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
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
“PROBLEMS SET IN WHEN THE ALLIED COMMANDERS COULD NOT ROUSE THEMSELVES TO FOLLOW UP THEIR SUCCESS AT THE ALMA WITH ENERGY”
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