despite such a promising start in the late 17th century, to be unable to compete with its rival across the channel?

Some of the factors behind the weakness of the French navy compared to the Royal Navy were inherent to France as will be shown, such as geography and certain elements of French naval bases. But others were ones which were the creation of French policies, decisions, and strategy, and which could have been fixed. Understanding them both is useful for understanding the long century of war between France and Britain, and also for understanding naval and strategic history more generally - both for the past, today, and perhaps tomorrow.

France at the beginning of the 18th century. The naval geography problem of France, in its division into Atlantic and Mediterranean shores, is one which would never go away.

France at the beginning of the 18th century. The naval geography problem of France, in its division into Atlantic and Mediterranean shores, is one which would never go away.


There are many things which navies can alter and change in their pursuit of power and strength, but geography is rarely one of them - with only canals having achieved any significant modification of the structures of the world's oceans and seas. France's great curse of naval geography is that it is both a Mediterranean and an Atlantic naval power, and that its fleet had to be split into both zones if it was to cover both. Even today, and certainly in the 18th century, no possibility existed of ever building a feasible canal on a scale capable of transferring warships to connect the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, for the Canal du midi was only capable of supporting small cargo boats. Thus France's navy was inevitably divided into two sections, and with the only possibility of uniting the two French fleets being a long and potentially risky voyage around Spain. In any war, the French, unless if prior planning and preparation had been carried out, would have to risk sending part of their fleet from Toulon to Brest, or from Brest to Toulon, which would involve it being exposed to enemy attack or at the very least taking a long time.

This was not the only woe which the French faced in naval geography. Much of France's in the North ran directly through the English Channel, past close English naval bases. Without full command of the sea, this route could be easily cut, and it was often blockaded by the English. Not only would this severely impact French trade, but it would also have a very direct impact on the French navy - since the French navy relied on naval supplies from the Baltic, particularly masts, to provide the wood and tar for its ships. During the Seven Years War, this route was almost entirely cut and prevented masts from reaching France and thus brought French construction to a standstill: even during the American Revolution, despite the friendship of the Dutch and a much more powerful French navy, its security could not be guaranteed. This meant that only the transfer of naval supplies overland, through the network of canals which had been constructed by the end of the Ancien Regime in Northern France and the Low Countries, could bring desperately needed naval supplies to French ports - but this, even with the canal network, would be at much greater cost than shipping them by sea. Before the end of the 18th century, the infrastructure simply did not exist to move these supplies overland.

On a lesser scale, France was also faced by a problematic lack of its own territory in the Mediterranean, only having the coast of France itself. During the 17th century and the period of rivalry with the Spanish, this had made intercepting Spanish communication, commerce, and ships difficult. But with the placement of a French Bourbon king on the throne of Spain and the long alliance between France and Spain, this problem was obviated by removing the need to engage in a rivalry with Spain. The French would also come into possession of Corsica during the 1760s.


France's two principal military ports were Brest and Toulon. Neither were significant commercial ports, an honor which mostly went to Marseille, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, and Nantes, complemented by the relatively declining ports of St. Malo and Dunkirk. Brest and Toulon both had admirable aspects about them, but particularly during the Age of Sail and the 18th century also carried important drawbacks which threatened the security and utility of the French navy.

Brest is one of those magnificent ports which like Rio de Janeiro or Sydney, is capable of accommodating in its vast expanse an uncountable host of ships, and its deep waters means that it can easily fit even massive ships. Certainly, in the 18th century, there would never have been reason to fear that Brest would be of too small a size for the French fleet, and its 1.8 kilometre wide entrance meant that it was difficult to attack directly - as shown by the Anglo-Dutch attempt to attack Brest at Camaret in 1693, thrown into the sea with great bloodshed and minimal French loss by French engineer and general Vauban, Secondary anchorages flanking it meant that it could be difficult - although not impossible - to trap and destroy the French navy. Its position made it excellent for raiding English commerce going past it along the Channel. There were however, problems. For one, it was far away from Paris, unlike the English port at Portsmouth which was within a day's ride of the capital, which made sending messages to it a longer affair - at least three days, and up to a week. This could harm communication with the French fleet and prevent tight management. Furthermore, the winds were mostly westerly, which often kept the French fleet trapped in harbor, while if the wind was easterly, the French fleet could leave but then would have to wait for the wind to reverse to actually enter the Channel.

