When the Marceau was launched from the Lorient dockyard, she was the name ship of the last and largest class of barbette ships in the French navy. Her armament placement of one each bow and stern and one on each beam -- the lozenge or diamond pattern (below left) -- was to become standard practice in the Marine Nationale Française until 1903.
French yards began construction on four large ironclads in 1881. In keeping with French practice, the ships were built in separate yards and important variations in design and appearance were tolerated, although they were built to broadly similar specs. Three of the ships -- Marceau, Neptune, and Magenta -- thus could be considered a single class. The fourth ship -- the Hoche -- was so extensively modified during construction that she became a virtual "one-off." With her wing guns replaced by 10.8" weapons and her towering superstructure, she was known in the French Navy as "the Grand Hotel" for her elaborate balconies and catwalks and exceptionally poor seakeeping qualities. The three Marceaus, on the other hand, were a logical evolution from preceding French battleship designs, and no more atrocious sea-boats than the ironclads that preceded and followed them.
The three Marceaus mounted a quartet of 28-calibre, 13.4" (34 cm) Modèle 1881 guns en barbette in four massive single mounts at the points of the diamond. The gun crews were protected by armored protective shields, open in the back but so enclosing as to constitute a gunhouse. The lighter weight of barbette mountings versus armored turrets of the older type permitted the ships' high freeboard. The waterline was armored from stem to stern, though this meant thin or no protection elsewhere in the ship. Marceau practically bristled with secondary and tertiary guns: eight 5.4" and sixteen 47mm (2.5"), plus numerous machine guns and four 15" torpedo tubes. Original plans called for three big guns, all on the centerline, as in the Amiral Baudin class, but this layout was changed to the "lozenge" plan early in the design phase. The new layout eliminated some of the blast problems which had plagued the middle gun mounting (placed between the funnel and the aft superstructure and boat-storage area) in the Amiral Baudins. Much praise was excited abroad over the ability to bring a three-gun broadside to bear under this design. The British even paid the ultimate compliment of imitation, building the Imperieuse class armored cruisers of 1884 with a lozenge pattern armament layout and (for the British) heavy tumble-home in the hull shape, yielding two very disappointing ships.
At right, the Marceau basks a Mediterranean midday; for enlarged image, click here. The constant turnover in France's naval ministries during the 1880s and the policy of deliberate, simultaneous construction of many ships meant that all three of the Marceau class battleships took more than ten years to build. This lag in build time dashed their hopes of being considered first-rate vessels once commissioned, for they were obsolete by the time they were afloat. The French naval bureaucracy made little effort to keep up with the rapid advances in technology during their long gestation; for the most part the ships' specifications were left intact. For example, Marceau's main battery guns were of only 28 calibre, although French arsenals in the interim had developed more potent 40- and 45-calibre weapons; replacing the guns ordered with newer models would have been a relatively painless alteration to make while the ship was building. Example 2: the Marceau was fitted with compound armour (part iron, part steel) at a time when newer ships in other navies were receiving nickel-steel, and later, face-hardened Harvey armor that provided far greater protective power at reduced weight. Example 3: the class was propelled by compound engines as originally specified, instead of the more efficient triple expansion design that came into nearly universal use in the period between the Marceaus' laying down and their completion.
The Marceau class consisted of the name ship and two similar vessels, the Neptune and Magenta. All featured a single plump funnel; abaft the funnel, the superstructure was dominated by a boat-storage and launching area. On the Marceau this area might justly be called a hangar, with great girders which could act as outsized boat cranes (davits). This feature was echoed in succeeding French battleships, notably the Charles Martel and the Russian battleship Tsesarevich, built at the Brest DY for the Romanov monarchy in 1899-1903. The Neptune and Magenta devoted the area to boats also, but their solution included a boxy, towering superstructure taking in the entire top deck, placing the two ships high among the icons of ugliness in that distinguished gallery of same, the French navy of the 1890s. A fourth sister, Hoche (known as "The Hotel" in the French fleet for her top-heavy appearance) completed later, to modified plans, becoming a low-freeboard version with turret-mounted guns and a split funnel, somewhat as her contemporary HMS Hood of 1892 played off the Royal Sovereigns. Lasting some ten years longer than her sister ships, the Marceau was scrapped in 1922.
