22 Leaders & commanders
The Second French Empire’s generals weren’t quite the parade of stars produced under Napoleon III’S uncle
The generals of the Second French Empire failed to live up to their illustrious predecessors
NAPOLEON III THE FUMBLING FOUNDER 1808–1873
Napoleon III was nothing like the military leader his uncle had been, nor did he have such a dazzling array of generals to call upon. The commanders of the Second French Empire are generally viewed as a decidedly inferior bunch, partly because they were weighed down by the tradition of French military might established under Napoleon Bonaparte, and partly because they did not get the practice of regular pitched battles that proved so crucial half a century earlier.
Napoleon III did his best to get involved as a commander, but his interference during the Crimean War was embarrassing and his experience on the battlefield at Solferino shocked him to his core. An attempt to help the creation of the Second Mexican Empire was destined to fail, and he established French influence in Indochina that was to have tragic consequences in the following century.
The emperor did, however, initiate some useful reforms in the French army, especially when it came to the adoption of the Chassepot breechloading rifle, giving the French infantryman a weapon to eclipse that of the Prussians.
LEROY DE SAINT-ARNAUD THE GLORY HUNTER 1798–1854
Saint-arnaud pressed Napoleon III for command of the French army that was to be sent to Crimea in 1854, seeing the potential for glory. A colourful figure, scandal followed him everywhere, and he had already demonstrated his bravery and hunger for fame in Algeria, serving in the Foreign Legion. By the time war broke out in Crimea, his rank (marshal of France and minister of war) and the many medals crammed onto his tunic should probably have been enough to satisfy him, but he wanted more. Militarily, his thinking was limited. Envisioning only a great battle, he had little notion of how to wage a campaign. A victory at Alma brought him a last taste of the glory he loved so much, but he died shortly afterwards.
“HIS INTERFERENCE DURING THE CRIMEAN WAR WAS EMBARRASSING AND HIS EXPERIENCE ON THE BATTLEFIELD AT SOLFERINO SHOCKED HIM TO HIS CORE”
Although his undistinguished performance as French commander-in-chief during the Crimean War was a blot on his career, Canrobert deserves credit for serving with distinction in many of the major battles of the Second French Empire. Alma, Magenta, Solferino and Gravelotte all saw Canrobert play his part. One of the generation of French commanders to cut his teeth in Algeria, he was personally brave in battle but lacked the imagination and strength of will to command an army, as his inability to stand up to Napoleon III during the Crimean War confirmed. Replaced as commanderin-chief, he went on to lead a corps successfully in battle, notably at Magenta and Solferino during the Second Italian War of Independence. Perhaps aware of his limitations, he turned down the command of the Army of the Rhine in 1870.
ADOLFE NIEL THE FORLORN REFORMER 1802–1869
Having studied as an engineer, Niel worked his way through the ranks and was made a captain in 1833. He was promoted to chief engineer during the Crimean War and was considered to be the eyes and ears of Napoleon III. Perhaps his greatest achievement on the battlefield came during the Battle of Solferino in 1859. Amid confusion over the disposition of the army lined up against them, Niel’s corps was isolated on the battlefield and forced to fight a desperate holding action throughout the day. Failure could well have led to the collapse of the French army, but he resolutely held his ground, aided by rifled artillery that outclassed the Austrian guns ranged against them. As minister of war from 1867, he laid out plans for wholesale reform of the army, but he died before he could put them into action.
FRANÇOIS ACHILLE BAZAINE THE RANK-AND-FILE VETERAN 1811–1888
one of a new generation of French generals, Bazaine enjoyed the remarkable distinction of having served in the French army at every rank, starting as a fusilier in 1831. Serving with the Foreign Legion in Algeria, he went on to see action in
Italy and Crimea, becoming the youngest general in the army at the age of just 44. Service in Mexico followed, but Bazaine’s Although he had died before the coup that saw Louis-napoléon Bonaparte become Napoleon III, Thomas Robert Bugeaud was a figure of huge influence in the Second French Empire. Having served under Napoleon Bonaparte (he joined the Imperial Guard at the age of 20 and fought at Austerlitz), he then attracted attention for his command in Algeria, especially for his use of ‘flying columns’.
It was in Algeria that he became the leading character in the so-called ‘Algerian clique’ that was to see officers with experience in North Africa dominate the French army. He took a strong interest in the career of Leroy de Saintarnaud, helping him rise to the position of minister of war and cementing his own importance in the army. From then on, anyone on the wrong side of Bugeaud would find it almost impossible to advance in the army. career was to end in ignominy. While the generation of generals that spanned the two French empires faded away, Bazaine’s youth meant he was still around at the outbreak of the Franco-prussian War in 1870. Apparently aware of the monumental task facing him as commander-in-chief of the Army of the rhine, he is reported as saying, “We are walking into a disaster”, but his subsequent surrender of 180,000 men was greeted with shock. he was sentenced to death following a trial, although the sentence was changed to 20 years’ imprisonment. he escaped and lived out his days in Spain.
FRANÇOIS CERTAIN DE CANROBERT THE SURVIVOR 1809–1895 BUGEAUD, DUC D’ISLY THE GODFATHER 1784–1849 “HIS SUBSEQUENT SURRENDER OF 180,000 MEN WAS GREETED WITH SHOCK”
Napoleon III lacked the military prowess of his uncle, which led to him making some disastrous military blunders
Saint-arnaud had been forced to go to Algeria to escape his debtors
Bazaine will forever be remembered as the man who surrendered his army to the Prussians
Being in favour with Bugeaud was vital for the hopes of any aspiring officer
Adolphe Niel died during surgery a year prior to the disastrous Francoprussian War
Canrobert was best equipped to lead a division or corps and struggled in overall command of an army