Books: A Point of View: Princes into Battle |
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Princes into Battle : on Prince Harry going to Afghanistan

(S03E01, broadcast 7th and 9th March 2008)

"For Harry, this war was personal"
— Harry's war

The British royal princes are brought up with Shakespeare ringing in their ears like an alarm clock they can’t turn off. Though they might not get around to reading any of the other plays, Henry V is certainly one title that they can’t escape. Henry V, known to his familiars as Harry, starts off as a scapegrace but proves his mettle on the battlefield. If a prince’s name actually happens to be Harry, the Shakespearean role model must be hard to get out of his mind, even if he is not much of a student. Many a line in the play must sound like a prescription for conduct, with the possible exception of the one about ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’, and even that one was said on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, where the young king was seen by all to have finally put his wastrel days behind him.

Whatever you think of Prince Harry’s adventure in Afghanistan, you can see why he wanted to do it, and understand why he must have been disappointed when the eventual puncture to the press embargo cut the adventure short. But for a while there, he was doing what he most dearly wanted. It’s probably what most men want, early in their lives, even when the very idea frightens them. Dr Johnson once said, ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ It’s not so much that men seek danger — any fool can do that — as that they feel guilty about not having been tested in mortal combat. There are things you don’t know about life if you have never been faced with somebody who wants to shoot you.

I remember when I was doing national service in Australia and we had a spell of so-called ‘realistic training’ when we had to lie down clinging to the open ground while bullets were passing low overhead. It was scary enough to actually hear the bullets ripping by. But I couldn’t help thinking even at the time that there was all the difference in the world between a machine-gunner who was trying to hit me and this machine-gunner, who was trying to miss me, and would probably have missed me even if I had stood up suddenly straight into the path of the bullets. He was the best machine-gunner in the Australian army and he had devoted all his skill for years on end to making sure that not a single mother’s son ever got touched. I was grateful, but it did occur to me that the realistic training was unrealistic in a certain vital respect. In the army I learned a lot of things that Harry has just learned. If you don’t muck in, you will soon be left out. And there is no privacy in the army, for anybody. Stop to take a dump and all your mates will find you: it’s practically a way of being rescued if you are lost in the desert. But he learned one thing I know nothing about. He learned for sure how he would behave when the bullets were looking for him.

The minute he got home, he was in another kind of battle, which one way or another will go on for the rest of his life. You can tell when people are serious about getting rid of the monarchy because they use the humanitarian argument, the argument that says nobody should be a prisoner of his birth. The royal children are born to be theorized about, and there is no getting out of it. To be subjects of press speculation is their destiny. It must be a pestilential destiny to have. Suddenly the press was full of armchair military experts who felt qualified to assure us that Harry’s presence among the troops had put them in extra danger. There were suggestions that the whole thing had been a PR stunt on behalf of the army. Further up the line towards Fayed-style fantasy, there were even suggestions that the royal family was trying to improve its image. It was like reading newspapers more than a century out of date. Back then, during the Zulu War, there was actually a case that fitted all those theories to perfection.

Let’s roll the tape back to the year 1879, and examine the case of Napoleon III’s son Eugène Louis Jean Joseph Napoléon the Prince Imperial, he who might well have become Napoleon IV. For purposes of brevity, we’ll call him Eugène. After his father died in exile, Eugène was keen to establish himself as the natural heir to his great-uncle’s military genius, thus to prove that he was fit to ascend the throne of France, a seat which still looked available. The new republic was shaky on its base, a fact proved by the press campaigns it was prepared to mount against the pretender’s credibility. Eugène, they warned, had no qualifications for the job except ambition.

Admittedly he gave his critics a lot to go on. With the endorsement of Queen Victoria, Eugène joined the British army, where he soon proved himself to be an unmitigated liability. He wasn’t just a fool — although he was outstandingly that — he was a busy fool, thus exactly fitting the description of the kind of officer who, the first Napoleon had once said, must be got rid of immediately. Eugène really was a danger to his fellow soldiers. He never got the point that there was no such thing as a single Zulu. When he saw a single Zulu, he galloped off to chase him, invariably registering surprise when the single Zulu led him and his small detachment of troops to a couple of hundred other Zulus hiding behind a hill.

Eugène wasn’t unique in his stupidity. Most of the British officers made a point of underestimating the enemy until the Battle of Isandlwana turned into a massacre which cost the British expeditionary force 1,300 soldiers dead. The horrified Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, retrieved some of the PR disaster by promoting the immediately subsequent Battle of Rorke’s Drift as a victory compensating for the previous defeat, but he knew it didn’t. Another victory, no matter how small, would have been welcome.

