A Battlefield No Less Bleak
Brendan Simms, The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo (Basic Books, 2015)
“Of the 400 men with which I had entered the battle I now had no more than 42,” realized Major George Baring on the night of June 18, 1815. One of the last remaining officers in the King’s German Legion, Baring and his men had survived a brutal contest over La Haye Sainte, a small farmhouse south of Mont-Saint-Jean, key terrain in the Battle of Waterloo. As Baring continued in his personal report, news of the death toll caused him to weep as he felt “so great a bitterness… helplessly take possession of me.”
The actions of Baring and his men on June 18 are the focus of The Longest Afternoon, a new book by Brendan Simms, professor of the History of International Relations at the University of Cambridge (full disclosure: he is also my doctoral supervisor). Drawing on previously unexamined sources, including unpublished material in the Hanoverian archives, Simms writes from the perspective of the mud-caked battlefield. As a result, Wellington’s victory is presented in all its savagery, vainglory, and desperation. Take this passage, for example: “Corporal Riemstedt and Riflemen Lindhorst and Lindenau also continued to stand their ground in the courtyard, despite their injuries. Once they ran out of bullets they used their sword bayonets (Hirschfaenger), clubs (Knittel) and even stones as weapons.”
In the early nineteenth century, Americans perceived Waterloo as a contest between “ancient establishments and modern opinions,” to quote John Quincy Adams. Napoleon’s defeat was, therefore, a regression, a “return to the politics and religion of the 15th century,” when kings trampled the civil liberties of their subjects. The Longest Afternoon challenges this view. Or, rather, the men who fought on Wellington’s behalf challenge this view. Waterloo was indeed an ideological struggle, but according to these soldiers, Adams sympathies were misplaced.
The Longest Afternoon also makes clear that the men who played such a prominent part in Napoleon’s defeat were not British—at least in the nationalistic sense. They were German. Established by George III of England, who was also Elector of Hanover, the King’s German Legion was an international group of hardened soldiers, many of whom first experienced combat in the Peninsular War. These infantry, artillery, and cavalry troops also included Russians, Danes, Bavarians, Poles, and Flemings. “Baring’s men,” according to Simms, “were a multinational unit in a multinational army sent by an international coalition.” In these terms, Waterloo offers a comparative model for today’s joint operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and elsewhere.
Why then did the King’s German Legion fight for Wellington? And to press further, why did they fight so hard? The answers to these questions are perhaps some of the most controversial parts of the book. As Simms finds, “Friedrich Heinecke, who recruited for the Legion in North Germany, spoke of the ‘patriotic sentiment’ of the men, their ‘mighty bitterness against the hereditary enemy’, and their determination to ‘fight against Napoleon and to cast off the yoke of French tyranny.”’ Then there is the surgeon who left his native town of Minden “in order to breathe more freely in free England, and to provide myself with a future while my prospects at home were obscured by a sinister veil” (his words, not Simms’). More examples follow. What emerges is a portrait of men concerned not only with their survival but also with civil liberty and the nature of the European order.
Honor was also a concern for these soldiers. Commanded by the Prince of Orange to charge, Colonel Christian Ompteda pointed out a concealed formation of French cuirassiers. When the Prince repeated his command and questioned Ompteda’s reluctance, “the implied suggestion of cowardice… was unbearable.” It was to avoid insult that this Brigade Commander “rode unhesitatingly to a lonely death,” outpacing his men who were abruptly cut down as he predicted. So it was with the lower ranks as well. Private Lindau, a young rifleman, was shot in the head while defending La Haye Sainte. He refused to find a doctor. ‘‘So long as I can stand I stay at my post,’’ he insisted and then “soaked his scarf with rum and asked a comrade to pour rum into the wound and tie the scarf around his head.”
Simms’ account of the King’s German Legion stands in harsh contrast to the depiction of soldiers in contemporary culture. Our moral ambiguity and indecision seem all the more weak when compared to their certainty and determination. “We’re not here for right and wrong,” shouts Brad Pitt’s character in Fury, a recent film about tank soldiers in World War II. “We’re here to kill.” Even Kevin Powers, a former American soldier who served in Iraq, deadpans in his recent poem, “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting,” that “war is just us / making little pieces of metal / pass through each other.” While Hollywood and literature depict war as a kind of mechanical feat, an abstract crisis not of the heart but of the will, the historical record seems to be filled with contrasting examples. After accounts like The Longest Afternoon one wonders if something has been lost. Or is it that contemporary war stories fail to appreciate something that is unavoidable in the historical record? In the gruesome fields around La Haye Sainte, Simms describes a battlefield no less bleak than those braved by Pitt and Powers, but it would seem that Waterloo was fought by soldiers who were tortured by right and wrong alike, men who intended to accomplish far more than killing.
Steven McGregor is a PhD student in history at Peterhouse. He is a former captain in the 101st Airborne.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Sauber