With His Face to the Foe

With His Face to the Foe

  • Author: Ian Knight
  • Publisher: Spellmount Limited
  • ISBN: 1-873376-99-5
  • Price: £20.00

Review By : Adrian Greaves

On the afternoon of 1st June 1979, in a muddy gully in the heart of Zululand, the ambitions of France’s Boneparte dynasty came to a tragic and violent end.  A patrol of British troops, in the vanguard of an invading column, was ambushed by the Zulu, and fled, leaving three men dead on the field.  Among them was Prince Louis Napoleon, the exiled heir to the Imperial throne in France, the last of the Bonapartes.


What curious combination of circumstances had brought the Prince Imperial to Southern Africa, wearing the uniform - of all things – a British officer?  His was a romantic and melancholy story.  Chased out of France after the debacle of the Franco-Prussian War, the Emperor, Napoleon III had sought refuge with his family in England, where Queen Victoria befriended them.  Napoleon’s son Louis, had grown to manhood in exile, succeeding on his fathers death to the title of Napoleon VI, and awaiting a call to reclaim his throne, which might never have come.  Raised in the shadow of the reputation of the great Napoleon, he hungered for military glory, and by special dispensation officer.


As a foreign Prince, however, and a Bonaparte, there was never any hope that he might serve in the British army, but when the Anglo-Zulu War broke out in 1879 he was allowed to go to Africa as an observer, attached to General Lord Chelmsford’s staff.  The war seemed to offer him the perfect chance for the military experience without European political repercussions, and with a minimum of danger.  This was not to be.


Thursday 12th of January 2006 09:14:44 PM

Review By : Elizabeth Hogan

Review by Elizabeth Hogan

            After Isandlwana, the incident in the Anglo-Zulu War which arguably remains the most intriguing and controversial is the death, while out on patrol on 1 June 1879, of Louis Napoleon, the exiled heir apparent to the Bonapartist throne in France. In this new study, based entirely on original research, Ian Knight carefully strips away the layers of myth that have built up around the incident, and explores in detail the true characters of the individuals involved. The Prince himself emerges as a rather tragic figure, raised in the claustrophobic confines of the Imperial palaces in France by a doting father and rather over-powering mother to believe utterly in his destiny as a Bonaparte, then cut sadly adrift by the fiasco of 1870, which left the Imperial dream in tatters and his family in exile, reduced to accepting the hospitality of Napoleon’s great enemy, the British.

Further isolated by the death of his father, Prince Louis seemed destined to live out an empty life in exile, waiting for a call to return to his homeland which would probably never have happened.

 Only the chance to train as a British officer at the Royal Academy at Woolwich drew him out of his emotional shell, and gave him a sense of purpose; even then, however, he remained an outsider, likeable and popular, yet ill at ease among his British classmates, for whom a childhood spent in Public School education had inculcated an instinctive value-system which Louis could not hope to understand. When news reached England in February 1879 of the defeat at Isandlwana, Louis persuaded his mother and then Queen Victoria to allow him to travel to Africa as an observer.

 In a revealing slip, his mother, the Empress Eugenie, remarked that she would rather he was killed than return home in disgrace, and indeed there is a strong sense throughout the book that Louis was propelled to his fate by the weight of his family baggage. He was just 23 when he arrived is Natal, and it is clear from Knight’s meticulous recreation of his time there that he was largely the architect of his own fate. Despite the fact that he had no official standing, he constantly dressed in a Royal Artillery officer’s uniform, and the respect accorded him by Lord Chelmsford was mirrored throughout the Army. Yet Louis – in modern language – was no ‘team player’, and pursued his own agenda, to add credit to the name of Bonaparte by distinguishing himself in action; as a result, he continually irritated his seniors by his reckless behaviour when allowed on patrol. Having set the scene so carefully, Knight dissects the events of 1 June in great detail. So far from being a nervous officer, Lt. Jahleel Carey – who commanded the Prince’s escort – had established a reputation for good staff work and had been previously mentioned in despatches for his courage. Most of the doubts about Carey’s character emerge as character-assassination initiated by Bonapartist sympathisers after the event.

