The Death Of A French Prince In Far Away Africa.

Graham Charles Lear
17 min readJan 31, 2022

The Anglo-Zulu War in 1879 was fraught with mistakes, along with many deaths on both sides. However one of the most tragic, needless deaths has to be the death of a French Prince who should not have been there in the first place.

Who was he and what was he doing there?

His name was Napoleon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte a direct descendant of the Bonaparte family. After his father Napoleon III was dethroned in 1870, he moved with his family to England

On 1 December 1856, nine-month-old Louis was signed up for the first regiment of the Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard. The baby appeared fascinated by the uniforms and weapons. His training on ponyback began in the autumn of 1857 at the equestrian school of the Quai d’Orsay. His governesses told the stories of the Napoleonic epic to him, and by the age of four, he was already wearing a child-size grenadier uniform. On 15 August 1858, the children of the grenadiers of the first battalion marched out in front of Louis who was dressed accordingly, and he was made a corporal of the first battalion of the first company. The boy was proud of his father’s 1859 campaign and he would often re-enact the war as he played by the ponds in the Tuileries gardens, where Napoleon III had a trench and bunker built. He received his regulation firearm on 9 May 1860, and he took part in a revue in the Cour du Carrousel. Three years later he began his apprenticeship at age seven, just as he would have during the Ancien Regime (the period before the French Revolution).

When Louis was fourteen, he followed his father to the front during the Franco-Prussian War in Lorraine. He had become separated from his father and was on his way north when he learnt of the defeat of Sedan. The young Prince took refuge in Belgium where he found out that his father had been imprisoned, and then he left for England to be reunited with his mother where the deposed Emperor soon joined them. Louis entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich on 17 November 1872 to begin his adult military training. After Napoleon III died in Chislehurst on 17 November 1872 following a recent gallstone operation, seventeen-year-old Louis became leader of the Bonapartists who hoped for the fall of the fragile Third Republic in France.

After 16 March, Louis graduated from Woolwich as an artillery officer like his great-uncle, Napoleon I. He perfected his knowledge of law and economics and consulted French intellectuals of the period to prepare for his return. “I am only a young man who has not yet done anything”, he would say in response to those who wished to see him return to France at that point. Given that the prince was a very religious man, he led a strict life and did everything he could to “make himself worthy of his title”. In February 1879, at the age of 23, he announced to his mother that he had asked to join the English units sent to Zululand

And there his story evolves to one of tragedy.

As a Frenchman, he was officially not allowed to join the British army, which he had trained with, and passed out with them was neither here nor there. His first duty was to France, as at that time some factions wanted him back to lead the country. However Louis and his mother knew very powerful people, the top one was Queen Victoria herself who put her nose into the affair and told the Prime Minister Disraeli the Prince should go with the army. Disraeli was appaled, but his Queen put her foot down and the Prince tagged along as a civilian with a uniform.

Two private letters were read in the House of Lords

They may be quoted as showing precisely how the young Prince was unofficially assisted in gratifying his desire.

In writing to Lord Chelsmford, the Duke of Cambridge said of Prince Imperial that “he is going out on his account to see as much as he can of the coming campaign in Zululand. He is extremely anxious to go out and wants to be employed in our army, but the Government did not consider that this could be sanctioned but has sanctioned my writing to you and to Sir Bartle Frere to say that if you can show him kindness and render him assistance to see as much as he can with the columns in the field I hope you will do so. He is a fine young fellow, full of spirit and pluck, and having many old cadet friends in the Artillery, he will doubtless find no difficulty in getting on, and if you can help him in any other way, pray do so. My only anxiety on his account would be that he is too plucky and go ahead.”

In the letter to Sir Bartle Frere, his Royal Highness stated that the Prince was going out “to see as much as he can of the coming campaign in Zululand in the capacity of a spectator. He was anxious to serve in our army, having been a cadet at Woolwich; but the Government did not think that this could be sanctioned. But no objection is made to his going out on his own account, and I am permitted to introduce him to you and Lord Chelmsford in the hope and with my personal request that you will give him every help in your power to enable him to see what he can. I have written to Chelmsford to the same effect. He is a charming young, man, full of spirit and energy, speaking English admirably, and the more you see of him the more you will like him. He has many young friends in the Artillery, and so I doubt not with your and Chelmsford’s kind assistance he will get on well enough.”

