As the 19th century came to a close, the primary competition of the Royal Navy was still the centuries old rival France, although Imperial Russia was coming up fast. The French battle line was known as a collection of samples in that French building practices tended to build one-off designs. With each new design the French would again rearrange all of the pieces. The only exception was the 1894 St. Louis class in which three battleships were built to the same design. This process resulted in little commonality from class to class or from ship to ship. This approach changed with the advent of the 20th century. The designs of the 20th century were built with multiple ships in the class and each succeeding class improved upon the previous design. One of the factors that bedeviled French battleship designers was the restrictively low maximum displacement. Enacted by penny-pinching politicians, this resulted in ships in which too much was attempted on too small of a design. Designers had to make severe compromises that grouped guns together to provide common armor protection or carried them too low for stability purposes. The limited displacement of the designs caused these "work-arounds", which in turn created grave operational flaws in the ships and ham strung their combat effectiveness.

The direct ancestor for the Liberte class was the one off Suffren. A limited design of 12,527 tons laid down in 1899. However, the Suffren did reintroduce the practice on mounting secondary guns in turrets instead of casemates as still found in the designs of the Royal Navy. Turret placement proved to be far better than casemate placement for the secondaries and it was here that French designers were significantly ahead of their British contemporaries. It was with the next design that the limited displacement shackles were removed from the designers. With the Republique design the designers could provide a good, effective armor scheme with a belt running almost the entire length of the battleship. Displacement rose by 2,000 tons, allowing the designers to create a balanced, well armed, well armored design. The Republique design of 1901 had only two ships in the class, Republique and Patrie, but the four sisters of the follow-up design could be considered half sisters of the Republique class. In fact Eric Gille in his volume on French battleships, Cent Ans de Cuirasses Francais, list all six ships as the battleships of 15,000 tons of the Republique Type, which he calls the ultimate French pre-dreadnoughts.

However, most authorities separate the two ships of the Republique class from the four ships of the Liberte class. Some authors list the Liberte class as the Verite class because the lead ship Liberte was not in service too long before blowing up in harbor. The names chosen for the ships hearken back to the 1st Republic of the 1790s with Verite (truth), Justice, Liberte and Democratie. You might think of them as Gaulic superman ships with the motto, Truth, Justice and the Parisian Way. The Republique class was of 14,870 tons and armed with four 12-inch/45 (305mm) main guns, sixteen 6.5-inch (164.7mm) secondary guns with twelve in six twin turrets and the other four in casemate positions, thirteen 65mm QF, ten 47mm QF and two underwater 18-inch 450mm beam torpedo tubes. The armor was reasonable with a 11 to 7inch belt, 12 ˝ inches on main turrets and 13-inches on the conning tower. The vertical triple expansion engines developed 17,500ihp and drove three shafts for a maximum speed of 18 knots. The ships had three stacks with two grouped right behind the forward superstructure and the third separated far aft in front of the aft superstructure. Although still possessing a goodly tumblehome, the design did not have the excessive tumblehome of earlier designs. Republique was laid down in December 1901, followed by Patrie in December 1902.

Designers were thinking of ways to improve the class right from the initial design. The Liberte was ordered only seven months after the Patrie. The new design was hardly new at all in that it had the same appearance, same armor, same machinery for the first two (the second two increased power to 18,000ihp with two fewer boilers but from a different manufacturer), same dimensions and same armament, except for an increase to 12-inch/50 for the main guns, a large increase in size of secondary armament and a slight increase in torpedo size to 460mm. In keeping with the trends in other navies, the size of the secondary guns was increased, although the number of guns was reduced. Displacement rose slightly to 14,900 tons. The secondary armament for the Liberte design was ten 7.6-inch/45 (194mm) guns with six in single gun turrets and four in casemates. The ships were handsome, as they were less piled up than earlier designs and continued to exhibit distinctly French characteristics. With their tumblehome, top hat stack caps, fierce-face appearance and small sized turrets, there was no mistaking their French design.

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A continuing problem with French construction was the slow building time. The yards were inefficient and a British yard could pump out two battleships in the time it took a French yard to produce one. The Liberte class ships were no exceptions from this malady. Liberte was launched April 19, 1905 and finished in December 1907 but took a long time from the laying of the keel and launch. Justice was laid down in May 1902, launched on September 27, 1904 but not completed until July 1907. Verite took almost five years to build as well. She was laid down in May 1903, launched four years later in May 1907 and completed in May 1908. Democratie was the quickest build only taking four years. Laid down in May 1903, she was launched in April 1904 and completed in July 1907.

