François Certain Canrobert was born in the Lot département of France on 27 June, 1809, into a wealthy bourgeois family. Both his father and his grandfather were lawyers, and the name Certain had been added to the family name by Canrobert's father at the end of the Ancien Régime period. Antoine Certain de Canrobert, François' father emigrated France in 1791 and served in the Régiment d'Autichamp, in the service of England. He secretly returned to Paris but was arrested on 20 January, 1801 and spent ten months in the prison du Temple.
François Canrobert enrolled in the Ecole Militaire de Saint-Cyr in 1826 and in 1828 was placed with the 47e regiment d'infanterie de ligne with the rank of second lieutenant: he remained with them until 1840, and was promoted to lieutenant in 1832, lieutenant adjudant-major in 1836 and captain and captaine adjutant-major in 1837. Between 1835 and 1839, he served in Algeria, before being transferred to the 6e bataillon de chasseurs à pied, in which he served between 1840 and 1842. He returned to Algeria in 1841 and remained there until 1850.
He was made colonel in 1847 and given the command of the 2e régiment d'infanterie de ligne, then, in succession, the 2e régiment de la Légion étrangère and the régiment de zouaves. It was with the latter regiment that he took part in the assault on Zaatcha in 1849. Upon his return to France, he was named général de brigade and given the command of an infantry brigade in the 1ère division in the Armée de Paris. Canrobert supported the coup d'Etat which took place on 2 December, 1851 and as commander of the 3e brigade de la 1ère division de l'Armée de Paris, he was active in streets in order to suppress any trouble. In 1852, he was made aide-de-camp to the Prince-President (and then the Emperor) whilst at the same time keeping his previous functions. In 1853, he was made général de division and commanded an infantry division in the Armée d'Orient. On 20 September, he was injured at Alma but on 26 September, he replaced Saint-Arnaud as commander in chief of he Armée d'Orient after the latter died from cholera. He took over the siege of Sebastopol and on 5 November, he was successful at the Battle of Inkermann where he was once again injured. In May 1855, on his request, he handed the command of the army over to Pélissier and was placed at the head of the 1er corps of the same army, until he was moved, again at his request, to the 1ère division of the 2ème corps. These movements were due to disagreements with Lord Raglan, who was general in chief of the English troops serving in the war. Upon returning to France, he was once again made aide-de-camp to the Emperor.
He remained in France until 1858. On 17 August, 1855, he entered the Senate and on 18 March, 1856, he was made Maréchal of France. That same year, he also became the president of the Conseil général in the Lot département. In 1858, he was given senior command of the Divisions de l'Est in Nancy before being made camp commander at Châlons. On 22 April, 1859, he was placed at the head of the 3ème corps of the Armée d'Italie and took part in the battles at Magenta and Solferino. Between 1865 and 1870, he was head of the 1er corps of the army and the 1ère division militaire in Paris.
Following the outbreak of war between Prussia and France, he was named commander of the 6e corps of the Armée du Rhin. He fought at the major battles around Metz, in particular Gravelotte, and took part in the heroic defence of Saint-Privat. Surrounded at Metz, with the majority of the Armée du Rhin, he was taken prisoner on 28 October. He returned to France on 18 March, 1871, where he occupied several concurrent positions: president of the Commission de classement de l'avancement dans l'infanterie (1871-1879), member of the war council (1871-1873), member of the defence committee (1873-1879), and president of the Commission set up to study possible changes to be made to laws and ordinances concerning the development of the army (1875-1879).
In 1873, following the death of Napoleon III, he requested permission to attend the latter's funeral. In 1876, he was elected senator for the Lot and was a member of the Appel au peuple group, a Bonapartist party. At the end of his mandate in the senate, he was elected to represent the Charente département, again in the senate, where he remained until 1894. The last functions he held were in the war council and the defence committee (both between 1881 and 1883). He died in Paris on 28 January, 1895, aged 84, the last Maréchal of the Second Empire. He is buried in Les Invalides in Paris.
Joseph Valynseele (tr. & ed. H.D.W.)
This article is reproduced with kind permission from the Dictionnaire du Second Empire, published by Fayard.