French in China

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The French Naval Squadron based in Chinese waters during the late 1880's.  The treaty of Tientisn respected the integrity of China but many nations including France operated a naval fleet in Eastern waters.

Extract from "The Navy and Army Illustrated" April 9th 1898

Times have changed wondrously since the year 1884, when we had upon the China station only the then fifteen year old "Audacious" (joined shortly by the "Agamemnon", fresh from the dockyard hands), with the "Wivern" laid up at Hong Kong.  Russia, as despondent people remarked, was better off with the "Minin", "Vladimir Monomach", and "General Admiral".  As to the Germans, they were nowhere.  The French had, indeed, a Chinese history.  After the outrages at the Taku forts, they threw in their lot with us, and were parties to the Treaty of Tientsin.  They fought with China later on in relation to Tonquin, and, but for the timidity of their statesmen, might in 1885, have held on to Formosa, or to the splendid anchorage and harbour which had been occupied in the Pescadores.  The Treaty of Tientsin respected the integrity of China, and the French honourably held to its engagements.  The signatories would certainly have stood aghast if they could have foreseen the day when the talons of the German eagle should lay hold a part of the Celestial Empire.

The great fleets which are maintained in Chinese waters are a measure of the increased political and trade importance of the region.  Commercially, we had in those days no rival, but now keen competitors, in hardy Teutons, astute Muscovites, and smart Frenchmen, are clutching at the lion's share.  The French do not forget the name of Courbet, and the achievements of Foochow and the River Min, with other exploits, are writ large in their Naval annals.  They will not remain content with their difficult advance China-ward form Tonquin when the sudden grasp of Germany and the more silent advance of Russia are pointing the way to move.

The Bayard, Flagship of the French China Squadron

Hence we see our interesting neighbours strengthening their fleet to keep pace with other Powers.  Three months ago it had but a meagre catalogue.  There was the old "Bayard" of wood and iron, flagship of the division, but a veritable sabot, with the "Descartes" and "Eclaireur".  Now the force has been constituted as a squadron of two divisions, with Admiral Gigault de la Bedolliere in command.  The "Bayard" is still the flagship, with her masts and bowsprit, as will be seen, reminiscent of a former time, but with ten stout inches of armour on her sides, and two 9.4 in. guns abreast in sponsoned turrets forward, and two more in line further aft.  It was on board this same "Bayard", in the harbour of Makung in the Pescadores, which he had forcibly urged the French Government to retain, that Admiral Courbet died in June 1885.  She is a good old ship, but is to be replace by the "D'entrecasteaux", which is also depicted.  Now this splendid vessel, which is named after an intrepid explorer of the South Seas, and is at present undergoing trials off Toulon, is the latest achievement of the French in the way of heavily protected cruisers.  Mark her far projecting, ram like bow - a characteristic feature of French war ships - the sharp "tumble home" of her flanks, and the general business like look of her.  She displaces 8,114 tons, and with engines of 13,500 horse power is to steam at 19 knots.  There are 9.4 in. guns fore and aft in turrets, and twelve 5.5 in. and as many small quick-firers, with six torpedo tubes.  The turrets are protected by 10 in. of Harveyed steel, and there is a turtle-back deck, 4 in. thick at the sides.

D'entrecasteaux c.1898

The most powerful armoured ship in the fleet is, perhaps, the cruiser "Bruix" (4,754 tons).  She is one of four modern armour clads, heavily armed and well protected by side, turret and deck plating, which have been a success.  We have nothing quite like her, and it is not probable that the class will have further representatives in France, where the tendency is all towards the construction of larger vessels.  Six powerful cruisers of 9,517 tons, and three others of 7,700 tons, have lately been, or are about to be, laid down.  The "Vauban" (6,208 tons), which is illustrated, is one of the "Bayard" type, though later, and with two masts instead of three.


Second Class Cruiser Jean Bart                                            Old Armoured Cruiser Vauban

These ships have all pole masts, but  the "Jean Bart", a second class cruiser of 4,100 tons, is illustrated with thise formidable looking fighting structures which have found so much favour in France.  This is interesting, for before the ship went out to China the heavy masts, like those in many other French ships, were found to endanger the ship's stability, and were removed, so that now she carries only pole masts like her consorts.  The same thing has happened to the sister second class cruisers "Descartes" and "Pascal" (about 4,000 tons).  On many an occasion France has led the way in the building of war ships; but latterly a good many errors have been made.  The "Descartes" steamed at 21 knots at her trials and the "Pascal" at 20.  These are powerful modern ships of 1894 and 1895, with protective deck and large quick firing armaments.  They have been specially built for foreign service.


Descartes c.1898                                                                 Pascal c.1898

The other vessels of importance on the station are the old wooden "Duguay Trouin", which joined from the Pacific, and the third class cruiser "Eclaireur".  The "Duguay Trouin", like the "Bayard", is a veteran of the China Seas.  She was launched at Cherbourg in 1877, and, in 1884, was attached to the division of Rear Admiral Lespes, which was placed under command of Courbet.  She was one of the ships which co-operated in the capture of Kelung in Northern Formosa, and was actively engaged throughout the war.

The "Eclaireur" is a vessel of 1,770 tons, built in 1877, but supplied with new machinery two years ago.


Duguay Trouin pictured November 1905.                                  A 5.4 in. Gun in a French Armour Clad


Extract from "The Navy and Army Illustrated" April 9th 1898