On 2 June 1879 Lord Chelmsford, Lieutenant-General commanding in South Africa, wrote to Colonel Frederick Arthur Stanley, who, despite his inferior military rank, was, as Secretary of State for War in Disraeli’s administration, his political superior:
[The] Prince Imperial acting under orders of the Assistant Quarter Master General [Colonel R. Harrison] reconnoitred on 1st of June road to camping ground of 2nd of June accompanied by Lieutenant Carey …
The Prince Imperial and two troopers are reported missing by Lieut. Carey who escaped and reached this camp after dark. From the evidence taken there can be no doubt of the Prince being killed. 17th Lancers and ambulance are now starting to recover the body but I send this off at once hoping to catch mail.
I myself was not aware that Prince had been detailed for this duty.
This message was not the first tidings of woe that Chelmsford had despatched to Stanley that year, for on 27 January he had written ‘I regret to have to report a very disastrous engagement which took place on the 22nd [January] between the Zulus and a portion of No 3 Column left to guard a camp about 10 miles in front of Rorke’s Drift.’ This ‘very disastrous engagement’ was the battle of Isandlwana during the brief course of which over 1,300 men of Chelmsford’s force, both European and African, had perished after being surprised and defeated at camp by the Zulu main impi.
The political effects of this disaster were somewhat, but only somewhat, mitigated by the successful defence of Rorke’s Drift later that day – an engagement that saw no fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses awarded – but the strategic effects were profound; the invasion of Zululand was aborted as Chelmsford was forced to withdraw and redraft his plans. It was clear to him that he had gravely underestimated his enemy. Chelmsford’s generalship has been justly criticised over the Isandlwana debacle, but it must be conceded that he learned the lessons attendant upon it and issued strict instructions upon the tactical dispositions the forces under his command were to utilise for the second invasion, which commenced on 1 June, 1879.
Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, though moving swiftly to mitigate the fallout from Isandlwana by ensuring that the victory at Rorke’s Drift attained maximum publicity, was, as he said, ‘stricken’ by the defeat. Stricken he might have been, but his government swiftly made available reinforcements for the equally stricken Chelmsford to avenge the defeat. Amongst these was the Prince Imperial of France, only son of the late Emperor Napoleon III.
The Prince Imperial
Born on 16 March 1856, and baptised Napoléon Eugène Louis Jean Joseph at Notre Dame on 14 April, he had as godparents no less than His Holiness the Pope and Her Majesty the Queen of Sweden. His was, if his father had his way, to be a military life. Napoleon III, however, was not content to surround his only son and heir with ‘the halo of Napoleonic tradition’; he also fostered the belief that with the name he had inherited came the ability that had made that name great. That such talents are not necessarily heritable was to become abundantly clear in 1870 when war with Prussia ensued. The part played by the three principal members of the imperial family was brief; on 1 July the Chamber of Deputies voted war credits and on 15 July war was declared; on 28 July Napoleon III and the Prince Imperial took their leave of Paris, leaving the Empress Eugenie as regent, to go to the front where the emperor would take command of his armies. On 2 August, with Napoleon nominally in command the French advanced and briefly took Saarbrücken, where the heir, albeit from a fairly safe distance, saw the face of war for the first time in his life; the ‘Prince Imperial’s Baptism of Fire’ as one journalist was to put it. By 3 September Napoleon III had surrendered himself at Sedan to Wilhelm I, after sending the Prince Imperial to safety in England via Belgium, whilst the army there had capitulated to Moltke. The following day a Republic was declared and the Empress was forced to flee Paris, and seek safety in England. On 8 September Eugenie met with her son at Hastings, where they stayed at the Albion Hotel for two weeks before moving to Camden Place in Chislehurst, which she had rented for £500 per year from the owner, a Mr N. Strode. The descent from Imperial Regent to tenant-in-exile had indeed been precipitate. The Emperor joined them there on 20 March 1871.