Marceau ready for launch at La Seyne, with bunting flying aboard; a torpedo boat and some shipyard hands enjoying their lunch break, in front of her. The hull shape screams "ironclad!" The wing gun sponsons stand out in the strong overhead light, and the ram, bow torpedo tube, port screw and rudder are all clearly visible as well. These were France's last twin-screw capital ships. Triple-screw design was adopted when the Marine Nationale shook off the anti-battleship doctrine of the jeune école in the early Nineties.
Schematic of the Marceau reveals the vulnerability of the type: aside from a thin waterline belt and the four barbettes, the ship presented a large, unprotected target: high sides with no armor, and a funnel that rated as a target in itself. Unfortunately, Marceau was chosen as the template for French battleships to come, which dutifully copied and perpetuated the flaws in the design.
Dimensions: 347' x 65'6" x 27'3" Displacement: 10,960 tons. Armament: (4) 13.4"/28 M1881 BLR, (8) 5.4"/45 M1888 QF, and (16) 47mm guns; (4) 15" torpedo tubes. Creusot compound armor: 17¾"/8" belt, 14" barbettes and conn, 3.2" deck, 2" shields and casemates. Fuel capacity: 670 tons of coal. Propulsion: (2) 2-cyl compound steam engines developing 10,600 hp, shafted to twin screw; 16 knots. Crew: 640.
Dimensions: 102m x 20m x 8.3m. Displacement: 10,960 tons. Armament: (4) 34 cm/28 M1881 BLR, (8) 138 mm/45 M1881 QF, and (16) 47mm guns; (4) 38 cm torpedo tubes. Creusot compound armor: 460/200 mm belt, 356 mm barbettes and conn, 8 cm deck, 50 mm shields and casemates. Fuel capacity: 670 tons of coal. Propulsion: (2) 2-cyl compound steam engines developing 7,904 kW, shafted to twin screw; 29.6 km/hr. Crew: 640.
The Neptune and Magenta were nearly identical, but looked quite different from anything else in the French fleet. They had blank, sheer walls of superstructure carrying to nearly the funnel cap level. These blank faces, pierced by only a few portholes, made the ships among the homeliest in a ghastly fleet. The strange superstructure sprang from another stab at solving one of the gravest dilemmas facing the French navy: how to launch small boats from the narrow upper decks of a French warship with its bulging flanks awkwardly placed between the boats and the sea. The controversy was never fully resolved when the French turned away from their beloved tumble-home. A quick survey of French battleships of the period reveals that there was a different system in use in practically every ship: one could say each vessel had its own approach (but of course; they were French, non?) To be sure, there were no less than seven one-off battleships built between the Marceau class of three and the Charlemagne class of three in 1899, so it makes sense that there would be a different davit design for virtually each ship. On the Neptune and Magenta, very tall davits shot up from the weather deck rail, pivoting to swing the boats inboard or out as seen in our photos of Neptune above and below left.
Another feature shared with a number of contemporary French warships was the masts. The Neptune debuted these advanced fighting tops, reached by electric elevators that ran inside the masts. As originally built, both ships had two armored masts, with an elaborate gunhouse on the foremast and a simpler structure on the main, as shown here -- a pattern copied on all succeeding French battleships through the Masséna of 1898. The armored masts added a vast amount of topweight, weight that added disproporte instability because it was carried so high and swung like a pendulum, magnifying the ships' roll. Topmen, skilled gunners who would have raked an opponent's decks with fire in combat, were the most seasick crewmen of all on the Neptune and Magenta, their ironclad towers a source of exaggerated motion and slow, stomach-churning recovery from each roll.
