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Obituary: Prince Napoleon

Douglas Johnson
Thursday 08 May 1997 23:02 BST

On every 5 May, the anniversary of Napoleon's death on St Helena in 1821, it is customary for the Bonaparte family, their friends and supporters, to lay a wreath on Napoleon's tomb in the Invalides. His memory is celebrated in a mass. But on 5 May last they were in mourning for the head of their family, Louis Bonaparte, Prince Napoleon. His Imperial Highness, as he was called, had died in Switzerland two days previously.

Louis Bonaparte was the great-grandson of Prince Jerome, King of Westphalia from 1807 to 1813, the youngest brother of the Emperor, who lived long enough to become Governor of the Invalides during the Second Empire. He first married an American who took the name of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, but this marriage was dissolved on the Emperor's orders. He then married Catherine of Wurttemberg. His grandson, Victor Napoleon, when approaching the age of 50, married Princess Clementine, the youngest daughter of Leopold II of Belgium. Their son, Louis, was born in Brussels in 1914.

The Third Republic had protected itself against royalists and Bonapartists by passing a law in 1886 which banned members of any family that had ruled over France from residing in the country. Hence the Prince spent his life in Belgium and Switzerland, and as a small boy passing some time with the aged Empress Eugenie in England. He was educated at Louvain and Lausanne.

When war broke out in 1939, he was living in Switzerland and he wrote to Edouard Daladier, then French Prime Minister, volunteering to serve in the French army. His offer was turned down, but he was determined to fight and, adopting the name of Louis Blanchard, he joined the French Foreign Legion. He served in North Africa but, after the armistice, he was demobilised in 1941.

He returned to Switzerland but very quickly made contact with the French resistance. He worked with them in France and with their help he tried to cross the Pyrenees in December 1942. His aim was to proceed to Spain and from there to join de Gaulle in London, but he was arrested by the Germans. He spent some time in different prisons, including Fresnes. Eventually the Germans released him, and although he was under surveillance and confined to a limited area, he succeeded in joining the Organisation de Resistance de l'Armee.

The ORA, as it was called, was a part of the resistance which had been built from those regular soldiers who had refused to accept the defeat of 1940 as definitive. The Prince, calling himself Louis (and sometimes Lucien) Monnier was given the rank of sergeant and served in the department of L'Indre. He was part of a brigade, known as the Charles Martel Brigade, which distinguished itself. They were under frequent attack from the Germans and they had some difficulty in preserving their secret identity. On one occasion they were loudly greeted in a cafe by an enthusiastic young boy as "l'armee clandestine".

After the Allies landed in Normandy, this unit was busily engaged in preventing the Germans from moving reinforcements northwards and westwards. It has been estimated that they killed or wounded some 2,500 German troops. But their own casualties were heavy. Another member of the Bonapartist family serving with them, Lieutenant Joachim Murat de Pontecorvo, was killed on 20 July 1944. And Prince Napoleon was badly wounded on 28 August, the only one of a seven-man patrol to escape alive. Subsequently he was transferred to the Alpine Division with the rank of Lieutenant, using the more aristocratic pseudonym of Louis de Montfort. He was decorated for his bravery.

After 1945, he continued to live in Switzerland but he also lived in Paris (in the rue de Presbourg), both he and the authorities choosing to ignore that this was illegal until 1950, when the 1886 law was repealed. He spent his time pursuing his business interests in French and Belgian Africa, both before and after independence. He was prominent in motor- racing, being President of the Association Sportive de l'Autoclub de France, and in winter sports.

His main concern was to preserve the Bonapartist heritage. In this he was a proud and exacting man, as anyone attending the ceremony for the Prince Imperial, who died fighting with the British army in the Zulu war in 1879, could witness. Before 1939, with the historian Louis Hanoteaux, he had published a volume of correspondence received by Napoleon. He was a powerful figure in the various Napoleonic associations.

The project of having the remains of Napoleon III, the Empress Eugenie and the Prince Imperial, brought back to France from the abbey in Farnborough, was one that was very dear to him. But where should they go? What role in the ceremony would the President of the Republic play? These remain difficult questions. But he was always proud of the fact that, when Hitler personally ordered the remains of Napoleon's son, the Duc de Reichstadt, to be returned to Paris in December 1940 and when this gesture was welcomed by Marshal Petain, he, the Prince, was serving in the French army in North Africa.

Louis Jerome Victor-Emmanuel Leopold Marie Bonaparte, wartime resister and businessman: born Brussels 23 January 1914; succeeded 1926 as Prince Napoleon; married 1949 Alix de Foresta (two sons, two daughters); died Prangins, Switzerland 3 May 1997.

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