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The Crisis of French Seapower, 1688-1697 Review- A Superb Study of French Naval Strategy, Operations, and Society

Updated on August 15, 2020

Military history tends to enjoy a reputation as being a rather shallow subject, something which is focused on by obsessed fans of equipment, jingoistic nationalism, and those who have little interest in broader society, just in armies. Even in more professional studies of military history, the military can often be greatly divorced from society and historical context, and its isolation prevents a real understanding of the way that the military and society interacted and influenced each other. This is why Geoffrey Symcox's book The Crisis of French Sea Power, 1688-1697 is such a brilliant work, as it manages an excellent synthesis of the French navy in the Nine Years War and its doctrine and strategy, its operations and fighting both on the battlefield and in broader campaigns, how key figures at the time perceived the objectives of the navy, and vitally how the navy both represented and fueled changing structures in French society that would revolutionize France and greatly alter its political geography and makeup. Both on the battlefield and off, it is a splendidly well done work, one which has weathered extremely well the years since its publication.

In the introduction to Symcox's book, he lays out the creation of the French navy, its forces, how its strategy was analyzed, and in broad terms how its doctrine and employment of use changed over time.

"The Instrument" is devoted to the actual make up of the navy, in regards to things like men and manpower (probably the greatest single shortage and problem for an 18th century navy), and how it was recruited, trained, and treated, both for sailors and for their prickly officers - naval officers being a new service in France and ones in a gradual process of transformation and aristocratization, and who had increasing internal schisms and divides. Ships and their design, organization, and construction, bases in the spatial layout of the French navy and its facilities (noting a dangerous lack of a real Channel base, which placed the French fleet at a disadvantage during operations there), these bases' labor organization and the process of arming ships, naval tactics with the increasingly rigid and sclerotic line-of-battle arrangement to which no meaningful alternatives existed for fleet operations, and which operated in a scenario where fleets fought attrition, rather than decisive, battles and could quickly recover from defeats, meaning that victory at sea came not from single battles but rather from long campaigns. This also mentions things such as guns and sailing properties, signalling, boarding, and operational art. Privateer tactics are also discussed, with these being essentially the opposite of regular fleet battles, focused on surprise, guile, and cunning.

The French admiral Tourville, main admiral of the fleet and a capable commander
The French admiral Tourville, main admiral of the fleet and a capable commander

"Seignelay and the Colbertian Legacy" moves to examine the policy of the navy and its state as the Nine Years War began under the leadership of its secretary Seignelay, and what the French navy's objectives and strategy war. Much of this focuses on the Ireland campaign of 1689, where the French supported a Jacobite uprising in Ireland against the new English monarchy installed from the Netherlands in 1688, which provided a successful diversion but which could have been far more effective if more ambitiously supported. It also discusses the actions of the French battle fleet and its objectives, as well as its various battles, which despite a clear victory at Beachy Head failed to lead to any decisive results.

Succeeding the French naval minister Seignelay, who died suddenly in 1690, was Pontchartrain, who has often been blamed for the decline of the French navy during the 1690s. As Symcox points out in his chapter, "Pontchartrain's First Years, 1691-1693", the problems of increasing enemy strength and the limited results of the French navy were ones which had had few tools to grapple with, especially due to the attack of opponents wishing to dismantle the navy - unsuccessful arguments for now, but which would continue to grow over the following years. Once more the various campaigns, both in the Mediterranean but above all else with Tourville in the Channel and Ireland, are followed, culminating in the major french defeat at La Hogue in 1692. This did not end the French conventional strategy, but shifted it South, to the Mediterranean, as Tourville and his fleet sailed south and destroyed the Allied Smyrna convoy from the Ottoman Empire trade of the British and Dutch en route. There is also the beginning of a greater focus on corsairs and their activities and the attempt of the government to support them in their trade war against the Allies, even if the French hadn't fully moved to this strategy yet - but ominous signs of internal economic problems would soon force economies.