The teenage Prince, bewildered no doubt by the dramatic change in his own and his family’s fortunes, proved somewhat impervious to attempts to educate him, that is until he decided, in 1872, to enrol as an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. This necessitated passing an entrance examination, for although the purchase of commissions had been abolished the previous year as part of the reforms of Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for War from 1868–74, engineer and artillery officers had never been allowed to purchase, and all had to pass the RMA course as gentlemen cadets prior to receiving a commission. By dint of application the Prince Imperial, who had, at least in the eyes of Bonapartists, succeeded his father as Napoleon IV following the latter’s death on 9 January 1873, made a success of his time at the ‘Shop’, and passed out 7th in a class of 34 on 16 February 1875. Though he announced that he would not take a commission in the Royal Artillery he did make it plain that he felt a strong affinity with the regiment.
This affinity was given expression in the Prince’s application to attend the 1875 autumn manoeuvres, the granting of which was conveyed to him by no lesser personage than the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, the Duke of Cambridge, grandson of King George III and cousin of Queen Victoria:
I have great pleasure in assuring you that there will be no difficulty in carrying out your wishes, and … to your being attached to a battery … wearing the uniform of an officer of the corps. I can assure you that it affords me great pleasure to see you continuing your military studies … in so creditable and highly honourable a manner.
Queen Victoria herself was also a patroness of the young Prince, reflecting her friendship with the Empress no doubt, but also perhaps something of her liking for him. She had written to the Duke of Cambridge concerning the Prince Imperial and the 1875 manoeuvres:
I am very glad that it has been arranged that he should be attached to a battery of artillery – the more so as I believe that I am the person who first suggested it to him, indirectly, through Lord Cowley … when he spoke to me of what could be done to occupy him. It was also widely, if erroneously, believed that the Prince Imperial was destined for marriage to the youngest of Albert and Victoria’s brood, Princess Beatrice. Whatever other rumours might have surrounded him then, one thing was known: he had the entrée to the most exalted social circles in Britain, which is a fact that, it will be argued, had some bearing on his fate.
‘I am leaving Europe, and I may be away some months’
Sir Henry Bartle Frere, Governor of the Cape and High Commissioner for South Africa from 1877 to 1880, wanted a military solution to the Zulu ‘problem’, as he saw it, and accordingly was instrumental in arranging one. As the subsequent Court of Enquiry into the Zulu War of 1879 discovered, he had written before the campaign started of the need for it to begin and end with ‘a sharp and decisive success’. It certainly began with one at Isandlwana, but not for the British.
Getting himself attached to the reinforcements called for after the Isandlwana debacle had not been easy for the prince. He only achieved it by intensive lobbying at the highest level and up to Queen Victoria herself. However there was a crucial condition attached to his posting: his was not to be a combatant role. This might have been thought a fatal disability, because there is compelling evidence that the Prince Imperial’s desire to join the Zulu War had rather less to do with not wishing to ‘remain a stranger to the fatigues and the danger of those troops amongst whom I have so many comrades’, and much more to do with his political aspirations. This evidence comes, in part, from his own pen in a letter dated 20 April sent following his arrival in Africa: ‘The reasons that caused me to go are all political, and outside these, nothing influenced my decision.’ One, at least, of these political reasons was the result of the elections held in France the previous year when the republican parties had, for the first time since the demise of Napoleon III, gained an ascendancy.
That he harboured hopes of a restoration of the dynasty whose name he bore might appear ridiculous in retrospect, but this was by no means the case at the time. Republican France, in its third such incarnation, was far from politically stable, and there was a substantial, though by 1879 ebbing body of opinion in favour of ushering in a new imperial era under the aegis of the young Napoleon IV. Opponents of this view were acutely aware that in his person resided the hopes of the imperialist party, and for this reason they took great pains to ridicule him.
The prince stepped off a ship for the last time on 31 March at Durban with two letters of introduction to Lord Chelmsford; from the Duke of Cambridge and the governor of the Woolwich Academy, Sir Lintorn Simmons. Chelmsford was otherwise occupied at the time with planning his second invasion of Zululand, and therefore unable to receive him. The prince wrote to his mother on 2 April and again expressed his desire for action: ‘My regret is not to be with those who are fighting; you know me well enough to judge how bitter it is. But all is not over and I shall have my revenge upon my ill luck.’ Had the Prince Imperial been able to somehow contrive his presence at Rorke’s Drift, he would have gained the glory he sought in abundance. That had been a consequence of the disaster of Isandlwana and Chelmsford was determined that there would be no repetition of such an action during his second invasion of Zululand, though he was still to complain (in a letter of 1 May) that certain officers had, apparently, learned nothing from this debacle.
