Decisive clash: The battle for La Haye Sainte, the walled farmhouse at the centre of the battlefield at Waterloo (image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The bicentenary of Waterloo next June has spawned the publication — and all too often the re-publication after many years of well-deserved obscurity — of over a dozen books about what is probably the world's most famous battle. Two new and remarkable additions to this avalanche of literature are Gareth Glover's superb explosion of literally dozens of myths about the campaign, and Brendan Simms's equally well-argued and gripping concentration on the struggle for La Haye Sainte, the walled farmhouse in the centre of the battlefield. That these excellent books disagree merely proves how Waterloo will continue to divide historians for another two centuries at least.
Glover is the editor of easily the most important publishing phenomenon in Waterloo studies for decades, the six-volume Waterloo Archive series of 500 hitherto-unpublished letters about the battle, written by people from every country that took part. These prove that what Glover calls the "increasingly xenophobic claims by the competing nations in the centuries since the battle" have completely skewed the historical record. Once xenophobia is added to the discrepancies, misunderstandings, and sheer confusion that is usefully summed up in the phrase "the fog of war", we can appreciate that we actually know much less about the battle than we thought, beyond the fact that the French lost. (As Glover jokingly points out, the pop group Abba's claim that "at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender" is also false.)
Even the route taken by Napoleon's Imperial Guard in its final, doomed attack on Wellington's line is disputed, largely because of the various competing claims by British and other Allied troops that it had been their own bravery that turned back the cream of the French army and thus finally decided the outcome. By painstakingly connecting the original sources together, using the expertise of 40 years' study of the battle, and also employing a good deal of military knowledge and common sense, Glover radically reinterprets the evidence to piece together what really happened on the more than one route that various sections of the Guard actually took. "I believe that this version of events is by far the most likely," Glover modestly avers, "although it may never be proven beyond all doubt."
Brendan Simms, professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge, has written a very short but genuinely exciting account of the defence of La Haye Sainte by the 2nd Light Battalion of the King's German Legion (KGL) during the battle. The KGL were part of the British Regular Army, most of them German subjects of George III in his capacity as Elector of Hanover. Their doughty defence of the strategically vital farmhouse from 2pm on June 18, 1815, when it was attacked by French forces more than six times larger than the number of defenders — which Simms puts at 378 effectives — to when it finally fell at 6.30pm, is credited by the author as being the key factor in Wellington's line holding, making Waterloo, for Simms at least, more a German (or even Hanoverian) than a British victory.
The Fog of War Lifts on Waterloo