Toulon under siege in 1793

Toulon under siege in 1793

Toulon in the Mediterranean was also a good port, well protected and with a sheltered anchorage offshore near the Île de Hyères. Although the anchorage at Hyères presented the problem of being trapped there by unfavorable winds before being able to take the open sea again, overall there were not the unfortunate problems of Brest in this regards, More worrisome however, was that Toulon was within striking distance of the French border with Savoy. In 1707 an army besieging Toulon forced the French to scuttle much of their fleet, giving command of the Mediterranean to the Allies for the rest of the War of Spanish Succession. Although the events of 1793 with the siege of Toulon and the French fleet again being heavily damaged would come in a different context, it still showed the danger which foreign invasion represented to one of the main French fleet bases.

There were also secondary bases maintained by the French. During the initial construction of La Royale under Colbert, the French navy's greatest chief, Rochefort was envisioned as a major naval base. Located on the Charentes river near La Rochelle in France, Rochefort had the advantage of being easily serviceable with timber floated down the river, as well as being essentially invulnerable to enemy attacks thanks to its location far up the Charentes. Unfortunately this also made it very difficult to access for ships, and the spongy soil meant that some buildings, such as the royal rope factory - La Corderie Royale - suffered from sinking.As a result, Rochefort declined into a secondary base rather than being the main port of the French navy. Bayonne was another French port in the South West of France, but small and generally unimportant. Lorient and Port-Louis helped to supplement the French fleet's bases in the West, but were definitively auxiliary.

Even more important than the French fleet's existing anchorages however, were their absence in crucial regions.The English Channel would be the most vital combat zone for any war between France and England, and controlling it would enable the French to prepare an invasion of England, while the English could either mount raids - descents - on France, as they did during the Seven Years War, or at the least cut French trade and blockade the French coast. The main English naval base, at Portsmouth, was directly on the Channel, and Plymouth which covered the Western approaches. The French by contrast, had no significant naval bases in the Channel, with Dunkirk's major fortifications being dismantled as part of the peace terms after the War of Spanish Succession and putting an end to one of the French's most successful privateer bases, while Le Havre lacked the facilities to care for a large fleet.

The lack of naval ports in France, as neither Cherbourg, nor Dunkirk, nor Caen, nor Le Havre were sufficiently developed or even built in the 18th century, posed a severe problem for the French navy's operation in the Channel.

The lack of naval ports in France, as neither Cherbourg, nor Dunkirk, nor Caen, nor Le Havre were sufficiently developed or even built in the 18th century, posed a severe problem for the French navy's operation in the Channel.

Without a major naval base here, the French fleet would be handicapped in any war against England. Operations in the Channel would be inflexible and responding to raids on the French coast difficult. The French would have to deal with the problematic winds from Brest, delaying the opening of a campaign season. If they won a battle in the Channel, then quickly repairing, refitting, and preparing the French fleet to take the initiative afterwards would be difficult: if they lost, the French would have no secure anchorage to retreat to to be safe and to repair their forces. The result of this was that French fleet was ordered to avoid battles on even terms in the Channel, and any prospective plan to invade England would have difficulty with the port facilities. The solution would have been to construct a new port, but the envisioned facility, Cherbourg, only began construction in the later years of Louis XVI, only started to become operational under Napoleon I, and only was finished under Napoleon III - in the 1850s! During the 18th century, the French had to suffer inadequate naval facilities in their most important and strategic combat zone.

The French 80 gun ship of the line Saint-Esprit - First rate warships would have been even larger

The French 80 gun ship of the line Saint-Esprit - First rate warships would have been even larger

Naval Supplies

The 18th century ship of the line was without a doubt the most complicated and technologically advanced entity built in the pre-industrial era. The sheer amount of resources for a single ship is staggering, with the requirements for acres of sails, up to a hundred kilometres of rope, triple digit numbers of cannon, tons of gunpowder, and enough wood used to chop down a forest. And what is more, this wood had to be very carefully chosen, with solid oak being needed for the ship's hull, and tall pine or fir for the masts. Substitutes masts could be fashioned from creating composite masts and using iron, but these were rarely as strong or as flexible as single masts, making ships less maneuverable, handy, and harming their sailing characteristics. Poor quality wood could rot quickly and impair the vessel's fight-ability, and constant transfusions of new wood were needed in maintenance to keep vessels in good shape.

