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Ask anyone with a little knowledge of Victorian British military or colonial history about the Zulu War of 1879 and you will likely receive replies that talk of the heroic defense of Rorke’s Drift or the disaster at Isandlwana. However, at the time there was another tragedy of the war that caused great consternation in both Britain and France. This was the death of Louis Napoléon, the Prince Imperial of France, at the hands of Zulu warriors, and the subsequent destruction of the reputation of a British Army officer.

Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte was born in March 1856 in Paris, France. As his full name suggests, he was related to Emperor Napoléon Bonaparte, being the grandson of Louis Bonaparte, Napoléon’s brother. Louis’ father, Napoléon III, brought his son up to believe in French military glory and as such the young prince spent much of his early years watching military parades that harked back to the days of the First Empire. Unfortunately for Louis, he would as a teenager witness the defeat of his country at the hands of the Prussians during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

Before the war was over, Louis was taken by his mother to England to escape the fighting. The presence of a Bonaparte in Britain was seen as an embarrassment to the British political elite, but Louis found himself a powerful benefactor in the form of Queen Victoria. With his father dead in early 1873 and unable to return to France, something needed to be done with the young Louis. He, therefore, was granted a commission as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, passing out seventh in his class at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1875.

As an officer in the British Army, Louis was eager to see active service. With news of the defeat of a British column at Isandlwana in January 1879, he actively petitioned to join the additional forces being assembled for South Africa. Benjamin Disraeli, the British prime minister, refused the request, but following pressure from both Queen Victoria and the Duke of Cambridge he relented and Louis was granted permission to go. On 28 February, he boarded a ship and went to war.

The presence of the Prince Imperial in South Africa was unwelcomed by Lord Chelmsford, who commanded British forces against the Zulus. Fears around Louis’ safety, not to mention the fact he was a Bonaparte, was the last thing the lieutenant-general wanted, but he was given little option but to grant the young lieutenant a place on his staff as an Aide-de-camp. Louis, however, proved to be a nightmare following his first patrol, when its commanding officer refused to allow the lieutenant to accompany him again. The prince’s impetuousness would ultimately seal his own fate.

An irritated Chelmsford turned to Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Harrison of the Royal Engineers, the assistant-quartermaster general, in the hope of finding Louis meaningful work, and keep him out of trouble. Harrison was charged with various tasks, including reconnaissance work for the British invasion force. It would be at this time that Louis met Lieutenant Jahleel Brenton Carey of the 98th Foot, a member of Harrison’s staff. The prince hit it off with the French speaking Carey, and the two quickly became friends.

With the second invasion of Zululand soon to begin, Harrison and Carey conducted one final reconnaissance of the route ahead. The lieutenant-colonel had no intention of taking Louis with him, but the latter had somehow managed to obtain Chelmsford’s permission, and so joined the patrol. During the reconnaissance, the prince found himself coming under fire from a small group of Zulu riflemen. Drawing his sword, Louis conducted a charge at the Zulus, successfully seeing them off, much to his personal delight. His rashness, however, had much alarmed Harrison and those charged with his safety.

On 31 May the invasion began, and Louis sought permission to continue his sketching work of terrain ahead of the main column between the Ityotosi and Tombokola rivers. Harrison told the prince that he could do so, but that he must go accompanied by Carey – who had requested to go with Louis – and a small escort. And so, on 1 June, Carey, Louis and their little escort trotted off out of camp to carry out their work.

Having reached elevated ground at the edge of their intended reconnaissance, both Louis and Carey began sketching. As the afternoon progressed, the prince asked his fellow lieutenant if they could replenish their water supplies from the nearby river. An anxious Carey initially refused, since there was an abandoned Zulu kraal nearby, but later he relented and the party descended from the high ground.

At around 15:30 hours, the alarm was raised by a scout that some Zulu warriors were close by. Orders were issued to gather up all equipment and make ready to mount and retire. Before this was completed a fire was opened on Carey’s patrol and the men scrambled to escape. Carey and most of the men galloped off but one of the escort was shot and Louis had failed to mount his horse. Desperately trying to mount the frightened animal, the prince slipped in his stirrup, at which point he grabbed his saddle holster, only for it to rip. Now on the ground, Louis found his right-hand trodden on by his mount, which then promptly galloped off.

It was now too late to escape, Louis was surrounded by a group of warriors who thrusted at him with their assegais. Somehow getting to his feet, he drew his revolver but was stabbed in the leg. The lieutenant pulled the spear out, and fired his gun, only to miss his targets. Moments later, the Zulus frenziedly stabbed Louis to death.

News of Louis’ death sent shockwaves through the higher echelons of British government and society. Many in France were furious, and bitter criticism was aimed at London. Carey was court-martialed for ‘misbehaviour before the enemy’, since he had galloped away leaving the prince to his fate. In reality, Carey was made a scapegoat, since blame should have been apportioned to those in higher authority for putting the officer in an ambivalent position.

The British public, thanks to the press, were sympathetic to Carey’s predicament, and fortunately for the lieutenant his sentence of being cashiered from the army was overturned and he was allowed to return to his regiment. Carey died at Karachi on 22 February 1883, having contracted peritonitis.