The Longest Afternoon

The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo


By Brendan Simms

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From the prizewinning author of Europe, a riveting account of the heroic Second Light Battalion, which held the line at Waterloo, defeating Napoleon and changing the course of history.

In 1815, the deposed emperor Napoleon returned to France and threatened the already devastated and exhausted continent with yet another war. Near the small Belgian municipality of Waterloo, two large, hastily mobilized armies faced each other to decide the future of Europe-Napoleon’s forces on one side, and the Duke of Wellington on the other.

With so much at stake, neither commander could have predicted that the battle would be decided by the Second Light Battalion, King’s German Legion, which was given the deceptively simple task of defending the Haye Sainte farmhouse, a crucial crossroads on the way to Brussels. In The Longest Afternoon, Brendan Simms captures the chaos of Waterloo in a minute-by-minute account that reveals how these 400-odd riflemen successfully beat back wave after wave of French infantry. The battalion suffered terrible casualties, but their fighting spirit and refusal to retreat ultimately decided the most influential battle in European history.




Belgium, early afternoon, Saturday 17 June 1815. The French have worsted Marshal Blücher’s Prussians at Ligny and the Duke of Wellington’s allied army at the crossroads of Quatre Bras the day before. Now Napoleon is making haste to destroy Wellington’s retreating army before he can unite with Blücher.

Mercifully, the riflemen of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion had missed the battle at Quatre Bras the day before,1 but they witnessed its appalling aftermath: ‘a horrible field of corpses . . . literally swimming in blood, which at every step went over our ankles’, in the words of Rifleman Friedrich Lindau.2 The general feeling, as Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann recalled, was that Napoleon had caught the allied army napping;3 contrary to myth, however, none of the brigade officers were still in the clothes they had worn to the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels a few days earlier.4 At around 2 p.m., the 2nd Light Battalion was detailed to relieve the skirmishers holding off the pursuing French and withdraw. Together with their fellow riflemen of the British 95th Regiment,5 they formed the rearguard for the entire allied army. Starving and exhausted, the Germans rested in a meadow near Genappe. Despite the fact that they were told to prepare for a French attack, most of the men promptly fell asleep. They were soon woken, however, by a sudden thunderstorm and downpour. Then a detachment of Brunswick Hussars galloped up and told them they must withdraw immediately, as the enemy was already encroaching on all sides. The Germans now retreated at the double through sunken roads, which the rain had turned into streams, and muddy cornfields, towards the military road which led to Brussels.6 Once past Genappe – where ‘the water reached to their knees’7 – the battalion was ordered to keep the highway free for the retreating allied cavalry and artillery. The riflemen continued to march in the fields on either side of the road, through high corn and soil soft from the downpour.

As they trudged northwards, the Germans pressed together more closely in order to minimize their exposure to the driving rain. Against the leaden skies and the thunder and lightning of the elements, the flash and crash of artillery continued to light up the horizon and reverberate across the fields. At regular intervals, allied horsemen charged past them in order to drive off the encroaching French cavalry and skirmishers. By the end of the day, the riders were so soiled that the riflemen could no longer tell from their uniforms whether they were friend or foe. At times, the French advanced within a few hundred paces of the Germans. On more than one occasion, the battalion was forced to halt and deploy in square, the sides bristling with their distinctive sword bayonets, in order to deter enemy cavalry. They would have been surprised to read Wellington’s later dispatch to the effect that the enemy had not ‘attempt[ed] to molest our march to the rear’ after Quatre Bras.8

The Germans were still better off than the unfortunate Belgian civilians who were attempting to escape the advancing French. Lieutenant Biedermann pitied the ‘men [who were] driving their cattle before them, others bearing bundles, women carrying or pulling their children after them, [all] fleeing moaning and weeping’.9

It was about half past seven in the evening of Saturday 17 June when the first riflemen reached the heights of Mont-Saint-Jean near the village of Waterloo. By the time the last Legionnaires arrived it was dark, though the night sky was occasionally illuminated by muzzle flashes and the air was punctuated by gunfire and shouted orders as the retreating columns were marshalled at the crossroads just beyond the substantial farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, which stood adjacent to the Brussels–Charleroi road, named – accounts differ – either after the crown of thorns worn by Christ at his crucifixion or, more prosaically, after a brambled hedge which enclosed a nearby meadow.10 It was later still when the 400 or so Germans received word that they were to occupy the farm.11 The retreat was over.

