HomeNaval Arsenals (c. 1600-c. 2000)

HomeNaval Arsenals (c. 1600-c. 2000)

Naval Arsenals (c. 1600-c. 2000)

Les arsenaux de Marine (vers 1600-vers 2000)

*  *  *

Published on Thursday, December 10, 2015


Historians have been conscious of the major importance of arsenals and for some time now have been interested in these establishments, for to study the arsenal is to understand the preparation made for war, a common and transversal thread of naval historiography. This unit also lends itself to "total history", that is simultaneously economic, social, financial, technological, industrial, geographical, strategic, maritime ... Naval arsenals are therefore well known and the study of them has mostly been carried out within the framework of major theses, each institution having found "its" historian.


International Conference organised by the IUF and CEMMC within the framework of the research programme "Urban models, models of urbanity, 16th c – 20th c."

University Bordeaux Montaigne, FRANCE


"It is an enclosure within which is contained a sea port belonging to the government, where it has its ships and everything needed to build them, to maintain them, to arm fit them out them, to disarm strip them and to repair them." Thus, in 1783, the Methodological Encyclopaedia of the Navy defined an arsenal, before specifying that "it is felt that the regulation of all the operations of an arsenal, its administration, the accounting of the immense riches that it contains, are all objects of major importance." Historians have been conscious of this "major importance" and for some time now have been interested in these establishments, for to study the arsenal is to understand the preparation made for war, a common and transversal thread of naval historiography. This unit also lends itself to "total history", that is simultaneously economic, social, financial, technological, industrial, geographical, strategic, maritime ... Naval arsenals are therefore well known and the study of them has mostly been carried out within the framework of major theses, each institution having found "its" historian. Thus it is possible today to go beyond this monographic division in order to compare French examples and then to contrast them with their European equivalents and to propose, in the context of this conference, a transversal reading of the history of arsenals, beginning with a few themes which seem to us to be particularly rich.

A few lines of research will be of particular interest.

The Navy arsenal, between war and peace.

Studies made of arsenals show that these spaces are characterised by violent irregularity in their rhythm of life: places that were teeming and overcrowded just before the departure of a major squadron would then have to face the economic doldrums when peace was established and many people had to be laid off. Special interest will therefore be paid to arming fitting out as well as disarming stripping vessels. How was it possible to make a flow of materials and people, whether crew members or skilled workers, converge in the same place at the right time? What were the attractive socio-economic areas hinterlands of the arsenal? Within that space, how was it possible to ensure that thousands of people could live for several weeks at a time, with all the social and logistics problems that that entailed? The arsenal was at the heart of the Navy's efforts but it could also be the site of confrontations and in particular it could be a target. With that in mind, how should it face such a challenge of being always prepared and able to defend itself? How was it integrated into naval strategies? This issue will lead us to pay particular attention to those arsenals established in colonies and also to question the image of the naval strength that was thus projected? How could operational potential be maintained when there was no arsenal available outside metropolitan territory or close to combat zones? When the fleets returned how were the vessels disarmed, how did the crews reintegrate into their home ports, and what about the submission of accounts? Over the longer term, when a war was over, what was to be done with a fleet in peace time when funds were often drastically cut? How was life sustained, often in an artificial manner, in arsenals? What about the safeguarding of skills, whether they were in construction and navigation or else in administrative competence (management of flows, control of the network of suppliers, administrative procedure for checking and control...)? If we broaden our gaze by examining these not from the perspective of the arsenal but from that of the central powers, society or the country in general, we can try to understand the place that arsenals held in the kingdom's naval and maritime policies. How could money spent on arsenals be justified in particular in peacetime, when their usefulness was becoming much less obvious? Could periods of peace be turned into periods of reconversion? Could the arsenal take on other missions, linked, for example, to trade or maritime safety? Could different uses be made of the boats and their fittings? Is it possible to talk of "a policy for arsenals", whether it was economic, social or geostrategic?

The Navy arsenal at the heart of the state apparatus?

The Navy arsenal is a vital element in the military-industrial complex which supposes strict dependency on central power which might take different forms at different times in different countries. We are therefore interested in questions of "governance". How were these strategic spaces considered by the state seeing that they were the site of particular problems (risk of spying or sabotage) and where classic problems took on a particular importance ("feelings", strikes, social conflicts)? In these cases, particular attention will be paid to the relations between colonial arsenals and the metropolitan authorities. Moreover, is the central power the only decision-maker or can we identify the influence of other pressure groups, whether they were economic lobbies or local and regional counter-powers? In the case of modern France Daniel Dessert has insisted on the essential role played by the Navy Intendant, a veritable "naval proconsul". If the roles and the careers of these men are relatively well known, it would nevertheless be pertinent to compare them to their European counterparts to examine their training and their career paths, their skills and their authority. In order to better identify their place, we will consider their relations with their superiors (sovereigns, ministers ...) and their subordinates and also with those who would be their equals or their rivals (military officers, civil administration, urban powers) as well as their relation to administrative methods.

Financing and supplying the arsenals.

Arsenals were probably the first kind of industrial concentration of the modern age, which supposes considerable financial, material and human means. It is not just a question of seeing how the means of financing an arsenal were found - or not - and how this effort was maintained over the long term but also of understanding how, in real terms, it was possible - or not- to transport the money in time there where it was needed.

