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Louis XV's Navy, 1748-1762: A Study of Organization and Administration Review

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The mid 18th century was a time of tremendous change for the French navy. The suppression of the Galley Corps in 1748, its massive mid-century construction program, the drama of war against England in both the War of Austrian Succession and its crushing defeat in the Seven Years War, and attempts at changing its make up, culture, and administration all were mixed together in a period that marked a decisive change in the nature of the French fleet, which broke decisively loose from its mold of the fleet of Louis XIV and entered a new era. James Pritchard, an important historian of the French Navy and French Empire in North America, explores the shortcomings, the changes, developments, and structure of the French fleet in his book Louis XV's Navy 1748-1762: A Study of Organization and Administration which is an excellent look into this rapidly changing and critical era.

Chapter 1; "Louis XIV and his Naval Secretaries of State" focuses on the summit of the naval administration, with the role of Louis XV's heads of the navy, who in this period were changing rapidly after the long stability of the Colbert and Phélypeaux families had been broken in 1748. Louis XIV had severe defects as a king in regards to his firmness and direction, and the rapid succession of naval ministers that the book examines shows that French policy changed quickly and vaccilated, and naval ministers were rarely able to be the masters of their own departments, let alone their destinies.

Chapter 2, "The Central Bureaux" takes a look at the central administration and above all the premiers commis, the heads of individual naval departments. Naval departments were not rationally organized, being created for sinecure positions or in strange and odd organizational styles. It was the personal merit and influence of the leaders of departments, not formal powers or administrative norms, which defined the quality and functioning of their service: at the same time, it was the functional flaws of the system and its lack of unity and coordination which undermined the navy, rather than the flaws of any single individual.

Chapter 3 "Officers of the Pen" concerns the administrative officers of the navy, ranging from the naval intendants responsible for port administration downwards to the scriveners, clerks, storekeepers, and the flotsam of administration levels in between. Pen and Sword (fighting officers) often had dismal relations and bad opinions of each other, intensified by contradictions in the naval code and the feeling of lack of reward and appreciation of the pen officers. Pen officers have been blamed for many of the problems of the French navy during the period, but for Pritchard, they appear more as the victims of the peace.

Chapter 4, "Officers of the Sword," switches to their tormenters, considering the combat officers, their composition, and their professional culture, pointing out the lack of a strong unified naval esprit de corps, its limited education and internal rivalries (most notable between noble officers and non-noble officers), poor state of recruitment, and the insubordination and lack of smooth fraternity which undermined many of them, despite personal courage and devotion.

Chapter 5, "The Manning Problem" goes to the lowest level of the fleet, the sailors, examining the recruitment of sailors via the naval conscription program and its administration, and how sailors were distributed around the country and in different ranks. The biggest problem for the French system, heavily stressed by Pritchard, was insufficient pay which prevented sailors from receiving regular and good pay, leading to mass attempts to avoid service or flee the country, and difficulties for manning the fleet. This was only intensified by massive captures of French seamen by the British, as well as significant problems with disease.

A view on the arsenal of Rochefort with a ship burning: fires at French ports during the era destroyed several crucial warships.

A view on the arsenal of Rochefort with a ship burning: fires at French ports during the era destroyed several crucial warships.

Chapter 6, "The Arsenals" voyages to the three principal French naval arsenals of Toulon, Rochefort, and Brest, as well as secondary establishments, before moving into discussing the administration, such as the Intendants - formally extremely powerful, almost dictatorial, administrators of the arsenals, whose real power and influence declined in the period - and various departments and their functions.

Chapter 7, "Arsenal Workers," takes a closer look at the gritty details of the arsenals' operation, with its various workers, ranging from unpaid convicts used for manual labor, to skilled carpenters, caulkers, sailmakers, and coopers. As elsewhere, financial problems in the navy caused the workforce to vary dramatically and cut backs were often necessary, leading to the arsenals grinding to a halt. Their working conditions were hard, with long days, supervision, and harsh discipline - but discipline itself began to collapse as the Seven Years War continued, as it relied upon withholding pay which did not work very well when workers were not paid at all anyway!

Two decker 74 gun ships were the preferred ship of the line models of the French fleet

Two decker 74 gun ships were the preferred ship of the line models of the French fleet


Chapter 8, "Ships and the Fleet," focuses upon the major French naval construction program of the 1750s, examining how the French launched a major construction project of a fleet of modern, high quality ships of the line, discussing the strategic objectives of the French ships in their design, focusing on 64 and 74 gun ships for their useful roles in commerce protection and flexibility. Although the French did manage to build many of their ships, it had to reduce construction to provide for financial viability as war approached, with much of the navy's available money being wasted in invasion preparations to invade England directly in 1759.

Chapter 9, "The Ordinance Problem" devotes itself to the problem of insufficient cannon production for the French fleet, driven by outdated production centers and poor quality, with the cannon producing centers in Périgord facing the challenge of reconciling the huge demands for naval armament with the stress this put on their economy and social structure. The period saw significant improvements in technological production processes, as gradual improvements to cannon casting and boring technology was made, but without a national iron market it was difficult to generate production quantities and qualities that would make a naval armament program on the navy's level possible.

