Book review: The Longest Afternoon

VISITORS to modern day Waterloo may struggle to follow the topography of one of the most important military encounters in European history. In particular, an enormous earthwork, the Lion’s Mound, erected 1820, has significantly altered the perspective, writes Allan Prosser.

Book review: The Longest Afternoon

The Longest Afternoon: 

The 400 men who decided the Battle of Waterloo

Brendan Simms

Allen Lane, €19

WHEN Wellington, with his engineer’s eye (he had originally chosen Waterloo as a location for a decisive action two years earlier), first saw the changes to the topography of one of the most important military encounters in European history he declared: “They have ruined my battleground.”

But among the sites which has not been transformed is the walled farmhouse of La Haye Sainte where took place on of the most important and defining actions of June 18, 1815 — one of those confrontations which, if it can’t be said to have led to victory, can rightly be claimed to have staved off defeat, as this scholarly work by a Cambridge history professor demonstrates in highly readable fashion.

Unusually Wellington had paid lesser attention to the importance of La Haye Sainte as Waterloo opened, being heavily preoccupied with the fortified chateau of Hougoumont on the opposite flank. La Haye Sainte was poorly prepared, under provisioned, and scantily garrisoned and had even lost its wooden gates to coalition soldiers scavenging for firewood the night before.

Chosen for its defence were some 400 members of the King’s German Legion, primarily from Hanover and Nassau, armed with the more accurate Baker Rifle rather than the British Army’s famous Brown Bess musket.

While the Brown Bess was effective in massed infantry fire, the Baker was superior for skirmishing and sharpshooting, precisely what was needed at La Haye Sainte.

The KGL have their own niche in Irish history for the “Battle” of Tullamore in 1806 when more than 600 were stationed in Co Offaly and resentment at their persistent courtship of local women erupted into a skirmish which left one Irish and two German soldiers dead and 42 other casualties.

The dead Germans are buried in Town Park. At the time of Waterloo the KGL were based in Bexhill and Weymouth in England after achieving honours in the Peninsular War but they drew the short straw in Belgium.

The fortified farm was a death trap facing the French front line and protecting the main road to Brussels along which the Grand Armee had to progress.

Their instruction was to defend it to the last man. Further back were recuperating brigades which had been badly mauled in the previous day’s hostilities at Quatre Bras. Wellington was relying on the arrival of the Prussians to reinforce the weaker eastern part of his line. They would have to wait a long time.

Thousands of French infantry threw themselves against La Haye Sainte and were repelled time and time again.

When the Germans, all ammunition spent, withdrew at 6.00pm, in the teeth of a furious assault from the premier French field general Marshall Ney only 42 men from the original complement remained uninjured.

But the Prussians had arrived. Within two hours Napoleon’s Old Guard was making its last stand just south of La Haye Sainte and the Duke of Wellington was rising in the stirrups of Copenhagen and waving his hat to signal a general advance. Waterloo was won.

Within eight months of victory the King’s German Legion was disbanded with many men moving into the army of the new Kingdom of Hanover while retaining half-pay from the British. For many years afterwards the greeting between Waterloo veterans in Germany was a cry of “Old England Forever.”

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