For France, some of these resources could be sourced within the country. France, unlike the Netherlands, or to a lesser extent the United Kingdom and many other countries, had extensive forests which were not yet entirely destroyed in the 18th century. These could provide much of the wood needed to construct French ships, even if bringing them to the dock yards was difficult as only Rochefort, an increasingly secondary naval base, was directly linked into the river system that logs would be floated down - forcing the wood to be transported by sea to naval ports, exposing it to attack by the English during English blockades in the 18th century. But over the course of the 18th century, despite the passage of strict laws for their preservation and promotion - far more so than in England during the same time period - these forests began to be exhausted, forcing a recourse to supplies brought in from Italy or territories of the Ottoman empire. Furthermore, even at the best of times, they were problematic for furnishing masts and other extremely large pieces for French ships, and constant French efforts to provide for French-origin masts throughout the 18th century tended to be only marginally successful at most.. For these, the principal provisioning zone for the French navy was the Baltic. The Baltic was a vital supply center for many of the naval supplies needed for ships in the 18th century, with some of the best masts in Europe, tar, pitch, turpentine, and timber. In the Baltic itself, the most important center for naval supplies was Riga and its surrounding territories

Much of the important Baltic naval supplies sources were found in Russia - a country which the French did not enjoy good relations with during much of the 18th century, causing increased cost and problems to get Riga masts.

Much of the important Baltic naval supplies sources were found in Russia - a country which the French did not enjoy good relations with during much of the 18th century, causing increased cost and problems to get Riga masts.

This posed a severe problem for the French navy, which was highly attached to the quality of masts of Riga, even as the 18th century wore on and the forests began to suffer from over-harvesting and over-exploitation which reduced quality, but which was in contradiction with France's chilly relations with the owner of this region - the Russian Empire. After victory over Sweden in the Great Northern War, Russia controlled Riga and its mast and naval supplies export trade. Although Russia's trade policy fluctuated over the course of the 18th century, it was generally defined on the principal of encouraging exports and discouraging imports - mercantilism par excellence. France's trade policy was broadly similar, which led to a natural clash between the two, with Russia not wanting French goods but only French money. By contrast, the English were willing to provide hard currency, and had a much more substantial position in the Russia trade. Furthermore this situation was aggravated by the lack of a commercial treaty between the Russians and the French.

Thus to buy masts in Russia, the French couldn't do so directly, but had to go through intermediaries - these principally being commercial houses of France's main rival, England! The English possessed exclusive rights for directly treating with local merchants, and thus other foreigners had to work through them as intermediaries most of the time. Not only this, but the Dutch were often another layer between the French and the Russians, as the French initially often went through them - and relied on Dutch shipping to transport the purchased masts and wood back to France. As a result of all of this, the French had difficulties purchasing enough good quality masts, and those which they did came at far higher costs and were very difficult to bring back to France during war time.

There was an obvious way around this, at least up until 1763 - French North America, with the inexhaustible resources of French Canada. This was indeed tried by the French, but for various reasons they were not impressed with the mast samples sent back to France. Lack of will and determination, examining regions where the forests had already been worked over, high local wages, and lack of shipping - all of these conspired to make exploiting French Canada's forests a non-starter. This was in stark contrast to the Royal Navy, which since the 1690s found significant quantities of its masts in the forests of New England, and would later on extract significant amounts of masts and timber from Canada after the American Revolution. The American Revolution itself seemed to offer an opportunity to the French for supplanting the British as the principal purchasers of American masts, but this came to naught due to the lack of sustained interest, the ultimate outbreak of the French Revolution, the preference for Riga masts, and a lack of awareness of local conditions.


Colonial Structures

France under the Ancien Regime had a far-flung colonial empire, with colonies in India, near Madagascar, across Africa, the Caribbean, and North America. Of these, the Caribbean was by far the most commercially important, as the islands there generated vast amounts of wealth for France from the sugar cane plantations and other colonial products, enriching French Atlantic trading cities and forming a very substantial part of France's trade. By contrast, Canada and Louisiana in North America were poorly populated and relatively marginal to the French economy, agricultural settlements and producing furs in Canada. The total population of French North America was less than 100,000 - while British North America, the population was somewhere around 1.2 million.The French Caribbean commanded populations of 80,000 at Martinique, 60,000 at Guadeloupe, and St. Domingue, modern day Haiti, had 190,000 - but these were 90% slaves for all of them, making them less than self-sufficient for defense.

