JUNE 1st IN ALL ITS MELANCHOLY;
It’s that time of year again when my thoughts stray away from my cosy study here in the south of England to a remote muddy gully in South Africa where – 136 years ago this week, as it happens – one of those small human tragedies which constitute the true nature of all warfare took place - but which, in this case, had rather far-reaching consequences and is therefore better-remembered than it might otherwise have been.
In May 1879 the British invasion of the independent Zulu kingdom was in full depressing swing, and that despite the fact that it had got off to a spectacularly bad start. On 22 January, just eleven days after British troops had first crossed into Zulu territory in what was – let’s face – an unprovoked attack, the Zulus had over-run a British camp at the foot of iSandlwana hill, and in so doing had brought the entire British strategy staggering to a halt. The British general, Lord Chelmsford, had been forced onto the defensive, falling back to the borders of the colony of Natal and hastily shoring up his defences in daily expectation of a Zulu counter-attack. Yet, to the relief of British settlers shivering in their beds each night across the length and breadth of Natal, that attack had never came, at least in part because the Zulu king, Cetshwayo kaMpande, had stayed his hand, unwilling to offer any greater provocation to the British Empire other than defending his own territories. In truth, though, he might not have been able to mount a counter-attack even if he had wanted to – if the cluster of battles which took place in January had shocked the British they had also deeply wounded the Zulu. At least two thousand Zulus had been killed in the combined actions at Nyezane river, iSandlwana and Rorke’s Drift and in the skirmishing around the Hlobane mountain, and many thousands more had been wounded. It was late March before the king was able to reassemble his army – and in the meantime the tide of war had swung inexorably in favour of the British. If the British Government in London had been reluctant to countenance the invasion of Zululand in the first place they were galvanised by iSandlwana – any reassessment of Imperial politics in the region would have to wait until British military prestige was restored. Reinforcements flowed into the harbour at Durban quite literally by the ship-load. By the end of May Lord Chelmsford had enough troops to prepare for a new offensive against the Zulu.
At least one young man among the new arrivals had no real cause to be there. Napoleon Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte was not – as his name might suggest – a British soldier; not only was he French by birth, but he was heir to one of the most colourful, controversial and dynamic ruling houses in Europe – he was the great-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The road which had brought him to Zululand was a tortuous one. In the aftermath of Waterloo – which, funnily enough, took place 200 years ago this month (June was a rather fateful month for Bonapartes) – whilst the Emperor himself languished in exile his family had scattered to avoid the wrath of the Allied powers. Banned from returning to France under a restored French monarchy it seemed that Bonapartism was a spent force politically despite a strong thread of nostalgic support which remained among the population at large. The mantel of Bonapartist hopes had eventually settled upon his nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who, after enduring a period of exile in Britain and despite several early failures, had eventually managed to ride the wave of popular revolution which surged across Europe in 1848 to secure not only his return to Paris but a place in the French Government. Thereafter his rise had been swift and occasionally ruthless - before the year was out he had been elected President of the Second Republic and in December he had orchestrated a coup d’etat which replaced the Republic with the Second Empire with himself at its head. For the second time a Bonaparte had made himself Emperor of the French, and styled himself Napoleon III.
Over the next sixteen years Napoleon III dedicated himself to re-establishing French influence overseas, to modernising the economy at home and to rebuilding central Paris. In 1870, however, the Second Empire had come crashing down under the onslaught of Bismarck’s emerging Kingdom of Prussia. The Emperor had gamely taken to the field but was not the equal of his uncle and after the French collapse at the battle of Sedan he was captured and imprisoned by the Prussians. Paris was besieged and the city’s population turned its resentment on the Imperial family; Napoleon’s wife, the Empress Eugenie, and his son, the young Prince Imperial, Louis Napoleon, were forced to flee. Smuggled across the Channel they appealed to Queen Victoria for sanctuary, and the Queen took pity on them and allowed them to rent a house in Chiselhurst in Kent. Not long afterwards the Prussians released the Emperor who joined them in exile.
