Originally published by The Wall Street Journal
Whether holding the “Hot Gates” against the Persians, manning the Alamo in defiance of Santa Anna’s massed Mexican troops or repelling waves of Zulu warriors at Rorke’s Drift, the outnumbered defenders of improvised strongpoints exert a powerful hold on the popular imagination. In “The Longest Afternoon: The 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo,” Brendan Simms recounts another defiant stand, the exploits of a battalion of German soldiers who defended the substantial farmhouse of La Haye Sainte, which bolstered the center of the Duke of Wellington’s line during his bloody and decisive encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte near Brussels on June 18, 1815.
The defense of La Haye Sainte already features in many books and was depicted on the big screen in the epic 1970 movie “Waterloo.” Yet the protracted and ferocious struggle for the farmhouse is typically treated as a small act in a much larger drama, and Mr. Simms believes that its true significance has been underplayed. Shifting the farmhouse and its stubborn garrison to center stage, “The Longest Afternoon” is among the opening shots of what promises to become an intensive barrage of books timed to the Waterloo bicentenary this summer. While running to barely 150 pages of text, Mr. Simms’s fluent and meticulously researched narrative nonetheless provides enough context to engage not only specialists, but also readers unfamiliar with the broader historical background.