The 378 men of the 2nd Light Battalion King’s German Infantry made up a tiny fraction of Wellington’s force of 68,000 at Waterloo, and they are often forgotten amid Napoleon’s massive frontal assaults against the allied line on the heights of Mont-Saint-Jean. Their fierce defense of a farmhouse called La Haye Sainte is the subject of Brendan Simms’s short but action-packed book. By his reckoning, the five-hour struggle for La Haye Sainte changed the course of the battle.
The men of the 2nd Light Battalion were a remarkable hybrid: Hanoverian by birth and British by circumstance. Most enlisted after Napoleon overran Hanover and northern Germany in 1803, and they were ideologically committed to ousting the French scourge and restoring the European balance of power. Unlike most foreign units that joined the coalition against Napoleon—the British made up only 36 percent of the force at Waterloo—the 2nd Light was part of the British Regular Army, owing to the fact that George III was both sovereign of Great Britain and elector of Hanover. The Hanoverians’ base camp was in Bexhill (now Bexhill-on-Sea), on the Channel coast. They wore the distinctive green jackets of English riflemen, fired the same Baker rifles, developed an English love of games, assumed the manners and dress of English gentlemen, and even married local girls.
But while they fought gallantly and contributed mightily to Wellington’s victory, they were not, as Simms’s subtitle asserts, “the 400 men who decided the Battle of Waterloo.” They had to be massively reinforced during the battle, and men from five other regiments were also inside La Haye Sainte by the time it fell to the French. The end came when the defenders ran out of ammunition; they had been given the standard-issue 60 rounds apiece, plainly insufficient given the location of the farmhouse. Only 42 men of the battalion’s original complement answered a roll call after the fighting, with the rest killed, wounded, missing, or dispersed across the battlefield. A final tally showed 168 casualties, including 31 dead.
Simms finesses this change of cast by putting special focus on the battalion’s leading characters. Its commander, Major George Baring, known for his involvement in “affairs of honor” over women, had three horses shot out from under him. Lt. John Drummond Graeme, only 18 years old, picked off countless French soldiers from his post atop the pigsty and refused medical aid after being wounded (“no going back, that won’t do”). Finally, Pvt. Friedrich Lindau, a ferocious warrior and indefatigable looter, was shot in the back of the head but kept fighting after a rifleman wrapped a rum-soaked scarf over the wound.
The battalion’s finest moment came during Napoleon’s first infantry assault. Two brigades, some 5,000 men in all, made straight for the farmhouse. The emperor, meanwhile, tried his own version of “shock and awe,” starting with a half-hour cannon barrage. Then his drummers and buglers made a din while officers danced at the head of the line and flourished their swords—rather like New Zealand ruggers doing a haka dance before a big match. Major Baring coolly instructed his men to wait until the enemy was perilously close.
It was now that the riflemen opened a deadly fire from the skirmish line beside the farm, the hedge behind the orchard, the barricade, the courtyard walls and the top windows of the house.
It’s not known how many fell at that moment, but French sources estimate that as many as 2,000 men died trying to take the farmhouse. The real hero was La Haye Sainte itself, which was 400 meters south of Wellington’s main line and 700 meters north of Napoleon’s forward batteries. “The buildings formed a breakwater which shattered the cohesion of the French advance,” Simms writes, “and a bulwark which prevented him from bringing up artillery to blast the allied line at close range.”
Simms believes that, had the house been taken sooner, “Napoleon would almost certainly have broken the allied center, and defeated Wellington’s army” before Prussian reinforcements arrived from the east.
La Haye Sainte is still part of a working farm, and Simms was prompted to write about it when he discovered that the present owner is a childhood friend. The masonry walls are so thick that, today, a cordless landline phone cannot be used in the farmhouse.