Napoleon III was nothing if not a trier, and spent his last years ceaselessly – and fruitlessly, as it turned out – plotting his return to France but exile bore more heavily on his son. Born in 1856 the young Louis Napoleon (continuity counted for more than originality in Bonapartist choice of names!) had been raised in the shadow of the reputation of his great-uncle and brought up in the splendid palaces of the Second Empire; scarcely a teenager at the time of the Franco-Prussian War he had been crushed by the extent of the military humiliation heaped on the French army and by the speed of the Empire’s collapse. Raised since childhood to assume the role of Napoleon IV he found life in the quiet Kent countryside empty and pointless, and he became withdrawn and depressed.
The solution was to revive if not his political ambitions at least his dreams of glory. In 1872 a British military friend of the Emperor’s suggested Louis should attend the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich and learn the practical modern skills of soldiering. The idea drew Louis out of his shell – Woolwich specialised in training officer cadets in the technical arts of military engineering and gunnery, and the great Napoleon himself had been a gunner. Louis took the entrance exams and passed.
Woolwich gave him a renewed passion for life. It was, of course, an odd arrangement – the heir to Britain’s greatest enemy training in a British uniform alongside young men who might one day be called upon to fight for their country, perhaps even against France. There was never any question that Louis could join the British Army at the end of it – he owed no allegiance to the Queen and was in fact a foreign head of state in waiting – but he threw himself into his studies like everyone else, delighted to have the chance to be a real soldier. Although his background was very different from his fellow cadets, most of whom had passed through the gruelling rites of passage of the English Public School system – Louis never quite understood their preoccupation with team sports, and his occasional exuberance and flamboyance was sometimes judged perilously close to showing off – Louis found a real sense of purpose at Woolwich, and during his time there formed some of the first real friendships of his adult life.
Yet Woolwich could offer him only temporary respite from the pressures of the real world. On 9 January 1873 his father, the Emperor, died, and to thousands of Bonarpartist supporters Louis was now the Napoleon IV in exile, waiting for a call to take up the throne to his country. In 1873, however, that call seemed very far off, and when, two years later, he passed out from Woolwich – he was chosen to lead the Passing Out parade in front of the Duke of Cambridge, and when Louis was singled out for particular praise his fellow cadets cheered – he seemed set to return to a soul-destroying life of waiting.
He had, by now, convinced himself that he needed practical military experience – to smell powder expended in anger on the battlefield – to add to his reputation as a worthy heir to the Bonaparte throne and bolster his political standing. In 1878 he hatched a plan with his cousin to run away and secretly fight in the Russo-Turkish War that was then raging in the Balkans until it was scotched by his mother who pointed out the potential consequences for Russian and Turkish relations should he one day become the head of state he craved.
In February 1879, however, came the news that the Zulus had over-run Lord Chelmsford’s column at iSandlwana. There was a rush among his old cadet friends – now serving officers – to apply to join the reinforcements being hurried out to southern Africa. For Louis it seemed a marvellous opportunity – France had no vested interest in southern Africa, there could be no obvious political repercussions, and his critics among the Republicans in France could hardly afford to adopt a moral high ground as France itself was already deeply embroiled in African colonial adventures. Louis badgered his mother who appealed on his behalf directly to Queen Victoria and the Queen agreed – the Prime Minister, Disraeli, thought the whole idea very dangerous but found himself outmanoeuvred. When he left Southampton on 28 February 1879 he carried with him a letter of commendation from the Duke of Cambridge – the Commander in Chief – to Lord Chelmsford.
From the first Louis’ position was ambivalent. Officially he was no more than an observer, yet the Duke had asked Chelmsford to find a post for him on his staff, to enable Louis to see how a modern war was waged in practice. He was not a member of the British Army and held no official rank yet he habitually wore the undress uniform of a British Artillery officer. Perhaps more to the point, he was young and full of a desire for adventure – and he seemed to hold the very real reservations about his role and standing in no great regard at all.
He arrived in Durban at the end of March. By that stage the war was entering a new phase – a Zulu attack on the British camp at Khambula in northern Zululand was repulsed with heavy losses on 28 March and on 1 April Lord Chelmsford himself won another British victory at kwaGingindlovu, at the other end of the country. Moreover, as more and more British reinforcements arrived they were marched to a new assembly point on the borders prior to the launch of a new offensive. Louis himself caught up with a rather harassed Chelmsford – who appointed the Prince an ADC – but his introduction to real military life was marred by the onset of a fever which had struck him shortly after his arrival at Durban. All the evidence suggests he would never quite get over it in the time left to him.
