• Germany's news in English

How 400 Germans won the Battle of Waterloo

The Local · 18 Jun 2015, 10:13

Published: 18 Jun 2015 10:13 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

In 1811, Napoleon's empire and its allies had over 44 million subjects and covered most of Europe.

But after being defeated in 1813 and 1814 by the Sixth Coalition, which included Austria, Prussia, Russia, Britain, Portugal, Sweden, Spain and other German states, Napoleon was forced to abdicate and exiled to the island of Elba.

The First French Empire was dissolved, and the Bourbon monarchy restored, but in February 1815 Napoleon escaped from his exile and returned to France to take command once again.

The culmination of his triumphant return, known as the Hundred Days, was the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815, which finally brought his downfall at the hands of the British allied forces and the Prussians.

The key generals: Napoleon (left), Wellington (centre) and Blücher of Prussia (right). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The three Waterloo generals (l-r): Napoleon, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the Prussian commander. Images: Wikimedia Commons

La Haye Sainte

Brendan Simms, Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University, has just published a book telling the story of a small group of Germans that ended up being decisive in the final outcome of the battle.

"The Long Afternoon" depicts the defence of La Haye Sainte, a farmhouse located just in front of Wellington's front line.

Simms told the Local that "La Haye Sainte features in most detailed accounts of the battle, but not enough because it was absolutely crucial in the outcome."

The important task of defending this ground in order to protect Wellington's main line was given to the King's German Legion, a group of around 400 men from Hanover following British orders, as King George III was also Elector (prince) of Hanover before the city was taken by Napoleon in 1803.

Men of the King's German Legion. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Prussian army had been defeated a few days earlier nearby in Ligny, but had regrouped and was marching to support Wellington's forces.

The King's German Legion bravely managed to hold their positions for most of the day until their ammunition ran out, and by the time they eventually had to retreat from the farmhouse, the Prussian army had arrived in support, and the allied forces were able to counter attack to victory.

The narrative of the Napoleonic wars is often dominated by the victorious generals, like Nelson at Trafalgar and Wellington at Waterloo, neglecting the rank-and-file soldiers who did the fighting.

In a letter in 1813, Wellington described these men as "the scum of the earth", but they are very much the focus of Simms' detailed account.

"It is true that not much has been written about the ordinary soldiers, but luckily the King's German Legion awarded medals to them, and these accounts were useful in my research," he said.

The Storming of La Haye Sainte by Richard Knötel. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Storming of La Haye Sainte, painted by Richard Knötel. Image: Wikimedia Commons

La Haye Sainte represents an example of how a small group of Germans played a decisive role in what is often considered a great British victory.

The period after Waterloo was one of cooperation between Britain and the German states, which Simms described as "Anglo-German symbiosis".

"The link between the British monarchy and Hanover ended in 1837 (when Queen Victoria took the throne), but It wasn’t until the late 1890s that Anglo-German relations soured," he said.

Story continues below…

200th anniversary 

The farmhouse where the brave defence took place still stands today, and across the road is a memorial to the King's German Legion. There is also a Waterloo column in the city of Hannover.

But it is the Battle of Leipzig of 1813, also known as the Battle of Nations, that is remembered the most in Germany.

"Leipzig is important in the German consciousness, because it is part of the narrative of liberation from Napoleon, and took place on German soil, but Waterloo should be represented more," Simms arged. 

On the other hand, Waterloo plays a huge part in British collective memory, and a memorial service is to be held at St Paul's Cathedral on Thursday. A huge re-enactment is also taking place this week at the site of the battle in Belgium.

Simms said: "It is important to stress the spirit of commemoration, because Waterloo is a true lieu de memoire [place of memory] for much of Europe".

By Matty Edwards

SEE ALSO: Tyrant or visionary? The French view of Napoleon

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local (news@thelocal.de)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Outrage over ruling on 'brutal' gang rape of teen girl
The now convicted suspects, sitting in court in Hamburg. Photo: DPA.

A 14-year-old girl was gang-raped and left partially clothed and unconscious in freezing temperatures. Now prosecutors are appealing the sentences for the young men found guilty, most of whom will not set foot in jail.

Dozens of Turkish diplomats apply for asylum in Germany
Demonstrators holding a giant Turkish flag protest against the attempted coup in Istanbul in July. Photo: DPA.

Since the failed putsch attempt in Turkey in July, Germany has received 35 asylum applications from people with Turkish diplomatic passports, the Interior Ministry confirmed on Wednesday.

Hertha Berlin fan club criticised for 'anti-gay banner'
Hertha BSC beat FC Cologne 2-1. Photo: DPA

A 50 metre fan banner apparently mocking the idea of gay adoption has overshadowed Hertha BSC's win in the Bundesliga.

Germany stalls Chinese takeover of tech firm Aixtron
Aixtron headquarters in Herzogenrath. Photo: DPA

The German government on Monday said it had withdrawn approval for a Chinese firm to acquire Aixtron, a supplier to the semiconductor industry, amid growing unease over Chinese investment in German companies.

Politicians call for tough sentences for 'killer clowns'
File photo: DPA.

Now that the so-called 'killer clown' craze has spread from the US to Germany, elected officials are drawing a hard line against such "pranks", with some threatening offenders with jail time of up to a year.

Nearly one in ten Germans are severely disabled
Photo: DPA

New figures reveal that 9.3 percent of the German population last year were considered severely disabled.

The Local List
Germany's top 10 most surreal sites to visit
The Upside-Down House, in Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania. Photo: Olaf Meister / Wikimedia Commons

From upside-down houses on Baltic islands to a fairy-tale castle near the Austrian border, Germany is a treasure trove of the extraordinary.

Bavarian critics back Merkel for Chancellor again
Photo: DPA

The Christian Social Union (CSU) have long delayed backing Angela Merkel as their candidate for Chancellor in next year's general election. But now key leaders are supporting her publicly.

Four taken to hospital after hotel toilet bursts into flames
File photo: DPA.

Four guests at a Nuremberg hotel were taken to hospital due to smoke inhalation early Monday morning after a toilet there burst into flames.

Creepy clown scare spreads to Germany
Two of the clowns were apparently equipped with chainsaws. Photo: Pedro Pardo / AFP file picture

Police said Friday five incidents involving so-called scary clowns had occurred in two north German towns, including one assailant who hit a man with a baseball bat, amid fears that Halloween could spark a rash of similar attacks.

10 things you never knew about socialist East Germany
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
How Germans fell in love with America's favourite squash
How I ditched London for Berlin and became a published author
12 clever German idioms that'll make you sound like a pro
23 fascinating facts you never knew about Berlin
9 unmissable events to check out in Germany this October
10 things you never knew about German reunification
10 things you're sure to notice after an Oktoberfest visit
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
10 German films you have to watch before you die
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd