The Longest Afternoon – Book Review
As we approach the bicentennial of the Battle of Waterloo, many new accounts of his final battle have been published or are planned for this year, including works by Gordon Corrigan, Gareth Glover, Peter and Dan Snow and Gregory Fremont-Barnes. Even Bernard Cornwell, historical novelist of the Sharpe series of novels (which following a British rifleman’s adventures in Wellington’s army) has gotten into the act with a non-fiction history of Waterloo. These accounts offer differing perspectives on the battle, though all must owe something to ground broken by John Keegan’s seminal The Face of Battle, which offers a descriptive account from the fighting man’s perspective. In that sense, beyond a more strategically oriented overview of the battle in the context of the Napoleonic Wars, which essentially concluded with Waterloo, recent monographs have mainly concentrated on the fighting on the ground.
In The Longest Afternoon, Brendan Simms focuses on a small, though significant, part of the battle and of the battlefield. His book’s focus is on La Haye Sainte, a farmhouse and complex caught in the center of the battlefield, and its “crucial” defense by the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion. This defense was bloody, fierce and sustained, motivated by a combination of the men’s “opposition to Napoleonic tyranny, dynastic loyalty to the King of England, German patriotism, regimental camaraderie, personal bonds of friendship and professional ethos.”
This is an important and interesting perspective on a battle, to see it from one unit’s point of view. The defense of La Haye Sainte by the German Legion changed the course of the battle, holding off Napoleon’s army long enough for German forces under Marshal Blucher to advance upon the battlefield and flank Napoleon on the right, causing the French collapse.
John Keegan’s explanation that defense is in large part territorial comes strongly into play here. As Keegan relates in The Face of Battle, “the behavior of the defenders … of … La Haye Sainte, was indeed wholly directed throughout the several hours the fighting lasted … to preserving the absolute integrity of very precise boundaries: at La Haye Sainte, those of the farmyard and garden…” At the time of the French capture of the compound, the smoke was so thick that the square nearest, the 1st / 4th King’s regiment, could not see it for the smoke. The attack that led to the capture “really took the form of a skirmish on a gigantic scale, supported by light artillery run forward for the event…”
In his book, Brendan Simms begins with a brief outline of the history of the German Legion. These were regiments recruited from Germans of the British King’s Hanover territories after being overrun by the French. The units were designed to be exclusively German or at least German speaking, in order to foster unit cohesion and to maintain their loyalty to the British sovereign as ruler of German territories. However, such exclusivity was not maintained in practice. Only about half of the line battalions were Hanoverians, the other half being from other German areas and also Russia and Denmark, despite the prohibitions. But the Light Battalions (who made the bulk of the La Haye Sainte defenders) had a much higher percentage of Hanoverians. “The King’s German Legion, in short, was an Anglo-German hybrid designed to tap into the human resources of the old Holy Roman Empire in order to expel the French, and to restore German liberty and the European balance of power.” These were men who did not consider themselves the “scum of the earth,” but as “free Germans and loyal subjects of the Elector-King, who had volunteered to rid their land of the French scourge.”
These were men who fought for what they believed in, which went far in making them a tough, cohesive, unit. They did not fight in the series of battles that led to Waterloo—they were not engaged at Quatre Bras, for instance, but were used as a rear guard to protect the retreat from that defeat. In that role they suffered through a long, terrible night of downpours. It was in defending the retreat, and in protecting the reestablishment of a British line along Mont St. Jean, that the German Legion troops were committed to the complex of La Haye Sainte. As a forward outpost, with strong walls surrounding a courtyard, an orchard, a barn structure and a stone farmhouse, the post was a formidable fortification. Had Napoleon early recognized its importance, and made a concerted effort to take the outpost—especially for a forward platform for his artillery—the battle most likely would have unfolded very differently. Simms is good at explaining these arguments and in describing how far forward the La Haye Sainte units were, indeed how exposed they were at the start of the battle.
