William Siborne has played a major role in our understanding of the battle of Waterloo , and has left a lasting legacy of his work in the form of two large models, a collection of letters containing the eyewitness accounts of Waterloo veterans, and a History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815 that has remained in print for almost 170 years. But Siborne’s skills as a model maker are largely unappreciated, and his work as a historian is clouded by controversy.
Siborne the Model Maker
How Siborne developed his interest in model making is not known. It may relate to his time as a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military College, or his service with the Army of Occupation in Paris after the war. But when the idea was put forward in 1830 of constructing a model of the battle of Waterloo to form the centrepiece of the new United Services Museum, he was in an ideal position to undertake the project. He had recently constructed a model of the battlefield of Borodino, and had published A Practical Treatise on Topographical Surveying and Drawing, to which he had appended some Instructions on Topographical Modelling. As a result he was invited by Sir Rowland Hill, General Commanding in Chief of the British Army, to make the model. Siborne immediately took leave from his job as Assistant Military Secretary to the Commander in Chief in Ireland, and spent the next eight months at the farm of La Haye Sainte surveying the battlefield with the aid of a plane table and alidade (such as used below).
The site had already been damaged by the construction of the Lion Mound, commemorating the location where William Prince of Orange (the future William II) was wounded, and so Siborne had to recreate part of the battlefield using an earlier plan by the Dutch surveyor Craan and the knowledge of the local farmers. The detailed plans that Siborne produced unfortunately do not survive, and the only hint that remains is a small-scale black and white engraving that was published by his son in 1891.
When the survey was completed Siborne returned to Dublin and set about making his model. After working out an appropriate scale of nine feet to the mile, he calculated the size of the base, and divided it into a number of sections to make it easier to construct and to transport. He then transferred the details of his plan to each section, and used this information to sculpt a clay pattern. When the pattern was finished he created a mould, from which he made a plaster cast. He then added the fine detail – the roads, hedges, trees, crops and buildings – before the 10mm high lead figures were fixed in place. When completed the model measured 21 feet 4 inches by 19 feet 9 inches, and was populated by 80,000 figures, representing the 160,000 Allied, French and Prussian troops.
Siborne had entered into the construction of the model in good faith without any form of written agreement, and when his official funding was suddenly withdrawn, either as a result of the Treasury’s realisation that the cost (£3000) was much more than they had anticipated, or because the new Whig adminstration was not inclined to support a project celebrating the senior figure in the Tory party, he was forced to continue the project at his own expense.
The Model illustrating the Crisis of the Battle, when Napoleon launched the Imperial Guard in a last desperate gamble to gain victory, finally went on display at the Egyptian Hall off Piccadilly in 1838 to popular acclaim, with over over 100,000 people visiting the exhibition. Only one major criticism was raised, that it over represented the contribution of the Prussians in the final victory, and in the end Siborne rectified the ‘error’ by removing almost 20,000 figures.
Despite the success of the exhibition Siborne’s financial position remained precarious. His hopes that the Government would purchase the model remained frustrated, and his attempts to sell it were unsuccessful. He was finally able to raise sufficient funds to pay off his creditors, when to everyone’s surprise he announced an even more ambitious project to construct a series of smaller models showing critical moments in the battle.
The first of the smaller dioramas showing the charge of the British heavy cavalry under the Earl of Uxbridge at about 1.30 pm was the culmination of all Siborne’s skill, knowledge and experience as a model maker. He had long realised that because models were viewed from above, the choice of scale was critical to give the correct visual impression of the ground. He therefore chose to adopt for the New Model a horizontal scale of 15 feet to 1 inch (giving an overall base size of 18 feet 7 inches long by 7 feet 9 inches wide), and a vertical scale of 6 feet to 1 inch in order to best illustrate the undulating nature of the terrain. The result is a splendid impression of the battlefield that illustrates not only the ridge of Mont St. Jean, but the major features such as the the sunken road, the sand pit, the farm of La Haie Sainte, and the re-entrant.
Siborne made an equally careful choice of figure scale. He wanted to show the tactical formations used by the opposing forces at the exact moment of the charge, the two ranks of the British infantry standing in line, the nine ranks of the French infantry advancing in column, and the broken formations of the cavalry and infantry in melee, flight or pursuit.
To do this he adopted the generous ratio of 1 figure to every 4 actual soldiers, and 1 model to every field gun or limber. All of the figures were to be hand painted in the correct uniform colours and facings. But Siborne also wanted to illustrate the action, and so he had each of the 20mm figures cast with separate heads, arms and weapons to allow individual infantryman and cavalryman to be given unique poses. The capture of the eagles of the 45th and 105th Regiments by Sergeant Ewart (Scots Greys) and Captain Clark (Royals), and other scenes were clearly indentifiable. Finally he had a number of special figures made to represent the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Uxbridge, Sir Thomas Picton, and Count d’Erlon. The result is a dramatic interpretation of the charge of the Household and Union Cavalry Brigades, and the rout of the 1st Corps d’Armee.
The model was not perfect. There were some errors arising from Siborne’s flawed research, such as the transposition of the location of the 1st and 2nd Divisions of d’Erlon’s Corps, the misidentification of the French cavalry regiments, and the absence of Bijlandt’s Dutch-Belgian Brigade, as well as some inaccuracies in the uniforms and weapons. But Siborne’s intention was to produce a model that would enable ‘a closer insight not only into the disposition and movements of the troops engaged, but also into those minutae of detail which characterize the actual battle-field’, and in that he succeeded.