La Haye Sainte, the farm in which the 2nd Light Battalion was to fight its most celebrated action, consisted of a stable, a piggery, a barn, a substantial farmhouse, a low wall and a pond, arranged around a large courtyard. It was a common enough type of dwelling for the area. The farmer and his family had fled. The house was large, with walls in places more than a metre thick, and high ceilings. There were large dormer windows on the first storey, and hay and straw in the floor above, which had no windows. A passage led through the stable to the fields on the western side; the main gate and a wicket gate gave access to the road to the east. A passage and two doors opened on to the kitchen garden immediately north of the house. Its northern and western sides were surrounded by a hedge and the eastern side, which gave on to the road, by a wall; the garden contained a well and an outhouse. Just to the south of the main buildings was a large orchard, three sides of which were enclosed by another hedge, and the fourth by a large barn (about thirty metres long) and a low wall, through which a gate led into the courtyard. The buildings themselves were undamaged, but because La Haye Sainte lay just beside the main allied line of withdrawal, it had already been plundered by passing soldiers. Most importantly, they had torn down the barn door opening on to the field to the left to provide firewood for some of the thousands of miserable men camped in the countryside around. Captain Jonathan Leach of the 95th Rifles just across the road describes sleeping on ground so boggy that it resembled ‘a snipe marsh’. Rifleman Simon Lehmann of the 1st Light Battalion, who spent the night in the sunken road behind the farm, must also have been extremely uncomfortable.12

Unfortunately for the Germans, most of the hay in the outbuildings was also carried away. The animals, however, were slaughtered and the meat was shared with the neighbouring line battalion of the Legion; the riflemen overlooked the calf in the piggery, however.13 The men showed little interest in the food: for the moment, the main priority was to stay, or to get, dry. The lucky ones were able to take shelter within the buildings. Private Friedrich Lindau was one of those who drew the short straw. His company was sent to the orchard, where there was virtually no protection from the elements and where they were so close to the enemy that the soldiers were forbidden to light a fire. Lindau did, however, succeed in making off with a pocketful of peas he found in the farmhouse.

Most of the riflemen, though, had fallen into a stupor, their senses numbed by tiredness, hunger and the incessant rain. Rather than lie in the damp they leant against walls and trees, or sat on their knapsacks, staring vacantly into space. Even outside the main buildings, few tried to light a fire – admittedly no easy matter in the downpour – or to cook the fresh meat they had been issued. Instead, they warmed themselves with alcohol. The enterprising Lindau sneaked into the cellar and made off with a canteen of wine, which he shared with his comrades and with soldiers of the 1st Light Battalion stationed nearby. It was not long before Germans who had bivouacked further away, such as Corporal Meyer of the Bremen Field Battalion, came to scrounge some drink as well. Repeated return trips to the cellar ensured that the men in the orchard, and probably much of the rest of the garrison, were well supplied with alcohol. Eventually, Lindau lay down for the night at the far end of the orchard facing the enemy, his rifle at the ready. Lieutenant Emanuel Biedermann, who was also trying to sleep among the trees, recalls that now ‘quiet and a deep peace followed the racket of the day’.14

On the other side of the valley, the pursuing French also settled in for the night. Many of them were Napoleonic veterans of many years’ standing, others young recruits.15 Their personal loyalty to the emperor was often fervent. Two days before the battle, the advancing columns observed ‘a young soldier or rather a trunk of a man’ who had ‘two legs taken off by a cannon ball’, as well as severe face and chest wounds which had not yet healed. On seeing his comrades, the unfortunate lifted his hands and called out: ‘Long live the emperor. I have lost my two legs, but I don’t care. Victory is ours. Long live the emperor.’16 Like their German counterparts the French spent the afternoon and night of 17 June in the rain around spluttering campfires. ‘The night was terrible,’ the French commander opposite La Haye Sainte recalls; ‘rain fell in abundance’, which made ‘the manoeuvring of artillery very difficult. The men had spent the night without shelter and nobody had been able to make a fire.’17 It was too wet to cook, so men like Corporal Canler of the 28th Line Regiment held on to the sheep they had captured nearby and the small square of butter he had picked up the day before.18 He and his comrades were part of Bourgeois’s 2nd Brigade on Alix’s 1st Division, one of four in d’Erlon’s 1st Corps. Like the Germans in La Haye Sainte, d’Erlon’s men had taken no part in the fighting at Quatre Bras, having wasted the day marching fruitlessly back and forth due to contradictory orders. After being reproached by Napoleon – as he recalled – ‘in a very chagrined tone’, d’Erlon was determined not to be found wanting again.19

As they bedded down for the night, the riflemen at La Haye Sainte knew that there would probably be a major engagement once the French main force arrived. Lieutenant Biedermann remembers seeing many of the men deep in thought that night. ‘I too wondered,’ he writes, ‘whether I would see my homeland and my dear ones again or whether an enemy sword would propel me out of my unsettled life . . . At the threshold of death, the past and the future appear in a much more serious light than otherwise.’20 Neither Biedermann, Lindau nor the rest of the battalion, however, could have foreseen just how severely they would be tested the following day.


