Reported in Scientific American, This Week in World War I: July 10, 1915
An article in the July 10, 1915 issue of Scientific American carried an article about plans for a new French battleship, the Tourville (and by extension the sister ships in the class: Duquesne, Lyon and Lille). The article discusses “plans submitted to the French Ministry of Marine by the Construction Bureau” and compares the forthcoming ship favorably to the new U.S. Navy ships Arizona and Pennsylvania.
The most impressive features of the new ship was the large number of guns in the main battery: “Since the ‘Michigan’ was designed the development of gun mounting has introduced first the triple and now the quadruple turret, i.e., a turret which mounts four guns. The ‘Tourville’ carries four of these, and hence she carries the enormous armament of sixteen heavy, armor-piercing guns of 13.4-inch caliber.”
There are two odd parts to this story.
The first is the obsolete nature of the main armament. Sixteen 13.5-inch guns sounds formidable—and they would have been. But before the war, there had been much debate in naval circles between whether it was better to have a larger number of smaller guns (on the theory that a greater number of shells increased the odds of hitting something), or whether it was better to have fewer large guns of larger caliber, greater range, and much greater hitting power against heavily armored ships. After several battles at sea (relatively minor ones, admittedly), the debate had been confirmed in favor of fewer, larger guns. At the time the Tourville was being planned, the U.S., Britain and Germany had already launched battleships of the same size or larger that had 15-inch main guns. The sixteen Tourville guns would have shot 1,190-pound shells to a maximum range of 10 miles; the eight guns of the German battleship Bayern, launched in February 1915, fired 1,650-pound shells out to 14 miles. For a naval tactician, the difference between those numbers represents a significant advantage for the heavier gun.
The other odd part of the story is that a new battleship in July 1915 was such a low priority that the program had already been effectively cancelled by the time this issue was published. The French had just lost over 100,000 men fighting the second battle of Artois. The expenditure of ammunition during the five-week land battle was vast—over 2 million shells fired. The resources to equip the armies fighting on land were already strained to the limit; building a battleship gobbled up a tremendous amount of money and manufacturing capacity. A large ship also took two and a half years to build and commission; a vessel laid down in mid-1915 would not have been ready to fight until January 1918. And in 1915 few people in the military or government believed the war would last that long; nor would the ship have been much use in the closing months of the war anyway. None of the Lyon-class battleships were ever built.
Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914–1918 on naval warfare. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/