Press Release, London 4th July 2002

 

 

Faber & Faber Ltd. are pleased to announce that they have signed Peter Hofschröer, a leading Napoleonic scholar and author of numerous books, including the critically acclaimed and award winning “1815 – The Waterloo Campaign” (2 vols, Greenhill Books / Stackpole, 1989-99), to write:

 

Wellington’s Smallest Victory –

The Story of William Siborne and the Great Model of Waterloo

 

"On Thursday last we had the gratification of attending the private view of this consummate exercise of skill and ingenuity; and have no hesitation in pronouncing it the most perfect model that has ever yet fallen under our notice."

United Service Gazette, October 6, 1838

 

‘I wrote a letter, dated 18 May 1845, to Arbuthnot, in which I deprecated

the Duke’s severity towards Siborne’.

Earl of Ellesmere

 

VISITORS to the National Army Museum in London cannot fail to be impressed by the enormous, beautifully detailed diorama on display there. In front of you unfolds some four hundred square feet of miniature farmland (the scale is 9 feet to the mile). Peopling that landscape are some 75,000 tin-lead soldiers, each one 10 mm high and hand-painted with absolute regimental accuracy. 

 

On closer inspection, you might suppose that there has been an embarrassing mishap – perhaps the sleeve of a clumsy museum official has knocked over so many of these tiny antique soldiers, spoiling their neat strategic ranks, scattering them about the diminutive crops and farm buildings. And then of course you realise that there has been no accident, but that everything has been deliberately composed by a master craftsman. This scene, with all its terrible carnage, has simply been frozen in time. The rolling landscape before you is that of the countryside near Brussels, on a Sunday evening in June, 1815. Here, as if viewed through the wrong end of the telescope, stretches the bloody battleground that was Waterloo.

 

***

 

In 1830, Lord Hill, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, approached Lieutenant William Siborne, an officer known to specialise in topography and model-making, and asked him to construct what would become the greatest military model ever made.  This three-dimensional depiction of the most significant battle ever fought by the Great Duke - perhaps the most important battle of our modern era - was to be displayed in a special room in a planned new military museum.

 

Siborne, who had not advanced beyond the rank of Lieutenant he had obtained fifteen years ago, jumped at this opportunity. He worked away at this monumental project for the next eight years, devoting to it every minute of his spare time. The Model became an obsession, the sole reason for his life; he was fanatical about even the most minor details. And when it was finally exhibited in 1838 at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London, his Model was visited by 100,000 people. But while the Model brought Siborne fame, it did not make his fortune. His determination to get the facts right had not made him popular in high places.

 

Early on in the planning of the Model, Siborne had decided to show the positions of the troops at the very crisis of the battle - at 7.15 p.m., when Napoleon’s Imperial Guard made its final assault on Wellington’s centre. He went to amazing lengths to verify the exact disposition of the troops, whether they be British, German, Netherlanders or French. He spent months living on site, painstakingly surveying the battlefield.  The vast archive of the letters he exchanged with veterans from all sides – there are six volumes of correspondence at the British Library – formed the basis for his classic History of the Campaign, which is still in print.

 

In 1836 the Duke of Wellington had looked over Siborne’s plans of the battle, and pronounced them accurately drawn. But when the Model came to be exhibited in 1838, the Duke refused any suggestion that he should join the visiting crowds: ‘That is a question I have often been asked, to which I don’t want to give an answer, because I don’t want to injure the man. But if you want to know my opinion, it’s all farce, fudge!’ Far from not wanting to ‘injure the man’, we now know Wellington blocked Siborne’s attempts to obtain the promotion promised for his work, and foiled Siborne’s requests to the government to fund this mammoth project. Why should Wellington set out to blacken Siborne’s name?

 

The extraordinary story of what happened to Siborne – why Wellington turned against him, why in desperation he removed 40,000 Prussian soldiers from his beloved Model (leaving just 8,000), why he died a bitterly disappointed man - has never been told. Despite copious amounts of documentation, Wellington’s biographers have contrived to overlook this episode. It is surely time someone spoke up for Siborne and his dogged if naïve determination to create a perfect representation of that evening in 1815.  These revelations about Wellington’s attempt to control his public image – and what this tell us about what was a crucial turning point in history - will cause considerable controversy.