June 1st marks the anniversary of the death of a dynasty. It died in the arms of its only heir, the Prince Imperial of France when he sacrificed his life in the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879.
The story of how the impetuous and handsome prince was transported from a world of wealth and glamour, to die on a lowly Zululand battlefield is but a single tragedy in a war of attrition, full of poignant personal histories.
Born Eugene Louis Napoleon, the prince was the only child of Emperor Napoleon 111 of France and his consort, the beautiful Empress Eugene. His bloodline was impressive - he was the nephew of the famed Napoleon Bonaparte 1; his paternal grandfather was, Louis Bonaparte, King of Spain, and his maternal grandfather, Count de Montijo, Grandee of Spain. As heir to the most powerful and luxurious court in Europe, his life of majesty had been preordained - or so it must have seemed!
The prince was born 16th March 1856, a year which saw the end of his country's involvement in the Crimean war; a war in which there were to be no victors, only victims. Of the countries involved (Great Britain and France as allies of the Turks, against Russia), many thousands were to die, beaten by disease and privation as much as by warfare. The war ended March 30th without advantage to either side.
The prince was barely fourteen when his father, Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, took him on to the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War; a war destined to cause the collapse of the 2nd French Empire: an Empire that had been established by his father by means of a coup d'tat in 1851. A year later Bonaparte 111 had become Emperor of France.
Initially the Emperor had been unpopular, his foreign policies unsuccessful and, although he had gained glory for France with his participation in Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War was to be his downfall. After being defeated at the Battle of Sedan, Napoleon 111 and his armies, surrendered and the Emperor was taken prisoner.
An emotionally spent Empress Eugene and the young Prince Imperial fled to sanctity in England. The Emperor joined them later on his release from captivity.
The prince settled happily into the British way of life, living in Kent before moving to Farnborough in Hampshire. When the Prince Imperial was sixteen, his father, anxious his son should reflect his own qualities, sent him to the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich where he spent the next three years being trained as a soldier.
The prince was crushed when, on January 9th 1873, just two months before his seventeenth birthday, his father died, aged sixty-five. He was to predecease the Prince Imperial by only three years.
During 1878, serious difficulties developed between Britain and the Zulu king, Cetshwayo. The British High Commissioner in Zululand, Sir Bartle Frere, viewed Zulu independence as a threat to his plans for confederation. The two countries sized each other up.
Cetshwayo, reluctant to go to war, stated he would not retaliate to British aggression unless his people were actually attacked but, in spite of Cetshwayo's assurances, Britain prepared for war. Appeals were made in Britain for volunteers and the impoverished working classes responded en masse, lured by the promise of easy money.
And so the stage was set for Britain, the most powerful military force in the world, to flex it's muscles against the most intimidating Kingdom in Africa. Forged together as a proud and formidable nation by the mighty warrior King Shaka, the Zulus were a fearsome fighting force.
British infantry, cavalry and artillery were stationed at three different locations on the Zululand border and, on 12th January 1879, the British invasion of independent Zululand began!
Two weeks later, after overwhelming British defeats at Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, reinforcements were sent for. The Prince Imperial arrived in Pietermaritzburg, staying appropriately, at the Imperial Hotel. He had volunteered to join the British forces in Zululand not only as a token of gratitude to his adopted country, but also to win the respect of his French countrymen.
In February he joined Lord Chelmsford and the 2nd Division Command on the Buffalo river and made camp on Thelezi Hill.
On 1st June the young prince set out on a reconnaissance mission, accompanied by Lieutenant J.B.Carey, Commander of the Escort, and six European troopers. Their orders were to reconnoitre the area and select a camp site for the advancing troops. The party spent the afternoon resting by the Tombokala and Ityotosi rivers near Nqutu, confident that the area had already been surveyed for possible Zulu presence.
Suddenly an unexpected Zulu attack sent them scurrying for their horses! As the prince tried to mount, his horse shied and bolted. He tripped and fell at the feet of his voracious attackers, who incensed by the taste of an easy victory, viciously hacked him to death. His royal blood spurted from his mutilated body, flowing onto a ground copiously fertilised by a million dead warriors. The prince was barely twenty-three years old!
Lt Carey and four surviving troopers rode off, oblivious to the fate of their comrades; an action that was to bring him before a Court-Martial on a charge of; Misbehaviour Before The Enemy. A Not-Guilty verdict did little to save him the humiliation of being cashiered.
The Prince Imperial's body lay in state in the Roman Catholic church in Loop Street, Pietermaritzburg before being returned to England aboard HMS Boadicea.
On 4th July 1879, the Zulus were defeated at the Battle of Ulundi and King Cetshwayo was taken prisoner. By September, all British troops had left Zululand. Although a crude and vicious victory had been wrought, Lord Chelmsford's determined efforts to prove his superiority had failed.
On arrival in England, the prince's body was buried at the Roman Catholic church before being reburied next to his father at St Michael's Abbey Chapel, Farnborough.
In 1880, Queen Victoria arranged for Empress Eugene to visit Zululand on a six month's pilgrimage of mourning. The carefully arranged tour allowed her to quietly grieve her son's loss without the intrusion of publicity. Later Queen Victoria erected a cross on the site of the Prince Imperial's death.
The Empress Eugene died in Madrid, Spain on 11th July 1920, she was ninety-four. For over forty years she had lived with a tragedy she had accepted - the death of her beloved only child!
The Empress' body was interred in the family vault at Farnborough, in a country that had been her home and refuge for fifty years. A country to whom she had given the ultimate sacrifice - her son.
Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames |