Tuesday 24 June 2014

Waterloo: Captain Siborne's 'Large Model' - The National Army Museum, Chelsea, London

Captain William Siborne

With around 75,000 tiny lead figures (the closest modern scale equivalent would be about 6mm), on a landscape model covering approximately 400 square feet, Captain william Siborne's 'large model', depicting the decisive moment of the decisive battle of Waterloo, is a stunning achievement.

Sadly for Siborne his obsessive information gathering brought him into conflict with the military establishment, who'd originally set him the enormous task of building the diorama, as part of the ongoing efforts top commemorate the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Sadly the calumnies perpetrated on Siborne, both during his lifetime and afterwards, are still in effect, with the National Army Museum official page on the exhibit - at least they have given it a decent home - scandalously misrepresenting Siborne's near superhuman efforts (I'll address this touchy subject later on in the post). I sincerely hope that come 2015, the 200th anniversary of this decisive fight, they might have the decency to amend their misrepresentative picture of his work.

One of the first points of interest is that most maps or other depictions of Waterloo show the dispositions or actions of much earlier in the day: Siborne chose to depict the field as it was around 7pm-ish. Here's a map of the field as it's more normally shown, with troops in their 11am 'kick-off' positions.

Siborne's unusual approach to his subject is compounded by the way National Army Museum displays his mammoth work. Maps are almost universally shown with north at the top. The model in Chelsea can only be viewed from either the north looking south (where the British and Allies are) or the east looking west (the eastern edge of the battlefield being from whence came many a pesky Prussian... more on this later!).

Here are a few of my pictures, taken on a visit in December, 2013.

An overview of as much of the model as I could reasonably fit into the lens of my crappy little camera, looking south.

The view here is pretty central to the diorama, looking from the north more or less due south, with the Brussels to Charleroi road bisecting the battlefield vertically, and heading off into the distance

Unlike generals back in the day, we can 'see behind the the hill' here: on the right of the picture are the squares that had repeatedly seen the French cavalry off. At the extreme right top corner one can just see the exposed forward position of Hougoumont.

I include this final composite picture because it helps highlight one of the problems of both viewing and photographing the model, as it's currently displayed: first off it's in a sealed room behind glass, and then there are these pesky lights, illuminating the model, which keep changing. The above pics overlap a little in content, and yet are lit in opposite halves!

Siborne spent months surveying the battlefield, and years compiling correspondence. His correspondence took in all the parties involved, including the British and the allies, Prussian and french sources. Naturally it was easiest to get british accounts, but Siborne did his best to get as complete a picture as possible. 

But you wouldn't think as much if you were to go by the brief info on this amazing exhibit that's still being peddled by the National Army Museum, whose audio presentation and online page (Model of the field of Waterloo made by Captain William Siborne, 1838) both misrepresent Siborne's efforts somewhat. 

Peter Hofschröer and Malcolm Balen have both written interesting books about this fascinating man and his travails in building this epic model (and also, of course, the 'small model', now housed in the Leeds Armoury). Balen's book combines a fairy full account of the battle itself with a parallel telling of Siborne's sad tale. Hofschröer's account is much more about Siborne and his achievements, and the wrangling with the 'powers that be' that ensued. 

Hofschröer makes a strong case for Wellington and the British establishment deliberately downplaying the impact of the Prussians, to the extent of, in Hofschröer's telling, deliberately misrepresenting the historical facts, and forcing Siborne to comply with their version into the bargain. Hofschröer certainly has something of an axe to grind on this subject, having also published a book called 1815, The Waterloo Campaign: The German Victory!

In terms of the theme of my blog, Siborne's work is fascinating not just in itself, but because of how he chose to represent the two scenes, both in terms of the landscapes and the numbers and sizes of figures. His 'small model', actually using the larger scale of the two, which gives figures sizes closer to what we'd call 25/28mm, depicting the cavalry charge in which Sergeant Ewart captured a French Eagle, as the divisions of Marcognet and Donzelot advanced. I believe there are about 6,500 models, including infantry, cavalry and artillery.

Whilst the 'small model' depicts an early afternoon action in the area around the Brussels-Wavre crossroads - including the famous farm of La Haye Sainte - his 'large model' encompasses the entire Waterloo battlefield, including Plancenoit, where large numbers of those contentious Prussians were fighting in Boney's rear. I'll need to return to the various books on the subject to fill in more info about the ground scales used, and the exact number of figures Siborne eventually 'deployed'. This latter point is interesting, as he was ultimately browbeaten, very much against his will and better judgement, into removing substantial numbers (many thousands) of Prussians!

For die-hard Waterloo nuts, it's pleasing to know that Siborne's exhaustive researches are available to buy, either secondhand, as in the Napoleonic Library edition, or new (as print on demand) from several sources. I bought my two volumes from the Cambridge University bookshop, via their Cambridge Library Collection imprint. The Napoleonic Library have also printed his correspondence, on which his History was based.


  1. just read Bernard Cornwell`s, Waterloo.
    That was where I found out about model.
    Is there a charge to see model?
    Times of opening, if possible, please?

    1. It's ages since I went to see it. I think I paid admission to NAM as a whole, not specifically for the Siborne model. I think NAM is currently shut for a refurb anyway. It was shut during the 2015 bicentenary as well, I think. Mad! Due to reopen in 2017, I believe. So you'll have to be patient. In the meantime go check out the 'small model' at the Leeds Armoury. Only a small portion of the battle, but fabulous. Probably the more satisfying of the two dioramas.