Wellington's Waterloo: A Model Victory of Deceit The battle of Waterloo stopped Napoleon and made a hero of the Duke of Wellington. But historian Peter Hofschroer tells Liane Hansen that a scale model of the battle made by one Lt. William Siborne shows how Wellington supressed key details, including the key role of Prussian forces.
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Wellington's Waterloo: A Model Victory of Deceit

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Wellington's Waterloo: A Model Victory of Deceit

Wellington's Waterloo: A Model Victory of Deceit

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One hundred ninety years ago today, the Duke of Wellington sat at his headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, to write his report on the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte the previous day in the Battle of Waterloo. The duke's task in portraying the battle was nearly as complex as the battlefield maneuvers that led to the destruction of the French army at the hands of an allied force. Wellington needed to depict how the battle developed, how regiments were positioned and how the end came about for the French. He emphasized the role of his British soldiers, and he played down the role played by Prussian regiments in the allied army. With Napoleon defeated, there would be spoils of war to share, and Wellington didn't want to give the Prussians more bargaining chips than absolutely necessary.

Peter Hofschroer is an authority on the Battle of Waterloo and author of "Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo." He joins us from our London bureau.

Welcome to you.

Mr. PETER HOFSCHROER (Author, "Wellington's Smallest Victory"): Welcome to you, as well.

HANSEN: What is that term, `secret of Waterloo'?

Mr. HOFSCHROER: The secret is very, very simple. I mean, Wellington played up his role at the Battle of Waterloo for political and personal reasons, to strengthen Britain's bargaining position at the peace following Waterloo and to strengthen his personal gains from the victory.

HANSEN: And he was doing all of that right after the battle?

Mr. HOFSCHROER: Oh, he was a very astute politician. I mean, if you look at his Waterloo dispatch written immediately after the battle the next morning into the early part of the following afternoon, he was very careful about what he said. He chose his words well. He gave praise as far as he needed to to his allies, to his comrades, and to the Prussians, he was--let's say he played their role down a little bit. And to people in his own army, like, for instance, the Earl of Uxbridge, who lost a leg at Waterloo--didn't even mention the fact that this senior commander of his cavalry lost a leg, because he had personal difficulties with him. He had a score to settle.

HANSEN: Years after that dispatch was sent, a young lieutenant in the British army decided to build a model of the Battle of Waterloo. Tell us a little bit about him and the model he was planning to build.

Mr. HOFSCHROER: Lieutenant William Siborne was a very bright officer. You've got to bear in mind, at the time in question, that British army, promotion was normally bought; it wasn't by merit. He came from relatively moderate background. He didn't have a lot of money. He couldn't buy his promotion. And his objective was to promote his career by building this model. Also, the British army wanted to open a museum in London to praise its achievements over the years, and the central exhibit was going to be a model of the Battle of Waterloo. And they commissioned William Siborne to build it because he had written two books on military topography and model building.

HANSEN: And with all of this information, he began to construct the model. And he had support from the army at the beginning, but that changed. What happened?

Mr. HOFSCHROER: He had support from the army really the whole way through. What changed was in 1836, he sent a plan of the model to the Duke of Wellington. His initial response was to say, `It looks OK to me.' But then one of his advisers tapped him on the shoulder and said, `Your Grace, do you realize that this model conflicts with your Waterloo dispatch, on which all subsequent history of the battle has been based?' And Wellington sort of said, `I didn't realize that. Oh, my God.' And then, from that point onwards, Wellington and his advisers turned against Siborne and tried to destroy the man.

HANSEN: Well, what exactly was wrong with the model?

Mr. HOFSCHROER: There was nothing wrong with the model; it was historically correct. That was the problem. When the model was first exhibited in 1838, there were 48,000 Prussian soldiers shown attacking the right rear of Napoleon's position and deciding the battle. When it was exhibited the second time in 1845 for the 30th anniversary of the battle, Siborne had been forced to remove 40,000 of the 48,000. There were only 8,000 left on the model, and that is how the model is shown today at the National Army Museum in London. There are 40,000 Prussians missing.

HANSEN: How did...

Mr. HOFSCHROER: It's a major distortion of history.

HANSEN: How did Siborne respond when he was told to take out those models?

Mr. HOFSCHROER: He wasn't a happy person. He fought long and hard against this attempt to distort history, and eventually the financial problems that the building of the model caused, and that was partly because the government refused to honor its obligations to him. The government had told him to go ahead and make the model and told him that it would finance it. And partly because of Wellington's machinations, the money was not made forthcoming, so Siborne had to finance this major project out of his own pocket. And as a lieutenant in the army--it cost him a lot of money; he couldn't really afford it. So he was eventually forced to remove the Prussians to try and get the money.

HANSEN: And he finished it? He capitulated?

Mr. HOFSCHROER: Not without making it publicly known that he was doing so under pressure. So he rubbed Wellington's nose in it in the end, which didn't make him very popular with Wellington.

HANSEN: Well, the Duke of Wellington lived to be an old man. He is adored. There are many statues of him in Britain.

Mr. HOFSCHROER: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

HANSEN: What became of Siborne?

Mr. HOFSCHROER: Siborne died prematurely because of the stress that this whole situation caused. The model, however, is still on display in the National Army Museum in London, so Siborne's work wasn't wiped out.

HANSEN: Peter Hofschroer is the author of "Wellington's Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo," and he spoke with us from the studios of the BBC in London.

Thank you very much, Peter.

Mr. HOFSCHROER: Thank you.

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