First World War

A Mystery Ship in Port Said

As a follow-up to my earlier post on the HMAS Encounter I thought I’d share another photograph from the same collection.  Last time the identity of the ship was written on the back of the image by the photographer, but this time I know a lot less about the subject – only that it is a French warship in Port Said and that the image was taken by a New Zealand soldier in 1917.  So for the last couple of evenings I’ve been reading up on French battleships.  A riveting topic if ever there was one.

First of all, here is the snapshot.  As with most the items from my collection it is possible this is the first time it has been published.

French Warship, Port Said 1917

French Warship, Port Said 1917

Before I launch into the quest to unmask the identity of this mystery battleship I first have to point out HOW AWESOME THIS BATTLESHIP LOOKS!  Check out those sexy tarpaulin covers and the wide angled hull.  The Star Wars geek in me ponders if ships like this were the inspiration behind Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge.  But putting the inter-galactic musings aside, what is the real identity of this mystery ship?

A handwritten message on the back of the photograph offers two clues:

1:  It is French

2:  It is in Port Said

This Egyptian port was regularly frequented by ANZAC soldiers on their way to and from the Middle East during the First World War.  Also it wasn’t unusual for a French warship to be there.  The French were very active in the Mediterranean and Middle East during the war.  In fact some statistics suggest that there were just as many, if not more, French soldiers killed at Gallipoli than Australians and New Zealanders combined.

Another fact that one scarcely hears mentioned is that the campaign began as a naval operation involving mostly British and French warships.  So it isn’t at all surprising that a New Zealand soldier would see a French warship in Port Said.  But which one is it?

I have to admit that while maritime history is an interest of mine I know very little about French warships from that era.  However what I do know is that the ship in the photograph looks like a floating relic, even for then.   This isn’t too surprising, as I wouldn’t expect a first-rate warship to be spending too much time hanging out in Port Said covered in tarpaulins.  To reveal the identity of the ship I first need to learn a little about the development of the French Navy in the years leading up to the war.

The first decade of the twentieth century featured a naval arms race between the competing European powers.  The British had long ruled the waves with the mightiest navy in the world but in the wake of the Boer War the Germans decided to challenge this.  Both sides threw propaganda around, started rolling out ship after ship and somewhere among it all the French decided to get involved.  However things weren’t plain sailing for them.

They were caught out in 1906 when the British changed the rules of the arms race by launching a ship like none before – the HMS Dreadnought.  It is a name that would come to represent an entire generation of battleships. It no longer mattered how many battleships you had but how many “dreadnoughts”.   The French were slow to meet this new benchmark and instead continued production of ships that were outdated and outgunned before they were even launched.  By 1910 they still didn’t have a single dreadnought while Germany had eight and Britain had ten.

HMS DreadnoughtU.S. Naval History & Heritage Command Photograph

HMS Dreadnought
U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command Photograph

The other way that fortune didn’t favour the French is that their ships had the unfortunate habit of hitting each other.  This might be a little unfair on my part, but while reading through the career history of different French warships I was struck by how many times they well, struck each other.

These are the French warship mishaps I happened to come across while researching this post:

Charlemagne – Collided with the Gaulois in 1903.  Two years later a cartridge ignited in her magazine.

Saint Louis – Collided with the destroyer Poignard in 1911 and the following year rammed the submarine Vendemiaire which sank with the loss of all hands.

Danton – Turret exploded in 1913

Gaulois – Rammed the destroyer Hallebarde in 1900 and rammed the battleship Bouvet in 1903.  Nearly collided with the Bouvet again in 1906.

Bouvet – See above.  Was virtually a magnet to the Gaulois.

Liberté – While moored at Toulon in 1911 an explosion in her magazine sank the ship and killed several hundred of her crew.

Republique – Minding her own business when hit by a 37 ton piece of the exploding Liberté (see above).  The previous year was accidentally torpedoed by her sister ship the Patrie.