Chapter 10, "Naval Stores," tracks a wide variety of acquisitions to the navy, ranging from timber, to canvas, hemp, iron, to food. Generally these were acquired from private producers, but the navy's inadequacies of finance and institutional shortcomings meant that costs were excessive and supply shortages proliferated. Sometimes the navy's problems would drag down new, innovative, producers with it, such as Pierre Babaud de la Chaussade, a French iron baron who introduced significantly improved industrial economies of scale and technological sophistication, but the navy's financial problems by the end of the 1750s meant that he could not be repaid and ultimately drove him to bankruptcy. The navy's fragmented structure and finances also hurt hemp and canvas, although its victualling department, a centralized private enterprise, generally proved to be effective.

Chapter 11 is probably the most important chapter in the book, as it is here that Pritchard identifies the root of French problems, insufficient money. "Naval Finances" examines the structure of French finances for the navy, with a heavily flawed structure which crippled the operational capabilities of the navy. A crucial development during the period was the massive expansion of "extraordinary funds" for naval operations, and which rapidly became constant, even in peacetime. Naval financial administrators were disconnected from fulling payments, only issuing them, which helped to make the navy an unreliable creditor. There was no such thing as a budget, while debts accumulated massively from the past as an anchor around the navy's feet. When Choiseul came to power as naval secretary of state, he was able to summon up a wave of patriotism and clever manipulation of political anger and validation of certain debts to enable the jump starting of the rebuilding of the navy.

The conclusion stresses once more that money was the sinew of war in Early Modern times and the Achilles Heel of the fleet, which had to choose between a large or an effective fleet, without the ability to build the forces capable of matching the Royal Navy, and whose defeat and problems were driven above all else by financial collapse rather than military defeat. The reforms at the end of the period were less important than the transformations which occurred during it, and failed to solve the greatest single problem of the navy: its inadequate financial structure and support.

Pritchard's great accomplishment is being able to present many facets of naval administration, organization, structure, and naval strength, but to be able to in the end choose the most vital and crucial elements and base his argument on the reason for failure of the French Navy upon them - in this case above all else that it was the insufficiencies of money and problems of finance that lay at the heart of the most crucial French problems. There were many problems in the French Navy, ranging from internal conflicts and rivalries, lack of administrative direction, and inadequate production, but it was the difficult financial state of the fleet which doomed it in war, as it was unable to sustain its operations and respond to military defeats. Pritchard's book forms an excellent narrative and convincing argument about this.

As with other books by Pritchard, he manages to look at precise details and historical details and present them very well and effectively. The lives and working conditions of workers in ports is an excellent example, giving a good picture of how life was in the arsenals. He also gives a strong understanding of the nature and behavior of the French naval officer corps, showing its background and some of its mentalities: his focus on the personnel of the fleet as a whole is exceedingly well done.

But of course, the main focus is on the naval administration, which is where his work demonstrates the massive amount of effort and research which has gone into his authoritative portrait of both the individuals who made up the various ranks of naval administration, ranging from naval ministers to port intendants, and into being able to convincingly demonstrate the various flaws and failings of French naval administration. Other books discuss the officers, the guns, the ships: few manage to provide such a brilliant look on the French navy's upper echelons of administration, moving beyond generalities to give an excellent look into the fine details of how the navy was led.

While assuredly an excellent book, there are some areas where improvements could have been made. There is a discussion near the beginning of the book of the terms employed, which clarifies some of them and when translations are used. But the inclusion of a glossary would have been of tremendous help, since even after these are explained, it is easy to lose track of what specific terms are, such as "scrivener" - which makes comprehension of the ranking and administrative issue of the navy much more difficult. Similarly Officers of the Pen, and Officers of the Sword, chapters 3 and 4, would have been improved by brief definitions of the two at the beginning of each, and perhaps a flowchart detailing the administrative hiearchies and organization of pen officers. It would have furthermore been useful to have a biography, as there is just a list of sources used and notes for chapters.

While it isn't necessary to explore the French Navy in international context as the main purpose of the book - after all, there are other volumes which focus on the European level and which situate the French Navy in the international balance of power and compare it to other fleets - some of the administrative problems and structures could have been made more easily comparable by reference to other navies. There is discussion of the weaknesses of French administration structures as the intendant of ports with their control over administrative affairs, and the fault lines triggered by this, as well as their diminishing authority. Comparing this to how it worked in other navies - most notably the Royal Navy, but the Danish, Swedish, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese navies would all be good options - would enable the reader to get a better grasp of how the French system worked compared to others and why its particular problems manifested themselves. The same can be said about comparisons to the past: Symcox's excellent book The Crisis of French Sea Power, 1688-1697 shows for example that the French maritime conscription system provided the French fleet with important advantages in mobilization speed and being able to put to sea earlier: by the 1750s this seems to have been largely lost vis-à-vis the Royal Navy, and yet there is not a comparison between the two eras to understand precisely why. Right now, the reader is presented the subject in a vacuum.

This problem of readability and comprehension aside, Pritchard's book is doubtless an unmissable work on the functioning, weaknesses, and structure of the French Navy, one which will continue to be a classic for understanding the French fleet in a time of momentous change in the mid-18th century and dealing with the complex subject of naval administration. It is an irreplaceable book for a subject which has few, if any, works of such quality upon it.

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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