Keen to provide it was none other than Eugène, at the head of a troop of soldiers which he led twenty-two miles into Zulu country with the intention, apparently, of confusing the foe by having a picnic. Carefully choosing a position where his men could be approached under cover from all sides, Eugène ordered that the horses be unsaddled so that they could rest. He had an experienced British officer with him but the experienced British officer was a victim of social deference, and didn’t like to contradict royalty. The Zulus had no such inhibitions. Cutting to the chase, we can say that Eugène might have died a more impressive death if he had not last been seen alive riding under his horse, where his hastily buckled saddle had slipped. His body was recovered with eighteen assegai wounds in it. The court of enquiry, which managed to blame everyone except him, never did establish whether eighteen Zulus had stabbed him once, or one Zulu had stabbed him eighteen times.

It’s easy to make fun of him now, but the poor sap was chiefly culpable for having wanted to be there. He was trying to prove himself. Even at the time, there were those, especially those who favoured the French republican cause, who said he was there for political reasons. But it seems more likely that it was personal. The precedent puts us at liberty to wonder what would have happened if our current warrior prince had been killed or, possibly even worse, captured. God forgive anybody who isn’t appalled at the very thought. But he wasn’t, and his experience has given him an advantage that will serve him in future even better than it will serve the army. Now, he knows. His elder brother William would doubtless like to know too, but a potential direct Heir to the Throne is faced with the unwritten rule that he may fly, drive, dive and fire weapons only on the understanding that he doesn’t fight.

The same was true for his father. Andrew was allowed to fight in the Falklands but Charles, if he had adopted an assumed name and tried to go, would probably have got no further than the airport. One can safely assume that he must have cursed his fate, because there could have been no sharper reminder that he was its prisoner. He has learned to live with such disappointments, and his capacity to do that will make him a good king one day. One of the things I want to do in this series is ask whether, in this new era of perpetual alteration, it might not be wiser to cherish those institutions that work. I believe that the royal family is one that does, but at a harsh price for those born into it. They are bound by duties they didn’t choose, whereas the rest of us choose ours. For just a little while, young Harry chose his. Should he have gone to Afghanistan? Now that he’s back safely it’s easy to say yes. If things had turned out otherwise, saying yes would have been a lot harder. But he knew that things might have turned out otherwise, and he went anyway. He might have written a five-act history play instead, but Britain has other people who can do that, or at any rate it used to.


If the future King George VI had been heir to the throne, he would not have been allowed to go to the Battle of Jutland, where he was mentioned in despatches as a turret officer. Instead, his brother Edward was heir, and was never allowed near a battle. So the most intense experience of Edward’s life was Mrs Wallis Simpson, whose occasional bouts of cold anger must have been quite frightening, but were scarcely a matter of life and death. King George VI knew what a matter of life and death was. The same applies to the current Duke of Edinburgh, who was at the Battle of Matapan, where he, too, was mentioned in despatches. Thinkers who would like us to dispense with monarchy can get upset with anyone who talks about the royal family as if they were real people, subject to experience that matters to them and might help form their judgement. But they are real people, no matter how unreal their circumstances; and that being so, it is unwise to treat them like living gods. In my own view, Prince Charles should have been allowed to see combat. It was a deprivation for him, not to be allowed to risk his life. The sum of such deprivations can lead whole nations astray. Emperor Hirohito, in his younger days, wanted to dress as well as the aforementioned Edward, Prince of Wales, whom he had met; but the Emperor was too holy for his tailor to touch him, so his clothes never fitted.

Put enough reverential nonsense like that together and you get a man whose inability to cope with reality was instrumental in both initiating and prolonging a war that cost millions of lives. Even in a constitutional monarchy, what the monarch knows of life is bound to matter, if only because, contrary to the fond belief of the theorists, a monarchy is our reality. Those who dream of abolishing the system may fancy themselves to be realists, but in fact they are romantics. Or else they are hankering for America — where they would soon find that the presidential system has all the drawbacks of a royal house with none of the advantages. It’s notable that the more determined critics of the British monarchy are often keen to insist that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth either tried to leave London during the Blitz or else actually did, leaving lookalikes behind. This fantasy can sometimes be heard at dinner tables in Australia, where there is a widespread belief among the intelligentsia that the constitutional connection with Britain serves only to delay Australia’s graduating to the status of ‘mature nation’. But mature nations are careful to tell the truth about their heritage.