Revolution and Naval Culture: How the French Revolution Weakened the French Navy

Captains, if you follow the historical updates and news that can be read when your ships are docked at port, some of you would have received news of the French revolution by now. As we saw in the previous note, the revolution had a tremendous impact in the Caribbean as it was one of the catalysts to the slave revolts that took place in the West Indies, and also the Haitian revolution that would lead to the creation of the Republic of Haiti in January 1804.

Another aspect of the French revolution has been highlighted by the historian Paul Fregosi in his amazing book ‚Dreams of Empire: Napoleon Bonaparte and the First World War’ (Citadel press, 1997).

Fregosi shows how the revolution had a devastating impact on the morale and effectiveness of the French navy, as a result of the political changes that took place on land. One of the immediate results of the revolution was that it created a new kind of ‚people’s army’, led by members of the Jacobin revolutionary class, who fought a class war against the elites of their own society. The French army was radically reformed, as many officers who had served in the army of King Louis XVI were denounced as ‚aristocratic elites’ and ‚the enemy of the poor’: Some were demoted, others removed from their posts; while many were later arrested and executed on the grounds that they were aristocratic counter-revolutionaries. This opened the way for a new class of officers and troops, who came from the ordinary working classes; and the revolutionary army was driven by ideological zeal and their desire to fight for a new society.

While the reforms in the army were largely successful, and opened the way for the rise of a new class of officers such as the young (and then unknown) Napoleon Bonaparte, the same reforms in the navy proved to be disastrous…

Fregosi (1997) argues that the reforms of the French Navy had the opposite effect, for the navy and army had two different cultures altogether: At sea, discipline was crucial on board military vessels, and a strict hierarchy had to be enforced all the time, for fear of indiscipline and mutiny. But many of the naval officers then were aristocrats, and they opposed the revolution which they regarded as dangerous.

In the Caribbean the effects of the revolution were catastrophic: Some French naval commanders defected to the enemy, taking their ships with them, for fear that they might end up being executed if they returned to France. But more worrying was the change in the crew-structure of French naval vessels. At that time, naval gun crews received higher salaries than ordinary sailors, due to their expertise in firing guns at sea, on moving ships against moving targets. This was a skill that was highly prized, and rewarded accordingly.

But the revolutionary government in Paris declared that there would be no elitism and special treatment in the army and navy, so many naval gun-crews were removed, and replaced by army gun crews who were more familiar with the technique of using artillery on land. The nett result of this was that French ships were no longer able to match the cannon firing-rate of other navies, as the new artillery crews were not used to firing cannons at sea; often missing their targets by firing too low or too high when in combat. The firing rate of French ships dropped drastically, and in many major naval battles the French were out-gunned by the British navy, such as the Battles of Trafalgar and Aboukir.

It was this decline in naval effectiveness of the French navy that also prompted French governors like Victor Hugues to issue letters of marque, to enlist pirates as privateers to make up for the decline of effectiveness of the French navy in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
So the next time you purchase a French letter of marque, remember the historical context you are playing in captains! The Caribbean theater of war was closely connected to the events in Europe, and decisions made in Paris, London and the Hague may affect your fortune in ways you did not anticipate.




[Image: The last defence of the French crew of the ‚Tonnant’ at the Battle of Aboukir Bay. Source: open source/internet]