The result of this was that the French colonies in North America were vulnerable to English attacks in a way that English colonies were not correspondingly vulnerable to a French offensive. Even with a more militarized population, and alliances with greater numbers of local Indian tribes who had more to fear from English expansionism than French colonies, the far greater resources of British North America posed a dangerous threat to France. The only way to get around this in a long war would have been major influxes of troops from France, or for the French to seize territory in Europe to bargain for territories they had lost in the New World. When the French failed to win a convincing victory in the Old World, such as in the Seven Year's War where an only partial victory meant that only the fishing grounds off of Canada could be retained, the result was that the French colonies were valuable enough to weigh heavily at peace conferences and be lost - but lacking the military strength to have defended themselves. They constituted a lodestone around the neck of France, which the French, with an inferior navy, could not hope to effectively supply and support during wartime against a superior naval force such as that of Great Britain.

Furthermore, the relatively limited population restricted the total commercial value and possibilities for trade in North America - for while the colonies lacked the major sugar plantations of the Caribbean, with sufficiently large populations and agricultural surpluses they could still have constituted valuable links a global trading empire, as they did with Britain's Atlantic economy and triangular trade. The small population of French North America restricted them to only a small and marginal fur trade.

The French were also handicapped throughout the New World by their lack of naval bases, without having constructed an equivalent to the great British naval port of Halifax or the British positions in Jamaica, and so during the American Revolution had to operate out of Newport. Although the French Caribbean was still a useful support region, the French lacked the massive naval base of the Spanish at Havana.


Sailors and the Merchant Marine

In addition to wood to build ships, iron for their guns, their hosts of provisions, ships needed vast quantities of men during the Age of Sail. A single first rate ship of the line could take the better part of a thousand men to man and operate, and even smaller ships could take hundreds - with the result that a large fleet operating during the Age of Sail would have tens of thousands of sailors. Finding this number of men was not easy.

France relied upon a system of maritime conscription, which recorded all sailors within France to enable them to be conscripted for the French navy. This system had advantages compared to the system which existed in the United Kingdom, which used press gangs often to round up men, sometimes even ordinary civilians even if the majority were merchant mariners, for the Royal Navy - although sometimes the press gang did take place in France to find sufficient sailors for the French navy. Many sailors resented being rendered eligible for conscription and did their best to avoid it, and it required tremendous administrative difficulty - but it still did provide the French an improved system over the press gangs present elsewhere.

Such a system however, does not produce new sailors, only better use existing ones, and the total number of sailors was an Achilles heel of the French fleet.The total number of French sailors did not change very much in the 18th century, and in 1766 there were 52,466 sailors registered for naval service - which meant that the total number of sailors had slightly declined since the end of the 17th century, when the French had 59,465 sailors in 1686 and 55,790 in 1690. There were furthermore, at least at mid-century, problems with sufficiently large numbers of junior officers, while the seniority system meant that the top officers were extremely aged.

Administration and Officers

A great systemic problem for the French navy was the increasing tension between administrative officers, typically "Robe Nobles" or "Pen Nobles" (Noblesse de robe or "Noblesse de plume") or judicial and administrative officers, and fighting officers, the "Sword Nobles" (Noblesse de l'épée). Furthermore the naval administration became increasingly bloated and large, quadrupling in size under the period of the regency during the late 1710s and 1720s. This meant that the navy became increasingly unwieldy, and was captured by an increasingly aristocratic officer corps with many parasitic high nobles in Paris who never actually stepped foot on a ship infiltrating their way into naval administration.In the ships themselves, attempts at reform after the Seven Year's War to produce a more meritocratic officer branch resulted in further tensions and quarrels between officers in a heavily upset and disrupted chain of command.

The expensive navy which had been built up under Colbert at the cost of hundreds of millions of livres was allowed to rot during the French regency, and naval administration proved ineffective at keeping the navy in repair and ready for war. This would have deleterious effects particularly on the French navy during the War of Austrian Succession, but it must be admitted that new and vigorous administration did much to prepare the fleet which the French did have for war during the Seven Year's War - but at this point its small size meant that it would be outmatched by the British fleet.

