All Stories, Historical

Captain Carey’s Luck by Michael Bloor

I came across the manuscript below in a second-hand shop in Simla, the former British hill-station in the foothills of the Himalayas, among some papers previously belonging to a Victorian military surgeon. The ms was seemingly written in Bombay (now Mumbai) and signed by Captain Jahleel Brenton Carey of the 98th Regiment of Foot (later to become the South Wales Borderers). It is dated the 23rd of February, 1883 (two days before his death, aged thirty six), and appears to be written as a kind of testament.

Carey had seen action in Honduras in 1867, where he was mentioned in dispatches, and he served with the British ambulance group in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. But he went on to achieve some notoriety in the Zulu War, by being implicated in the death in 1879 of the Prince Imperial, Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte, the twenty-three year-old only son and heir of the deposed Emperor of France, Napoleon III, and godson of Pope Pius IX and of Queen Victoria. The Prince Imperial, who was accompanying the British forces in the Zulu War as an observer, was slain as part of a small reconnaissance patrol attacked by a large Zulu force. Carey (a Lieutenant in 1879) escaped from the slaying on horseback with four troopers and was subsequently found guilty at a court-martial of ‘misbehaviour before the enemy’ and sent back to the UK under arrest. The guilty finding was later withdrawn on a technicality by Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, head of the Army. Carey took the brave but quixotic action of returning to his regiment, later posted to India. However, he was shunned by many of his fellow officers. Field Marshall Wolseley’s comment may be typical: ‘he had… better… start in some line of life more congenial with his cowardly heart… the greengrocer or the undertaker calling might suit him.’


Some say that our war against the Zulus was blighted by devilish practices, and that the massacre the Zulus inflicted upon us at Isandlwana back in January 1879 was early evidence of a curse. It was certainly a terrible defeat of arms: it is said that more British officers perished at Isandlwana than in the entire Waterloo campaign. Indeed, our commanding officer, Colonel Glyn, has acted like one cursed ever since – like a dead man walking. At my court martial, he scarce uttered a word.

Am I also cursed? The Zulu people are said to both believe in, and practice, witchcraft. The troops, always a superstitious lot, were full of talk about Zulu witchcraft back in ’79. To my regret, I have recently spoken to the chaplain here about this. He merely snorted and twirled his moustaches. A stupid, complacent man, he has clearly been infected by the contempt and hostility directed towards me in the Officers’ Mess. How I miss the wise counsels of my dear father, no ordinary clergyman.

This pain and fever sows passing doubts in me, but I have always held hitherto that there is a clear distinction to be made between being cursed and being unlucky. And certainly I was unlucky in the Zulu campaign. Yet it did not seem so at first. I served under Colonel Harrisson, tasked with military intelligence. Harrisson, a Royal Engineer, interpreted this task as a largely that of map-making: he had little notion of reconnaissance and gave me a pretty free hand, once he found me to be a competent officer.

In May 1879 (I forget the exact date), the Prince Imperial was also assigned to our section. I discovered later that this was because on two previous occasions he had been attached to patrolling troops and, without waiting for orders, he had galloped off pursuing possible Zulu sightings. His exasperated superiors, in effect, confined him to camp, drawing maps. At the time, I thought his arrival to be a fortunate occurrence: we got on well, and I reflected that the friendship of the godson of the Queen would hardly disadvantage me in future army preferment. What’s more, I liked him: determination to distinguish one’s self on the battlefield is an attractive quality in a young officer. And I fancy he liked me: the Careys are an old Channel Islands family and, by tradition, we are educated in France rather than England; so it must have been attractive to the Prince to be able to converse freely with someone in his native tongue. Who knows what direction my career might have taken, if it had not been for the events of June 1st, 1879?

The Prince was clearly not enamoured with map-making as an occupation. He carried with him the sword that his great-uncle, Napoleon I, had carried at the Battle of Austerlitz: he saw military glory as a path to political advancement, like his great-uncle. The Bonapartist exiles in England already styled him, Napoleon IV, hoping for a triumphal return to power in France. Chafing for a chance of action, the Prince asked Colonel Harrisson if he might go out on patrol to verify some map details and select a suitable spot for a new camp. Harrisson knew that the Prince had been confined to camp for his earlier reckless behaviour and should certainly have referred the request to his own superiors. But he didn’t do so. Perhaps Harrisson too was hoping that the good opinion of the Prince would further Harrisson’s own career? Or perhaps Harrisson was simply over-awed by the Prince? If so, I can sympathise: I was over-awed myself.

I was also to take part in the reconnaissance patrol. The Prince and I were both lieutenants, but I was the senior and so the natural choice to lead the patrol. At my court-martial, Harrisson stated that I should have been in command. However, my recollection is that Harrisson told me that the patrol was at the Prince’s initiative, to select a suitable future campsite for the advancing troops, and I was not to interfere. Certainly, the Prince took charge from the outset: I only felt able to offer suggestions.

