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In 1815, the deposed emperor Napoleon returned to France and threatened the already devastated and exhausted continent with yet another war. At Waterloo, two large, hastily mobilised 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. Brendan Simms recounts how these 400-odd riflemen beat back wave after wave of French infantry, arguing that their actions alone decided the most influential battle in European history. Drawing on previously untapped eye-witness reports for accurate and vivid details of the course of the battle, Simms captures the grand choreography and pervasive chaos of Waterloo: the advances and retreats, the death and the maiming, the heroism and the cowardice. He describes the gallant fighting spirit of the French riflemen, who clambered over the bodies of their fallen comrades as they assaulted the heavily fortified farmhouse—and whose bravery was only surpassed by that of their opponents in the Second Light Battalion. Motivated by opposition to Napoleonic tyranny, dynastic loyalty to the King of England, German patriotism, regimental camaraderie, personal bonds of friendship, and professional ethos, the battalion suffered terrible casualties and fought tirelessly for many long hours, but only retreated after having held up Napoleon for long enough to give Blücher time to appear.
Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of European International Relations, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Peterhouse. His publications include The impact of Napoleon. Prussian high politics, foreign policy and the crisis of the executive, 1797-1806 (Cambridge University Press, 1997; The struggle for mastery in Germany, 1780-1850 (Macmillan Press, 1998; Unfinest hour. Britain and the destruction of Bosnia (Allen Lane, London, 2001), (Bosnian and Serbian Edition: Nasramniji Trenutak. Britanija i unistavanje Bosne (Sarajevo and Belgrade, 2003); Three Victories and a defeat: the rise and fall of the first British Empire (Allen Lane, London, 2007);Europe. The struggle for supremacy, 1453 to the present (Allen lane, London, 2013; and The longest afternoon. The 400 men who decided the battle of Waterloo (Allen Lane, London, 2014). His current project is a strategic biography of Hitler.