[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]
There have been hundreds of books written about the battle of Waterloo in the last two centuries. Most acknowledge that the defense of the two farms at La Haye Saint and Hougemont were decisive in the allied victory. Curiously, to my knowledge there has not been a microhistory written of the actions in and around the farmhouse of La Haye Saint. Brendan Simms has rectified that era in his new work The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo.
This slim volume packs an amazing amount of detail between the covers. The book itself is less than 200 pages in overall length. The narrative is separated into eight short chapters and appendix, ten page bibliography, and 27 pages of notes.
The story of the defense of La Haye Saint is often remarked upon but seldom recounted. Simms corrects this with his detailed history of the defense of the farm and even more interestingly the men of the King’s German Legion (KGL) that defended it. The KGL is one of those strange units that only appears in wartime and does not long survive the war that called it into existence. It was made up mostly of Hanoverians who fled French occupied Hanover to fight for the English and their German king to liberate their homeland. They both were and were not considered elite troops but it was mostly an accident of history that the 2nd Light Battalion (rifles) of the KGL was detailed to defend La Haye Saint on the day of battle.
The thing that makes this book so good is the depth of scholarship that went into it. Simms is able to reconstruct an hour by hour, and in places almost minute by minute account of the battle in and around the farm. He can do this because he managed to discover several unpublished memoirs by members of the KGL, including one written by an enlisted man. This allows him to not only name names but to describe somewhat the personalities of the characters involved in the fight.
The defense of La Haye Saint invokes other famous British defensive stands such as Rorke’s Drift and Le Cateau. That the soldiers were mostly not British is irrelevant as the Hanoverians were just as determined in service of George III as any native English soldiers. The KGL was eventually driven from the farmhouse late in the day after they depleted their ammunition and could not be resupplied. There defeat was not really a defeat though as they had managed to tie up the French in the center of the battlefield long enough for Blücher and his Prussian army to arrive on napoleons flank and bought the time necessary to stave off defeat. It was only shortly after the farm was surrendered that Wellington ordered a general advance as it became clear that the French had shot their bolt and were defeated.
The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo is narrative and microhistory at its best. For anyone seeking to understand the reasons for napoleons defeat at Waterloo this book is indispensable. I highly recommend this book.