Iéna – Spontaneously exploded while in dock in 1907.  Too damaged to be repaired so was used for target practise.

I’m probably being a little unfair here.  The French didn’t have a monopoly on naval accidents, but I was certainly surprised by the number of incidents I happened across while researching this topic.

While flicking through the careers of various pre-dreadnought era French battleships I found many that spent time in the Middle East.  In each instance I checked for photos to see if there was a match, but without luck.  That is until I found the Jauréguiberry.

She was launched in 1893 which would make her over twenty years old by the time war broke out in 1914.  She was involved in the Gallipoli campaign and then spent the rest of the war guarding Port Said. Other images of her are a match, as is her career history, there is no doubt that she is the ship in the photo.

Her design was notable for being having a particularly pronounced tumblehome.  There is your new word for the week.  Tumblehome.  Wikipedia describes the definition as “the narrowing of a ship’s hull with greater distance above the water-line”.

Go to the Wikipedia page and you’ll recognize the illustrated example.  It is none other than the Jauréguiberry.  It was the unique design of the ship in the photo that first captured my attention and what I know now is that the French were well-known for producing ships in this style.

Port Said, Egypt. c 1915. The French Battleship Jaureguiberry at anchor. Her hull is painted a light grey, while the turrets are very dark grey or black. Note the extreme tumblehome of the hull. The dominant fighting tops and thick military masts common to French battleships completed in the 1890s. (Donated by Mr J.A. Henderson)Australian War Memorial ID: J06004

Port Said, Egypt. c 1915. The French Battleship Jaureguiberry at anchor.
Australian War Memorial ID: J06004

The Jauréguiberry would last the war out in Port Said and remarkably dodge her fellow warships for long enough to see her 40th birthday.  She was sold for scrap metal in June 1934.  A sad but predictable end for the old battleship.

I like to think that back in 1917 when an unnamed New Zealand trooper saw the Jauréguiberry at Port Said he might’ve muttered, “Well that is a weird-looking ship if ever I’ve seen one”, before raising his camera and taking a quick snapshot to show the folks back at home.  She certainly was a weird sight, but I think she was beautiful as well – in a steampunky kind of way.  What do you reckon?

© Lemuel Lyes

4 replies »

  1. A wonderful example of that ‘fierce face’ French school of naval architecture. Stunning looks – as always, I guess, with French engineering! Done, I believe, for reasons of displacement – it kept the displacement down while allowing reasonable freeboard, also improving the arcs of fire of guns deployed in ‘lozenge’ arrangement, evidenced on the pic with the the Jauréguiberry’s midships 10.8″ turrets.

    We’ll be seeing this again (though maybe not in NZ…) The US are adding tumblehome to their new Zumwalt ‘stealth destroyers’ – for radar reflectivity but remarkably reminiscent of those old French battleships. The technical problem is that it’s not great in a seaway; the tumblehome means the hull presents a reducing angle to the water as the ships rolls, and there’s no righting moment as there is with a ship with straight or flared sides, where the angle (and hence righting moment) increases. There have been concerns that the Zumwalts could turn turtle in a storm – apparently following seas may be a problem. However, the French didn’t have any great difficulties.

    For me the irony is that the Jauréguiberry – a battleship – displaced just over 12,000 tonnes full load. The Zumwalt is classified as a destroyer…and will displace over 14,500 tonnes and will be about 80 percent longer. I don’t know whether it’s a sense of history, but for me the battleship is somehow cooler – the US ship, to me, seems to lack the style the French managed to infuse into their warship. But, I suppose, it WAS designed in the great age of the impressionists and of Debussy… 🙂

    • Now that is interesting, I didn’t know that there was any chance of tumblehome being introduced by the U.S. That will be interesting to see!

      I can see the reason for concern in heavy seas, and it makes me wonder what it must’ve been like for those back at the turn of last century on ships like that. At the very least it can’t have been pleasant for those who suffered from seasickness!

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