Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday Mar. 15, 2017: Taxi from Devil’s Island
Here we see a colorized postcard of the first protected cruiser in the French Navy, the one-off “croiseur cuirassé” Sfax as she appeared in the early 1890s. She never had a chance to fire her guns in anger, but for one brief period was the most famous ship in the world.
Ordered from the Arsenal de Brest in 1881, the ship was an answer to the powerful new steam cruisers being fielded by the British at the time. The French in the late 1870s were still building sail-rigged wooden hull warships that would have been at home in the Crimean War. For instance, the iron-beamed/oak planked Lapérouse-class cruisers, just 2240-tons, could make 15 knots and carried a battery of 5.5 in M1870M muzzleloading guns– but not a single sheet of armor.
Intended as a commerce raider, our 4,561-ton ship had an iron hull with steel frames in a cellular construction, but her half-dozen 6.4-inch M1881 model (black powder breechloaders) and ten smaller 5.5-inch guns gave Sfax a significant punch– especially when her prey was intended to be a merchantman. A dozen coal-fired boilers powered two horizontal steam expansion engines exhausted through twin stacks that drove twin screws while a bark rig provided extra endurance when the wind picked up. Most importantly, she had an armored belt some 60mm thick in four layers of steel.
To be clear, Sfax was an evolutionary step.
As noted by Eric Osborne in his excellent work on Cruisers and Battle Cruisers, “This vessel embodied features that had largely been discontinued in other navies such as a hull composed of iron rather than steel and a full sailing rig. Nevertheless, its protective deck provided adequate protection and its maximum speed of 16.7 knots allowed it to function effectively as a cruiser where the poor motive power of past French designs had ruled out this possibility.”
Completed June 1887, Sfax had a happy but short life, sailing on a European tour followed by a trip to French colonies overseas– her likely stomping grounds if she ever was to assume her wartime role as a modern privateer against an enemy of the Republic. She was the fastest cruiser in the fleet for about three years.
The follow-on one-off cruiser Tage (7,450-tons), completed in December 1890, was some 50 percent larger than Sfax and carried about the same armor and armament but was able to eek out 19 knots due to her 12,500 shp steam suite. The 5,900-ton experimental protected cruiser Amiral Cécille, completed the same year, made 21 knots but thinned her armor to do so. By 1894, the four-ship Amiral Charner-class cruisers weighed about the same as Sfax but could only make 17 knots– her speed– due to the fact they carried a more modern gun battery and 90mm of armor.
To modernize the rapidly marginalized Sfax, in 1895, her masts and sailing rig, never efficient, were removed and replaced by two smaller ones. Her 6.4-inch guns were upgraded to newer models and she was given more reliable torpedo tubes. Painted white as was the custom of the time for warships, she emerged rather different.
Now, let us speak briefly of one Captain Alfred Dreyfus, of the French Army.
This young career military man had graduated the École Polytechnique in 1880 and by 1889 a trained artillery officer, was assigned to a government arsenal. After graduation from the War College, he was being groomed for the General Staff.
Then, scapegoated largely due to being Jewish, Dreyfus was falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans in December 1894– though evidence showing that one Maj. Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy was the spy later surfaced. Branded a traitor, Dreyfus was stripped of his rank, publicly humiliated, and cast off to the infamous Devil’s Island prison in French Guyana.
However, his story did not end there, and the subsequent decade-long call for his vindication, now known to history as the Dreyfus Affair, was the People vs. OJ Simpson case of its day and drew international attention. People hung on every update and were polarized into pro-Dreyfus and anti-Dreyfus camps– there was no middle ground. And this was not just isolated to France. As noted by Robert K. Massie in his book Nicholas and Alexandria, a nurse by the name of Mrs. Eger was so engrossed in an argument over Dreyfus that she left one of the Tsar’s children in the bath so long the poor Grand Duchess took to flight through the Alexander Palace sans clothes. In London, the Illustrated News carried regular front updates.
In short, people really cared about Dreyfus.
Called for retrial after five years in a green hell, a fast ship from the French Navy– our very own Sfax— was dispatched to bring him home.
Sfax called on Cayenne, the colonial port in Guyana on 8 June 1899, and landed him on the Quiberon Peninsula in Brittany on the night of 1 July in stormy weather, spending a total of 20 days underway from South America to metropolitan France, stopping for coal and provisions along the way.
Dressed in a blue suit and wearing a cork helmet, the cashiered former captain boarded the ship that would take him back to Europe.
During that time, though returning for another trial, Dreyfus was considered a prisoner and confined to his cabin save for three daily walks on Sfax‘s deck. At all times, he had an armed sentry within reach, keeping a careful eye. Officers and men were forbidden to speak to him, though he was messed from the officer’s wardroom.
As described by William Hardin’s Dreyfus: The Prisoner of Devil’s Island:
The prisoner spent his time reading and writing, though sometimes he looked long out of the port-hole, apparently plunged deep in though. His baggage consisted of two portmanteaus, containing linen books, several packages of chocolate, small biscuits and several bottles of toilet vinegar. He generally went to bed at seven, arose around midnight to smoke a cigarette, and got up regularly at five o’clock in the morning.
Dreyfus left Sfax and lost his retrial, though he was later acquitted in 1906. Rejoining active service, he was awarded the Legion of Honour for the royal green weenie and retired to the reserve list the next year as a major with full benefits. The Great War called him back to active duty, where the artillerist rose to the rank of Lieut. Colonel, notably serving in the artillery supply train at Verdun.
He died in 1935 and was given a full military funeral including a parade past the Bastille. At least two statues, holding his broken sword in salute, endure in his honor.
For more information on Dreyfus, the Musée d’art et d’histoire du judaïsme has some 3,000 documents on his case available online in French.
As for our cruiser, Sfax receded into history. Thoroughly obsolete, she was stricken in 1906 and scrapped soon after.
Displacement: 4 561 GRT
Length 300 ft. (91.57 meters)
Beam 49 feet (15.04 meters)
Draught 25 feet (7.67 meters)
Propulsion 2 steam engines (12 cylindrical boilers), 6,500 hp, twin shafts
Range: 5,000nm on 980 tons of coal
Sailing rig: three-masted barque (1.988 m² or 2380 sq.yds. sail area), removed 1895
Speed 16.7 knots max
Complement: 486 officers, men and Marins with room for one “traitor”
Armor: Belt and bridge, 60 mm
6 × 1 160 mm gun (cal.28-mod.1881) on upper deck level with two in embrasures forward and the others in sponsons amidships and aft. Updated to M1887 models in 1895.
10 × 1 139 mm gun (cal.30-mod.1881) on the main deck amidships between the sponsons
2 × 1 47 mm gun (DCA M1885)
10 × 1 37mm Hotchkiss guns
5 × 1 350mm torpedo tubes, one bow mounted, four on beam
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