Briefing - The Great Anglo-French Ironclad Race, 1858-1870
In the last years of the age of sail, the Royal Navy possessed a comfortable superiority over all of its potential foes. This margin was seriously threatened by the introduction of the steam powered wooden ship-of-the-line, through new construction and conversion. In 1855, for example, Britain possessed 16 screw propeller steam powered wooden ships-of-the-line, either new construction or conversions, while France had 13, an uncomfortably high number, considering that the balance in terms of wooden sailing ships-of-the-line was something like 70 to 35. By 1860 Britain managed to add just 42 more screw ships of the line, while France added 36, for a total of 58 to 49, a more comfortable, but hardly reassuring superiority, particularly given Britain's worldwide commitments.
Further complicating matters was the introduction of explosive shell for naval guns. Shell had been around for some time, but was clumsy and dangerous to use on ships. Several technological breakthroughs resulted in a practical shell for shipboard use, and its effectiveness was demonstrated at the Battle of Sinope, on November 30, 1853, when a Russian squadron literally blew apart a Turkish one with virtually no loss to itself. This led directly to the introduction of the ironclad warship.
Ironclads were, of course, not a new idea. As early as the sixteenth century a Japanese invasion of Korea had been frustrated by ironclad galleys. In the 1840s an American marine architect, Edwin Augustus Stevens, had even managed to talk Congress into funding an ironclad warship, only to come up against insurmountable technical difficulties. In reaction to the Russian use of shell, during the Crimean War (1853-1856) the French had built some ironclad floating batteries which proved of immense value in coastal bombardment. And in 1858, Napoleon III's France laid down three ironclad warships. Considering their capabilities, these vessels rendered obsolete all existing ships-of-the-line. Of course, Britain almost immediately began laying down ironclads of her own, but, considering their commitments and potential enemies, Britain's maritime superiority over the French seemed to be at an end Fears that a French invasion might be imminent grew, as Napoleon III's intentions were argued out in the press, military and popular journals, and Parliament. As one concerned citizen put it in 1860, "The emperor of the French, with all his sagacity, would never embarrass his finances to create an enormous navy merely as a yacht fleet."
The result was a new development in international politics, the first real arms race, accompanied by considerable hysteria; Throughout the 1860s there were repeated proposals for an extensive coast defense program, including the expenditure of £4.15 million to turn London into an entrenched camp, lest the French invade.
Yet there was never any real reason for the panic. Britain was far more industrialized than France, and far richer. The Royal Navy immediately began laying down ironclads of its own. And these began to come off the ways with considerable rapidity. As a result, by 1864 Britain had twice as many ironclads in commission as did France, and thereafter Britainís margin of superiority grew rapidly.
|The Ironclad Balance, 1858-1870|
|This table outlines the pace of French and British ironclad construction between 1858 and 1870, including both vessels laid down (LD) and those which were in commission (Com). Ships under construction are not listed.|
Of course the raw figures do not show all. While absolute British superiority over the French was secured by 1864, there were other powers, the Russians (who laid down 25 ironclads in the period, and completed 23), the Italians (16 laid down, 12 completed), the Prussians (nine ships laid down, five completed), and the Austrians (eleven laid down and five completed), not to mention the Americans, who, whether Yankees or Rebs were in a building frenzy due to their Civil War, and various minor powers anxious to acquire an ironclad or two, from the Japanese to the Chileans. Nevertheless, given the diplomatic environment, whatever threat that might have existed to the Royal Navyís command of the seas had passed.