Although contracted in 1902, the ships were not in commission until the end of 1907 and into 1908. By this time HMS Dreadnought had already been in service for some time and therefore the design was obsolescent, if not obsolete, from the start of their service. With the entente cordial the French navy no longer had to concern itself with the channel or Atlantic squadrons, as the Royal Navy could station its vast battle fleet against the emerging German High Seas Fleet. Instead, the French focused their gaze upon the Mediterranean where Italy was seen as the most likely enemy. As the ships of the Liberte class entered service they went to the Mediterranean. This was the scene of the brief few years that Liberte had in service. On September 25, 1911 Liberte was at anchor at Toulon. The 7.6-inch secondary guns of the class required a separate propellant charge to go with the shells, as is true with all of the larger guns of any navy. At least one of these propellant charges had decomposed and spontaneously exploded in the secondary magazine. This in turn ignited the entire magazine and the Liberte blew up. By the start of World War One the remaining three members of the class were in the 2nd Squadron, as the Dantons and the French dreadnoughts comprised the 1st Squadron.

Before Italy threw in her lot with the allies, the class was stationed at the mouth of the Adriatic, at Corfu to help bottle up the Austro-Hungarian Fleet. All three engaged two Austrian cruisers on August 16, 1914. In September Verite was sent to the Dardanelles to form a French contingent with Suffren to join Indefatigable and Indomitable under Vice Admiral Carden. Their mission was to sink the Goeben, if she came out. After Turkey ignored an October 31 ultimatum to Turkey to remove all German crewmen from Goeben and Breslau, Carden was ordered to shell the Turkish forts at the entrance of the strait. As Churchill told Jackie Fisher, "…it is a good thing to give a prompt blow." While the British battlecruisers worked over the European side Fort Sedd el Bahr, the two French battleships took on the Asiatic side Kum Kale forts. The French battleships had minimal success. At first Turkish return fire was slow and inaccurate but was much closer as the French withdrew. All this attack accomplished was to alert the Turks to the weakness in the forts guarding the strait. They had addressed this weakness before the sea attempt to force the Dardanelles in February 1915 by which time Verite had decamped the premises. Later in 1916 the three sisters were moved to the Aegean to guard against a sortie of the Goeben. By the end of the war they were clearly no longer needed and were rapidly decommissioned. All three survivors were scrapped in 1921-1922.

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The FleetNet Liberte
The 1:700 scale Liberte from the Japanese firm of FleetNet is an all resin kit. There is no photo-etch included. Casting is very good with no voids or casting defects. Flash can be found with the smaller parts sprues, which will require cleaning, along with the waterline of the hull casting. The model can be built as any of the four members of the class, as the instructions show the differences among the members. This kit could have been called the Democratie as the hull casting has a feature that only appeared on that unit. There is a protruding square bulge under the anchor positions that is found on the casting but which only appeared on Democratie according to the instructions. If you are making any of the other sisters, you’ll have to remove this protuberance and smooth the area. Another difference among the sisters was in the designs of the boat derricks. Two different designs were used with three using one design and only Justice using the other. The more common design is square sided king post with an A-frame extending outwards for booms. The Justice design is rounded with two flanged booms extending from each king post. Another apparent difference is with a 01 level solid bulkhead for the aft face of the superstructure. An inset shows to remove this but does not distinguish which ships carried this solid bulkhead and which did not.

Hull Casting
As mentioned casting is free of defects and has very good detail. The round portholes may be slightly oversized but the square windows are excellent as they are deeply incised. Since there are a small number of round portholes compared to the large number of square windows, this is fairly minor. If you want to add square shutters, you’ll have to cut them from very thin plastic card. This can be tedious, as there are quite a number of them. Another high point of the hull casting is the detail of the anchors. The are well detailed and cast integral with the hull. Most notably they are already cast in rounded anchor wells. To able to cast these fittings in a well without any resin residue or accidental casting fill speaks of a very high level of quality control. The top bevel for the armor belt is probably slightly larger than scale but this is rather insignificant for most modelers. The casting captures the intoxicating mix of flowing curves and angular right angles. As true with the original design, the tumblehome is noticeable but more restrained than previous French designs. There is a V-shaped sponson on each side of the hull for the amidships secondary turret. Smaller sponsons provide the base for various boat davits. Angular shapes come in the form of the casemate positions and an assortment of hull side fittings. However, the gun shields for the casemate positions are rounded.