The patrol of 1 June was clearly a jaunt, connived at by the Prince’s superiors to allow him a break from the routine of camp life; that the patrol ventured beyond the safe zone, repeatedly swept over previous weeks by British patrols, was clearly the Prince’s doing, as was the choice of the deserted Zulu homestead as a place to rest. True, Carey might have over-ruled the Prince – who held no legal command, after all – but Carey was well aware of the high esteem in which the Staff treated Louis, and had witnessed the way superiors deferred to his wishes. When the inevitable happened, and the patrol was attacked by a Zulu scouting party, everyone ran, including the Prince; had fate been different, it might easily have been Carey who was killed and Louis who escaped. As it was, it was Carey who was called to account for his actions, and he was swiftly marginalized by a clique of officers led by Evelyn Wood and Redvers Buller, who were keen to distance themselves from yet another embarrassment which had befallen Chelmsford’s command. Carey was forced to ask for a Court of Inquiry to clear his reputation; to his surprise, it recommended he be Court Martialled for misbehaviour before the enemy. He was, of course, found guilty, but contrary to popular belief he was not sentenced; indeed, the court had a great deal of sympathy for his position, and recommended leniency. He was sent back to England to await judgement, but by the time he arrived his case had been quashed on legal technicalities. He was left, instead, to struggle against a powerful wave of public sympathy for Louis – and the emergence of the image of the romantic and dashing young Prince, cruelly left to his fate, an idealised creation which has affected studies of the incident into recent times – a struggle for which Carey proved ill-equipped.

 Ian Knight’s book is a powerful and perceptive study of what, in the end, was a minor event in the history of the war, the political consequences of which have probably been over-rated. Not the least remarkable part of the story is the Empress’ pilgrimage to the spot where Louis was killed, a journey into a recently-conquered territory accomplished by ox-wagon and cart, with a retinue of servants and an escort of Mounted Police, and accompanied by Evelyn Wood himself, whose staff documented the expedition in a series of secret reports to Queen Victoria in person. And Wood was no disinterested bystander, but an intuitively political individual who had his own reasons for undertaking the journey.

All in all, it is an extraordinary story. And for those who like trivia, it is interesting to note that the Prince’s famous grey horse was not called Percy, as most books state, but Tommy - and that he was in fact placid by temperament, not skittish. Nor is there any truth in the story that Carey – who died a Captain in India a few years later – was kicked to death by a grey horse. In fact, he died of peritonitis, a rather less romantic end which in many ways symbolises the decidedly unheroic and altogether more human undercurrents that form the sub-text of this book.


Other comment on this book;


… the book opens with an excellently crafted chapter on the Empress Eugene’s pilgrimage to see the place of her son’s death the year before. The author follows with the story of the prince’s family and upbringing in France and England before launching into the story of the Zulu kingdom and its origins and Louis’ fatal part in it. Ian Knight gives a most revealing portrait of a frustrated young man seeking a role in life to match his birth and upbringing  … This book is highly recommended … It is a good story.

‘CSD’ in the newsletter of the Society of Friends of the National Army Museum, Autumn 2003


Ian Knight’s proficiency will already be known to enthusiasts of the Zulu Campaign …Knight’s knowledge of the campaign illustrates his strategic analysis .. [he] paints an alluring picture of the country  .. He is equally understanding at depicting personalities … The breadth of Knight’s research gives us touching glimpses into the Prince’s character …

Elizabeth Talbot-Rice, Journal of the Society of Army Historical Research, Summer 2003


… In an absorbing new book, Ian Knight reveals what brought the exiled young prince to meet his death in an African donga … The Victorian ethos of death, mourning and heroism is superbly evoked and the characters vividly drawn … Anyone with an interest in this period will not want to miss this excellent book.

The Armourer, Jan/Feb 2002


… The book is extremely well written and, while offering a meticulously researched fresh analysis, it still finds time for moments of humour, too.

Ian Castle, Military Illustrated, March 2002


Knight tells this trivial but fascinating story in close detail …

John Spurling, Times Literary Supplement, 28 June 2002


… possesses all the merits of meticulous research, historical empathy and detailed contextualisation.


