With the outbreak of the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879 Prince Louis Napoleon asked Queen Victoria for permission to go to South Africa. As a result of his family's exile from France he and his mother were living in England. He hoped to gain a reputation in South Africa, which would assist him in his hopes to be reinstated in France. At first his request was refused, but after further appeals from himself and his mother, the Princess Eugenie, permission was granted for him to go in a private capacity, as a "spectator" in the role of an additional aid-de-camp to Lord Chelmsford.
He landed in Durban on 31 March 1879. While in Durban, one of his horses was killed in an accident and the other fell ill. He acquired two new horses, one named Percy and the other named Fate.
Lord Chelmsford was busy preparing for the second invasion of Zululand and accompanied by the Prince Imperial moved his headquarters from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and then up country to Dundee and Utrecht where Chelmsford set up his headquarters on 8 May 1879.
In his letter of introduction to Lord Chelmsford, the Duke of Cambridge described him as "a fine young fellow full of spirit and pluck. However, my only anxiety on his conduct would be that he is too plucky".
The Prince Imperial was now attached to the staff of Col. Harrison R.E., acting Quarter Master General who was responsible for finding a suitable route into Zululand. Louis went out on two patrols into Zululand.
Colonel Redvers Buller had noticed on reconnaissance that the Prince tended to become excited, reckless, difficult to control and even inclined to ignore orders. He recommended that the Prince should be employed in staff duties in the camp. This was carried out immediately and the Prince was taken off reconnaissance work and given staff work – drawing plans for fortified points along the route to Ulundi. Louis was resentful of the desk work and Harrison noticed this and suggested that he accompany the reconnaissance patrol going out the next day.
On Sunday 1 June, the patrol was sent out to select a camp site for the advancing troops. It had been arranged that an experienced officer, Major Bettington should command the party of 12 (this included six Basutos) At this stage Lt. Carey requested permission to join the patrol as he wished to verify some observations made previously.
Leaving camp at 9:15 Col. Harrison rode with them for a while and when he noticed Bettington's absence, assumed that Carey had replaced him. However, Major Bettington had not been warned of the Prince's attachment to the reconnaissance patrol and he had been detached to another task. He did, however, send the six Europeans and a Zulu guide, but no officer.
By 15:00 the patrol had reached a deserted African kraal near the Ityotyozi river and they off-saddled and knee haltered their horses. Coffee was made, everyone was relaxed and no lookout was posted, as the area appeared to be clear of any enemy. The Zulu guide noticed that the kraal bore the signs of recent occupation. The area was surrounded by tall tambookie grass which contained a deep donga.
At about 16:00 the Zulu guide reported that some Zulu's had been seen in the neighbourhood. Scarcely had the order to mount been given, when a volley of rifle fire came from the long grass, causing a stampede. About 40 Zulus charged out of the grass. The Prince made repeated attempts to mount, but the terrified animal was rearing and plunging. With the Zulus closing in he decided to run with the horse, holding the stirrup leather. When it broke, he fell, rose, turned and faced the Zulus. Armed with his revolver, he fired 3 shots with his left hand, as the right had been tramped by his horse, Percy, as it fled.
The shots only momentarily halted the Zulus. A thrown assegai struck him in his leg; he pulled it out and used this to defend himself. A second assegai thudded into his shoulder. The fatal wound was an assegai thrust deep into his right eye. The fight was over in less than a minute.
Troopers Abel and Rogers were also killed in this engagement. The next day, search parties from the British camp found the 3 bodies. The Prince had 17 stab wounds in the front of his body.
The Prince had once said that he would prefer to be killed by an assegai, rather than a bullet, as it would prove that he had been at close quarters with his enemy.
Cary returned to camp with the four surviving troopers and reported the disaster to Col Harrison, who reported the news to Chelmsford.
Early next morning a huge escort party left to retrieve the bodies.
The body was taken back to the camp and crudely embalmed by the surgeons. They used what materials were available – mainly salt. Accompanied by an escort of Natal Carbineers the body travelled via Koppie Alleen, Landman's Drift, Dundee to Pietermaritzburg and then Durban, from where it sailed to England. It arrived in England on 10 July, 40 days after he had been killed. He was buried at Chiselhurst, where a large crowd, including Queen Victoria paid their last respects.
In 1888, his remains, together with those of his father, were re-interred in the crypt of Farnborough, Hampshire.
Visit of Princess Eugenie on first anniversary
In 1880, his mother, Princess Eugenie, visited South Africa.
From Durban her party travelled to Pietermaritzburg and then up country, camping at suitable spots overnight. At Dundee they camped on the farm, Coalfields, and the Empress walked on foot to visit the camp and fort where the Prince had stayed.
She spent an all night vigil at the spot where he was killed to mark the first anniversary of his death. That night she wrapped herself in warm clothing and although alone, members of her entourage discreetly kept watch.
The Empress described her experience thus:
"More than once I noticed black forms on top of the bank, which moved silently about and watched me through the tall grasses. This scrutiny was full of curiosity, but it was not hostile. I believe... wished rather to express sympathy and pity...Doubtless they were the very men who had killed my son on this same spot.... Towards morning a strange thing happened. Although there was not a breath of air, the flames of the candles were suddenly deflected, as if someone wished to extinguish them, and I said to him "Is it indeed you beside me? Do you wish me to go away?"
Later that day the Empress and her party started their journey back to Pietermaritzburg and then Durban and England.
So died the hopes of the Napoleonic dynasty.
How to get there
From Dundee take the R68 to Nqutu. At the 4-way intersection continue straight on to Nondweni.
At the T-Junction see Mahambe's store.
Turn left to Vryheid.
At Mhlungane store follow the sign post to turn left. Follow the road and signs to the Prince Imperial site.
From Dundee approx. 120kms. (80 mins.)
Recommended further reading
Donald Featherstone Captain Carey's Blunder
Donald Morris The Washing of the Spears
Ron Lock & Peter Quantrill The 1879 Zulu War