After 10 years abuilding, the Brest-made Neptune commissioned in 1892 and the Toulon-built Magenta in 1893. The ships' poor handling characteristics became a source of concern immediately after they went into service, and a commssion of enquiry was called to determine responsibility and find a solution. This led the admiralty to mandate a major revamp intended to reduce the problems -- after which the Marceau model remained as the French ideal with some modifications for another ten years. At top, Neptune as delivered, with the controversial superstructure and masts (note also the gunhouse-like shielding over the barbettes); at left, the same ship in port, showing the davits in swung-out position. In a refit mandated by the admiralty, the naval architects came to a compromise solution: a pole mainmast was substituted, but the armored foremast was retained with little modification, as shown on the Hoche below. The superstructures were modified to more closely approximate the Marceau's system, as seen below the specifications (Magenta after refit). Together with the Marceau, these ships manificently represented the naval wisdom of the late 1870s to an age whose seas were ruled by Royal Sovereigns and mighty Majestics. Magenta and Neptune completed as Marceau had: with compound engines and outdated armor originally specified in 1881. These deficiencies made them obsolete from the outset. In terms of dimensions and modeling, these ships were statistical duplicates of the Marceau and performed just as she did. Imagine these top-heavy monsters on maneuvers! But be sure to take your Dramamine first.
These unfortunate vessels were arguably the worst battleships in the French navy. Neptune and Marceau spent some years with the Mediterranean fleet, but as better ships became available their duties became humbler and more dock-centered. Their service lives were not long. The Magenta was broken up in 1911 and the Neptune was sunk as a target in 1913.
Dimensions: 347'OA x 65'6" x 29' Displacement: 10,960 tons. Armament: (4) 13.4"/28 M1881 BLR, (8) 5.4"/45 M1888 QF, and (16) 47 mm guns; (4) 15" TT. Compound armor: 17¾"/12" belt, 14" conn, 8" barbettes, 2" shields, 4" deck. Fuel capacity: 600 tons of coal (800 maximum). Propulsion: (2) 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 10,600 hp, shafted to twin screw; 16 knots. Re-engined in 1902-03 with 4 sets 3-cyl. vertical compound steam engines developing 12,000 hp, and 18 Belleville boilers; reported to steam reliably at 15 kts afterwards. Crew: 640.
Dimensions: 108m x 20m x 8.5m. Displacement: 10,960 tons. Armament: (4) 34 cm/28 M1881 BLR, (8) 138 mm/45 M1888 QF, and (16) 47 mm guns; (4) 38 cm TT. Armor: Compound type. 460/305 mm belt, 356 mm conn, 102 mm deck, 5 cm shields, 205 mm barbettes. Fuel capacity: 600 tons of coal (800 maximum). Propulsion: (2) 2-cyl. compound steam engines developing 7,904 kW, shafted to twin screw; 29.6 km/hr. Re-engined in 1902-03 with 4 sets 3-cyl. vertical compound steam engines developing 8,948 kW, and 18 Belleville boilers; reported to steam reliably at 27.8 km/hr afterwards. Crew: 640.
The Hoche was the odd one of the lot, taking more than nine years to build. Shipwrights at the Lorient dockyard started with two completely different plans by Chief Engineer Huin and combined features of one with the other as they went along. As completed, Hoche's main guns were mounted in Canet turrets rather than the shielded barbettes utilized in the other three; but the wing guns were mounted in barbettes. To fulfill the nominally flush-decked design, Hoche's forecastle was cut down by one deck, and as a result her bow gun was seven feet closer to the wavetops than in the Marceau (15 versus 22). The wing guns rode about ten feet higher out of the water than the bow turret, and were of smaller size: 10.8 inchers (274 mm) as opposed to 13.4-inch (340), setting a precedent for later French cuirasées d'escadre. It was eagerly hoped that the lower bulge of flanks on the ship would allow the wing guns to fire through a 180° arc, from dead ahead to dead astern; but lamentably (and predictably) blast damage proved unacceptable at the extremes of this arc, limiting the wing guns to an arc of only about 90°. French designers continued to reach for the beau idéal -- and fail -- with various schemes on succeeding ships, notably the Masséna of 1898.
