Key Point: Battleships are a risky investment.
Battleships were tools in service of providing national security, and like any tools their success in service varied. The engineering and financial demands of building a modern battleship often exceeded the reach of the governments that ordered the ships. When that happened, substandard ships that were sometimes more dangerous to their crews than to the enemy resulted.
France was not initially sold on the idea of the dreadnought battleship, preferring instead to concentrate on the Dantons, a class of advanced pre-dreadnoughts. Indeed, the Dantons took up the bulk of the construction slips that the French could use for large battleships in the years before World War I. When the French got around to building dreadnoughts, they were half-a-decade behind international standards.
The Courbet class was France’s first effort. Displacing twenty-three thousand tons, they could make twenty-one knots and carried twelve twelve-inch guns in a configuration that included two wing turrets. The Courbets began to enter service in 1913, at which point they were far behind state-of-the-art battleships being constructed in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan. Not terribly useful, the Courbets did not see a great deal of service in World War I and were beginning to leave service by World War II. One of the ships sank after hitting a rock; another was taken over by the Germans and sunk by allied aircraft; another was sunk as a breakwater off Normandy; the last was hulked and scrapped in the 1950s.
After the Spanish-American War, the Spanish government debated for years about how to rebuild the fleet. This delay enabled the Spanish to skip the final generation of pre-dreadnought battleships, and instead contemplate internationally competitive vessels. Unfortunately, the size of the Spanish economy did not enable the construction of advanced warships.
Assisted by parts and designs from Great Britain, Spain decided on what would become the world’s smallest dreadnought, the Espana class. At sixteen thousand tons, the Espanas carried eight twelve-inch guns in four twin turrets, two on the centerline and one on each wing. The Espanas could make about nineteen knots and were equipped with an eight-inch main armor belt.