By Michael A.G. Haykin
Brendan Simms, The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo (London: Allen Lane, 2014), xx+127 pages.
The Napoleonic Wars, a global conflagaration, came to an end at the climactic Battle of Waterloo (Sunday, June 18, 1815), when some 140,000 men under the commands of Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley (1769–1852), the 1st Duke of Wellington and a relative of John and Charles Wesley, clashed and decided the future of Europe. There have, of course, been no end of books about the Napeolonic Wars and the Battle of Waterloo, but now a new book by Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of European International Relations at the University of Cambridge, looks at a key aspect of the battle—from Simms’ point of view, the key aspect—the defence of the farmhouse and orchard of La Haye Sainte by the King’s German Legion, an elite Anglo-German unit, established in 1803 of mostly Hanoverians (recall that the monarch of England, George III, was also the Elector of Hanover). Some of its officers were British and commands were usually given in English. In fact, their uniform was that of the distinctive green jackets of the British light infantry.
Simms gives an almost minute-by-minute account of the way a little less than 400 riflemen of this elite unit under the command of Major George Baring held up the advance of the most formidable army in Europe—nearly all of them veterans from former battles and wars of Napoleon—for the entire afternoon of June 18. It is a remarkable story, one that Simms tells well in a book that is hard to put down. Simms notes that there were ideological factors that enabled these men to stand at their post in the face of overwhelming odds, especially their determination to fight “French tyranny.” It is interesting that the recent terrorist attacks in France have evoked from some in high quarters the statement that the French response not to be cowed by Muslim fundamentalists is in line with France being a home of democracy—an obvious reference to the French Revolution. That is certainly not the way anyone in Europe viewed France in the wake of the sanguinary events of the French Revolution. It was not democracy but the tyranny of Napoleon that emerged from the revolutionary fervor of the 1790s. When Napoleon’s war machine had overrun Hanover, these brave men were determined to do something for the cause of their homeland’s liberty and thus the King’s German Legion was formed. In the final analysis, Simms reckons that it was a a sense of “honor” and trust in their officers that were the main determinants in the courage of these 400 men.
When the remnant of the King’s German Legion finally had to relinquish control of the farmhouse in the early hours of the evening—Baring refused to throw away his men’s lives needlessly—Napoleon had no time to capitalize on his taking the farmhouse, for Wellington’s Prussian allies under the command of Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher (1742–1819) arrived and helped save the day. As Wellington said after the battle to a civilian who interviewed him, the battle was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life.” Indeed, without the 400 at La Haye Sainte there might have been no victory and subsequent European history would have been quite different with no century of peace to be shattered by World War I. On such relatively “small” events does the large wheel of history sometimes turn.
Michael A.G. Haykin Professor of Church History The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Michael A.G. Haykin is the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies. He also serves as Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Haykin and his wife Alison have two grown children, Victoria and Nigel.