The hull casting has quite a number of fittings. The wood paneling is OK but does not excel since it is all linear with no butt-end detail. At first glance some of the detail appears to oversize but after comparing with photographs of the actual battleships, I’m not so certain that it is over-scale. The large deck anchor hawse seem to be accurate as the profile photograph used for the title shot, seems to show these fittings to be approximately two to three feet high. Raised anchor chain bed fittings are placed between the deck hawse and the detailed windlasses. In contrast to the specialized anchor handling fittings, the twin bollard plates and open choke fittings do appear over-scale. Hourglass shaped ventilators also add detail to the forecastle. The amidships detail adds some interesting features. Most prominent is an asymmetrical track or rail arrangement, which apparently was used to move the ship’s boats. There are also so uniquely shaped square ventilators, skylights and a few access hatches and coal scuttles. With only four coal scuttles, there are far to few of these essential features, which polka-dotted the decks of any coal fired warship. The quarterdeck is mostly detailed with bollard and chock fittings but there are a couple of interesting round centerline fittings, which may be another form of ventilator.

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Smaller Resin Parts
Whenever, you see a FleetNet resin product, you’ll always see a hallmark characteristic of FleetNet casting with the smaller parts. They are laid out in the same format as a more common injected plastic sprue. FleetNet provides two large sprues of resin parts that further bring out the delicious Gaulic flavor of this kit. One sprue has the major superstructure parts, along with the QF guns, and the other sprue has armament, boats and boat derricks. Also FleetNet provides separate rods for fashioning casemate guns, masts and booms. This will involve some sanding as the tertiary guns and yards were tapered.

The largest of the smaller parts is a 01 level deckhouse with circles in which the two forward stacks fit. The most notable fittings here are the boat skids on both sides. The funnels themselves are very nice with the characteristic top hat double cap design with a top lip and two flanged aprons captured. There are a host of rectangular ventilator fittings with a slatted louver design to further emphasize the French design. The rest of this sprue is composed of the smaller parts making the fore and aft superstructure as well as ten detailed QF guns.

With any French battleship you can expect an extra treat in the form the turrets take. French designers liked to minimize the size of the turrets in relationship to the size of the guns in the theory that large guns protruding from small turrets emphasized their aggressive appearance. This was all part of the fierce-face design theory in which features were selected more for their external appearance than their utility. The heavy military masts of French predreadnoughts were also part of this theory. Of course a small turret meant cramped conditions for the crew and increased the chances of both guns being lost with one hit.

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The main gun turrets are of an oval pillbox design, slightly longer than they are wide. They have a large rounded rectangle of armor around the gun tube openings and a rounded tear drop centerline sighting hood on each. However, the secondary turrets are especially tasty in their appearance. They are tear dropped in plan and sit on pie pan barbettes. The apex of each turret is at the rear and all have rounded off set sighting hoods. Three have the hoods on the right side of the crown and three on the left side of the crown. The sighting hoods are on the outboard position when the turrets are trained fore and aft. To truly appreciate the design of the secondary turrets you have to look at them in profile. The turrets are far larger than the batbettes upon which they sit. The turrets are far wider at their base than their crown, while the barbettes are far wider at their crown than their base where they meet the deck. The result is an unusual mushroom shaped design with the barbettes providing a natural shot trap directing any shells striking them downwards and inwards to penetrate the deck at barbette base, instead of deflecting the shell outwards. It may look great but it clearly was a poor design. Main and secondary gun barrels are well cast with taper and reinforcing bands at their base. As mentioned earlier two types of boat cranes, king posts and booms are provided on this sprue. Ship’s boats are fairly generic and really don’t stand out one way or the other. Other parts on this sprue are searchlights, mast tops and small ventilators.

There is one back-printed sheet of instructions. The text on the front is mostly in Japanese but consists of technical details. The main benefit of the front page is a good plan and profile but without rigging arrangements. The reverse has all of the assembly drawings. English captions supplement the drawings. Two major drawings show assembly of the fore and aft halves of the model. Eight small inset drawings present subassembly modules for: fore mast; main mast; turrets; boat derricks; bow detail; boat locations; davits; and removal of the aft 01 bulkhead. Dimensions in millimeters are provided for cutting top masts, yards and booms. The FleetNet instructions are very similar to the Combrig approach for instructions. As mentioned, no brass photo-etch is provided in the kit. Most of this can be provided with generic railing and inclined ladders, of which there is at least six; two from quarterdeck to forecastle, two from main deck to aft superstructure platform and two from main deck to forward bridge platform. Additionally, the model would benefit from the support bracing that was found supporting the wings of the forward and aft superstructure platforms.

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With the 1:700 scale Liberte FleetNet provides a very good kit of the penultimate French predreadnought battleship design. The kit provides error free castings of good to excellent quality. There is no brass photo-etch fret but generic photo-etch parts can remedy this deficiency.