Completed in 1889, more than a year before the next ship in the class (the Marceau), the Hoche had armored masts of the Neptune type and a towering superstructure topped with lofty hurricane decks running from one mast to the other. A notable feature was a contraption of cantilevered gunhouses suspended over the wing turrets on both sides, for all the world like a pair of bow-windowed parlors on a Regency townhouse. Cantilevered deckhouses hung over the bow and stern 34 cm turrets as well, virtually guaranteeing that hits on the superstructure would damage or disable the guns beneath. All this topside frippery led to Hoche's nickname, "the Grand Hotel." As a result of her elaborate superstructure and low freeboard, she was dangerously top-heavy and frequently operated with forecastle awash: the ship's trim pushed the bow nearly under when underway, and the turrets leaked. Although not so overpowering as the Neptune and Magenta's pile at first glance, the superstructure appeared to sink the puny hull beneath its weight, given the significantly lower freeboard of the Hoche.
The ship's superstructure was reworked several times. She is seen at bottom after a 1902 refit in which the worst excesses of 1890s exuberance were pruned away. Masts were modified as in described above for the Neptune and Magenta, and the upper decks and hurricane decks went by the board. In 1899-1902 she was re-engined with triple expansion and re-boilered with Bellevilles. After her refit, instead of the single huge oblong stack seen in early photos, Hoche sported two oblong funnels abreast. All the remodeling and refitting did not improve the ship's stability appreciably; and as a result of the new machinery, she dropped one tenth of a knot, though presumably improving somewhat in reliability. As for deviation from doctrine, Hoche measured 6 inches longer than Marceau and weighed in at a mere 60 tons larger.
While the Hoche was no great shakes as a warship, she proved deadly in the shipping lanes. In 1892, while cruising off Marseilles, she collided with the passenger steamer Maréchal Canrobert. The steamer sank like a stone, taking with her 107 passengers and crew.
Like most of her generation, Hoche survived into the early part of the Dreadnought Era. She was designated as a target and sunk by the Jauréguiberry and the armored cruiser Pothuau on December 2, 1913.
Schematic of the Hoche. Ship's specifications:
Dimensions: 347'6" OA x 65'5" x 29'3" Displacement: 10,900 tons. Armament: (2) 13.4"/28 M1881 BLR, (2) 10.8"/28 M1881 BLR, (8) 5.4"/45 M1888 QF, and (16) 47 mm guns; (4) 15" TT. Armor: Compound type. 17¾"/15" belt, 16" turrets and barbettes; 16" conn; entire bow and ram reinforced with 3" armor. Fuel capacity: 670 tons of coal. Propulsion: (8) coal-fired cylindrical boilers; (4) 2-cyl. vertical compound engines developing 10,600 hp, shafted to twin screw; 16 knots. Re-engined 1899 with 4 sets 3-cyl. vertical triple expansion engines developing 12,000 hp, and 18 Belleville boilers; made 15.9 kts on trials. Crew: 611.
Dimensions: 102m x 20m x 8.3m. Displacement: 10,900 tons. Armament: (2) 34 cm/28 M1881 BLR, (2) 274 mm/28 M1881 BLR, (8) 138 mm/45 M1888 QF, and (16) 47 mm guns; (4) 38 cm TT. Armor: Compound type. 451/381 mm belt 406 mm turrets and barbettes; 406 mm conn; entire bow and ram reinforced with 76 mm armor. Fuel capacity: 670 tons of coal. Propulsion: (8) coal-fired cylindrical boilers; (4) 2-cyl. vertical compound steam engines developing 7,904 kW, shafted to twin screw; 29.6 km/hr. Re-engined 1899 with (4) sets 3-cyl. vertical triple expansion engines developing 8,948 kW and 18 Belleville boilers; made 29.45 km/hr on trials. Crew: 611.
Here is Hoche in her 1890s splendor, after her first refit. It is easy to see why she was known as "the Grand Hotel." The wing 10.8" gun stands out well in this toplit shot.