The death of the Prince Imperial
Much ink has been expended in relating and analysing the action that led to the death of the Prince Imperial. The only sources for what happened are the statements of the survivors and the later evidence provided by the attackers, and the basic facts are well known.
The prince had taken part in two reconnaissance patrols over the period of 13–20 May and had exhibited an alarming propensity to hazard himself and others by dashing off after individual Zulus whenever he spotted them. He was then grounded by Chelmsford, the C-in-C tactfully ‘asking’ him to ‘accompany’ his headquarters for the future, and so keep out of possible contact with the enemy and thus harm’s way. This was effective until 1 June, the date that Chelmsford began his main advance back into Zululand. On that day there was a muddle, or rather a series of muddles. The end result was that the Prince Imperial, Lt. Jaheel Carey, Sergeant Robert Willis, Corporal Grubb, Troopers Le Tocq, Abel, Cochrane and Rogers and an African guide, whom nobody apparently bothered to remember the name of, went on a patrol into Zululand. Their ostensible purpose was two-fold: to reconnoitre a site for the use of the 2nd Division on the following night, and for Lt. Carey to complete some cartographic work. Prior to setting off the Prince wrote a short note to his mother. A postscript, the last line he was ever to write, touched on French politics, specifically the election of a Bonapartist Deputy in Paris: ‘I’ve just heard of the fine election of M. Godelle. Please let him know that I am delighted at the good news’.
Setting off at around 9am the patrol was some eight miles beyond the site of the camp it was supposed to be reconnoitring by about 3pm, and the decision was made by the Prince to halt for coffee at an apparently deserted kraal. This decision and the subsequent sequence of events are evidenced by statements given by the survivors the following day. According to these accounts, given by Willis, Grubb, Le Tocq, and Cochrane, it emerges that the Prince Imperial gave the orders to unsaddle the horses and rest for a period of time; all four are unanimous on this point. Only Corporal Grubb mentioned the presence of several dogs in the vicinity and that there were traces of recent Zulu occupation. None of them mention at what time they actually arrived at the kraal. But Le Tocq and Cochrane said that they were there an hour, whilst Willis and Grubb stated that the Prince Imperial said at one point that the time was 3.50pm and the horses should have ten minutes more rest. Grubb, the only member of the party who could speak his language, reported that the guide told him he had seen a Zulu across the river when he returned the horses from watering. The party prepared to mount, the four being unanimous that it was the Prince Imperial who gave the orders ‘prepare to mount’ and then ‘mount’.
Almost simultaneously with the last order there was a volley of fire from the cover around the kraal and the horses, frightened by the noise, panicked. Trooper Rogers lost his horse and, according to Grubb, took shelter behind a hut. The rest mounted as best they could, Le Cocq said that he lay across the saddle as he couldn’t get his feet into the stirrups, and bolted. According to Grubb, Trooper Abel was struck in the back by a bullet as they fled, and Abel must have been one of the two men that Willis stated he saw falling from their horses. What of the Prince Imperial?
Grubb said that he looked back and ‘saw the Prince was clinging to the stirrup-leather and saddle underneath his horse, and he then fell. His horse, as far as I could make out, trampled on him’. The last man of the party to actually see the Prince alive was Cochrane, who said that when he was about fifty yards from the kraal he ‘saw the Prince on foot, closely pursued by [about a dozen] Zulus’. Subsequent cross-examination of these witnesses, described by their commanding officer as ‘trustworthy’, was not to materially alter these facts as established by them. The cross-examinations took place at the subsequent court-martial of Lieutenant Carey, whose position was rendered unenviable by the events described, as well he knew. Carey’s 2 June statement then was something of an exculpatory exercise on his own behalf;
… as the men vaulted into the saddles I saw the black faces of Zulus about twenty yards off rushing towards us … They shouted and fired upon us as we rode off. I thought that all were mounted, and, knowing that the men’s carbines were unloaded, I judged it better to clear the long grass before making a stand. Knowing from experience the bad shooting of the Zulus, I did not expect that anyone was injured. I therefore shouted as we neared the donga, ‘we must form up on the other side. See to the retreat of everyone.