Throughout May Chelmsford’s reinforcements were formed into a new column, styled the 2nd Division, and preparations were made for its advance. Mounted patrols were pushed across the border to search out a viable track and to probe for any sign that the Zulus were mustering to oppose it. The task of organising these duties fell to Chelmsford’s Assistant-Quartermaster-General, Bt. Col. Richard Harrison RE, and Louis was attached to Harrison’s department. Twice during May Harrison organised long-range patrols into Zulu territory and, in an attempt to quench Louis’ desire for excitement, he allowed the Prince to accompany them. This had proved problematic, however, since Louis had displayed a tendency to abandon his comrades and ride off on his own, waving his sword – a family heirloom – dramatically whenever a Zulu scout was seen in the distance. Several times the hard-bitten Irregular horsemen who made up the patrols had been sent to fetch him in, and after the second patrol returned to camp Louis was grounded – to his bitter disappointment he was confined to desk work.
By the end of May, however, the column was ready to advance and the date for the new invasion was set for 1 June. By that stage regular cavalry patrols had scoured the country for miles ahead of its first few days’ projected advance and, indeed, the march itself was to be protected each day by a screen of cavalrymen pushed out well in front. By this time Louis was stir-crazy, and desperate to be in at the beginning of the new invasion – on the evening of the last night of May he went to Harrison and asked to be allowed to ride out the following morning. Officially he requested permission to look at the road beyond the first night’s projected camp site – it was little more than an excuse since the ground had already been scouted but Harrison understood the Prince’s frustration and relented. The terrain had officially been proclaimed clear of Zulus and had been crossed and re-crossed by patrols many times – and there would, moreover, be an entire British column in the march. What could possibly go wrong? Louis was given permission providing he took with him a patrol for his protection. At the last minute, another staff officer, Lt. J. Brenton Carey, asked if he might join the patrol to verify his own sketches. Harrison agreed to that, too.
The column was awake before dawn on 1 June and amidst all the bustle of thousands of men and animals being marshalled to begin the advance Louis met his patrol – six men from an Irregular unit known as Bettington’s Horse and a Zulu guide drawn from one of the auxiliary units who claimed to know the country. They were supposed to be joined by a further party of mounted auxiliaries, too, but these men were late for the rendezvous – they had reported to the wrong tent – and as Louis was impatient to be off the patrol set out without them. Louis was wearing his Artillery officers’ uniform and riding a grey horse called Tommy; although Carey was the only man in the party to hold an officers’ rank, Louis acted throughout as if in fact he were in command.
The patrol pushed on and soon passed the screen of cavalry vedettes; ahead of them the veld seemed empty. It had been a wet summer, and the grass had not yet turned its true winter brown, and here and there they saw the grey circles of abandoned Zulu huts. There was no sign of any Zulu presence – most Zulu non-combatants had long since fled before the proximity of the British advance. Soon after noon the patrol paused on a hill overlooking the valley of the Tshotshosi river and Louis suggested making their way down to rest for a while near the river before returning to re-join the column. As they descended the hill they spotted a Zulu homestead and the Zulu scout was sent ahead to determine whether anyone was still in it – he returned to say there was not, and when they reached it the patrol dismounted to rest. The men fetched water to make coffee and Louis dozed in the shade of a hut; it was a warm day, the men had ridden nearly 25 kilometers that morning, and an air of languor settled over the patrol.
After not quite an hour Carey suggested it was time to be getting back. The men gathered their horses and adjusted their saddles with no great sense of urgency until the Zulu guide reported that he thought he had seen a Zulu moving in the river bed a few hundred meters away. Snapped back into a military routine, the men stood by their horses and the Prince gave the order ‘Prepare to Mount!’. It was now about 3.45 in the afternoon, and the Prince gave the order ‘Mount!’ As the men swung into the saddle there was a sudden crash of musketry and the grass and mealie fields on either side of the homestead erupted with smoke.
