The Charlemagne Class - 1899
The Gaulois leaving port. Ship was later torpedoed and sunk in the Mediterranean, 1916.
The three Charlemagnes were the closest thing to a class of battleships in the French fleet during the 1890s, often called the "fleet of samples" period. After their near-sister the Iéna joined them in 1902, they made up the most cohesive and compatible squadron in the French fleet. Completed in 1899 and 1900, these were the first French battleships to opt for twin mountings for all their main guns rather than retaining single turrets for the main guns; the Canet Modèle 1893 twin 12"/40 turret is pictured below. This trio was well engined and built with pride. But they repeated many of the weaknesses of their predecessors: Unduly small size and stability problems caused by their somewhat moderated, but still voluptuous tumble-home shape. In one other respect these ships were noteworthy, even ground-breaking units: They provided a respectable test bed for some of the most outrageous excesses of the French navy's Funnel Cap Squad. Steampunk indeed!
Plans and Specifications
The Charlemagne was the first French battleship to utilize two twin main turrets rather than relying on single turrets.
Specifications for the Charlemagne:
Dimensions: 380'9" x 676 x 28' 387'6" LOA Displacement: 11,260 tons. Armament: (4) 12/40 (2x2), (10) 5.5"/40, (8) 4/40, and (20) 3-pdr guns; (4) submerged 18 TT. Armor: Harvey type. 16"/10 belt; 9 fore turret; 11" after turret; 8" hoists; 12" conn; 5" bulkheads; 3" battery; 1½ deck. Fuel capacity: 680 tons normal, 1100 maximum, plus 200 tons oil. Propulsion: (20) coal-fired Belleville boilers; (2) 4-cyl vertical inverted triple expansion engines developing 14,500 hp, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 18.2 knots. Crew: 631.
Ships in class: Charlemagne · St. Louis · Gaulois
Dimensions: 116m x 20.6m x 8.53m 118.11m LOA Displacement: 11,260 tons. Armament: (4) 305 mm/40 (2x2), (10) 140 mm/40, (8) 100 mm/40, and (20) 3-pdr guns; (4) submerged 45 cm TT. Armor: Harvey type, in mm: 406/254 belt; 229 fore turret; 280 after turret; 203 hoists; 305 conn; 127 bulkheads; 76 battery; 40 deck. Fuel capacity: 680 tons of coal normal, 1100 maximum; plus 200 tons oil. Propulsion: (20) coal-fired Belleville boilers; (2) 4-cyl vertical inverted triple expansion engines developing 10,812 kW, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 33.5 km/hr. Crew: 631.
A Gaulois Gallery
Gaulois passing close in a dramatic photo taken at speed.
The French Model 1893 12"/40 twin turret was a technological benchmark, used to arm the Charlemagnes and Iéna. NavWeaps
The name ship leaving a port in the south of France. Marius Bar
Charlemagne steaming down the Grand Rade de Toulon. Enlarge
Stern view of the Charlemagne, colourized by Isolake Jr. Enlarge
The Iéna - 1898/1902
The Iéna, shown here making 18.11 kts on trials, was a slightly improved Charlemagne. Bougault
The Iéna, named for one of Napoléon's most famous victories at Jena and Auerstedt, was a near-copy of the Charlmagnes, with a slightly longer hull and secondary armament upgraded to eight 6.5"/45 (164 mm) Modèle 1893 and eight 3.9"/45 (100 mm) Mle 1893 guns. Her ostensible raison d'être was to correct the unstable ride caused by the excessive tumble-home in the Charlemagnes; but Alphonse Thibaudier, the Naval Constructor at the time, did not revise the ship's lines except to accommodate the 21 additional feet of length; in consequence, she rolled and pitched as badly as her predecessors. Outsize bilge keels failed to correct this distressing tendency. Mon Dieu! What was a navy to do, except replace Thibaudier with France's foremost naval idea man, Émile Bertin?
Iéna spent much of her 5-year career in the yard in various attempts to address her shortcomings as a sea-boat, and in the arrangement of her fire control and secondary armament. She was ordered to Toulon's Dock No. 2 for graving and inspection of her rudder shaft in March 1907. Shortly after 1330 on March 11, the ship was split asunder by an explosion amidships in the No. 5 100 mm magazine. This in turn triggered other explosions and soon the waist of the ship was engulfed in a fireball (left). The cause was aging nitrocellulose propellant, which set off the débacle through spontaneous combustion in the ship's powder tier. The explosions and fires devastated the vessel and destroyed much of her propulsion machinery. Because of the ship's being in drydock, it was at first impossible to flood the magazines. The battleship Suffren, berthed beside the Iéna in Drydock No.1, was buffeted by the continued blasts and nearly capsized inside her own dock.
One Ensign de Vaisseau Roux managed to open the sluice gates in No. 1 and flood the dock before being himself decapitated by flying debris. He was accounted one of the heroes of the day, his action making possible the containment of the fires aboard. This in turn contained the damage before it spread further through France's main naval base.
When the emergency was over, the ship's side amidships was found ripped open from the rail all the way down below the waterline, to the lower edge of the armor belt. A survey of the Iéna revealed a battleship so badly damaged that it would be prohibitive to rebuild her: a figure of 7 million francs was mentioned, at a time when a new Liberté class battleship cost 1.42 million. Already well into an ambitious battleship construction programme featuring Bertin's more elegant designs, the French Navy opted to take the loss and use Iéna's hulk as a target to assess the latest armor-piercing shells. These trials were conducted at the Ξle des Porquerolles between August and December 1909. On December 2, the vessel capsized and sank despite efforts to save her. The hulk was sold to the junk man and was salved in several stages between 1912 and 1927, its tormented steel sacrificed to feed the furnaces of Progress.
Meanwhile in government, the brouhaha over the self-igniting gunpowder forced Navy Minister Gaston Thomson from office. But problems with nitrocelluose propellant persisted. The report on the specific conditions that caused the Iéna's loss did not prevent virtually the same thing happening to the newer, Bertin-designed Liberté four years later.
If You Yearn for the Iéna
The Iéna sets out on a patrol from home base Toulon.
A harborside view of the Iéna with crewmen mustered topside.
The Iéna on trials - starboard side companion to the shot at top. Bougault
Viewed from the stern quarter, the Iéna appeared identical to the Charlemagnes.
Colourised B&W photo of the Iéna: Contemporary postcard of the cruder sort.
Iéna in her heyday, about to slip her mooring. Enlarge
The Iéna's Magazine Explosion
The Iéna, shown wreathed with explosion clouds, takes fire in Toulon. Marius Bar
The Iéna explodes and burns in drydock - stern view. Enlarge Marius Bar
The Iéna burns: port side detail by Toulon's other master naval photographer. A. Bougault
Contemporary illustration shows locus, if not accurate appearance, of the cascading explosions.
The scene days after the explosion: one burnt-out battleship. It was estimated that it would take Fr. 7 million to put the damage right; a brand-new 1907 battleship cost Fr. 1.42 million. Iéna accordingly was designated as a target for her own navy. Enlarge Marius Bar