So off he went full of energy and excitement. The presence of Prince Imperial in South Africa was unwelcomed by Lord Chelmsford, he thought quite rightly that his presence would be a distraction and that it would mean he would to a certain degree have to be protected. He was after all the French Prince Imperial that could if the politics of France changed be king or Emperor.

A nice lad he may be, but a bloody nuisance in not just Chelmsford's eyes but a few of his Staff officer's eyes. However, he was given little option but to grant the young Prince a place on his staff as an Aide-de-camp.

It did not take long for their worst fears to come true. He proved to be a nightmare following his first patrol when its commanding officer refused to allow the lieutenant to accompany him again. The Prince seeing a few Zulus not far away disobeyed orders not to go near them, instead, he spurred his horse after them. They soon went to ground and disappeared and he came back to an irate but polite commanding officer. Since the first battle, the British had been underestimating the Zulus regularly. The Zulu were well versed in the art of war and knew very well what they were doing, now the British had cottoned on that if they saw a few Zulus there would be hundreds more that they could not see just waiting for a ras patrol to come in range of them. The prince’s impetuousness would ultimately seal his fate.

When 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 keeping 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.

It would become a friendship that Carey, would come to regret

1 June 1879, would become an eventful day for the high command of the British army and that day would be the day that ruined Carey's life and the day the Prince would lose his life.

On 1 June 1879, both men set off on a small reconnaissance mission. Their superior officers believed that the area around Mount Itelezi was clear of enemy presence. At about 2.30 pm, the party arrived at a kraal (cattle enclosure) near the site where the Itytyosi and Tombakala rivers join. One of the jobs the Prince had been given because he excelled in drawing or sketching was to go out on recon missions ahead of the advancing army and to scout and choose the next campsite. He would sketch the area and then show his sketches to the High command who would choose from them.

The first thing they should have done was to post sentries, one of the most basic duties when out on patrol and you have to stop for whatever reason. They did not do this. Instead, Carey who was in charge failed to post any sentry he let the escort go wandering off exploring. Then if that was not enough he let the Prince who had no authority dictate how long they would be staying in the area. When he told the Prince they should mount and ride back he refused to move, he wanted 15 minutes more, it was those 15 minutes more that cost him his life and the lives of two of the escort

Graves of the two soldiers who died with the Prince.

According to Carey's report after he escaped

We were all quite at ease, not suspecting the near approach of their concealed foe through the tall stalks of the maize plants. I saw a dark face grinning at us amidst the thick growth of corn and when I gave the alarm the Prince exclaimed, “I see them too”. The whole party at once started to our feet, we saddled horses in great haste and endeavoured to mount and ride away, not being able to guess the number of Zulus of whom we were surrounded by

You might ask why they had not seen them

This is a modern photo of the place where they were ambushed. You can just about make out the graves under the tree of the two troopers who died that day. Notice the grass at the forefront of the photo. Back in 1879, these were tall maize plants. It still could be maize that has been harvested. The point is it was the perfect cover for around forty Zulus to come down from the hills and then creep up unseen. If Carey had set up sentries they would have spotted them as they came down from the hills. Sloppy leadership and that is me being nice about the incident.

This is what happens next

The enemy, or some of them at least, had muskets or rifles, with which they fired a volley close at hand; killing or wounding, as it seems, two of the troopers, who were afterwards found dead on the spot. The Zulus then rushed forward to attack them. The Prince attempted to mount his horse as the others did, but in doing so he took hold of the leather flap supporting the wallet attached to the saddle; this flap tore away in his hand. His foot slipped, and he fell, letting go of the reins so that the horse took fright and galloped away. The Prince ran after the horse; and, not being able to catch it, tried to escape on foot. There was a “donga” or gulley in the field, two or three hundred yards distant. Towards this, in the meantime, Lieutenant Carey and the four mounted troopers who got off had ridden at full speed.

