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Unmaking L’empereur

By (April 1, 2015) One Comment

The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo
By Brendan Simms
Basic Books, 2015

longestafternoonWaterloo was a battle of mythic dimensions. It was also grueling effort with little sleep on soggy ground. For many tens of thousands, it was a deathbed haunted by the shrieks of men and shells alike. Napoleon had returned from exile, summoned an army, and was storming across Europe. His old enemies formed the Seventh Coalition to drive Napoleon from the field and restore order to the continent. Napoleon’s Armée du Nord was facing Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch forces and the Prussians, a coalition of two armies which had mercifully failed to unite. He hoped to destroy Wellington early and then finish off the Prussian army separately (he’d damaged it two days earlier at Ligny). Wellington chose a favourable patch of ground and prepared to give battle, hoping his reinforcements would arrive in time to crush Napoleon. In the early hours of 18 June 1815, Napoleon’s troops began their assault on Wellington’s improvised defenses near Waterloo.

Brendan Simms’ The Longest Afternoon focuses on the intimate side of this battle, both more prosaic and more terrifying than the clash of empires. He deftly employs the personal to explain the political; the grand contest was significant because of the passion and heroism it aroused in ordinary people. The soldiers of the 2nd Light Battalion King’s German Legion (KGL), the focus of Simms narrative, are allowed to appear as people first and only then as combatants. Simms begins with their motivations, their reception in England, and a few of the more memorable characters. He then escorts us through the battle itself, focusing on a handful of soldiers. He concludes by adumbrating the after effects of the battle on the KGL and its historical reception. Simms offers an interesting proposal, but he’s executed it in less than 130 pages of main text. Such parsimony necessarily sacrifices detail and tends to magnify quirks. Even minor nuisances loom large in such a cramped volume.

Waterloo was a watershed battle and it has spawned a vast literature. Simms finds a fresh vantage point by focusing on the contest for La Haye Sainte, a farmhouse that dominated the center of Wellington’s coalition army. Of mixed nationality and experience, Wellington’s recently defeated force was inferior in quality and number to Napoleon’s. The retreating army anchored itself on three hardened points – Hougoumont (right), La Haye and Papelotte (left), and the farmhouse in the center. All three positions were critical, but La Haye Sainte holds the dubious honor of being the least supplied and fortified, despite commanding the region now occupied by the bulk of the coalition army. Simms shows us how 400 men, lacking their engineers and their supply wagons, hold back the French long enough to secure victory for the coalition – and the horrid price they pay for glory.

Our affable tour guide through an awful event generally manages an appropriate tone, balancing a wealth of information, an approachable demeanor, and due solemnity. However, he has a nasty habit of tossing off details that never develop into anything of note. Simms keeps his account lively by jumping around a few points of view, drawing on journal entries, and speaking on behalf of the soldiers. The little touches bring a particular moment to life, but can also rob the narrative of momentum. Describing the lay of La Haye Sainte and the pre-battle preparation, Simms feels compelled to share that

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.

One can see Simms’ point: pre-battle conditions were unfavorable to say the least; but the prose abandons this information at our feet. Inelegant appeals like this interrupt the narrative and trivialize more than humanize. A handful of disparate experiences, divorced from the tempo of the story as a whole, is just trivia. More than anything, these awkward appeals read like fragments of an excised paragraph and highlight unfavorably the volume’s brevity.

That brevity is usually an asset though, as Simms moves at a jaunty clip condensing scholarly knowledge while integrating first-hand accounts. He does an admirable job expressing authority without condescending to the reader. Reading the book often feels like chatting with a friend, who could always go into more detail if you asked, but would rather keep the big-picture in mind for now. Except Simms can’t stop himself from occasionally over-explaining points he’s already made quite well. In an early example, Simms indicates his subjects’ complex motivations:

[T]he rank and file perceived themselves not as the ‘scum of the earth’, for whom military service was simply an escape from poverty or incarceration, nor simply as honest military professionals for whom service was a life-long occupation, but as free Germans and loyal subjects of the Elector-King, who had volunteered to rid their land of the French scourge. In this, they resembled the ‘Free French’ of General de Gaulle during the Second World War.

Who is willing to read one unit’s experience of one part of one battle, yet is unfamiliar with the concept ‘patriotism’ and needs ‘Free French’ explained to them? I find it puzzling that the author assumes the reader’s interest in battlefield narrative, yet still spoon feeds relatively simple points about warfare. He even spends two pages explaining how muzzle loading guns work. Why make time for such basic information instead of fleshing out the book’s already cramped focus? We’re here to read about the experiences of the KGL at Waterloo not the rudiments of Napoleonic warfare.

Within the battle narrative proper, Simms truly shines. He generally keeps the narrative focus at the personal or battalion level, but is willing to pan back to the battle as a whole when context is required. Thus, Simms begins the yarn not with the assault on La Haye Sainte, but with Wellington’s and Napoleon’s simultaneous blunders: Wellington, concerned with fortifying the flank furthest from the Prussian reinforcements, stripped the engineers from La Haye Sainte leaving the defenders to their own devices. Their breastworks were so flimsy an allied patrol accidentally destroyed them by riding by. Meanwhile, Napoleon made little preparation for capturing the farmhouse. Instead, he planned a probing assault at Hougoumont to gauge Wellington’s strength and tie up as much of the enemy as possible. Napoleon blithely assumed a cannonade and a frontal assault at La Haye Sainte would overwhelm the defenses and allow his cannon into a commanding position. D’Erlon’s corps would then advance past the farm to break the coalition center and force Wellington to deploy his reserves. With the enemy overextended, Napoleon would choose the optimum moment to unleash his own reserves, overwhelming Wellington’s army.

The artillery barrage and d’Erlon’s I Corps – drawn up wide, shouting, thousands strong – failed to panic the defenders. Laying in the dirt, the Germans waited for I Corps to enter range. French musket and German rifle sang out. The fields around La Haye Sainte sprouted their first corpses. This first assault snagged on the tenacious defense, but gradually overwhelmed the 2nd Light Battalion and their support.

Despite [a] tableau of devastation, the French column ploughed on up the hill, driving the British riflemen out of the sandpit back to the main allied position. Some of the attackers now swung left and piled into the kitchen garden, held by Lieutenant Meyer’s solitary company. The rest soon reached the ridge…The whole allied center was now in immediate danger of being overrun.

Only the timely intervention of friendly cavalry allowed the Germans to redeploy in better formation.

Simms employs his details strategically. He tells us a column advanced toward the farmhouse clearing a path to the barred gate. He then shows us “an intrepid and hirsute engineer – Lieutenant Vieux, a graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique – [running] up and hack[ing] furiously at the gate with an axe.” The little points imply a character and context that is not fleshed out, but doesn’t have to be. Simms creates the illusion of exhaustive coverage without exhausting the reader. At the same time, we rarely lose sight of the context that makes the details matter.

Belgium-Waterloo-The-Thombs-1900Only the most hectic moments overwhelm the reader. Lists of names, with injury and prognosis, pile up blunting the senses. But this may be more art than accident: a Napoleonic battle was numbing in its intensity such that a veteran recounted “there were moments … when the senses of hearing and sight had in fact shut down, and not just figuratively so.” Names piling on a page can only dimly echo the flesh piling on a battlefield, which literally blinds and deafens by sheer psychic trauma. Casting our eyes back over a brisk narrative and finding, with growing dread, a great list of dead and damaged underlines the wretched cost at La Haye Sainte. Keeping score in media res inspires more annoyance than awe.

