Farce in the Azov Sea

Napoleon III couldn’t re­sist get­ting in­volved in mil­i­tary mat­ters – even when he was 2,600 kilo­me­tres away from the bat­tle­field

History of War - - CONTENTS -

Be­ing 2,500 kilo­me­tres away didn’t stop Napoleon III from med­dling in mil­i­tary af­fairs

What­ever Napoleon III’S qual­i­ties may have been, they did not in­clude prow­ess in mil­i­tary af­fairs. De­spite this, per­haps be­cause of the name he car­ried, he felt the need to get in­volved when­ever pos­si­ble. Dur­ing the Crimean War, his re­lent­less in­ter­fer­ence led to the hu­mil­i­a­tion and sub­se­quent res­ig­na­tion of the French com­man­der-in-chief.

The war had started well. Bri­tish and French forces had de­feated the Rus­sians at the Bat­tle of the Alma, but shortly af­ter­wards François Cer­tain de Canrobert re­placed the dy­ing Leroy de Saint-ar­naud as com­man­der-in-chief of the French forces. Prob­lems set in when the al­lied com­man­ders could not rouse them­selves to fol­low up their suc­cess at the Alma with en­ergy. In­stead, they al­lowed the Rus­sians to dig in at Sev­astopol, and then pro­ceeded to make a catas­tro­phe of the siege.

The prob­lem was that sup­plies were still flow­ing into the city freely be­cause a key road had been left open. The ‘siege’ there­fore de­scended into a lengthy pe­riod of in­ac­tiv­ity in which dis­ease was the big­gest dan­ger.

To break the dead­lock, an am­phibi­ous op­er­a­tion in­volv­ing both Bri­tish and French forces was planned. Kerch, to the east of Sev­astopol on the Sea of Azov, was the tar­get. This was the hub of the Rus­sian sup­ply line, and an es­ti­mated 1,500 wag­ons left the town ev­ery day to bol­ster the be­sieged city. De­scend­ing on Kerch was such an ob­vi­ous move, in fact, that bick­er­ing broke out over whose fault it was that it hadn’t been done ear­lier. The Bri­tish qui­etly pointed the finger at their French al­lies, and amid the un­pleas­ant­ness no firm plans were made. Sev­astopol con­tin­ued to re­ceive its sup­plies over the win­ter of 1854–55.

The Bri­tish com­man­der, Lord Raglan, was re­ceiv­ing stern com­mu­ni­ca­tions from home by

the time ac­tion was fi­nally de­cided upon. The Royal Navy’s Ed­mund Lyons then con­vinced his French coun­ter­part, Ar­mand Bruat, to go along with the plan, but the French gen­er­als were less eas­ily con­vinced.

“It is at Sev­astopol, not at Kerch, that the fate of the cam­paign is to be set­tled,” grum­bled Canrobert, with a re­mark­able lack of in­sight. If Sev­astopol fell, Canrobert rea­soned, Kerch and ev­ery­thing else would fol­low. Hav­ing the pic­ture the wrong way round, Canrobert re­fused to pro­vide men for the op­er­a­tion un­til he was as­sured of re­in­force­ments. It was not un­til April 1855 that plans were on their way to Paris and Lon­don for ap­proval, while sol­diers and sailors alike greeted the news of im­mi­nent ac­tion with ex­cite­ment and re­lief. Late on 3 May, 8,500 French troops and a fur­ther 2,500 Bri­tish marched onto trans­port ships, to be es­corted to Kerch by six men-of-war.

Two hours after the small fleet sailed, Napoleon III had an idea. Although some 2,600 kilo­me­tres (1,615 miles) away in Paris, the em­peror had sud­denly been struck by a plan that would end the war within a month and ren­der all other op­er­a­tions point­less. The de­scent on Kerch, the em­peror be­lieved, was un­nec­es­sary. At 10pm he sent a telegram to Canrobert, who was sleep­ing in the French camp near Sev­astopol.

Canrobert, can­tan­ker­ous due to a flare-up of gout, made his way to the tent of Lord Raglan and handed him the telegram, which out­lined Napoleon III’S plan. Raglan would later de­scribe it as “wild and im­prac­ti­ca­ble”, but two hours


later the em­peror sent an­other telegram, and this time Canrobert felt obliged to re­call the Kerch ex­pe­di­tion.

Re­crim­i­na­tions for the farce were swift and se­vere. Canrobert was hounded out of his po­si­tion, of­fi­cially due to “en­fee­bled health”, but in truth due to the sav­age crit­i­cism com­ing at him like grapeshot.

Just days later, Canrobert’s re­place­ment, Jean-jacques Pelissier, au­tho­rised an­other ef­fort at Kerch, which was a stun­ning suc­cess. The large Rus­sian gar­ri­son fled with­out the slight­est re­sis­tance, prompt­ing a Bri­tish mem­ber of par­lia­ment to claim that Rus­sia

“had com­mit­ted naval sui­cide”. One Bri­tish sol­dier was in­jured dur­ing the op­er­a­tion.

Noth­ing ever came of the em­peror’s “wild and im­prac­ti­ca­ble” plan. Shamed by the re­sults of his in­ter­ven­tion, he promised to keep out of the way of his gen­er­als in the fu­ture. “I don’t pre­tend to com­mand the army from here,” he said, rather sheep­ishly. Canrobert could only wish he had come to such a re­al­i­sa­tion a lit­tle ear­lier.

The town of Kerch was looted by Bri­tish, French, Turk­ish and Sar­dinian sol­diers after its cap­ture in 1855 RIGHT: François Cer­tain de Canrobert, who was shamed into res­ig­na­tion fol­low­ing his re­call of the first Kerch ex­pe­di­tion

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