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Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Story of William Siborne & Great Model of Waterloo: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo Hardcover – 1 Apr 2004
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From the Author
The sub-title of this book is The Story of Captain William Siborne & The Great Waterloo Model. It was inspired mainly by the wish to put the record straight regarding Siborne, who has suffered a bad press for no good reason. To do this, I have located every known document on my subject, travelling to Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh, London and Berlin for my research. Using this material, Sibornes Waterloo Correspondence held in the British Library and all known published accounts than mention Siborne, I have been able to put together the story of the construction of his two Waterloo Models, how they were financed and how he went about writing his classic History of the Waterloo Campaign. I show how totally flawed previous accounts have been.
The second strand in this book is the relationship between Siborne and Wellington. The Large Model was intended to be a great monument to the greatest achievement of the Great Duke, but the two men ended up in a bitter dispute over it and other issues, a dispute that dragged on until Sibornes premature death in 1849. This story is the classic issue of the junior officer asking questions in the wrong places and suffering the consequences. These revelations about Wellington and the role of the Prussians in the Waterloo Campaign will cause a storm of controversy, as I demonstrate exactly how the Great Duke went about having history rewritten. Since then, historians have copied historians
About the Author
Peter Hofschröer, a specialist in Napoleonic history, is the author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning two-volume study 1815 - The Waterloo Campaign (Greenhill Books). Find out more here.
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The book is highly readable. I finished it in a few days, which is amazingly fast for me. Agree with his pro-Prussian stance or not, I doubt anyone could really dispute that Hofschroer writes extremely intelligently and has certainly done his research.
As someone who has dabbled at painting model figures over the years, I am in awe of the Siborne's efforts and the standards he required from the craftsmen who did most of the work.
A great book, not too long and very inspirational.
In this little book, Hofschroer supplies reasons for the tenor of the Waterloo Dispatch, and for the adamant obstructionism provided by the establishment to Siborne's attempt to establish historical debate in order to arrive at the truth of the explanation of the allied victory at Waterloo. When Wellington discovered that Siborne had independently approached the Prussian War Office for the Prussian records of the battle, he determined to scotch Siborne's efforts at historical accuracy. Between 1815 and his death in 1852, Wellington occupied an outstanding position in public life perhaps unparalleled in the history of Britain; he was the establishment. Hofschroer claims that Siborne had stumbled on an economy with the truth, perpetrated by the Duke himself in the Waterloo Dispatch. He then claims that the reasons for this attitude were to do with a wider political aim to downplay Prussian claims to territory and to increased political influence in post-war Europe. British historians tend to accept the Waterloo Dispatch and the overwhelmingly nationalist attitude that the battle would have been won without Prussian help. I have to say that Hofschroer (is it accidental that he bears a German name?) throws doubt on this claim. I have come to the conclusion that the attack by the Prussians on the French left caused Napoleon to commit reserves to holding back this Prussian advance; reserves that would otherwise have been used to overwhelm the allied centre. And that the Prussian advance happened far earlier than the Duke allowed. Yes, I find Hofschroer's arguments, based in the exhaustive contemporary research conducted by Lt Siborne, quite credible. Hofschroer has done us all a service in opening a debate on the reasons for the establishment cover-up which blighted Siborne's military career and led to his early death. The title of Hofschroer's last chapter is Humbugged? For me this word sums up how the nation, Europe and posterity have all been misled by the Great Duke himself, and how even now, 163 years after his death, lowly and underpromoted Lt Siborne may be having the last laugh.
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Peter Hofschröer, author of previous studies of the Prussian army, Waterloo and Wellington's guarding of his role in that battle, has produced detailed a history of Siborne's battle to create an accurate model of the battlefield of Waterloo. Beginning with a description of the battle itself, the author moves swiftly to describe the multitude of panoramas and other shows put on in London exploiting the victory for commercial purposes. But the most lasting commemoration of the battle was to be that constructed by William Siborne.