Reformed after a shocking first assault, both armies rushed to reinforce the center. Napoleon found himself in a position not unlike that which he planned to force on Wellington. The battles at Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte had stalled, commanders clamoring for reinforcement. If he committed his reserves now and the Prussians arrived – as they must eventually – the French would be routed or worse, enveloped. Marshall Ney broke the dilemma by launching the 19th century equivalent of a combined arms assault. Heavy cavalry surged across the fields between La Haye Sainte and Hougoumont rotating with cannonade and infantry assault. Ney had misread Wellington shuffling troops as an imminent morale break. Rather than routing, the defenders were forced to rotate in turn between square, cover, and line formations. A single error could annihilate a battalion, opening a path for a French breakthrough.

The fortress-like farmhouse – its walls were three feet thick – suffered little from Ney’s cavalry. The KGL used its respite to reform and loot. Simms doesn’t blush at the foibles of his subjects, preferring to juxtapose their crass and noble instincts. An enterprising fellow named Lindau

managed to relieve an enemy of a purse stuffed with gold coins… Shortly after, Lindau was shot in the back of the head. He refused Lieutenant Graeme’s order to go back for medical attention. “No,” he answered, “so long as I can stand I stay at my post.”

The brave, greedy lad had more than a little fighting left to do. As Ney’s assault dissipated, infantry resumed concerted attacks at La Haye Sainte and set the barn on fire. Desperate for ammunition – the 2nd Light had been issued standard rations despite their obviously critical position – and choking on smoke, they sent word to brigade requesting relief. Instead of bullets, the 2nd received line infantry, whose muskets fired rounds incompatible with the light infantry’s rifles. In one of life’s little courtesies, the line infantry’s cooking pots proved essential for extinguishing the fire.

With afternoon shading into evening, d’Erlon’s I Corps, disordered since the early, failed assault, pressed La Haye Sainte once again. Reduced to less than five rounds a man, the 2nd began its withdrawal. They found refuge with brigade command and a clutch of other KGL and coalition units. Desperate to stem the French advance, most of these forces were squandered in an idiotic, failed counterattack.

Waterloosäule_sstBoth armies were thoroughly bloodied and the torrent of Prussians now arriving threw the battle into chaos. Napoleon had one last desperate chance to carry the day or be drowned between English shoals and Prussian tide. With La Haye Sainte finally in d’Erlon’s hands – a mere five hours behind schedule – Napoleon flung the Imperial Guard at the coalition center. Lt. Baring, commander of the 2nd Light Brigade and valiant defender of La Haye Sainte, was not permitted the glory of destroying that last chance. Exhausted from fighting Frenchman and fire and reeling from casualties, the KGL and the 2nd Light Battalion were a spent force. Baring watched his men dribble in ones and twos into the backfield as a contingent of allied Nassauers stormed the fetid place he had defended at such cost.

The last thirty pages are devoted to an epilogue of sorts and very brief account of the KGL’s civic and historical reception. This material is all a welcome addition, even a necessary one. It gives the work a pleasing sense of symmetry to begin with the KGL as people, then show them as combatants, and finally consider them as relics and memories.

I would have appreciated more time with these fellows at all three stages, but the absence is felt most in the middle – the actual battle narrative is less than 70 pages. If the defense of La Haye Sainte “decided the battle of Waterloo,” as Simms’ subtitle alleges, then he can surely muster a more detailed defense of its decisiveness.

I admit it’s churlish to chide a writer for the book he didn’t write, but Simms’ goals are hard to discern. This book is an enjoyable take on a very familiar story, but the material is a bit glib for an aficionado and the topic a bit niche for a dilettante. Were the book more expansive and more trusting of the reader it would be a better specimen of human-scale military history. It is too slight to be entirely satisfying. Waterloo is the decisive battle of Napoleon’s career and, at least by Simms’ reckoning, these men were the crucial element in the coalition victory. Reading the unmaking of l’empereur should be a momentous occasion; it should not pass by in one long afternoon.

Matt Ray is a philosophy graduate student. He blogs at Hedonaut.