Battle Royal – Louis, Prince Imperial

4 mins read

Patrick Boniface on the deaths in combat of regal warriors.

Louis, Prince Imperial

The savagery of the Zulu Wars showed no respect for class or privilege, and the naked remains of a young French prince were testimony to the ferocity of the fighting. The death in June 1879 of Louis, Prince Imperial also marked the end of any last, faint hope of restoring the French Empire.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte had been born into a world of privilege. After all, his godparents were Queen Victoria and his holiness the Pope. His parents were Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, and he was the heir incumbent to the French Empire.

His was supposed to be a life leading a nation, but the ill-fated French military campaign at Sedan in 1870 changed everything. The 14-year-old prince had accompanied his father and watched as the German forces inflicted a humiliating French defeat on 3 September.

Smuggled away, the young prince fled firstly to Belgium and from there to his adoptive new home of England, where he was reunited with his mother in the town of Chislehurst. Less than a year later, the defeated French Emperor joined them in exile, where, in a weakened state, he died on 9 January 1873.

The young Louis was enamoured by a career in the military, and in 1872 was accepted as a cadet at the artillery school at Woolwich. For the next three years, Louis studiously learnt the craft of artillery and finally graduated on 16 February 1875.

For a child of such elevated birthright, however, a commission in the artillery regiment was out of the question; but a position on the staff was not. His godmother, Queen Victoria, spoke of him to the Duke of Cambridge, the commander-in-chief of the British Army, and a position at the Duke’s headquarters was specially created for the young prince.

Louis, who had been bestowed with the title of Prince Imperial, still had a burning ambition to see active service following years of parades, parties, and grand manoeuvres, and pleaded to be thought of as a soldier.

This ambition grew stronger as the years passed, and the chance of him being Emperor of France rapidly faded as the Third Republic’s popularity continued to soar. Finally the British Army relented and sent the prince to South Africa.

He arrived at Durban on 31 March 1879, clutching a letter of introduction from the Duke of Cambridge to Lord Chelmsford, the general-in-chief in South Africa.


Louis in uniform in South Africa.

Prince Louis arrived at the height of the Zulu Wars, and Lord Chelmsford had little time for him. The Zulus had been ravaging the northeastern portion of South Africa, and the British Army had suffered a number of setbacks in combating their innovative and unusual fighting tactics under the leadership of the Zulu King Cetshwayo.

The British were under the command of Sir Bartle Frere, who, despite London’s wishes for an avoidance of conflict, led the British to war. The Zulus would succeed in claiming major victories – such as the slaughter of 800 British soldiers at Isandlwana on 22 January 1879 and the attack against Rorke’s Drift.

After Rorke’s Drift, the British Army gained ground against the thousands of Zulu warriors. Lord Chelmsford organised a full army to combat the Zulus that deployed along the banks of the Tugela River before commencing a full-scale invasion of Zululand.

Armed with two Gatling guns, rocket-launchers, and artillery pieces, the British force should have been more than an equal of the Zulus, but it suffered a loss at Hlobane. 10,000 British reinforcements soon arrived in theatre, and the young Prince was amongst these fresh, raw, and often green troops untrained in asymmetric warfare.

The Prince Imperial was by now attached to the intelligence section of headquarters staff and, eager to see action, carried out two reconnaissance missions between 13 and 20 May. His commanding officers had to reprimand the young officer not to pursue on horseback any Zulu warriors he spotted.

This was one of the Zulus’ tricks: to pick off lone soldiers. His action saw him ordered to remain at headquarters as Lord Chelmsford feared for the political consequences if the prince were to be killed in action.

Prince Louis, though, was having none of it. He eventually succeeded in returning to the front-line and took command of Lieutenant Jahel Carey’s patrol of five soldiers of the 17th Lancers and an African guide.

His mission was to locate a suitable site for an encampment for the Army and to gather cartographic information. Sadly, luck was not to be on the prince’s side. Having stopped to brew some coffee, he was spotted by Zulu warriors nearby who were armed with carbines, as well as their deadly, much-feared assegai spears.

Louis fending off a Zulu attack.

At 3.15pm, the Zulus attacked and killed one of the British patrol with a shot in the neck. Alerted, the British attempted to mount their horses and escape, but moments later another soldier was shot. Unable to mount his horse, the Prince Imperial instead fled on foot.

The three survivors of the attack recounted how they had heard two revolver shots fired and then silence. When a troop of the 17th Lancers returned to the scene on 2 June, they discovered the Prince Imperial’s naked corpse thrown into a nearby gully.

The Zulus had killed him with no fewer than 18 spear wounds to his body. Two had pierced his body from front to back, whilst another had destroyed his right eye. Curiously, they had left him dead because around his neck there was a necklace gifted by his mother, which the Zulus regarded as a magical charm or talisman, and their superstitious fear meant they did not desecrate the prince’s body further.

Once back at the camp at Itelzi, the prince’s corpse was treated with extreme reverence. A stretcher or bier of blankets was organised and was lifted by the most senior officers present, including General Marshall, Colonel Drury Lowe, Major Stewart, and several officers of the 17th Lancers.

From the camp it made its way back to England onboard HMS Tenedos to be buried at St Mary’s Church in Chislehurst on 12 July 1879. His godmother Queen Victoria and Princesses Alice and Beatrice were in attendance, while the young Prince’s favourite horse Stag was present with long funeral draperies on its back.

As Lord Chelmsford had feared, the political fallout from the prince’s death was severe on both sides of the English Channel, and demands for justice began. Lieutenant Carey, one of the survivors, quickly became the scapegoat during his court martial and was found guilty of fleeing in the face of the enemy.

The judgement of the court, however, was overturned by the Duke of Cambridge, who stated, ‘The accusation is not supported by the facts.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.