Unbeknown to them the patrol had been watched since the moment they had first appeared on the skyline two hours before. A party of 40 or 50 Zulus under the command of an officer of the Royal household named Mnukwa had been scouting for signs of the British advance and were astonished at the lack of precautions displayed by the patrol. Moving down from hills opposite they had crept unseen into the Tshotshosi river bed and had worked their way around the homestead, hidden by the mealies and tall grass. They had not quite encircled the patrol when they saw them mounting up, and, rather than lose their prize, had fired a volley into them before bursting out of cover brandishing their spears and shields.
In those first few seconds of noise and confusion the patrol fell apart. One of the Troopers, a man named Rogers, who was trying to manage a spare horse as well as his own and had not yet mounted, ran off between the huts with two men named Zubalo and Mshingishingi in pursuit – somewhere on the outskirts of the huts they cornered him and ran him through. Another trooper, Abel, had ridden a few yards when he was knocked out of his saddle by a bullet; he was still alive when he hit the ground and struggled to raise himself. The Zulu leader, uMnukwa, tried to take him prisoner but several warriors ran past and in the excitement of the moment ran their spears through Abel. As the horses bolter a trooper named Nicholas Le Toq, who hailed from the Channel Islands, saw that the Prince was still struggling to mount and called to him as he went past ‘Depechez vous de monter sur votre cheval, Monsieur.’ The rest of the patrol was already scattering across a donga some 200 meters away.
In fact, Louis could not mount his horse. Tommy, frightened by the sudden volleys, was trying his best to run after the other horses and for a while Louis ran alongside him, holding on to the saddle. It had been a favourite trick of Louis’ to vault into the saddle but he had complained a few days before that his trousers were too tight for him to do so easily – now, with Tommy twisting skittishly to break free, it was impossible. Louis had reached the edge of the donga but as Tommy lurched down the slope the strain told; Louis had been gripping a holster in front of his saddle with one hand and the strap between the holsters suddenly tore. As Louis fell Tommy kicked at him to break free, and Louis struggled up, winded, to see the Zulus just a few meters away. He reached for the sword he had brandished so bravely on earlier patrols, only to find that it had already fallen from its scabbard.
What happened next was over very quickly. Louis was alone, probably injured, and facing seven or eight Zulus. A man named Xabanga threw a spear which struck Louis inside the shoulder but fell out – undaunted Louis stepped towards his attackers and fired off the contents of his revolver but, shaken as he was, he hit nothing. A Zulu named Mwunzane was close enough to notice the chilling detail that ‘a look of surprise’ passed over Louis’ face as he realised he had missed. Another spear struck him, this time in the thigh, and he pulled it out and brandished it at his attackers. Louis backed into the donga, keeping his attackers at bay, until he suddenly put his foot into a hole, stumbled, and sat down backwards. As soon as he hit the ground the Zulus closed in, running him through with their stabbing spears. Then, as soon as he was dead, they set off after the only man of the patrol still in sight – the Zulu scout, who was making his way off on foot as fast as he could. He was unlucky; about a kilometre away he was struck in the leg by a bullet; he fell, and was killed.
By this point the survivors were riding hard away from the homestead and the Zulus returned to work their way over the field, collecting up their own thrown weapons and those dropped by the patrol. It was a part of Zulu belief that men who had killed an enemy in battle were spiritually tainted by the violent shedding of blood, and they were required to wear some of the clothing of their victims until they had undertaken purification rituals. Louis, Rogers and Abel were all stripped. Similar beliefs insisted that the dead be cut through the stomach to allow their spirits to pass safely to the afterlife, and a warrior named Klabawathunga made a light cut to Louis’ stomach with his spear. Then, their duties complete, the Zulus left the field to return to report their triumph and left the foreign dead to the gathering dusk. Not one of the Zulu had been injured in the attack.
The survivors had ridden the best part of a kilometre before the riderless Tommy had caught up with them and Carey had realised for the first time that the Prince was not with them. There was no hope of finding him alive now, and instead the survivors made their way back to the nearest British troops to report the incident. News of the Prince’s death passed like a thunderclap through the British camp, and the following morning Carey was ordered to accompany a large cavalry reconnaissance to recover the body.