The order of battle of the French navy in 1785

The order of battle of the French navy in 1785

Priorities and Size

If there was one single problem which would explain why the French navy struggled to defeat the Royal Navy in the 18th century, it was size - for the French navy was far smaller than the Royal Navy. This may seem odd in light of the relative sizes of the two countries, since France had a far larger population, slightly less than three times larger than the United Kingdom taken as a whole - and more than a third when one removes Ireland, not formally annexed as part of the United Kingdom until the early 19th century. France's government was a notoriously big spender as well. And yet the French had severe financial problems and drawbacks which prevented them from being able to spend as much money on military endeavors on a per capita basis as the United Kingdom (amplified by a somewhat lower individual wealth, even if the total French economic size was significantly higher), and competing priorities on the continent which meant that the French could not pour their resources into their navy to the same extent as the United Kingdom - or at least, that they chose not to.

The compared sizes of the French and Royal Navies in the 18th century: note the much larger sustained size of the Royal Navy throughout the period, while the French navy only grew gradually and never attained the same size

The compared sizes of the French and Royal Navies in the 18th century: note the much larger sustained size of the Royal Navy throughout the period, while the French navy only grew gradually and never attained the same size

The French financial system was significantly less efficient than the British one. France's tax system was notoriously inefficient, with large tax farmers rather than a direct taxation administration. In a tax farmer system, the government would sell taxation rights to collectors, and these tax collectors would then attempt to collect as much as they could, with anything over what they owed the state being kept by them. This had the obvious disadvantage in encouraging rapacious tax collectors, but the advantage of providing a stable revenue stream for the state and encouraging tax collection, when a direct state administration could more easily lead to uncontrolled corruption due to the lack of effective oversight. The French system was highly corrupt - but it was a controlled, managed sort of corruption. The Dutch also used tax farmers, but these were much more efficient and competitive than the French ones, due to the more compact Dutch state and more highly capitalized and competitive markets. Venal offices, where offices (such as various bureaucratic posts or military positions) were sold to buyers, were another critical part of the French revenue stream. The problem with this is that as the office was actually sold to the buyer, it was impossible to get rid of officer holders, and competence was not a priori the criterion. Thus it was possible to end up with incompetent and corrupt office holders accountable to no one who had bought their way to the top.

The French budget was notoriously opaque and not directly accountable to anyone, since the closest French equivalent to a parliament, the Etats genéraux, had not been called since 1614. The French kings tended to go through periodic bankruptcies, which were not full bankruptcies, but rather that part of their debt was repudiated and some creditors were not paid, while other ones were honored. This happened in 1759 and 1770 and the result was that the French kings paid much higher rates of interest on their debts

French and British bond yields. Only very briefly at the end of the American Revolutionary War did British and French interest rates match. Most often, French interest rates were far above British ones.

French and British bond yields. Only very briefly at the end of the American Revolutionary War did British and French interest rates match. Most often, French interest rates were far above British ones.

In the United Kingdom, although venal offices existed, most notoriously in the British army where buying one's way through the ranks was the standard practice, the revenue system was based upon direct taxes, particularly tariffs - and taxes at a much higher level than in France. Despite the reputation of France as being a heavily taxed country, its taxes were much less than in Britain - but felt much heavier due to being unequally distributed, with the entire First and Second estates, the nobles and the church, being mostly exempt from taxes, and existing French taxes such as the salt tax; the Gabelle, being notoriously unjust and cruelly applied. The British parliament was willing to raise higher taxes on itself, as it ruled the country: the French kings could not demand higher taxes without either giving more powers to French regional parlements or calling the Etats généraux. Furthermore parliamentary oversight over the British financial system meant that it was much more clear and less opaque than in France: as a result of this the British had substantially higher revenues, and the assurance of their debts being honored in full and the British as being good debtors meant that their insurance rates were lower. The British would issue short term paper debts in wartime, then convert this to long term permanent debt, funded by assigned revenue streams, come peace time, enabling low interest rates and preventing defaults. Only for a brief period during the American Revolution did British interest rates for government debt go higher than French interest rates. The British could raise substantially more money per capita, and during war time could borrow substantially more, or at least borrow at substantially more affordable rates.