As to why the battle hinged to such a large extent on La Haye Sainte’s defenders, Simms confronts a long controversial question: why was Napoleon committed to a simple frontal attack, a commitment he did not relinquish throughout the battle? Were his skills diminished, was he recklessly overconfident in his army’s powers, was it the result of illness which has been shown to have been increasingly debilitating? Simms concludes that the frontal assault was a function of Napoleon’s fear that Wellington would escape. Were he to promote a complicated flanking movement, it would possibly be beyond his army’s ability to accomplish; it might take too long, possibly granting the German units under Blucher time to make it to the battle (although there is reason to think Napoleon believed the Germans to be in retreat. More importantly, it might grant Wellington an excuse to escape, whereas a frontal assault would hold him in place. However, the upshot of these calculations was that Napoleon seriously misread his opponent.
Therefore, with an attack on Hougemont to the west to tie down Wellington’s right and force him to use his reserves, Napoleon intended to take La Haye Sainte as a key position to hold in a direct advance. However, he did not expect the steady defense he encountered, a defense that threw off his plans. In the end, his preparations proved inadequate.
The tactical value of La Haye Sainte was proven when the French finally did capture it, utilizing the farm as a forward base. But the stiff defense had proven critical by forcing such a long delay. The compound’s use as a firing platform for artillery could have flushed Wellington’s troops from their cover. Baring’s “stubborn defense of the farmhouse had held up Napoleon for long enough to allow the arrival of Blucher. The allied centre had beaten off the French Imperial Guard. Tens of thousands of Prussians pressed in from the east and north-east. Napoleon’s entire army was in full retreat.”
According to Simms, “It is no coincidence, therefore, that Captain William Siborne’s famous Waterloo panorama model of 1838 is timed at 7:45 p.m., the climax of the battle, not long after the failure to recapture the farm [by the British]. If it had been taken earlier, then Napoleon would almost certainly have broken the allied centre, and defeated Wellington’s army, before the Prussians had arrived in strength. The key mistakes made by both commanders concerned La Haye Sainte. Napoleon failed to devote enough thought and resources to its capture earlier in the day. Likewise, Wellington only woke up to the importance of the farmhouse when it was almost too late.” For Napoleon, it was.
Simms acknowledges that Baring and the German Light did not win Waterloo on their own. The defense of Hougoumont and the arrival of Blucher were similarly decisive. But, “Unlike the defence of Hougoumont, however, the struggle for La Haye Sainte and its environs was not merely a ‘battle within a battle’, for much of the afternoon it was the battle.”
There are many points in his description of the battles and the officers and soldiers fighting it, in which Simms is particularly strong. He discusses in depth the psychological and motivational factors which allowed for such a strong resistance by the unit. He also provides good coverage of the post-war history of the unit and the key characters, including a discussion of suicides and what is now termed PTSD, which has a modern resonance.
While solid and detailed on the importance of the defense of La Haye Sainte to the battle, the book is however somewhat light on placing it within the context of the battle as a whole. Certainly this is how the defenders saw Waterloo, but as 21st century readers, we may expect more context. Simms often mentions the fighting around Hougemont as also being important, but without explaining much of what happened there or why it was important. The book, though well written, is thus thin. Admittedly, the author wasn’t going for a comprehensive account, but he failed to appreciate that he could just as easily err in omission as well. But to a significant extent, the Keegan method shows strong in this book. An overview of battle often dehumanizes, describing units of men as mere chess pieces. This book joins many others that attempt to remedy that. There is so much more to be said about Waterloo, how it came to happen, its grand strategic impulses and consequences, Napoleonic warfare in general etc. But as battle itself is performed by numerous actors in various positions, to be able to see one segment with such accuracy is instructive. Brendan Simms has done an admirable job.
Douglas Sterling is a bookseller and freelance writer from Northern Kentucky who has published works on Julius Caesar’s army, the later Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War and World War II. He has Master’s Degrees in Military History and American History. In addition to several book reviews, his articles for ArmchairGeneral.com include “Erwin Rommel – Roots of Victory, Seeds of Defeat.”