Unfortunately for Carey, none of the others recalled him giving that last order, not that it could have made the slightest material difference to the situation.
The fate of the Prince was ascertained by the recovery of his body and by later statements from some of his assailants. Having been unable to mount his horse as it galloped away, he had indeed fallen and been trampled as reported by Grubb and le Tocq. Upon regaining his feet he had tried to run for it pursued by some seven Zulus, but, unsurprisingly, he had been unable to outdistance them and had turned to face them. After firing two ineffectual revolver shots the Prince Imperial of France was overwhelmed and stabbed to death. Surgeon-Major Scott, who examined the body the next day in situ, later made the following statement:
He died, in my opinion where I found him. He was lying on his back with the left arm across, in a position of self defence. I counted eighteen assegai wounds, all in front. It is true there were two wounds found on his back, but from their nature I am satisfied that they were the terminations of wounds inflicted in front. Any one of five of the wounds would have proved mortal. There were no bullet wounds. I believe the body was not moved . . . [because] … there were no abrasions on … [it] … indicating that he had been dragged. There was a patch of blood underneath the head and neck, caused, apparently, by a wound he received on the side of the neck, and also by a wound through the right eyeball. The body was stripped …
If the 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 the 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 the 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.
The death of the Prince Imperial caused, so it is said, a greater shock to the populace of Britain, and certainly France, than the disaster of Isandlwana. Perusal of contemporary newspapers would seem to indicate that this was indeed the case, and in an early manifestation of what we would now call ‘public opinion’ the blame for the fate of the Prince was laid, not at the door of Lieutenant Carey, but rather with the higher echelons of the British Army, whether at home, in Africa, or both. Carey had assumed the position of scapegoat in the ‘opinion’ of the ‘public’.
If one were to itemise all the things not to do when reconnoitring Zulu territory, the patrol covered the list completely, and it is legitimate to conclude this without resorting to hindsight. That the Zulus were a brave and resourceful enemy was, in June 1879, a fact well known. The only area where they were inferior to the British forces was that of firepower and, against men on horseback, mobility. Armed essentially with weapons only effective at close range they had to be prevented from getting close by the use of effective and controlled firepower, and it was thus essential to be able to see them in good time. Since, at the time, effective firepower could only be delivered by large groups of men, groups that could not deliver it were only able to avoid defeat by utilising tactics of avoidance through superior mobility. Chelmsford’s tactical instructions following Isandlwana show that he had learned these lessons. The behaviour, or misbehaviour, of the nine men of the patrol indicates that they either ignored, or were ignorant of, these lessons learned so painfully. Much has since been made of the uncertainty as to exactly who was in command of the patrol, indeed it formed a central plank of Carey’s defence that he was not in command. Who was actually formally in command of the patrol was irrelevant before the attack. From the consequences of the attack it would appear that nobody competent was in command. The Prince Imperial certainly gave the critical orders, but the results show that he was incompetent to command.
There are a number of obvious points that support such a contention; perhaps the first being that the patrol was some eight or ten miles beyond the position that it had set out to survey; around twenty miles inside Zululand. Carey argued that they thought the area was clear of the enemy. This is an astonishing assumption in the light of what had gone before, and well might Chelmsford have noted that some had learned nothing from Isandlwana. There was also the choice of place to take a rest for an hour - a position surrounded by cover. The only possible legitimate reason for selecting and utilising such a site would have been the assurance, not the assumption, that there were no enemy in the vicinity, a condition that also applies to the failure to post a lookout. Corporal Grubb, a man of much experience, later related that he was unhappy with the arrangements for safety made at the kraal – but he did not see fit to raise this matter with anyone at the time. To compound the first two errors the weapons that six of the patrol carried were unloaded, thus depriving them of instant access to the first necessity, however inadequate their single shot carbines would have been in practice, of fighting Zulus – firepower. The second essential, especially if firepower was lacking, was mobility, and this was discarded by the decision to unsaddle the horses. These errors together ensured that the patrol had lost any fight before it started. They were helpless to do anything but flee in disorder – every man for himself.
