Tuesday 24 May 2016

The ramming of the Forfait by the Jeanne d’Arc, 1875

A number of postings on this blog have dealt with naval ramming accidents in the late 19th Century (see references at end of article). Ram bows had been seen as desirable feature of warships of any size after the successes scored by the Austro-Hungarians at the Battle of Lissa in 1866 and few vessels entered service in any navy between then and 1914 without them. In practice the ram proved a serious danger to vessels’ peacetime sisters, in what would be now termed “blue on blue” accidents, and use of the weapon in anger was to prove difficult in the extreme. An example of the latter is that the Peruvian (later Chilean) turret ram Huascar made some ten ramming attacks in the course of her career, only one of which resulted in sinking of an enemy ship.

Model of Jeanne d'Arc Personal photograph taken by Remi Kaupp
 in the Musée de la Marine, Paris (
Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY-SA)
A now largely-forgotten ramming accident occurred in 1875 when the French armoured corvette Jeanne d’Arc sank the third class cruiser Forfait off the east coast of Corsica. By that time both ships were obsolescent, their hulls constructed of wood and, in the Jeanne d’Arc’s case, protected with armoured plate. This latter was a substantial vessel, one of a class of seven launched in 1867/68 when warship design was in a state of flux. Of 3600 tons and with a length of 382 feet, these vessels carried four 7.6-inch guns in open-topped circular armoured barbettes, plus smaller weapons on the broadside. A wrought-iron belt some 8-feet wide and six-inches thick protected the entire waterline and the armour of the barbettes was some four-inches thick. One cannot but wonder how effectively this heavy plating was fastened to the wooden hull, and whether the backing structures could have stood up to heavy gunfire in actions that luckily never came. These vessels had 1600 to 1900-Horsepower single shaft steam-engines which gave them a maximum speed of over eleven knots. As was common at the time they also carried sailing rigs and crews of around 316.

Forfait in service
The Forfait was a smaller and older vessel, in service since 1860 and unarmoured. Of 1126 tons and 222 feet long, she was capable, under steam, of almost 12 knots. By the early 1870s her armament had been increased from an initial four, to a later six six-inch guns. She was classed as a “wing scout”, intended for reconnaissance duties with larger fleet units, and she could be regarded as what later came to be classed as a “Third Class Cruiser”. She was no less suited to independent roles and saw active service in the early 1860s supporting the French intervention in Mexico, transporting troops and equipment to Vera Cruz and in 1864 landing a shore party to assist capture of the Mexican city of Tuxpan. The later 1860s were spent in South-East Asia and the Pacific, including survey work off the northwest coast of Borneo. By 1872 she was back in French home waters and assigned to the Mediterranean fleet based at Toulon.

A contemporary illustration of the squadron - Jeanne d'Arc on extreme right
On 21 July 1875 a French squadron consisting of six ironclads, as well as smaller units, was involved in exercises off the east coast of Corsica. The ironclads steamed in two parallel lines, one headed by the Magenta, with the Jeanne d’Arc and Reine Blanche following astern while the other line was led by the Amide, followed by the Thetis and Alma. The squadron was a homogeneous one, all vessels sisters except for the flagship, the 6700-ton broadside ironclad Magenta
The black-hulled ironclad Magenta, seen here at Brest in the 1860s
The three-decker Napoleon in  background, still in service then,
would have been suited to service at Trafalgar
The Forfait, unsuited by her lack of armour for service in the battle-lines, was positioned to one side, ready to undertake scouting or other duties as directed. The weather was fine and the sea calm – a splendid Mediterranean day – as the two lines forged ahead majestically at 8 knots. At noon a signal from the admiral directed Forfait to pass astern of the Magenta to receive orders.  At this remove the requested manoeuvre seems to have been a dangerous one since it involved inserting the Forfait into the gap between Magenta and Jeanne d’Arc.

A contemporary artist's-impression of Forfait sinking
In the event the manoeuvre proved fatal. The Forfait’s commander misjudged his turn across the Jeanne d’Arc’s bows and the ironclad’s pointed ram smashed into the smaller vessel’s side. A large rent was torn, through which water rushed in’ but the shock of collision was almost unnoticeable on the Jeanne d’Arc. Nobody was killed or injured on either ship, but the Forfait was now doomed. She remained afloat for fourteen minutes, allowing her 160-man crew to get away safely in her boats. Her captain remained on the bridge as his ship sank under him, then floated free, caught hold of floating wreckage, and was saved.

The ram had claimed another friendly victim and only good weather prevented a more tragic outcome. Two years later, in July 1877, two of the sister ironclads present, the Reine Blanche and the Thetis, were also involved in a ramming incident, though both survived.  But the ram was to remain a fixture – and a dangerous one – for another four decades.

Here are links to earlier blogs about ramming incidents:

The Loss of HMS Vanguard, 1875: http://bit.ly/1Vh6Yys

The ramming of SMS Grosser Kurfürst, 1878: http://bit.ly/1Ro70xI

SS Utopia and HMS Anson, 1891: http://bit.ly/1TvIVwj

Collision of HMS Hannibal and HMS Prince George, 1903: http://bit.ly/1UbVsSC

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