The La Gloire made all other warships obsolete though her reign of the seas lasted all but one year.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
Credit: Front left side view of the La Gloire ironclad
Credit: Rear right side view of the La Gloire ironclad with full sails
France unnerved neighboring Britain when they unveiled their all-wood, steam-powered screw propulsion battleship - the 90-gun Le Napoleon - in 1850. The French continued to build additional wooden steam-powered "ships-of-the-line" and added eight more Le Napoleon-class warships while converting a further twenty-eight sailing frigates and ships-of-the-line to steam propulsion as well. This inevitably forced the British in a frenzy to "out-build" their French counterparts for control of the world seas. As such, Britain succeeded in building eighteen new wooden steam-powered ships-of-the-line all her own and converted some forty-one older ships to steam propulsion to further strengthen her naval stable. Such warships were highly capable, though somewhat cumbersome, machines that could engage an enemy at distance with powerful onboard cannons and close in to ram enemies still utilizing wooden-hulled ships. Steam-powered ironclads could also maintain their speed during battle conditions as they did not require wind power in their sails as their primary propulsion.
French authorities knew they could not match the United Kingdom's ship output directly so a new initiative was needed. During the Crimean War, France witnessed the success of French and British steam-powered ironclad barges with their Paixhans (rifled cannons firing explosive shells) against Russian shore fortifications. As such, in 1857, the design of a new class of ship to challenge the powerful British fleet fell upon the noted French naval architect Dupuy de Lome.
The design ultimately became the "La Gloire" ("Glory"), the world's first ocean-going ironclad ship-of-the-line. This was pivotal in that it allowed for these armored warships to cross out into open waters of the high seas and combat enemy tall ships directly. Construction began in April of 1858 out of the French arsenal at Mourillon, Toulon and would consist of three total ships including the "Invincible" and the "Normandie". The ground-breaking design encased her wooden hull within iron and propulsion was via an internal steam engine while three masts of sail completed her profile. The lack of iron plate industrial manufacture in France was limited so the vessel was given a thicker wooden hull of 16.9 inches and covered over in iron plate of 4.5 inches thick - as such, the La Gloire would not be a "true" iron-hulled vessel. Then-ruler Napoleon III also pushed the design to be completed and forced the use of lesser-quality timber in the ship's construction where normal navy timer was seasoned some three years before use.
Her single screw was designed to give her a top speed of 13 knots though reports indicated no more than 11.75 knots could be reached and those 11 knots were essentially the realistic maximum speed for a ship this heavy and in calm waters. She was armed with no fewer than thirty-six 6.4-inch (160mm) rifled main guns that could fire exploding shells. These shells proved lethal in that they could punch through the wooden hulls of enemy "tall ships" and explode once inside, causing maximum damage to both crew and systems alike. Tests were conducted against the 4.5 inch iron plate over 16.9 inches of timber and this stood up even against the heaviest British 68-pdr at point blank range. The La Gloire was 255.6 feet long and her beam was 55.9 feet wide while needing a draught of 27.10 feet of water underneath her or she would run aground. Armament centered around 36 x 163mm rifled muzzle-loading Model 1858/60 cannons.
As expected of the Industrial Age, de Lome did not calculate much in the way of crew comforts below deck so ventilation was poor at best - her boilers and steam engines produced a great deal of heat and stifling smoke within the confines of the vessel. Oil lamps were still required for illumination and this only added to the rising indoor temperatures which was further insulated by the iron plates covering the hull. Gloire's radical characteristics utilized a blunt bow with a convex back that allowed the ship to make flank speed using less power than British Frigates of the time. The gun ports were placed close to one another, making the gun deck somewhat crowded for the gunnery crew. The sails were upgraded from the original arrangement of a barquentine sail rig to a square-rigged barque design. While her primary means of propulsion was steam, her captain could rely on wind power in her sails in an emergency (full trust in machinery had yet to come at this point in history) or couple the two methods for maximum effect when in transit.
When Gloire was commissioned she immediately made all unarmored wooden ships-of-the-line obsolete, such was the power of technology at the time. All navies of the world would now need to start building these ocean-going ironclad warships. She served in the French Navy for nine years before undergoing a thorough overhaul and was rearmed. Her rearmament saw her original thirty-six muzzle-loading cannons replaced with 8 x 239mm BL Model 1864 and 6 x 193mm BL Model 1866 cannon types.
By the time the La Gloire was laid down in France, word had already reached the British Admiralty who promptly ordered two ironclads and four iron-hulled ships to be built. With the launch of the HMS Warrior - an iron-hulled ship-of-the-line - the La Gloire herself became obsolete, her reign as Mistress of the Sea lasting all but one year. The rush to have her and her sister ships constructed with unseasoned timber - a practice adopted throughout the French ship-building initiative - ultimately led to maintenance problems including frequent repairs, dry rot and higher costs of ownership for the French government. The Invincible and the Normandie, both having been commissioned in 1862, were scrapped as soon as 1871 and 1872 respectively. La Gloire herself lasted only two decades in service before being scrapped herself in 1883.
Status Decommissioned, Out-of-Service
Complement 570 Personnel
Ship Class [ La Gloire-class ] Ships-in-Class [ 3 ] : La Gloire; Invincible; Normandie
- Blue Water Operations
- Fleet Support
255.5 ft (77.88 m)
Width / Beam:
55.5 ft (16.92 m)
Height / Draught:
27.9 ft (8.50 m)
8 x Oval coal-fired tube boilers driving a 2-cycle horizontal return connecting rod engine developing 2,500 horsepower; 1 x single screw propeller; 3 x sail masts.
11 kts (13 mph)
36 x 163mm Model 1858/60 rifled cannons
8 x 239mm BL Model 1864 cannons
6 x 193mm BL Model 1866 cannons
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