How, administratively speaking, could a budget be managed when it might double or triple in the space of a few months in time of war? On the other hand, what are the solutions to be adopted when the money runs out? Moreover, besides carrying out their mission of naval construction and for repairing and fitting out ships how did arsenals manage to get into their stores the vast quantities of raw materials and half-finished items which would be completed in their workshops? We will study the concrete methods of controlling these logistical flows, the economic networks that they imply, their deployment on local, regional, national and even international level and the way they changed over time. Did arsenals help towards remodelling or even transforming economic geography by prospecting and exploiting new resources and improving means of communication? How did the exchanges between the arsenal and distant industrial sites operate, in particular when it was a questions of transporting very heavy pieces such as anchors, cannons, or later on, components for battleships?

The arsenal, a world  apart?

In France, the arsenal is often considered as a town within a town. A closed space, theoretically separate from the town and home to a very specific population: an atypical socio-professional composition (a large number of military personnel, administrative staff, skilled workers), and heightened migration patterns which followed the rhythm of the arsenal's activity. We therefore need to take an interest in the life that went on inside the arsenal to envisage living and working conditions, confrontations and the ways of regulating this "co-habitation", trying to understand whether arsenal towns developed original cultures and identities, marked by the impact of war and state control, adapting to military presence, the feeling of risk ... It also seems necessary to put the question of the relation with the environment. In a port, how does an arsenal exist alongside other activities (the commercial port, the fishing industry and even pleasure boats)? We will also examine the complex relations which link the town and the arsenal which both occupied a lot of space but also supplied employment, a place which in theory was closed but which opened up every morning to floods of workers.

Arsenals caught between adaptation and reconversion.

Whatever the period, for arsenals the question has always been one of competitivity or at least one of meeting the missions imposed on it. In the case of France, Le Havre rapidly lost its initial vocation while Rochefort saw its shipbuilding role regress because of problems in navigating the Charente river. From that point on, how do arsenals transform themselves to adapt to the missions to which they are assigned and what are then the consequences (modification of the built environment, infrastructures, especially in the port, specialisation or economic reorientation ...)? How far are they themselves the drivers of these changes? This question leads us to consider their role in the field of innovations, which should be envisaged from every point of view 'innovations in the organisation of work, fitting out and maintenance, navigation, storage of foods, medicine, pharmacy stores, surgery, botanic gardens ...). And when the arsenal fails or ceases to be an arsenal, what does the future hold for these spaces? We shall be particularly interested in the crises of conversion, especially in contemporary times, with their social and economic implications as well as those concerning the landscape (industrial wastelands, loss of vitality in the town, crisis for subcontractors, decline in population ...). We can also reflect on the ways that conversion works. The recent story of the Hermione, the transformation of the royal ropeworks at Rochefort into a museum space and the multiple events now associated with it demonstrate that a tourist-focussed conversion can be an option. For these arsenals, the question of heritage also arises in a constrained and atypical setting. Born of a political decision, many of them were built from scratch. They were the object of vast expenditure and have left behind some very imposing buildings, they were the setting for technical feats and home to constructions that were often unique pieces, according to the plans made for the whole, which have been modified, more or less, since that time but these plans are extremely instructive not just from the point of view of urban planning but also as far as the logic behind the organisation of work is concerned. Therefore they contain an architectural and an industrial heritage which can be easily exploited, more or less. But these arsenals were also potential targets and over time have been subjected to different kinds of destruction (bombing, accidental explosions) and modification to adapt them to the requirements of their new function, and those which are still active today respond to geostrategic logics which are not really compatible with a tourism vocation. We shall therefore take an interest in the current ways in which this heritage is recognised and valorised, whether it be architectural or industrial.

We are interested in receiving comparative studies and any proposals on arsenals in Europe, in its widest sense and including colonial examples.

Practical Information

Date and venue : 19 to 22 October 2016, Bordeaux.

Scientific committee

  • Olivier Chaline,
  • Philippe Chassaigne,
  • Michel Figeac,
  • Caroline Le Mao,
  • Amelia Polonia,
  • Jean-Pierre Poussou.

How to submit a proposal

Each proposal will consist of a summary (max. 3,000 characters) and a CV of the author (max. 2 pages).

Deadline for proposals: 15 January 2016. Reply by 28 February.

Languages: French, English


Accommodation will be at the organisers' expense; transport costs will be subject to agreement between the organisers and the speaker.


Each speaker will have 20 minutes. Speakers will be asked to prepare a PowerPoint in English giving the main themes of their presentation in order to facilitate discussion. The proceedings of the conference will be published. The length of articles included in this publication will be 35,000 characters, including punctuation and spaces.


  • Friday, January 15, 2016


  • arsenal, marine, mer, naval, navigation, guerre, logistique, maritime


  • Caroline Le Mao
    courriel : Caroline [dot] Le-Mao [at] u-bordeaux-montaigne [dot] fr

Information source

  • Caroline Le Mao
    courriel : Caroline [dot] Le-Mao [at] u-bordeaux-montaigne [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« Naval Arsenals (c. 1600-c. 2000) », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Thursday, December 10, 2015, https://doi.org/10.58079/tzz

Archive this announcement

  • Google Agenda
  • iCal
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search