Even if the French had had the same degree of revenue collection and as efficient of a financial system as in the United Kingdom, France also had substantial land borders to cover - Spain, although generally a nation which could be counted on as an ally, Savoy, Germany, and above all else Belgium, where the Dutch and Austrians sat on the French frontier. France had faced invasion from this route during the War of Spanish Succession, and the French had to have an effective land army to protect themselves - as well as carry the war to the enemy. The French army in 1745 during the War of Austrian Succession was 345,000 men - Britain's army 53,000, and the British Army was commonly drawn down to much lower levels during times of peace than the French one. For France to devote sufficient resources to its fleet to mount a major challenge to the Royal Navy, it needed to have borders which were not threatened by foreign invasion. When this was achieved by the Diplomatic Revolution of the 1750s when France's alliance with Prussia was broken and an alliance with Austria created instead, France no longer faced any significant enemies on its borders - and thus was free to construct the new navy which would win the War of American Independence. As with many things, the Seven Years War was a poisoned chalice: the alliance with Prussia by Britain enabled it to win the war and removed Belgium as a French bargaining chip in negotiations and prevented a repeat of its use as a counter to colonial possessions as had happened in 1748, but also meant that the French would be free to concentrate all of their energy against Britain in the future.

But throughout the smaller size of the French navy was evident, and particularly so before the post Seven Year's War buildup. The drop in size of the French navy after its glory days under Louis XIV was also matched by the reduction its its shrinking galley fleet: one can see how much less the French spent on their navy compared to England. Furthermore, many of the French ships during the first half of the century tended to be smaller than English vessels, without the quantity of first and second rates which were built in Britain. Instead, they were designed for trade protection and many were older without significant energy exerted for naval construction. The result was that the French fleet was both smaller, and even when it began major naval construction programs after the War of Austrian Succession, the French built little to match the larger English ships of the line.

Large 18th century naval battles were dominated by line of battle tactics.

Large 18th century naval battles were dominated by line of battle tactics.

Tactics and Operations

The various limitations and problems afflicting the French navy tended to conspire and mean that it was naturally inclined to be much less aggressive than it otherwise could have been - much less aggressive than it was in the late 17th century particularly. Any pitched naval battle in the 18th century was normally a rather inconclusive affair - two lines of ships of the line cannonading each other, not sinking anyone, at a distance, then meandering off past the banks of gunsmoke with some casualties and damage on each side but rather a decisive result.To be more decisive and risk a battle of annihilation also risked exposing one's fleet to significant damage and wear - and when the French fleet lacked heavily for wood and supplies to repair its fleet, as well as having insufficient manpower supplies, it naturally was inclined to adopt a strategy of caution.

French tactics thus emphasized more often survival and escape, rather than destroying the enemy. Gunnery tactics are the most famous example of this, with the French tending to fire on the upward roll of their ships - ie, as the ships rolled upwards on the waves, so that they could destroy enemy rigging and enable escape or a mobility advantage, while British ships fired on the downward tilt - to shoot directly for enemy hulls. Of course, in the huge number of different tactical environments that navies were operating in, there were plenty of circumstances where both made sense - but the difference in mentality between a battle of annihilation and survival is clear.

The result of this was a number of battles where the French could have possibly inflicted decisive defeats on the English, but did not press their advantage - such as the Battle of Grenada in 1779, or various chances leading up to the Battle of the Saints.

While most of the issues of the French navy stemmed from strategic decisions, there were also questionable operational decisions, a key one being the constant fixation of invading Britain, done without providing sufficient planning or realistic conceptions of how it would work. Invading Britain directly would at a stroke resolve French problems with the United Kingdom: the British army was weak, British coastal fortifications limited, and London was within quick striking distance of the coast. If French troops could be put ashore in significant numbers, then the blow to Britain would be terrible and perhaps irrecoverable. Unfortunately for the French, the challenge of actually putting these troops ashore in light of the much larger Royal Navy, and sustaining them once landed, were formidable

Despite this, the French made plans in 1744, 1759, 1779, and would again under Napoleon plan to invade the United Kingdon, with a diversionary effort also made in 1756. These plans involved the construction of large quantities of naval transports and diversion of substantial amounts of funds to them, but naval superiority had not been achieved beforehand. The proposed invasions of England were generally overambitious and diverted French efforts from more attainable objectives elsewhere, and if they had been spent on more conventional war efforts could have had positive effects - such as the French 1744 invasion of England, whose preparations cost the equivalent of the construction cost for 30 ships of the line!.Furthermore they carried heavy diplomatic penalties, by convincing the English of an existential threat existing to them, which in part was behind the escalation of tensions leading up to the Seven Year's War. While an invasion of England could have neatly solved French problems, the lack of realistic visions of how this would happen plagued the French and harmed their overall war effort. The exception was when these planned invasions were used as a deception, such as drawing British attention from the invasion of Minorca in 1756.

