The Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo

The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo
Brendan Simms
Allen Lane   160pp   £14.99

'It is up to you to save the world', said Tsar Alexander to the Duke of Wellington as he left the Congress of Vienna to take charge of the allied army hastily reassembled to confront Napoleon in the summer of 1815. Britain's allies comprised British, Dutch, Belgian and German troops and has been called 'the first Nato operation'. Prussia's General von Blücher also played a leading role in the battle, which finally ended over 20 years of total war in Europe and copper-fastened a peace deal that was to stabilise the continent for nearly a century.

As we enter a period of commemorative overdrive, Brendan Simms has unearthed a largely hidden story within a much told tale, in a book that is as brief as it is original.

Amid bulging armies pushing against each other on the blood-soaked fields, straining to gain advantage by cavalry charges and hails of artillery, a crucial pressure point in the struggle was for control of the farm of La Haye Sainte, which held together the raggedy allied lines. Its defence was entrusted to an elite band of soldiers from the 2nd Light Battalion King's German Legion, who, to modern eyes, might seem to present an anomaly: a 'hybrid' force of native Germans fighting in British army uniforms under British command.

However, these men were no mercenaries and embodied much more than an awkward hangover from Europe's tangled dynastic politics. By mining new manuscript sources, Simms proves that ideas mattered to the brave riflemen, who held the makeshift fort at the farm at La Haye Sainte, firing at the enemy from the piggery, hayloft and orchard and sustaining themselves with meagre spoils (wine from the farm's cellar, peas from the ground). These men combined loyalty to George III with nascent German patriotism and hatred of the Napoleonic army which stretched back to the fall of their homeland in 1803. Numbering just 400, they stood strong against wave after wave of attack from thousands of French troops – baring the brunt of the siege until Prussian troops arrived to turn back the tide.

Simms reminds us that British history is more entangled with that of Europe than we care to admit. Britain's two wars with Germany in the 20th century sometimes obscure the nations' strong cultural, strategic and military connections. The experience of the 2nd Light Battalion contains within it another lesson, when set against the unravelling of the Congress system after 1815 and the fraying of the European project in recent times: that such alliances could work effectively when they were held together by the immediate concerns of humble people – survival, unity against a common enemy, and the protection of the homeland – but soon came into difficulty when they were justified, by elites, by recourse to vague supranational ideals.

John Bew is author of Castlereagh: War, Enlightenment, and Tyranny (Quercus, 2012).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week