The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo, by Brendan Simms, Basic Books, New York, 2015, $25.99
Napoléon Bonaparte blundered by returning from exile in 1815 after only nine months while four large armies remained camped on France’s borders. Aware of the odds against him, he rushed his hastily assembled forces into Belgium to attack the smallest army opposing him—the Anglo-allied force under Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington—in the certainly mistaken belief victory would persuade the allies to negotiate.
Equally aware of the odds, Wellington made the sensible decision to hold his position and await the arrival of the nearby—and larger—Prussian army. The subsequent victory at Waterloo was a narrow one. British history professor Brendan Simms recounts the fight from a fresh angle, delivering a thoroughly satisfying addition to a vast genre.
This is not a general history but a detailed account of the defense of La Haye Sainte, a walled stone farmhouse forward of Wellington’s center. Its defenders were the King’s German Legion, which (despite the British army’s penchant for oddball names) was genuinely German. Britain harbored many German expatriates who detested Napoléon, a number augmented in 1803 when he occupied Hanover and disbanded its army. That very year two ambitious officers recruited the first members of the King’s German Legion, which grew into a corps of some 14,000 men and served with distinction at Copenhagen, Walcheren and in Spain before its apotheosis at Waterloo.
On June 18, 1815, Wellington established his position and sent one battalion and part of a second to the farmhouse. Napoléon’s initial attack was a direct assault that surrounded the house and came near to breaking Wellington’s line; but it held, and the legendary charge of two British heavy cavalry brigades drove back the French.
Ordered to capture the farmhouse, Marshal Michel Ney—commanding Napoléon’s left wing—obeyed but became preoccupied with his famously unsuccessful cavalry attack. Reminded of the order two hours later, he dispatched infantry that reached the house and set it on fire. The men inside controlled the blaze and continued to fight until Ney took personal charge of a furious assault that succeeded only when the defenders ran out of ammunition and withdrew, having held out for six hours. Napoléon then launched his vaunted Imperial Guard in a final attack, but even if it had succeeded, the nearly simultaneous arrival of the Prussian army would have ensured the emperor’s ultimate defeat.
Aided by a surprising number of letters, memoirs and commentaries from participants, Simms writes a vivid account even readers familiar with Waterloo should not pass up.