The dead lay where the Zulu had left them; Louis’ was naked apart from a Catholic medallion around his neck and one blue sock embroidered with the letter ‘N’. There were no less than eighteen wounds in his front – including one through his eye – and two more in his back. As Abel and Rogers’ bodies were collected for a hasty burial, Louis’ was lifted onto a makeshift stretcher and carried away to an ambulance wagon parked nearby. The sight of his pale body, literally riddled with stab-wounds, provided a moment of almost unbearable pathos, and several hardened troops in the party broke down and wept. Nevertheless, as soon as the body had been removed, there was a rush for souvenirs, and the grass stained by his blood was eagerly snatched up.
At first Lord Chelmsford had intended to bury the Prince’s body in the field but his staff persuaded him that it should be returned to his mother in England. A funeral service was held in camp, and over the next week the body, loaded into a makeshift coffin, was paraded down the line of communication and eventually onto a ship at Durban. When it finally reached England Queen Victoria authorised a state funeral and Louis was laid to rest in Chiselhurst. Later Eugenie moved to Farborough Hill in Hampshire and commissioned a private mausoleum for both her husband and her son, and there they lie still.
In the meantime the war had moved on. In the days following the skirmish Carey found himself the subject of an unpleasant whispering campaign regarding his conduct, and he asked for a Court of Inquiry to be convened to clear his name – to his surprise it recommended instead that he be tried by Court Martial for misbehaviour in the face of the enemy. The subsequent trial highlighted the lack of an appointed command structure within the patrol and a catalogue of small but basic errors – but although Carey had argued convincingly that he had never been appointed to the command the fact remained that he was the only commissioned officer present. The court found him guilty but was unsure what punishment to apportion; Lord Chelmsford was reluctant to commit himself too, and in the end Carey was ordered home to await the decision of higher authorities. By the time he arrived he found that the affair was a cause celebre – and that the Judge Advocate General, on reviewing the case, had discovered a technical irregularity in the trial which had rendered the proceedings invalid. Carey was allowed to re-join his regiment without further sanction – he died a few years later of peritonitis while serving in Karachi.
Little more than a month after the incident the Zulu were defeated in a final stand before their royal homesteads at Ulundi. Even by that stage there was a hunger among the British troops for further details of the skirmish, and an African intermediary was commissioned to hunt down the Prince’s missing uniform; he succeeded in finding most of it. It was returned to Eugenie and is now on display in the chateau at Compiegne – cleaned of blood-stains, but with the holes made by the spears which killed him still painfully evident.
The spot where the Prince died remains remote even today, although a trickle of visitors brave the erratic signage to seek it out. Eugenie herself would make a pilgrimage on the first anniversary of his death – but this blog is already too long, and if you want to know about that you’ll have to read my book on the Prince’s death, With His Face To The Foe. A memorial commissioned privately by Queen Victoria stands on the spot where he fell, and the original lines of the donga were altered by the work-party who erected it. It is enclosed by a stone wall although most of the trees planted inside the perimeter in 1880 have now fallen away. Otherwise the place has not changed much, although there is a school on the slopes in the distance, and there is still a homestead close-by, a hundred meters or so from the one that stood there on the day, and children turn out to watch with amusement those who have come so far to pay their respects. In the late afternoon, when the shadows are long on the ground, it is a poignant spot, and a rather bleak one – a reminder of the ruined lives and crushed dreams that under-pin all illusions of military glory.
Would the Prince ever have become the Emperor Napoleon IV? Who knows? It is difficult to see a point in the 1880s and ‘90s when he might, although perhaps had he survived a growing political maturity might have earned him a place somewhere in French affairs. There were of course Bonapartes after him – there still are – but the war-correspondent Archibald Forbes, who had met Louis during the Franco-Prussian War, thought – not without sympathy - that Louis’ future, had he lived, might have proved a bitter one –
I will call him happy in the opportunity of his death. Had he lived, what of artificiality, what of hollow unreality might there not have been in store for him? As it was, he had moved in the world a live ghost; better than this, surely, to be a dead hero: to end a Napoleonic serio-comedy with his young face gallantly to his assailants and his life-blood drawn by the cold steel.