"The Crisis of the Main Fleet and the Shift to the Guerre de Course 1694-1697" recounts that as the French economic began to stumble into economic crisis in the context of famine, and the tremendous burden of war told more and more, the French were forced to make major spending cuts, with the fleet and its limited contributions to the war effort being a principal target. This led to the slashing of naval construction and declining naval readiness rates, with instead ships being loaned out to private entrepreneurs for usage as privateers, beginning the guerre de course in full. The French still tried to carry out a conventional Mediterranean campaign, but were blocked by the movement of an Allied fleet to the Mediterranean the unprecedented stationing of it in winter quarters in Cadiz, preventing the French from controlling the waters off of Barcelona. The French coastline elsewhere had to be defended by self-defense forces, with French troops under Vauban, the famed fortress constructor, devastating attempted Anglo-Dutch landings on French coasts. Meanwhile the privateer/naval squadron of Jean Bart both served to commerce raid on Allied shipping and to escort French imports of grain to France. The switch-up of the French navy with most of the fleet moving back to Brest and tying down the Allied fleet there, while remaining forces in the Mediterranean enabled a successful offensive against Barcelona led to the end of the war with the Treaty of Ryswick, mostly status quo ante bellum, and which set the stage for a future war - but the French fleet in the next war would not start in nearly so good a position as at the beginning of the first. Thus the strategy of commerce raiding, with massive focus on this in 1694 onward, would be the main French way to bring the war to the English and Dutch. State support for these privateers, the subject of constant reforms of regulations and improved incentives, helped them to carry out a commerce campaign that would be reasonably effective and presented one of the few plausible French strategies remaining. Vauban was particularly influential in arguing for commerce raiding as an effective economic strategy for the French, in his Mémoire sur la course, his motivation stemming in part, as Symcox notes, from his own personal investment in commerce raiding. This had the unintended effect of supporting mercantile and shipping interests at the expense of the central state, important in a major transformation of French society's power structure.

This privateer activity was a major thorn in the Allied side as noted, but it had the problems of poor coordination, insufficient capital which led to too weak of vessels, and the inability to tightly integrate corsairs into the state's military plans. It also tended to work much better in the waters of the English channel and the North Sea than in the Mediterranean, due to better bases, ships, and different trading patterns. Key and highly influential French courtiers invested massively into privateering, with their influence helping to ease the way to their usage, and providing a source of funding when regular naval expenditures had dried up. Merchants invested too, and in some cases spectacular profits catapulted them into the nobility and provided a vital mechanism for social mobility. Although it is difficult to determine to what degree these campaigns negatively impacted Allied trade, they did score some notable successes on East Indiamen and Spanish convoys.

The fortifications of Dunkirk show the impressive work which went into making it into a major privateering base.
The fortifications of Dunkirk show the impressive work which went into making it into a major privateering base.


The conclusion of the book restates the change of French strategy to a privateering war and why this happened, and does it best to attempt to lay out the impact of the privateering campaign and how much damage it caused. It seems reasonable believe that it inflicted major damage to the enemy and helped sustain the French war economy, making it well worth it: even Mahan, who idolized the decisive naval battle, admitted that this commerce raiding campaign gave the Allies many problems. Trying to apply the late 18th century naval warfare which Mahan was most familiar with to the late 17th century battles of the Nine Year War, leads to a dangerously flawed understanding of the naval battles of this period, lacking an understanding for the clumsy, attritional, and limited naval conflict available in the days of the Sun King. Privateering was a successful strategy, but also one with some definitely unintended long term results, as it undermined central state authority to the advantage of periphery interests and autonomy, and led to excessive specialization in privateering by ports such as Saint-Malo and Dunkirk instead of the ultimately more sustainable carrying trade of ports such as Bordeaux or Nantes. War in the days of Louis XIV would have impacts that would define French society since.

Various statistics and tables about the French navy and its construction and budget, as well as that of its rivals, end the book.

It can be hard to find English-language books about the French navy, as a google query on the subject can attest. This is a major part of what makes The Crisis of French Sea Power, 1688-1697 so useful and unique since it gives an excellent mixture of operational and tactical perspectives on the French navy during the Nine Year's War. This includes both discussing its strengths and technical factors present in the navy, both for its ships, its men, its bases, supply, and support but also some of its battles and how they proceeded tactically - from Beachy Head to La Hogue to the attack on the Levant convoy to Bantry Bay. It provides an excellent description of operational movements of the French navy, as it shifted units in response to a changing strategy of focusing on commerce raiding, its own decline, and the increasing priority of Mediterranean operations. If the book was just limited to these purely military operations, then it would already be a good volume, filling a hole in French naval history which few other books look at.

