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French ships of the Nine Years War / War of the Grand Alliance

Posted: Wed Feb 27, 2019 6:12 am
by Demi-Saker
How did French ships of this era (1688–97)) compare to the English and Dutch ships? they seem to be much larger, but did they handle just as well, were they as fast as their English and Dutch counterparts?

I seem to recall French ships being very desirable in later eras, being better sailers than the ships of other nations - but when exactly did this start?

Also how did French crews hold up against English and Dutch crews of the period?


Re: French ships of the Nine Years War / War of the Grand Alliance

Posted: Sun Mar 03, 2019 2:25 am
by Navclio
Answering this question would require a comprehensive knowledge of the ships, navies, and naval battles of the period and a lack of nationalistic bias on the part of the analyst. I have the latter—I'm not British, Dutch, or French—but not the former. N.A.M. Rodger discusses enemy navies in The Command of the Ocean but is a raging British hyperchauvinist—in his view, the British were the best at everything naval and doing anything differently from the British was a display of stupidity that only confirmed British superiority. So you can find some information there about the differences between the English navy and the French and Dutch navies, but should not rely on his qualitative appraisals. Maybe Thomas Bender has been able to take a more objective view of the issues you are asking about; Cy might be able to suggest where you might contact him.

The French won their only significant tactical victory in a fleet action against a mostly English (but partially Dutch) fleet off Beachy Head on June 29/July 30, 1690 with a larger fleet, and more or less held their own against a superior Anglo-Dutch fleet on the first day of the Battle of La Hogue or Barfleur, May 17/28, 1692, but suffered material defeat on May 22/June 2.

Louis XIV built a navy that exceeded the size of the British and Dutch navies combined but navies are expensive and even the most populous country in western Europe, with perhaps the largest GNP (not per capita—that would have been the United Provinces or possibly England—but France's population was something over three times England's, while England probably did not have three times the per capita GNP), could not afford both the largest army and the largest navy in Europe, so the navy was largely demobilized and many of the ships completed after Barfleur were never put into service. Later, France had difficulty finding experienced, qualified seamen for a navy smaller than Britain's, and I find it difficult to imagine that French warships in the 1690s were as efficient as English or Dutch warships or could exhibit comparable seamanship. However, battles, especially fleet actions, were mostly fought in close to ideal circumstances when outstanding seamanship was not necessary. Differences in crew nautical expertise would show up more at the operational and strategic levels, or when two nearby but unengaged fleets were stuck by the same storm.

Dutch warships were smaller than either English or French and had especially small crews. The United Provinces had, of course, a large merchant marine from which to recruit sufficient sailors, and at least through the death of Michiel de Ruyter in 1676, outstanding admirals, although they had a problem keeping merchant captains whose ships had been pressed into combat duty in battles like the Four Days’. Dutch admirals of the Nine Years’ War were, of course, mostly veterans of the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars—they might have been captains or junior flag officers in their 1672–80 war with England and France—and might have been of comparable quality. It was after the Peace of Ryswick that the Dutch navy began to decline in both quantity and quality.

Re: French ships of the Nine Years War / War of the Grand Alliance

Posted: Sun Mar 03, 2019 8:52 am
by Demi-Saker
Thanks so much for your detailed reply Navclio - very interesting stuff :)

I was talking to someone knowledgeable about this period down at the wargames club today, and I gleaned the following information:

Crew Quality for sailing:
Dutch > English > French

Crew Quality for boarding / fighting:
English > French > Dutch

So these answers, combined with your assessment on the ships (and judging by the huge size of the French ships), definitely gives me enough to go on for this period.

Thanks again!