The Bonaparte family’s dreams of Empire were not extinguished by the British at the Battle of Waterloo — or even by the Prussians at the Battle of Sedan 55 years later. They were snuffed out by Zulu warriors in an African village at the height of the Zulu War.
France’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 brought an end to the Second French Empire of Napoleon III, a nephew of the great Napoleon Bonaparte. The dethroned Emperor, his wife Eugenie and young son, Prince Louis Napoleon, fled into exile in England. There the “Prince Imperial,” as he was known, enrolled as a cadet in the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich.
Louis was by all accounts a talented, energetic and ambitious young man, imbued with the martial traditions of both his country and family. He excelled at Woolwich, where he followed in the footsteps of his great-uncle by training as an artillery officer, finishing seventh in his class. If it were anyone else, a promising military career would have awaited.
But in 1873, his father died. Louis became the Emperor Napoleon IV in exile, and the hope of Bonapartist dreams of restoration. The idea of an exiled French head of state actively serving in the British Army was too controversial to even consider. Despite his obvious talents and impressive pedigree, a military career was not in the cards for Louis.
In 1879, a unique opportunity arose. A British column of 1,300 had been annihilated by a Zulu army of 20,000 at the Battle of Isandlwana. What was supposed to be a small-scale colonial adventure was now a full-scale war between the British Empire and Zulu Kingdom. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli sent Lord Chelmsford, commander of British forces in Southern Africa, a slew of reinforcements — including many officers Louis had gone to school with.
Louis realized this was probably his only chance to see military service. He begged his mother to ask Queen Victoria for special permission to join the campaign. The Queen turned to her cousin the Duke of Cambridge, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. A compromise was reached: Louis would join the forces in South Africa as a private observer. Though he would wear the uniform of an artillery officer, it would be stripped of all rank insignia. He was to hold no command or be given any real authority.
Louis arrived in South Africa to much fanfare in the spring of 1879. In Durban he purchased a skittish horse named Percy, then presented himself to Lord Chelmsford, along with a note from the Duke of Cambridge, personally asking the British commander to find Louis something to do. Chelmsford, already under intense scrutiny after the disaster at Isandlwana, was not happy to now have to serve as a royal babysitter, but also not in a position to refuse.
The British were preparing for their second invasion of Zululand. At first, Louis was allowed to accompany some long range reconnaissance patrols. On these missions he repeatedly ignored — and terrified — his minders by charging recklessly at the first sight of the enemy. To keep him out of harm’s way, he was instead tasked with scouting and mapping campsites.
On the morning of June 1, 1879, Louis set out to scout an area around the Itshotshozi River. The area was only about 10 miles from the main British camp and had already been swept by cavalry patrols. Louis was joined by Lieutenant Carey, a fluent French speaker who had asked to join the Prince. Their escort consisted of six troopers from an irregular cavalry unit and an African guide. A troop of mounted African auxiliaries was supposed to join, but never turned up.
It was mid-afternoon when the party reached their destination and found an abandoned Zulu village. The ashes in the fire pit were still warm, but there were no other signs of life. Everyone dismounted and sat down to relax. The troopers brewed coffee and Louis, nursing a fever, laid down in the hot sun. No pickets were posted, and when the guide reported seeing a Zulu in the distance, no one was concerned.
At about 3:30 p.m., Carey suggested they move on, but Louis insisted they rest a while longer. It was not until 4:00 p.m. that the party was ready to leave and Louis – not Carey – gave the order to mount. Barely had the words left his mouth before a volley of shots rang out and forty Zulu burst out of the tall grass surrounding the village.
Two troopers and the guide were cut down almost immediately. Carey and the other troopers put spurs to their horses and galloped out of the village. Louis, still in the process of mounting when the Zulu attacked, was caught by the arm in his saddle holster and dragged by Percy. He tried desperately to vault himself into the saddle, but the holster broke and he fell to the ground.
The Zulu quickly closed in on him. Louis reached for his sword, but it was gone. He drew his pistol and fired three shots, but they all missed. A Zulu spear pierced his shoulder. He pulled it out and fought off his attackers as best he could before he was surrounded and stabbed to death. The next day his body was found riddled with stab wounds and stripped naked except for a locket and medallion around his neck.
News of the Prince’s death shocked the world. In England, Queen Victoria herself attended the funeral along with thousands of mourners. Louis’ mother, the exiled Empress Eugenie, was too grief stricken to attend. She fainted when told the news. In France, a wave of outrage fanned by rumours of a conspiracy, forced British travelers to flee the country.
Back in South Africa, Lieutenant Carey, the only other officer present when Louis was killed, was court-martialed on trumped-up charges of “misbehaviour in the face of the enemy.” The court found him guilty, but the Judge Advocate General refused to confirm the findings. The British press and public recognized a scapegoat and rallied to his defence. But in military circles, both his reputation and career were destroyed. He died in obscurity in 1883 while serving in India.
One year after Louis’ death, his mother made a pilgrimage to the spot in South Africa where he had been killed and held a midnight vigil. A stone cross paid for by Queen Victoria was erected that stands to this day as a lonely memorial to the uncrowned Emperor Napoleon IV.