What Could the French Have Done Differently?

With all of this being said, the question which arises is whether French defeat was inevitable? The French suffered under severe penalties in a naval war with Britain, but none of these were insurmountable. A French government pursuing a more maritime focused policy, sending additional colonists to its colonies, exploiting the timber supplies of North America, establishing new naval bases, reforming naval trade laws and expanding the merchant marine, all of these could have given the French the necessary help they needed to win, without discussing the political difficulties behind financial reform. The French would have been able to construct a larger fleet, which could have matched the English one with the assistance of French allies such as Spain, defended their colonies, and had the necessary resources to wage more aggressive and decisive battles against their opponents.

A painting honoring the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which strengthened the then-French ally of Prussia but failed to provide any tangible gains for France. "Stupid as the Peace" and "To Die for the King of Prussia" became slogans in France afterwards.

A painting honoring the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which strengthened the then-French ally of Prussia but failed to provide any tangible gains for France. "Stupid as the Peace" and "To Die for the King of Prussia" became slogans in France afterwards.

A more intriguing question is whether French policy actually was a failure - whether France's combination of a dual land-sea approach was flawed. In the opening shots of the long Franco-British war in the mid 18th century, the War of Austrian Succession, the French seized control of Belgium, but returned it to the Austrians, under the belief that seizure of it would guarantee permanent British hostility. As it turned out, British hostility was entrenched regardless. If Louis XV had chosen to maintain the Austrian Netherlands, then not only would it have received a powerful boost to its financial and economic strength, as well as new naval ports on the Channel, but it would have faced no more powerful enemies on its borders - just the Dutch, eager for neutrality and perhaps reduced to a satellite status, and the hordes of petty German states. France would have been free to pursue a naval strategy with all of its resources, or to use the advanced position it had gained in Belgium to seize control of Hanover in any future war. France's greatest defeat in the 18th century probably came not on the battlefield, but rather at the negotiating table.

Perhaps the boldest proposal is whether war was really inevitable at all, and whether it served the interests of either side. Although Britain and France would be arch rivals during the 18th century, at the beginning they were allied from 1716-1731. Both faced the expansion of newcomer states, such as Russia and later Prussia, and Spanish revanchism. Both were the nations who could do the most harm to each other, and for both, victory in the 18th century was hollow - the French losing their North American colonial empire and the strain of war in part leading to revolution, the British suffering the loss of their American colonies. The British defeat is obscured to some extent by later victory in the Napoleon Wars and the conquest of India, but for both, the imperial struggle was one which was mutually self-destructive and where neither could be said to have won - the fires of war between Britain and France consumed not just the other, but themselves as well. Perhaps the wisest French policy for their navy would have been to not fight with Britain at all, but rather cooperation - one fraught with tensions, but with a world to gain and without the sword of Damocles and mutual destruction hanging over both. This would never happen, and if the struggle was ultimately a losing one for the French, it has given history eternal and undying names of glory - of Suffren, of Surcouf, of Chesappeake Bay and Yorktown - which show that even if the French navy was sometimes outmatched in ships, timber supplies, colonists, and ports, it was never outmatched in bravery or willingness to fight. The French navy may have lost, but it should not be dismissed as an obsolete or inevitably doomed service, but one which fought to the best of its ability to the end.

Suggested Reading

Forests and French Seapower, 1690-1789 by Paul Walden Ramford

The Crisis of French Seapower, 1688-1697: From the Guerre d'Escadre to the Guerre de Course by Geoffrey Symcox.

Fighting Ships and Prisons: The Mediterranean Galleys of France in the Age of Louis XIV by Paul W. Bamford

The French Navy and the Seven Year's War by Jonathan Dull

The Forgotten Service: The French Navy of the Old Regime, 1650-1789 by Richard Brownlow Byington.

© 2020 Ryan Thomas

Related Articles