In the meantime, Lieutenant Carey and the four mounted troopers who got off had ridden at full speed. Having crossed it, on emerging from the long corn or grass, Lieutenant Carey bethought himself of the Prince. He looked back and saw the Prince’s riderless horse, but not the Prince himself. This seems to have been the first knowledge that Lieutenant Carey had of what happened to the Prince in attempting to mount with his companions.

It did not seem to bother to Lieutenant Carey, who had only one or two of the troopers with him, that he ought to return and look for the Prince or attempt a rescue. They all rode away towards the camp at Itelezi; but on the way, they met Brigadier-General Wood and Colonel Buller, with an escort of three men, coming to look for them. It seems that Colonel Buller looked at Carey with malice in his eyes and said if it was up to me I would put you beside a wall and shoot you myself. From that moment on Carey's life lay in ruins.

In the army camp there happened to be quite a few war correspondents from several countries. One happened to be a man named Melton Prior from England.

Here is his report after receiving the news that something dreadful had happened to the

“In consequence of my accident I rode in my cart, and found it tedious to a degree having to go so slowly, but in the course of time arrived at the historical position of Itelezi, where we laagered. I say “historical” as it was from here that the Prince Imperial of France started on that memorable reconnoitring expedition which ended so fatally for him. I think I may fairly say that I was the last man he spoke to on leaving camp. It was only a matter of chance, and it occurred in this way.

Our laager was formed by heavy wagons, and as I did not wish to get crushed in amongst them, I had my light buggy at one of the corners and formed up my little laager for myself It happened that I was outside my tent in the morning when I saw Prince Imperial on horseback coming from the laager and as he passed he said: “Goodbye, Mr Prior.”

“Goodbye, sir. I hope you have a jolly morning.: I replied, as he rode away to join Lieutenant Carey and his escort….

A few hours afterwards I wanted a good piece of background for the sketch I was working on… and started to ride out in search of a correct position. I had not gone very far when I saw General Wood and Colonel Buller riding together, and in the extreme distance, I saw a man galloping madly towards them. I was not near enough to hear exactly what took place, but it turned out to be Lieutenant Carey returning from the deplorable disaster which had occurred in the village of Itiotiozi.

The news spread like wildfire,…every one was talking of the awful news.

As it was too late for a search party to be sent out that night, orders were given for a strong patrol the next morning.

Many of the correspondents were allowed to accompany the little force of cavalry under General Marshall, which was sent to find and recover, if possible, not only the body of Prince Imperial but also the others who had not returned to camp the previous evening.

They were the French correspondent of the Paris Figaro, Archibald Forbes of the Daily News, Francis Francis of The Times, MacKenzie of the Standard, Charles Fripp of the Graphic and myself. The search party was spread out over a large area, as it was not known where we might come across the bodies of the unfortunate men. I was riding by the side of Forbes, when, a short distance on our left, we saw one of the troops holding up his rifle and calling out loud. Forbes immediately said, “There it is Prior. Come on, ride for it!” and a magnificent rider he was.

I followed hard on his heels and was the fourth man to arrive on the spot. There I saw Prince Imperial lying on his back, stark naked, with a thin gold chain around his neck, to which was attached a locket containing the portrait of his father, the late Emperor Napoleon the Third. The Zulus had stripped him, and taken away every particle of clothing, but, looking upon this gold chain and locket as a fetish, had respected it, and left it around his neck.

The French correspondent, leaning over him with tears streaming down his face, took an English penny from his pocket and placed it over the Prince’s eye (the one that had received a spear thrust) in the hopes of closing it.

On carefully examining the body it was found that he had been stabbed twenty-one times, and the bodies of the two troopers of Bettington’s Horse were found at only a few yards distance, also covered with assegai wounds.

Whilst we gathered around the corpse, vedettes had been posted around the spot for some distance, in case Zulus might be lurking around, and having recovered from the momentary shock and horror of the situation, a stretcher was formed of blankets laid upon the Lancers spears, and the body having been placed upon it, the stretcher was carried to the ambulance wagon,…..A procession was then formed, which solemnly marched into camp.

The corpse the next day was sent down to Natal and thence to England.

I went to General Newdigate and told him I wanted to work all night and asked permission to have a light in my tent. I assured him I would cover it around with a blanket and that it should not be seen outside in the smallest degree. He informed me it was against the rules of the camp, but that under the circumstances, and on this special occasion, he would permit me, and an order was written so that the sentry near my tent should not interfere with me.