For King and Fatherland

The Germans of the 2nd Light Battalion had come a long way.1 They were not just in La Haye Sainte ‘because they were there’. Their road to Waterloo began twelve years before, in 1803, when their Hanoverian homeland in northern Germany was overrun by Napoleon.2 Many had entered the new ‘King’s German Legion’ (KGL) established by their ruler, George III of England, who was also Elector of Hanover, towards the end of that year. Others joined later to escape the rigours of the French occupation, travelling from Hamburg via Husum and Heligoland, or via Barth near Stralsund in Swedish Pomerania.3 The two rifle units – the 1st and the 2nd Light Battalions – were the very first to be established; line, artillery and cavalry formations followed later as more and more recruits arrived in Britain from the continent. The flow slowed to a trickle in 1809–10, as the occupation authorities clamped down, and in 1811–12 several Hanoverians were executed by the French for recruiting for the Legion. It was envisaged that many different nationalities would enlist in the Legion. In 1811, the British War Office laid down that the Legion should recruit ‘none but such as are Natives of Germany and speak, or at least understand, German, including all German countries, which are now incorporated with France, likewise the possessions of the House of Austria and those which belonged formerly to Russia and Holland’; the enlistment of ‘French, Italians, Danes, Swedes, Russians, Spaniards or Portuguese’ was explicitly ruled out.4

At Waterloo, the line battalions were the most mixed, with about 50 per cent of the rank and file coming from German territories other than Hanover, especially Prussia, and – despite the War Office’s injunctions – even Russia and Denmark. Generally speaking, the proportion of Hanoverians in the Light Battalions was higher, making them more homogeneous and very likely also more cohesive. All the same, about one-third of the men in La Haye Sainte hailed from Prussia, Bavaria and other parts of the old Holy Roman Empire, and there were even Poles (such as Alexander Dobritzky of the 3rd Company) and Flemings (such as Baptist Charrier of the 5th Company).5 Wherever they came from, the men who enlisted in the 2nd Light Battalion had embarked on an odyssey leading from Hanover, via the Legion’s English base camp at Bexhill on the Channel Coast, expeditions to Northern Germany and garrison duty in Ireland, in 1805–6, to the Baltic in 1807–8, the Iberian Peninsula in 1808–9, to the Scheldt in 1809, back to the Peninsula in 1811–13, through Southern France, and the shadow of demobilization after Napoleon’s exile to Elba, to the slopes of Mont Saint Jean in Belgium.

Unlike most of the foreign formations which fought in the coalitions against Napoleon, the King’s German Legion was part of the British regular army. For those not already in royal service, commissions were temporary until August 1810 and were then made permanent by Act of Parliament in recognition of the Legion’s services in the Peninsula. Some of its officers were British, especially in the 2nd Light Battalion,6 as were the paymasters; its bankers were the London firm of Greenword, Cox and Company in Craig’s Court off Whitehall (eventually absorbed into Lloyds bank).7 The language of command was generally English, as was the rank structure; the men of the 2nd Light Battalion were equipped with standard-issue Baker rifles, and they wore the same distinctive green jackets as the British riflemen.8 If they enlisted in Britain, recruits were paid the same bounty as the King’s other subjects. They swore the same oath, and were – as the official proclamation put it – generally ‘subject to the same regulations and articles of war as his majesty’s British troops’.9 The Legion adopted the English enthusiasm for physical exercise, such as rowing, wrestling, stick-fencing and boxing, and team sports such as football and cricket.10 The officers could avail themselves of a progressive military education, and were allowed to attend artillery courses in arithmetic, drawing, geometry, geography and fortifications.11 The Germans never served as a single corps, but were always brigaded with other British units on operations, though at Waterloo their divisional commander, Sir Charles von Alten, was a Hanoverian.12 By Waterloo the Legion had more than a decade of combat experience fighting alongside the rest of Wellington’s army.13 Of a total of some 30,000 Legionnaires who served throughout the conflict, about 1,300 were killed in action, with nearly 5,900 dying from all causes.

The two light battalions were unusual within the Legion in that they never completely adopted British drill regulations, or the English language.14 German remained in use throughout the 2nd Light Battalion, but English was prescribed for sentry duty, where it was vital to avoid misunderstandings, and on parade. Majors and adjutants were chosen with their knowledge of English in mind. Many of the officers were already fluent. Those who were not took private lessons, often with female tutors, in which they made great strides. Some officers who had begun their diaries in German completed them in English.15 They often switched between the two languages in conversation and correspondence. For example, a table on losses and additions to the fighting strength has entries under ‘joined’ and ‘total effectives’ as well as ‘gestorben’ (‘died’) and ‘verabschiedet ohne Pension’ (‘discharged without a pension’).16 Some senior officers, such as General von Alten, who commanded the light division in Spain, and Sir Julius von Hartmann,17


On Sale
Feb 10, 2015
Page Count
192 pages
Basic Books

Brendan Simms

Brendan Simms

About the Author

Brendan Simms is a professor in the history of international relations and fellow at Cambridge. He is the author of many books, including Europe and Hitler. He lives in Cambridge, UK.

Charlie Laderman is a senior lecturer in international history in the war studies department at King’s College, London. He is the author of books on US-UK foreign policy, including Sharing the Burden. He lives in London.

Learn more about this author