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SS France in the Great War - The Wartime Memories Project -

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SS France

1st August 1914 Hospital ship  

HS France

SS France was a French ocean liner which sailed for the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, colloquially known as CGT or the "French Line". She was later christened Versailles of the Atlantic, a reference to her décor which reflected the famous palace outside Paris. Ordered in 1908, she was introduced into the Transatlantic route in April 1912, just a week after the sinking of RMS Titanic, and was the only French liner among the famous "four stackers". France quickly became one of the most popular ships in the Atlantic. Serving as a hospital ship during World War I, France would have a career spanning two decades. Her overall success encouraged CGT to create even larger liners in the future.

Name: SS France, Owner: Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT). Port of registry: France, Le Havre, Route: Transatlantic. Ordered: 1908 Builder: Chantiers de l'Atlantique, Laid down: February 1909, Launched: 20 September 1910. Commissioned: 1912, Decommissioned: 1936. Maiden voyage: 20 April 1912. Out of service: 1935. Nickname: Versailles of the Atlantic Fate: Broken up in 1936.

General characteristics

Tonnage: 24,666 grt. Length: 217 m (712 ft), Beam: 23.88 m (78.3 ft). Propulsion: Four direct-action steam turbines; Quadruple propeller; 45,000 ihp (34,000 kW). Speed: 23.50 knots (43.52 km/h; 27.04 mph). Capacity: 2,020 passengers.

France was called the most lavish of the Transatlantic liners and its interiors were one of the most consistent of all liners. The revival of the Baroque architecture and interior design occurred in the late 19th century and prevailed into the early decades of the twentieth.

Her first class accommodations were graced with various portraits of Louis XIV as well as his relations. France was also credited for bringing the grand staircase to the ocean liner, a fashion which prevails in modern cruise ships. Her First Class entrance hall and dining room demonstrated this. The staircase in the dining room was in fact copied from the Parisian Hôtel de Toulouse. Further unique points included her Cafe Terrasse and the Salon Mauresque, the latter a reference to the French colonial empire in Africa. The ship also had a gymnasium, an elevator as well as a hair salon, all great novelties at the time. Style Louis seize (Louis XVI) was also used within the private apartments of the grand luxe suites on board. According to a 1912 booklet publicising the liner, her second class accommodation was credited as "match[ing] the richness and comfort of first class on the old liners." Passengers in this class could also utilise a hair dressing salon. Third and steerage classes were also praised as being well-appointed.

The 1910s.

Built at Chantiers de l'Atlantique,[4] she was launched 20 September 1910 into the River Loire. The spectacle was watched by scores of cheering Frenchmen who had gathered for the occasion. In the following months, her machinery was installed and her luxurious interiors were fitted. Finally completed in 1912, her maiden voyage departed from her homeport of Le Havre on 20 April 1912, just five days after the sinking of Titanic. As a result of the disaster, France lost much publicity but quickly established herself on her route. She did much to improve the image of the CGT which, to date, had not had much influence in the North Atlantic. Cuisine onboard was said to have been amongst the finest at sea. Sailing at a service speed of 23.5 knots (43.5 km/h), she was faster than any ship afloat save for Mauretania and Lusitania. Despite this, she attained a speed of 25.09 knots (46.47 km/h) on her trials. At 23,769 tons, France was half the size of the newest British liners, such as the Olympic but what she lacked in size, she made up for in opulence. Her first class interiors were amongst the most lavish seen at sea and were decorated in style Louis quatorze earning the nickname Château or Versailles of the Atlantic.

Proud of their great achievement, the new France was not without problems; she suffered from disturbing vibrations, and had a marked tendency to roll, even when the seas were flat calm. She was withdrawn from service after just a handful of crossings to have these two serious issues addressed. She was sent to the Harland & Wolff Shipyard in Northern Ireland, where longer and wider bilge keels were fitted to her hull to reduce rolling and new propellers were fitted to reduce vibrations, making her not only more comfortable to travel aboard, but faster as well.

When World War I erupted in 1914, France was immediately requisitioned by the French Navy for use as an armed merchant cruiser and renamed France IV. Her time as a cruiser was short-lived as she was too large, burned too much coal to be of good use, and was consequently reconfigured to carry troops. Later still, in 1916 she was painted white and used as a hospital ship in the Dardanelles, operating in tandem with White Star’s new flagship, Britannic and Cunard's new Aquitania. During her time as a hospital ship she was converted to have 2,500 beds for injured troops. When Britannic was sunk in late 1916, the need for high-capacity hospital ships was even more dire, and she continued in this role until the United States entered the war in 1917, when she was deployed back to the Atlantic to ferry American troops to the continent with space for some 5,000. In 1918, her military service was cut short by an engine room explosion that killed nine crew members and thus required extensive repairs.

The 1920s.

Returned to the CGT in March 1919, her name was promptly changed back to France, although she was kept busy repatriating American troops until that autumn. She was sent for refurbishment that winter, returning to commercial duty in early 1920. In 1921, she passed flagship status on to the newer and larger Paris, but continued to be a popular means of travel, with a near club-like following among the wealthy. Her affluent passenger loads swayed the CGT in 1924 to convert her to an all first-class ship, save for just 150 third class berths. During the conversion, her boilers were modified to burn fuel oil rather than coal, allowing her engine room staff to be greatly reduced. She sailed without incident, crossing the Atlantic during the peak months and cruising in the winter until 1927. With the advent of the new Ile de France, France was diverted almost totally to cruising.

The Great Depression essentially sounded the death knell for the liner. Many of the millionaires she had carried over the years had been financially destroyed and the general downturn in business cut deeply into transatlantic travel. France spent more and more time idle, until she finally was withdrawn from service in 1932. Laid up at Le Havre, she sat unattended until January 1933, when a fire was discovered by a night watchman. Although it was rapidly extinguished, the fire had caused some minor damage, but by now she was outclassed by her newer running-mates. CGT had by then commissioned a new flagship, the great Normandie which was nearing completion. As a result, the company decided it was time to scrap the 21-year-old liner. On 15 April 1935, the old France departed Le Havre under her own steam to the scrappers at Dunkirk, France

John Doran

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