A great man but a petty character

A few years ago my husband and I decided to make a trip near to Brussels. We rented an apartment in the suburb of Waterloo, where the famous battle took place, and took the opportunity to visit the museums and sites associated with the battle (all of which were excellent). By the time we had finished the trip we knew all about how the battle had progressed and had seen many original items and sites related to it. This included a painted panorama of the battle which tried to give you an impression of the battlefield in the round. I do not, however, remember seeing a model of the battlefield but one was commissioned and the book Wellington’s Smallest Battle by Peter Hofschroer tells the story of what happened when one man was asked to build it.

After battles and big events models, paintings, plays and other art works were commonly created to go on show to the general population to inform and amuse. They also raised money. William Siborne, an army officer, was commissioned sooj after the battle to make a model of the battlefield of Waterloo which was intended to go on national display. This book shows the reader what exactly went into creating a model of this size. You had to consider what scale to use both vertical and horizontal. The land had to be surveyed to be correctly represented. It was necessary to work out what exact time of the battle to portray and where the armies would have been. Lead soldiers needed to be cast and painted correctly and there had to be an understanding of how many real soldiers were represented by one model – you couldn’t make one model for each soldier. As the whole model would be transported around it had to be designed to break into pieces and to be moved without damage. I found all this information fascinating as I have seen this type of model in museums before but never considered what work must have gone into their creation.

Siborne was intent that the model should be as realistic as possible and obtained a vast number of statements from people who had been at the battle, from all sides, to work out who had been where at what time. He wrote to many participants to check details and always tried to get a second or third witness to back up any fact that he had. The collection of first-hand accounts that he collected are now regarded as an important source of information about the battle.

After the battle had been won the Duke of Wellington had written an account of what had happened which was the definitive statement. What happened, however, is that many of the testimonies that Siborne obtained contradicted the official report – especially regarding the time when the Prussians joined the battle and their importance in the victory. When Wellington was appealed to for comment he would not reply and then started a campaign against Siborne and his model. Suddenly, the money that was promised was not forthcoming and Siborne had to incur debt to finish the model so that he could display it and charge for entry. There was a whispering campaign among army officers which resulted in Siborne not receiving promotion. Wellington said openly that the model was wrong and that Siborne might be in the pay of the Prussians as he had Prussian family members – which he didn’t. Even when Siborne offered to change his display Wellington didn’t stop his campaign and the whole project was completely discredited.

This is an interesting book about power and how it can be used to abuse. It is about how one man built his reputation and did everything he possibly could to protect it – even from the truth. It’s actually about marketing an image and reinventing events to suit an accepted narrative. It’s a very interesting book which doesn’t require you to have any love of military history to enjoy it.

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