With the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo next year the first salvo of new books on it have now been released, but of the three it was Brendan Simms’ work that grabbed my attention. The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men who Decided the Battle of Waterloo makes powerful reading.
Rather than give us an account of the battle as a whole, or the campaign surrounding it, or indeed the period from Napoleon’s escape from Elba to the ridge at Mont Saint Jean, Simms gives us something we haven’t seen before: a study of the defence of La Haye Sainte, in the centre of the Allied lines, by the men of the 2nd K.G.L. Light Battalion under Major George Baring and what it meant, for them and the battle. The Hanoverians who fled to Britain and served in the K.G.L. following Napoleon’s occupation of the Electorate of Hanover in 1803 were no strangers to me, having first been brought to my attention (and imagination) through Bernard Cornwell’s glorious Sharpe novels, this painted them in a whole new light. Early on we are reminded that these soldiers were a part of the British Army, and their formation was, in effect, a “cultural transfer”. Some of their officers were British, and English and German were both spoken, although English appears to be the dominant for commands, and some Anglicized their forenames. Not only that, but were they were barracked in England they became an integral part of the community, sharing their culture with us, and marrying locals. As such, it does make you pause and wonder why we do not know as much about them as we do other figures.
Simms goes on to tell us why they fought, offering us a political context, as well as of the camaraderie between officers and men, weaving the stories of individuals into the overarching narrative. A vivid picture of the storm of violence that engulfed the farm is rendered deftly, but also of a “Band of Brothers”. Men refusing to leave their comrades despite multiple injuries, standing firm for five hours in an ever worsening situation, obeying orders to hold even as they covered the withdrawal to the ridge when the ammunition finally ran out: fewer than 400 men were under Baring at the start, 42 were with him at the end. This is a tour de force.
If you are going to read one book on Waterloo in the coming months, make it this one.