William Siborne, the son of a British officer, had attended the Royal Military College, graduating in 1814. As his regiment did not participate in the Waterloo campaign, Siborne missed out on serving in the Napoleonic wars, the defining event of the era. When the idea of a military museum in London and more specifically a model of the battlefield of Waterloo were discussed, Siborne's name was put forward as an officer who had knowledge in both topography and model-making. An expert who had written a standard textbook on topographical surveying and drawing, Siborne was employed at producing a model of the famous battle for the new United Service Museum. Siborne, living on the battlefield and using techniques and equipment he had developed, undertook a precise survey of the ground at Waterloo.
Back in Dublin, Siborne began construction of his model, the process of which Hofschröer describes in detail. Two years were spent in constructing, painting and modeling the terrain. At the end of this period the first bump in Siborne's road to completing the model occurred-a change in government. Wellington was out and the opposition was in. A suddenly tight-fisted Whig War Office began to wonder about spending hundreds of pounds on what was, after all, a model honoring a Tory politician-even if it was the Iron Duke.
Ready to set the figures in place, Siborne now found himself drawn into a controversy over the battle itself, a controversy which would bring Siborne into a clash with Wellington. By freezing a moment of the battle in time Siborne's model would offer visual evidence in the disputes that were going to continue for years over who did what, when and where in the great battle. To assist him in the task of accurately placing the highly detailed figures, Siborne proposed sending a letter to the officers of the various regiments involved. Though Siborne got permission to collect his data, and as a by-product producing an indispensable archive of first-hand accounts of the battle. When he sought out the views of Prussian officers, he, in Hofschröer's view, ran afoul of Wellington. Raising the specter of the Prussian contribution to the victory was viewed by Wellington as undermining the reputation of the sole victor of Waterloo--Wellington.
One hundred thousand visitors were reported to have viewed the completed model, with the notable absence of the Great Duke. Wellington explained privately that he "was unwilling to give any Sanction to the truth of such a representation in the Model." Wellingtonians criticized both the model and the later book for the forward placement of the Prussians on the battlefield. Later Wellington was to call the model "all farce, fudge!" and the Duke's close advisors opined that Siborne had been "humbugged" by the Prussians.
In his published history of the battle Siborne attempted unsuccessfully to appease the Great Duke somewhat. But Siborne was unwilling to fully sell his soul to the devil, and the Duke was not the sort of chap to alter his prejudices in the face of facts. Even the disappearance of 40,000 Prussians from the model failed to move the Iron Duke. Publicly one of Wellington's chief criticisms was that by surveying the participants, including the Prussians, Siborne was "humbugged," each participant would be the "hero of his own tale," while it was obvious to Wellington who the sole hero of all the tales should be.
Hofschröer justifies Wellington's treachery by making it in the national interest. While he mentions that "some" considered the British troops the "scum of the earth," he doesn't mention that that "some" is actually Wellington himself. Nor does he go into what a thoroughly bad piece of work the Iron Duke was (needless to say, Wellington's ferrous nickname had nothing to do with his behavior in battle). No great geopolitical conspiracy theory is needed to explain Wellington's behavior, the fault lies in himself.
Whether the model, the book or even Wellington's own behavior could have damaged the Duke's reputation is debatable. The issue was technical enough that few in the general public could have "gotten it," and of those in Britain who were in the know and would have "gotten" it, probably wouldn't have criticized the Great Duke in any case. As Ian Fletcher has pointed out, "Very few writers were willing to come out into the open and [criticize Wellington]...particularly in the post-Waterloo era when Wellington's fame was at its height." And Thomas Morris in his memoirs observed that "...it is considered a sort of treason to speak against the Duke..."
Hofschröer has been tenacious and thorough in his research. An extensive bibliography of not only archival resources from Britain, Germany, Ireland and the United States, but also many contemporary newspapers and periodicals, as well as numerous books was consulted. No one can doubt Hofschröer's skill as a digger into archives. A partially analytical index is also included.
This small book-its small size a visual pun on its topic-has been well designed by the publishers, including both black and white and color illustrations. The sole criticism of the design is the small copy of one of Siborne's topographical plans which is referred to in the text. The map is so small that pointing out a specific feature on it only made me smile. Perhaps having blown up one section of the map would have saved the reader the trouble of squinting.