There is no evidence that any of the men of the patrol had shown previous signs of incompetence, yet all, including, remarkably, the guide, acquiesced in the arrangements. Most accounts cease mentioning him after he drew Grubb’s attention to his sighting of a lone Zulu, but surely here was one person with knowledge of Zulu methodology, yet even he seemed to show unconcern over any possible danger and paid for it with his life. The six men of the Natal Horse were irregulars, and thus unaccustomed to what might be termed proper military discipline. They were less likely to respect bad orders simply because they came from an officer. Nevertheless they too participated in this act of negligence, and two of them paid for it with their lives.
Why Lieutenant Carey submitted himself to the will of the Prince Imperial is easier to understand and can probably be summed up in two words: social deference. As stated previously, the Prince Imperial was known to move in the most exalted social circles and was rumoured to be linked romantically with a royal princess. Carey was from a firmly middle-class background, his father being a clergyman, and had originally been commissioned into the socially unprestigious 3rd West Indian Regiment. In the class-based hierarchical society of the time these factors had an importance difficult to grasp today. In addition, Carey had spent his formative years from the age of eight to sixteen in France during the reign of the Prince’s father, Napoleon III. He spoke fluent French and was thoroughly Francophile. On the fateful day he was in the company of a personage socially elevated in British society, and one moreover that may well have become the ruler of France as Napoleon IV. It becomes quite possible to understand why Carey deferred to the Prince Imperial in the way he did.
‘… the charge is not sustained by the evidence …’
The Prince Imperial had gone to Africa with the support of Queen Victoria and the Duke of Cambridge in order to make his name as a military figure commensurate with the family name he bore. This he had done for political purposes, in furtherance of which he determined to take an active and, he hoped, heroic part in the campaign whenever the opportunity arose. The local commanders, principally Chelmsford, had tried to restrain him, but through a series of muddles he contrived to evade their strictures by venturing out with Carey, whom he was able to overawe. The consequence was that he met his end in distinctly unheroic circumstances, being surprised whilst, in effect, picnicking. That he got the patrol into such a militarily untenable situation is compelling evidence that if his great-uncle’s abilities were indeed heritable, they had skipped more than one generation.
Carey, having survived, was the one that had to answer the charge of ‘misbehaviour before the enemy’. He was found guilty, though with a recommendation for mercy, and this finding was transmitted to the Duke of Cambridge for his confirmation. The received wisdom until recently has been that the Duke decided that the court’s findings were too severe and that there had been mitigating circumstances. Carey, he judged, should not suffer dismissal and official disgrace, and he was so informed in a letter of 16 August 1879:
… Her Majesty has been advised that the charge is not sustained by the evidence, and accordingly has been graciously pleased not to confirm the proceedings, and to direct that the prisoner be relieved from all consequences of his trial. Captain [promotion effective 6 June 1879] Carey is released from arrest and will rejoin his regiment for duty.
by Charles Stephenson
Featherstone, Donald, Captain Carey’s Blunder: The Death of the Crown Prince Imperial, June 1879, Leo Cooper. 1973
John, Katherine, The Prince Imperial, Putnam, 1939
Knight, Ian, With His Face To The Foe,. Spellmount, 2001
Laband, John P .C., (Ed.). Lord Chelmsford’s Zululand Campaign 1878-1879, Alan Sutton Publishing for the Army Records Society, 1994
Legge, Edward, The Empress Eugenie 1870-1910, Harper & Brothers, 1910
Phillips, William Peter. The Death of the Prince Imperial in Zululand, 1879, (second Edition), Hampshire County Council Museums Service, 1998
Phillips, William Peter, ‘The Prince Imperial’s Life in Woolwich and The Royal Artillery.’, Journal of The Royal Artillery, Autumn 1998