For about five hours on the fateful afternoon of July 18th, 1815, a band of brothers of 400 soldiers forming the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion – a unit of the British Army – thwarted Napoleon’s plan of breaking up the center of the Duke of Wellington’s lines at Waterloo. Stoically, “these men, and their reinforcements, held off Napoleon for long enough to change the course of the battle.”
When I lived in Scotland and in the aftermath of my visit on the battlefield of Waterloo few months prior to these fantastic months, I was curious to read more about the iconic battle and those who took part in it. And I still am. I was therefore captivated by the publication of The Longest Afternoon: The Four Hundred Men who Decided the Battle of Waterloo (Penguin Books) by renowned Cambridge Professor and author Brendan Simms.
Even though the book was published 7 years ago, it remains one of my favorites. I am always lukewarm to embrace the notion that one specific battle definitively changed the course of a war or that a single event sealed victory or defeat. I came to understand that wars and battles are much more complex than that. But the story brough forward by Brendan Simms doesn’t fail to convince that a small group of men (400 out of more than 74 000 under the orders of the Iron Duke) could make a difference on the battlefield. When dusk fell after the battle, only 42 out of the initial 400 remained. That’s a survival rate of 10%.
But let’s get back to what happened during the day. While the top brass didn’t seem to recognize the “tactically vital farmhouse of La Haye Sainte”, the 2nd Light Battalion was given the task of occupying and defending this position. Against all odds, literally. Since the engineers had been sent to Hougoumont, the men had to do the best they could to fortify the farm. Furthermore, they had to make do with an inadequate supply of ammunitions. And I won’t even get into the insane and suicidal attack order given to the infantry brigade commander Christian von Ompteda, “[…] who rode unhesitatingly to a lonely death [bearing] his distinctive white plume.”
In a very engaging and accessible style, Brendan Simms eloquently offers several similar vignettes of bravery in the space of less than 90 pages of his gripping book. Another such story certainly deserves mention:
“Shortly after, [Rifleman Friedrich] Lindau was shot in the back of the head. He refused Lieutenant Graeme’s order to go back for medical attention. ‘No’, he answered, ‘so long as I can stand I stay at my post.’ The rifleman soaked his scarf with rum and asked a comrade to pour rum into the wound and tie the scarf around his head. Lindau then attached his cap to his pack, reloaded his rifle and returned to the fray.”
If this doesn’t make you shiver, I honestly don’t know what will.
The men of the KGL were not only responsible for a significant share of French casualties around the farm, they also stood their ground with an inspiring sense of bravery “[…] long enough to allow the arrival of Blücher.” These men were definitely no ordinary soldiers.
All of this reminds me of a passage in the seminal work of Sir John Keegan, The Face of Battle, in which the legendary military historian writes: “The King’s German Legion (KGL), an émigré force of Hanoverians regulars which had fought the campaign of the Peninsula, was stout-hearted enough to be trusted anywhere; British officers and soldiers willingly conceded KGL regiments to be equal of their own.” They lived up to their reputation at La Haye Sainte.
Had they served during the Civil War or any other conflict into which the United States has fought, the 400 brave men of La Haye Sainte would have been the subject of a movie by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. The mettle of their bravery was forged from the same mettle as the men of the 20th who stood their ground at Little Round Top during the battle of Gettysburg a few decades later or those of the Big Red One battling their way up Omaha Beach on another crucial June day. Fortunately, Brendan Simms brought their story to life in a beautiful book, which shall remain a classic for a long time. Because of its vibrancy and powerful testimony of the true nature of bravery, The Longest Afternoon shall never grow outdated.
I would naturally be extremely happy if Brendan Simms decided to write more on the subject, but I will be grateful if any other historian decides to walk in his footsteps and decided to explore further the contribution of those German soldiers who left an unmistakable legacy in military history, even if they don’t occupy a dominant place on the bookshelves.
Brendan Simms, The Longest Afternoon: The Four Hundred Men who Decided the Battle of Waterloo, London, Penguin Books, 2015, 160 pages.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Cristina DaPonte, then working at the Publicity Department of Penguin Random House Canada, for sending me a copy of this book.