What makes it into a truly excellent book on the military front however, is its clear and cogent analysis of what the missed opportunities and misconceptions were concerning the French navy, from its lack of decisive action in Ireland to the disastrous lead-up to the naval defeat at the battle of La Hogue. This is married to a very good analysis of the limitations which were placed upon navies during this era, particularly in regards to their limited ability to undertake long-term cruising which made them heavily reliant upon local bases, their inability to operate in winter - which heavily dictated naval campaigns - the lengthy period of time required to fit out and arm ships for the summer naval campaigns, and the fundamentally indecisive and attritional nature of naval conflict during the period. Symcox gives a decisive and cutting rebuttal to the Mahanian notions of naval power, with the American naval theorist Mahan projecting backwards the naval capabilities of the late 18th century onto the late 17th century, and demonstrates how naval warfare in the time of Louis XIV operated under dramatically different paradigms than during other periods of time.

If there is one criticism which can be levied at the book on the military front, it is that it displays a paradox of at once castigating future writers such as Mahan for their 19th century view of the decisive capabilities and autonomous nature of 17th century navies, but then proceeds to often critique the French - or sometimes the Allies - for failing to decisively bring the enemy to bear and destroy him. Be it in Ireland, with the Battle of Bantry Bay, or the Battle of Beachy Head, or French naval operations against convoys and Tourville's campaign, it is noted that the French could have done more - but then Symcox notes that the abilities to annihilate and decisive combat capacities of the days of Nelson lay far ahead. Symcox contradicts himself and could have better woven this and his discussion about the inability to win a decisive, as opposed to attrition victory, together.

The Battle of Texel between French privateers under Jean Bart and a Dutch squadron showed the effectiveness of the aggressive and tough French corsairs.
The Battle of Texel between French privateers under Jean Bart and a Dutch squadron showed the effectiveness of the aggressive and tough French corsairs.

Much of this concerns the French navy in terms of its conventional battle-fleet and its commitment to line-of-battle, pitched battles. And yet the Nine Years War was also a period of dramatic change in the political economy of France. France under Louis XIV and particularly his chief minister Colbert was involved in a dramatic period of state centralization and enhancement of state power, and the French navy was an excellent example of this trend - with formidable mobilization of state resources to create a new service, intended to provide for the power of the king, tightly centralized and controlled. The guerre d'escadre, as the French termed the conventional fleet warfare which they planned to fight, was the highest form of this drive, with centralized - so far as things could be in the rudimentary communication systems of the 18th century - command exercised over unified battlefleets, in service to the king and by state actors. It was the centralization dream of Colbert and Louis XIV writ large: and yet it was also one which proved correspondingly very fragile, one which was expensive and difficult to sustain, and which in the end proved to be less effective - or at least less practical - than the guerre de course, with its focus on private actors. French privateers were not part of the navy, being funded by private capital, and with objectives and interests that only sometimes overlapped with the French state's objectives. The shift to these privateers, and the resultant increase in the power and influence of merchant and shipping communities which were on the periphery of power, was a change in the French political structure which would help mark the transition between Louis XIV's centralization drive and the rise of new elites, not associated with the political center, that would contest the political legacy of the Sun King. Symcox's linking of the two helps shed much light on this political sea-change - quite literally - in French society.

The result of this cohesive and holistic work is a thoroughly impressive understanding of French seapower, its relationship to broader society, its possibilities and limitations, what it achieved and what it failed at, how it reacted to the stress of adverse events to dramatically alter its doctrine, and how this very change resulted in a dramatic revolution in power relationships in the kingdom of the Sun King. Geoffrey Symcox wrote an excellent book, one which is a brilliant look into the French navy of the Nine Year's War and the history of France, one to be recommended for anyone interested in the subject.

5 stars for The Crisis of French Seapower

© 2020 Ryan C Thomas

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