Reviews: Books of General Interest



Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo

By Peter Hofschröer

Hofschröer, Peter.  Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo. London, UK: Faber & Faber, 2004. 240 pages, illus. (partially colored).  ISBN# 0571217680. Hardcover. £14.99.

Visitors to London's Egyptian Hall in October 1838, like visitors to London's National Army Museum today, had a chance to marvel at a finely detailed model of the battlefield of Waterloo—the field of the Duke of Wellington's famous victory over the Emperor Napoleon.  Capt. William Siborne, the modeler who made the diorama of Britain's greatest battle, found himself in a losing, lop-sided battle of his own with Wellington, the man Siborne wished to honor with his model by freezing Wellington's greatest victory like a fly in amber in the memory of Britons.

Peter Hofschröer, author of previous studies of the Prussian army, Waterloo and Wellington's zealous 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, a battle Hofschröer has previously described in depth in two previous works, 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, much as World War II was to become for the so-called "Greatest Generation."  Siborne arrived in France for the occupation.  After a stint on half-pay, Siborne returned to the military as a military secretary in Ireland.

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, whose term as Prime Minister was one of the low points of that institution, 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.

In the end the government generously offered to allow Siborne to complete the model at his own expense.  If Siborne didn't complete the model he would have to reimburse the government for the expenses already paid out— a Catch-22 if there ever was one.  Siborne's solution was to raise the funds by taking loans, the proposed publishing of a guide to the model and a history of the campaign, and by subscription with a repayment with interest to the investors from the presumed profits the model's exhibition would be sure to bring in.  A plan for disaster.

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.  While Siborne, innocently consumed with completing his great project, ignored hints of the dangerous path he was treading, the army feared the stirring up of further disputes among offices vying to "overplay the role of their own unit[s]." As Wellington was to later complain, books and representations of the battle was a call for the stoking of "controversies of a nature most unpleasant, as they will be with the wounded vanity of individuals and nations."  Finally Siborne awakened to the issue which is at the center of this book.  In a letter to Horse Guards, Siborne stated that he could not "conceive how an attempt to illustrate more in detail the main feature of the Battle, 'must in great measure tend to weaken the high authority of the Duke of Wellington's'" account of the battle.

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. 

At this point in the book (and in a later chapter), Hofschröer recounts the story of Wellington's "duplicitous" treatment of the Prussians, a theory given greater treatment in Hofschröer's previous books on the Waterloo campaign.   That Wellington did not move swiftly and immediately to assist the Prussians at Ligny is, in my view, as easily explained by the fact that it wasn't in Wellington's nature to move swiftly and immediately.  Wellington was no Napoleon.  Nor was it in Wellington's nature to risk his troops for his Allies.  Malice is not necessary to explain Wellington's actions, nor was it necessarily an error of judgment.  Wellington's claim to have known better than the Prussians the error of their dispositions at Ligny might as easily be explained by Wellington's overweening vanity, the pettiness of his mind, arrogance and belief in his own infallibility—a not uncommon failing among the great and the not-so-great.

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."  And indeed the Duke was unwilling to lend his name to the various other publications and representations of the battle.  But he apparently didn't mind having surrogates criticize both Siborne's model and book. 

One criticism of the model was that it was so large and so detailed that the uninformed were overwhelmed and would find it "difficult … to comprehend."  More specifically the 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.

 

While the exhibition was a success, Siborne never realized the rewards he had hoped for.  Siborne hoped to sell the model to some institution that would give his years of work a permanent home.  The government, the United Services Museum, and private parties all turned him down.  Even when the Tories and the Secretary of War who had originally authorized the project regained office, Siborne hopes remained unfulfilled. Even offering to decimate the Prussians on the model produced no assistance from those on high.

In his 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.

Strangely, reflecting perhaps Siborne's obsession, following all of his tribulations in producing his first model, Siborne decided to construct another.  The choice of subject this time was certain not to please his Lordship and it is more than likely in Hofschröer's view that this time Siborne knew it.  At the same time Siborne continued to hope to sell his model to recoup his investment. Siborne was unable to dispose of his models before his death in Jan. 1849—hastened undoubtedly by the stress and anxiety of his lengthy battle with the Wellington forces.  After his death, Siborne's model did eventually find a home in the United Services Museum, the precursor of its present location in the National Army Museum.

Hofschröer, despite his apparent belief in Wellington's duplicitous character, is surprisingly solicitous of Wellington's character as a whole.  He 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.