The patrol consisted of the Prince, myself, two non-commissioned officers, four troopers, and a native guide. A further six troopers were also assigned to the patrol, but mistakenly reported to the wrong tent. Eager to be away, the Prince declined to wait for the missing troopers. In fairness to the Prince, I should state that much of the ground that the patrol was to cover had previously been subject to earlier patrols. I had no misgivings at that point.

My misgivings came later: in the mid-afternoon we came upon a Zulu kraal. The huts were deserted, but showed signs of recent occupation. The Prince ordered the men to dismount, unsaddle the horses and allow them to graze. The guide was dispatched to fetch water for coffee. No guard was set, although the tall tambootie grass and a nearby deep gully might offer concealment to an enemy. But, initially uneasy, I was soon lulled by the Prince’s affable conversation. He was a young man enjoying himself, and I – only a few years his senior – was infected by his mood. I recall that we chatted amiably over coffee and tobacco about Napoleon I’s Italian campaign in 1796.

After half an hour or so, I suggested that perhaps we should saddle up. The Prince replied, ‘Just another ten minutes.’ Thereupon the guide reported that he had seen a lone Zulu on the higher ground above the kraal. The order was then immediately given to saddle up, but it took several minutes to round up the strayed horses. I had already mounted when the Prince gave the other ranks the order, ‘Prepare to mount.’

Yet before mounting could be completed, there was a fusillade of shots. The enemy were using carbines seized in their victory at Isandlwana, but not to great effect – only one of our troopers was shot. More than forty Zulus emerged from the bush, shouting their war-cry and sprinting for the patrol, whose only chance lay in flight. The Prince was a good horseman, but his was a new and nervous mount: his horse bolted, with the Prince clinging to the saddle holster. The leather of the holster tore and the Prince fell. Because of the uneven ground and tall grass, only one of the fleeing party, Corporal Grubb, saw the Prince Imperial’s last moments: seven warriors closed on the Prince, who could only fire twice before falling to the Zulu assegais – slain by an ambition which out-stripped all circumspection.

I rallied what remained of the troop some distance away. Two troopers and the guide, beside the Prince, had been slain. It was evident that the five of us would achieve nothing by turning and charging the large enemy force. I gave the order to return to camp.

We were not well received. The next day, a large column set out to recover the Prince’s body. As they departed, an enraged French journalist shouted, ‘Yesterday, the Prince left this camp with but seven companions. Today a thousand men will search for his body.’ It was plain that the deaths at the kraal would not be seen as an obscure skirmish. I was told later that the Prince’s body bore seventeen spear wounds. No one troubled to count the wounds on the bodies of our guide, or Trooper Rogers, or Trooper Abel.

It seems very possible that I will not survive this fever: I have attended the funerals of others with similar symptoms. My passing will not be mourned by my fellow-officers. When I first returned to the regiment, after the court-martial verdict was over-turned, a sarcastic Captain Llewellyn gave me a translation of the ancient Book of Aneirin, telling of how a small band of heroic Welsh horsemen rode out against the great invading Saxon horde, and charged and perished at the battle of Catraeth. I returned the translation with the comment that it may be great literature, but it was poor strategy. That was three years ago and I have found that such verbal jousts soon lost their savour. To be condemned but impenitent, disgraced but innocent, are not states that most men endure indefinitely: my life has become a burden to me. Let my stone bear this memorial: Here Lies An Unlucky Friend.   

Michael Bloor

Fort Pearson war cemetary: Witstinkhout, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

8 thoughts on “Captain Carey’s Luck by Michael Bloor”

  1. Hi Michael,
    I thought there was a great tone to this and the voice sounded authentic.
    The MC was thrown under the bus. If they had all came back the Prince would have been a hero but due to his actions people died. Although I have no problem with any royal being speared.
    I’ve always thought that anyone in the forces must hate it when a royal joins. Their company becomes an even bigger target and babysitters for an ego on a photo-shoot!
    I really did enjoy this and for whatever reason, it’s put me in the mood to watch ‘The Four Feathers’ (I know it should be ‘Storm Over The Nile’ but I do like the Beau Bridges version.)
    All the very best my friend.


  2. I also found it interesting and authentic. Now, juuusstt for a second there, finding the manuscript had a touch of, say, “It was a dark and stormy night” to it. But upon further review, I find that it was the right way to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Irene. Yep, there are far, far too many of those ‘found manuscripts.’ But this one just didn’t work with an intro on the background. In my first draft, I tried a spoof encyclopaedia entry, but that was of course much too dry!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Absorbing tale, set me in the time and place. The Prince reminds me of Shakespeare’s Hotspur character .. all hubris no sense, and the poor Captain the scapegoat.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Harry Hotspur – that’s an interesting thought. Thanks Harrison. Off to bed now, a happy man – no-one’s compared me to Shakespeare before…

    Liked by 1 person

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