An amazing feat of model-making, Siborne’s Large Model is a painstakingly detailed model reconstruction of the Battle of Waterloo on display at the National Army Museum. Controversial even to this day, the story behind the model’s creation is an incredible tale of one man’s perseverance.
A career soldier, Captain William Siborne was commissioned in 1830 by Lord Rowland Hill, then Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, to construct a model of the Battle of Waterloo, fought between British and allied forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington and Prussian field marshal Gebhard von Blücher and French forces under the command of the Emperor Napoleon on 18th June, 1815.
Siborne, who hadn’t been present at the battle but had previously been involved in the construction of a model of the Battle of Borodino, extensively researched it before beginning work including spending eight months surveying the entire field where the battle took place and corresponding with hundreds of those who had fought there.
The model wasn’t completed until 1838, partly due to the fact that Siborne still had military duties to perform and also due to the fact that he ran out of funds and, when the authorities refused to pay up, ended up financing the project out of his own pocket (and then spent much time trying to recover the funds).
In his fascinating book, Wellington’s Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo (well worth a read if you’re interested in learning more about the history of this amazing model), Peter Hofschroer writes in detail about the acrimonious relationship the Duke of Wellington developed with Siborne, thanks to a clash over the model’s depiction of the battle which shows the crisis point in the battle at 7pm – when the French Imperial Guard attacked Wellington’s centre – and has the Prussians helping to win the day.
The model was placed on public display in October 1838 at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly after which it went on tour around the UK. He went on to write up his research in a book on the battle, published in 1844, and it was while preparing this – in 1841 – that he announced he had changed his mind and would revise the model, eventually removing figures representing some 40,000 Prussians from the model and thus reducing the role they played at the decisive moment of the battle – a move which could only be seen as a win for Wellington.
It’s also worth mentioning that Siborne created a second, larger scale model of just part of the battlefield, exhibited in 1844 in London and later in Berlin (it’s now on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds). Siborne’s subsequent efforts to sell either model didn’t bear fruit before he died, said to have been a “broken man”, on 13th January, 1849.
After his death the large model was subsequently purchased by the United Service Museum and can now be found at the National Army Museum in Chelsea.
WHERE: National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea (nearest Tube station is Sloane Square); WHEN: 10am to 5.30pm daily; COST: Free; WEBSITE: www.nam.ac.uk.