Once alone I lighted my lamp and settled down and pitched into work, and by five o’clock in the morning, I had made nine sketches in connection with the Prince Imperial’s untimely end.

My best horse was saddled, and my man, with my sketches in the regulation envelope of the office, was only waiting for daylight to start and gallop to Landman’s Drift to save the post, which he succeeded in doing, and my sketches were the only ones that appeared in London in connection with the sad event.”

These are his sketches

There must have been someone with an early camera

If Prince Imperial had not died a hero he had certainly not died a coward. But he was dead, and as is the enduring way with humankind, when something goes wrong someone has to be blamed.

Misbehaviour before the enemy

The man chosen to take the blame was Lieutenant Jahleel Brenton Carey. He was tried by Field General Court Martial on 12 June 1879, the indictment being:

For having misbehaved before the enemy on June 1st, when in command of an escort in attendance on Prince Imperial, who was making a reconnaissance in Zululand; in having, when the said Prince and escort were attacked by the enemy, galloped away, and in not having fully attempted to rally the said escort or in other ways defend the Prince.

Carey defended himself vigorously, claiming that he had not been in command of the patrol, and that Prince Imperial had chosen the spot to rest; that he had not known that the Prince had become unhorsed; and that he had tried to rally the survivors after the rush to safety. He was sent back to Britain to await the findings of the court, which were not published at the time.

He was found guilty and sentenced to be cashiered from the army. However thanks to the Victorian press a the time the public saw him as a scapegoat and the sentence was overturned. Carey was allowed to return to his regiment. Carey died in Karachi on 22 February 1883, having contracted peritonitis.

Looking back at the whole affair my own opinion was that the Field General Court Martial got the verdict right. I say this as a former officer in the Armed Forces with years of experience.

First, he let what amounted to a civilian dictate field orders in a war area.

Seconed he failed to post a sentry. even the lowest rank in the army knows that when you stop for a rest while out on patrol you post a sentry. It is drilled into all from the moment you become a soldier.

Third, he failed to have the rifles of his men loaded in an area, where the enemy had been. Again when you are in an area at war you keep weapons fully loaded

All those are bad enough and warrant punishment

However, I feel it's the last part that is unforgivable. Once the Zulus had hit them hard, it was every man for himself and fight or flight kicked in. They all decided to take flight and get out of there as quickly as possible. That was the right thing to do. They were all on the backfoot the moment the forty-odd Zulus hit them.

However, by Carey's admission, he saw the Prince's horse go past them without the Prince. He could at any time turn and rally the three survivors who were with him and ride back to try and save the Prince. He did not he decided to ride on to get to safety. It was his misfortune to meet Buller who in March that year at the battle of Hlobane would go back time and time again to rescue soldiers who were being chased by Zulus getting them to safety. No wonder Buller said what he said. Buller knew what he had done, Buller would have gone back on his own to try and save the Prince

Would he have saved the Prince? It's hard to say, the Prince did try to run, however, he found it futile stopped and turned to face them and by all accounts put up a spirited defence, he fired his revolver, at them and missed with every shot, but by doing that he would have kept them at bay for a while.

One of them threw a spear at him and it hit him in his leg and he fought them with that. He was buying time, who knows if it would have been enough if he had turned back. However he never tried, he just rode on until he saw Wood and Buller.

In that faraway place in Africa died the French Prince. So died the hope of many a French person of restoring a French Monarchy, for poor Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Bonaparte was the only child of Napoleon III. A brave but foolish young man aided by the Queen of England and his mother to seek adventure with a British army in a far-off land that saw the bloodshed of many a young man both Black and White, in a war that should never have happened, and war so full of mistakes by both sides that I could keep you all entertained for many an hour.

My next Anglo-Zulu war story is about such a mishap, an officer of experience in two wars who made so many blunders that the mind boggles that he survived to fight in this one. His name? Major Moriarty.

There is a wonderful photo of the French Prince larking around a few days before he died in a mock duel. If only he knew that a few days later it would be him lying on the ground stabbed to death.

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Graham Charles Lear

What is life without a little controversy in it? Quite boring and sterile would be my answer.