Hubert Richardson's A Dictionary of Napoleon & his Times (Ann Arbor, MI, Gryphon, 1971. p. 461) points out that Wellington "could not tolerate that anyone should receive a meed of praise in connexion with any of his campaigns, excepting himself."  The Dictionary goes on to state that he was "a man divorced from the softer and better influences of humanity—a cold and calculating commander and a statesman who had in him the makings of a despot…" 

Andrew Uffindell (The Eagles Last Triumph. London: Stackpole, 1994. P.33) criticizing his skills as a general says that "Wellington excelled at defensive tactics but was less sure at campaign strategy."  John Aitchison in 1809 observed that "the great miseries which our troops have suffered are in no small degree to be attributed to a presumption of infallibility, which Lord Wellington appears to have entertained for his own plans." (An Ensign in the Peninsular War. London: M. Joseph, 1981. P. 62)  Another contemporary officer observed after the fiasco at Burgos, "To shift blame upon others he complains they do not work well," and that also at Burgos Wellington blamed Major Laurie, who conveniently died in the attack on the town, for the lack of "sufficient means to take the place." (John Mills. For King and Country. Ed. By Ian Fletcher. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 1995. P. 237)

Military historian E.W. Sheppard (A Short History of the British Army. London: Constable, 1959. p. 167.) stated that "Few men with such an undeniable claim to greatness can have united in themselves so many unpleasant personal characteristics…. gratitude, courtesy, good fellowship were all foreign to his repellent nature; and his behavior towards certain individuals who were unfortunate enough to fall out of his good graces gives one to believe that his own verdict on Napoleon —that he was 'no gentleman'— might with even greater appositeness have been self-applied."  Alexander Gordon wrote in 1811, Wellington "has no idea of gratitude, favour, or affection, and cares not for anyone however much he may owe to him."  (Mark Urban.  The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes. N.Y.: Harper Collins, 2001.  P. 304.)

Jack Meyer in reviewing one of Hofschröer's previous books asked if Wellington's behavior towards the Prussians at Ligny might just as easily be explained by poor generalship as by geo-politics.  And surely his behavior towards his Spanish allies in the Peninsula was no less egregious that that towards the Prussians. Charles Esdaile (The Duke of Wellington and the Command of the Spanish Army. New York : St. Martin's Press, 1990. P. 90.) observed in a strangely similar circumstance in Spain that "Wellington's halt on the Alberche is certainly mysterious, especially as the countryside ahead of him was far less exhausted.  The most likely explanation seems to be that he was privately becoming alarmed at his own temerity in advancing so far into Spain, though two letters which he wrote to [John] Frere on 24 July suggest that he was hoping that [the Spanish general] Cuesta would advance on his own and suffer such a defeat as would secure his removal from the command." One gets the feeling that Wellington thought that the Peninsular War would have been much less messy if Spain wasn't full of Spaniards.  Had the Allies lost at Waterloo, no doubt Wellington would have had to reluctantly and bluffly point out that the failure was all the fault of the Dutch, Belgians and Prussians.

That he hated the Prussians is no surprise.  Wellington fits into that certain species of Englishman portrayed by Jessica Mitford, who excuses her father's, Lord Redesdale (who commonly referred to foreigners as "sewers"), hatred of Jews by observing that he hated everyone, except a small group of Englishmen of his own class.  Wellington hated the Indians ("They are the most mischievous, deceitful race of people I have ever seen or read of, I have not yet met with a Hindu who had one good quality…"), Muslims ("… and the Mussulmans are worse than [the Hindus].")  the Spanish, the Portuguese ("…it is nearly indifferent [to me] what the Portuguese government does; and I never give myself the trouble of writing to them, or of consulting their opinion on any subject whatsoever."), his officers and troops (See his famous "scum of the earth" reference.  The Duke unfavorably compared his officers with their French counterparts. In India he refused to employ half-caste officers, calling them "as black as my hat."), intellectuals, poets ("I hate the whole race [of poets]. I have the worse opinion of them."), editors ("…blackguard editors of newspapers."). Mark Urban  points out that Wellington's "dispatches contain brutal criticisms of allied commanders and damn his own with faint praise."  Wellington was no more generous to his code-breaker, George Scovell, than he was to Siborne. 

In Wellington's case, national interests meshed well with his own, as pointed out by Hofschröer. That historians continue to have no incentive to do anything but spread the Great Duke's mythologizing reflects not a lingering fear of Prussian aggrandizement, but rather the needs of national mythology.  It still serves a useful purpose, as it did through two world wars, to believe that it was Britain and Britain alone freed Europe of Napoleonic tyranny. The Prussian Militair-Wochenblatt attributed this to an "egoism that deliberately takes a one-sided view for the sake of national honour."  The same reason for which Hofschröer's previous volumes raised the hackles of many reviewers in the present day. Undoubtedly Wellington's repellent character would have resulted in a similar outcome for Siborne, balance of power or not.

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." (John Mills.  For King and Country. Ed. By Ian Fletcher. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 1995. P. 46.) And Thomas Morris in his memoirs (Recollections of Thomas Morris: The Napoleonic Wars. Ed. By John Selby. London: Longmans, 1967. p. 69.), 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.

For the purposes of truth in advertising it should be mentioned that this reviewer is graciously mentioned in the acknowledgements of this book, but it must also be confessed that Peter and I have seldom seen eye to eye on the subject of Napoleon and probably not see eyes to eye on Wellington either.

Reviewed by Tom Holmberg
Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2004

 

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