On June 1st 1879 the world was shocked to receive the news of the death of a 22-year-old British officer. There was nothing special about an officer dying in a war in which 1 400 British soldiers were killed or where 23 VC’s were awarded. This officer’s death was as great a disaster as lsandhlwana or Hlobane. The reason was that he was the only son of the former Emperor of France, and the great-nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He was stabbed 17 times with assegaais in the course of a desperate struggle.
Though he had been a successful cadet at the Royal Military Academy. Louis, who was known as the Prince Imperial, fretted away his time in disappointment at not being allowed to join the army, after his family had been, exiled to England.
After the battle of lsandhlwana and in search of some excitement, he asked permission to go to Zululand as an observer. The Prime Minister refused but Louis’ mother and Queen Victoria forced him to change his mind. He wrote to a friend, ‘what can you do when you have two obstinate women to deal with?’
There were many people who thought of the Prince Imperial as the rightful ruler of France, so it was important that he should be able to satisfy his thirst for adventure without running the slightest risk. The commander-in-chief told Lord Chelmsford that ‘my only anxiety would be that he is too plucky and go ahead.’
When the Prince arrived in Pietermaritzburg, Lord Chelmsford felt he could best keep an eye on him if he joined his own staff. Louis was ‘no feather-bed soldier’ and was so eager to get to grips with the enemy that ‘if any Zulu were seen he would dart out of the ranks, and race, sword in hand, to get to them.’ He told Colonel Wood that ‘I would prefer an assegaai to a bullet. It would prove we’d been at close quarters.’ It was so difficult to hold him back from charging at every Zulu that he saw that Colonel Buller refused to take him on patrol with him again.
The Prince then asked Colonel Harrison, whose job was to map out the route for the next invasion, for permission to go ahead of the column to make further sketches. Lieutenant Carey wanted to go with Louis, and Harrison agreed because he could see to it that Louis
‘did not get into any trouble.’ An escort of six horsemen went with them. About twelve kilometres out they came to a kraal, which showed every sign of having been very recently deserted. It was obvious that they should take great care, but Louis insisted on dismounting and getting ‘wood and water to cook something’. Even after one of the escorts reported having seen a Zulu over the hill, there was a delay of ten minutes before they were ready to remount. At the instant of moving off, a Zulu ambush burst out of the long grass. The men scattered but three of the party had not been able to mount and went down under a hail of assegais. The Prince Imperial was one of them.
England felt that a royal guest had somehow been shamefully betrayed and Lieutenant Carey was court-martialled for abandoning someone under his protection. He was found guilty of ‘misbehaviour in the face of the enemy’ and was sent back to England. He would have been ‘dishonourably discharged’ from the army had Louis’ mother, the Empress Eugenie, not asked Queen Victoria to prevent this from happening. From her kindness, he suffered an even worse punishment as he was ordered back to his regiment, where his fellow officers sent him to Coventry for the remaining six years of his life.
During 1880 Empress Eugenie made a pilgrimage to the place where Louis was killed. Colonel Evelyn Wood and his wife escorted her. After visiting Kambula and even ascending Hlobane by the same route that Buller’s troops had taken they reached the little stream, called the ltyotyosii, where Louis’ body had been found. There they placed an enormous stone cross, donated by Queen Victoria. Eugenie shook her head in disbelief that a boy, born in the most glittering court in Europe, could come to die in this deserted strip of veld.