William Siborne, maker of the Royal Armouries ‘Battle of Waterloo’ diorama, played a major role in our understanding of the battle and left a lasting legacy of his work. For an introduction to the man and the model, make sure you first read our previous post here.
When Siborne began to look for information on the crisis of the battle to assist in the construction of his first model, he found that the official records lacked the level of detail he required. He therefore wrote to Sir Rowland Hill, General Commanding in Chief of the British Army, requesting permission to send a circular letter to officers who had fought at Waterloo, to ask them about their regiment’s role in the battle. His proposed solution was a radical one. No survey of this nature had been attempted before, and some senior military figures raised concerns that the differing versions of events that officers were bound to give, would merely result in a mass of contradictory information, and might weaken the authority of Wellington’s official dispatch.
The Waterloo Dispatch was written on the evening after the battle, and although it was an official report to the Secretary of State for War, it was composed in the knowledge that it would be published in the London Gazette (the official journal of the British government) and then reprinted in the London and provincial newspapers. It was a matter of public record, and the fears that Siborne’s circular letter might produce some unwelcome results were not altogether unfounded. The pages of the United Services Journal were already occupied by a heated debate between General Sir Hussey Vivian and Major George Gawler relating to the roll of their respective brigades in the events following the repulse of the Imperial Guard. But Siborne was not to be dissuaded, and after explaining his research methodology more fully, and promising to submit a copy of the final plan for the model to the Duke for his approval, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the Military Secretary, gave his consent albeit with the comment, ‘then let him issue his Circulars and the Lord give him a safe deliverance’.
Siborne conducted his survey, and in response received some 700 letters from British, Hanoverian and King’s German Legion officers who had fought at Waterloo. Some had served on the general staff, others had been regimental officers, but all branches of the service were represented except for the Royal Engineers. The letters covered every aspect of the campaign, and Siborne diligently checked every piece of information, and where necessary entered into detailed correspondence to clarify matters of detail. An examination of the original letters shows that rather than shake the foundations of the Waterloo Dispatch the letters added important details to the main features of the battle.
Siborne was naturally anxious to elicit Wellington’s views, but the Duke was notoriously reticent about giving interviews, and rarely spoke about the battle in which he had lost so many ‘old friends and companions’. However Siborne had informed Fitzroy Somerset that in addition to his circular letter he also intended to ask for information from the War Departments in Paris and Berlin, and when it became apparent that he intended to represent the Prussians on his model, he was offered the chance of a private meeting with Wellington. Unfortunately for Siborne when the time came his health would not permit him to travel to London, and the opportunity was lost. He did submit a copy of his plan to Wellington as promised, and was sent a short memorandum in return, but this contained little new information.
Wellington was aware of Siborne’s plans to include Blucher’s army on the model, but he did not raise any objections in his memorandum, and there is no evidence at this stage that he was actively opposing the project. However, if the Duke was silent on the subject others were not. Siborne continued to receive warnings from Fitzroy Somerset that his proposed representation created the risk that ‘those who see the work will deduce from it that the result of the battle was not so much owing to British valour and the great generalship of the chief of the English Army, as to the flank movement of the Prussians’.
By 1837 Siborne was in severe financial difficulties, following the withdrawal of official funding for the model, and his decision to continue the project at his own expense. The need to pay his creditors and recoup his losses probably influenced his decision to write a history of the Waterloo campaign, and he entered into an agreement with the publishers, Messrs Boone of Bond Street. It was the threat of this publication, and not the model, which ultimately brought him into conflict with Wellington.
In 1842 the Duke received a translation of a study by the German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, in which he criticized several aspects of Wellington’s conduct of the Waterloo campaign. It so annoyed the Duke that in response he drafted a detailed memorandum to rebut the criticisms. Siborne became aware of the existence of the document, and even attempted to obtain a copy from the Duke’s private secretary, Colonel John Gurwood, but without success. Two years later Wellington drafted a second memorandum this time in answer to errors in the final volume of Alison’s History of Europe during the French Revolution, and inaccuracies in Siborne’s History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815 an advance copy of which he had received.
During his military career Wellington had been renowned for his ability to produce detailed memoranda on all manner of subjects relating to the conduct of the war in the Peninsular, and his response to Alison and Siborne was in much the same vein. He began by recognising the duty of the historian to seek the most authentic details of the subject, and to evaluate all that had been published, but added that in his opinion official sources of information should be preferred to the ‘statements of private individuals’ written some time after the events. Then in the remainder of the document he gave a detailed and thoughtful analysis of the errors in both works, in particular those relating to his co-operation with the Prussians.
Siborne’s history appeared in 1844, accompanied by a folio of maps and plans. The advance reviews had been unanimously favourable, and this combined with the continued interest in the battle, ensured that the first edition was rapidly sold out. Siborne had done his best to produce a balanced account based on the information he had gathered, but inevitably the book sparked renewed debate from Waterloo veterans in the United Services Journal, and criticisms that the representation of the achievements of the regimenta was inaccurate. Wellington’s own detailed analysis was used by his close associate, Francis Egerton, as the basis for a review of the work that was published in the Quarterly Review in 1845. Siborne took careful note of all of the comments, and made revisions to the text of subsequent editions, that have subsequently led to accusations of a conspiracy to suppress the truth, but his notes reveal how he reviewed the evidence before making any change.
Siborne’s history has never succeeded in escaping the criticism that it relied too heavily on the personal accounts of British officers, a weakness that he himself acknowledged in the preface to the first edition, and that it failed to take into account the contributions of some of the Allies during the campaign. The research methodology he adopted and the use of multiple eyewitness accounts was radical for the time, and enabled him to produce a type of work that modern historians would recognise, and many have copied. His history remains the most cited authority on the Waterloo campaign.