A slim but gripping account of the bloody, heroic defense of La Haye Sainte, a farmhouse that Napoleon had to capture to reach the Duke of Wellington’s army.
The massive stone building survives intact; not so its defenders, a battle-tested unit of the British army. Simms (History of International Relations/Peterhouse Coll., Univ. of Oxford; Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, from 1453 to the Present, 2013, etc.) begins in 1803 when Napoleon annexed the German principality of Hanover and dissolved its army. Following these events, many soldiers fled to Britain, where they and other expatriates were numerous enough to form the King’s German Legion, which fought in Ireland, the Netherlands and Spain before its supreme test in Belgium on June 18, 1815. As the author writes, they “were motivated by a combination of ideological opposition to Napoleonic tyranny, dynastic loyalty to the King of England, German patriotism, regimental camaraderie, personal bonds of friendship and professional ethos.” The Duke of Wellington placed most of his army behind a ridge and ordered a battalion of the legion 400 meters ahead to occupy the house, but he sent the legion’s engineers elsewhere, making extensive fortification impossible. Worse, he made no provisions for resupplying ammunition beyond the standard issue of 60 rounds. At 1 p.m., the French attacked, surrounding the house. Beaten back, they attacked again and again, setting it on fire but not capturing it until after 6 p.m., when the surviving defenders retreated for lack of ammunition. This allowed Napoleon to launch the Imperial Guards at Wellington’s lines, which were beaten back as the Prussian army arrived to turn it into a rout.
Since literacy was common even among enlisted men, Simms takes advantage of abundant letters and memoirs to deliver an engrossing, often gruesome nuts-and-bolts description of that afternoon.