Professor John Laband, Journal of the Anglo-Zulu War Historical Society, December 2002

Monday 16th of January 2006 06:04:31 PM

Review By : Professor John Laband

The following review of this book by Professor John Laband (University of Natal/Wilfred Laurier University, Ontario) appeared in the Journal of South African History; The death of the Prince Imperial of France in a minor skirmish during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 was, on the face of it, a bizarre incident which nevertheless eclipsed even the battle of Isandlwana in the public’s imagination. Yet why was Louis Napoleon, the exiled, twenty-three year-old Bonapartist pretender to the French throne in Zululand at all? The answer is not in the least obvious, and at the time exercised officers serving with the Prince, one of whom pertinently remarked to a French newspaper correspondent: ‘After all, what’s the Prince supposed to be doing in this row? He’ll get no credit from us, and I can’t see what good it’s to do him in your own country, unless he goes back a cripple – and even then!’ Although the Zulu who had killed him subsequently came to realize – through all the fuss the British made – that the Prince was a man of importance, it is unlikely that they ever really came to understand who he was, or what he was doing in Zululand. It is a measure of Ian Knight’s success in this new, thoroughly researched, and authoritative account of the Prince’s life and death, that he does most satisfactorily and persuasively supply the answer. Knight’s full use of the original sources in the Royal Archives at Windsor, the Pietermaritzburg Archives Repository and elsewhere permits the prince and other protagonists in this drama to speak for themselves and so reveal (or at least, display) their motives for the historian to interpret. This technique is crucial, for it is Knight’s purpose to build up a psychologically coherent portrait of the Prince which, when placed in the thoroughly delineated context of his times and environment, leads remorselessly through the circumstances of the Prince’s death in Zululand to a convincing solution of the conundrum. With skill, sympathy and commendable compassion Knight sketches in the political and social circumstances of the Prince’s life as a cosseted imperial heir, forlorn exile and anxious Bonapartist pretender. Knight makes very clear the pressure of a public life lived out before the relentless European media, and the bitter pathos of an end in which the honour and glory of the Prince’s name, the weight of being the great Napoleon’s successor, and the need to mature into a Man of Destiny had become more important to him than life itself. As the Prince himself acknowledged, ‘When one belongs to a race of soldiers, it is only sword in hand that one gains recognition’. The pity was that, owing to his circumstances as a political exile, no better opportunity presented itself to prove his soldierly prowess than as an observer (albeit a privileged one) with the British army fighting an unprestigious colonial war half a world away. Even so, the Prince might have done his reputation at least no harm and come away safe from Zululand, had it not been for his streak of recklessness, bravado and military romanticism which Knight remorselessly tracks throughout his life. Knight draws attention to numerous instances, ranging from childish escapades in Paris, through pranks while a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, to repeated instances of irresponsibility and foolhardy bravado while out accompanying military patrols in Zululand during the course of May 1879. The strength of Knight’s analysis is that these are all shown to be of one piece, of which the fatal patrol of 1 June 1879 proved no exception. Indeed, Knight demonstrates quite conclusively that this patrol was nothing more than a jaunt, thought up by Louis as an excuse to escape the boredom of camp routine, indulged by officers who considered he faced no risk, and who were disarmed by the young man’s considerable charm and vivacity. Also of a piece was the way in which the Prince, deserted by his companions, fought to the end against his Zulu attackers. For no one was ever to question his considerable personal courage. One of the strengths of Knight’s treatment is that the Prince and those about him are made to breath in all their complexity and pathos. As important, they are placed securely in the context of their careers, of Bonapartist politics, the officer ethos, British army organisation, popular evangelism, army organisation and military operations in Zululand. Scenery and atmosphere are equally vividly evoked. Knight also comprehensively debunks some of the myths that have grown up around the Prince’s death, from the name of his horse being ‘Percy’ to current rumours along the Battlefields Route of a sexual encounter in the homestead where he was killed. Knight handles the aftermath of court martial and the apportioning of blame for the Prince’s death with restraint and clarity. Indeed, one feels after reading his account that the whole matter has been comprehensively demystified, and placed within the parameters of responsible and empathetic historical scholarship

Friday 28th of July 2006 06:16:59 AM