Saturday, June 18, 2011


Author's Note: A brief interruption in the southern Italy tour series--that gives me time to finish processing photos.
Today is the 196th anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, which was fought on June 18, 1815. Because it had rained the day before, and the area where Napoleon's army had gathered was soggy, he delayed the start of the battle until noon. Unfortunately, for him at least, that delay gave the opposing forces time to rally and position themselves. And, we all know how the battle ended...(don't we?). Napoleon met his Waterloo.

We visited the battlefield several years ago, when we toured Netherlands and Belgium. At the time of the battle, the village of Waterloo was part of the United Kingdom of Netherlands; today Waterloo is in Belgium. The visit was listed on the tour description--and I was quite excited to see this famous battlefield. Between Waterloo and Trafalgar, the two places where Napoleon met defeat, I figured seeing the site of the land battle was more promising than seeing the site of a sea battle.

Was I ever wrong. The location is an utterly unremarkable, mostly flat crossroads. Oh, sure, there are some buildings standing that were there when the battle was fought, but nothing in the entire site gave you the sense that here a great battle had been fought.

Perhaps I was spoiled, having visited the Gettysburg battlefield near where I live in Pennsylvania. There has been a concerted effort to try to preserve as much of this battlefield as possible. Plus, the topography of the area dovetails nicely with the accounts of how the battle unfolded there. I think I expected Waterloo to be a similar scene. But no.

The battle of Waterloo was a long hard fought battle. You can read an account here.
But there's another little story that fascinated me more than the great battle. The English hero of the battle was the Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. So lauded was he with various titles, statues and monuments that when we visited England a tour guide pointed out one of the monuments--a monolithic column--and simply said: there's an Arthur. An Arthur? The proliferation of honorific monuments was so common they had earned a simple first name.

Ah--but did he deserve the credit that he got? That's the little story. I picked up a book somewhere called Wellington's Smallest Victory. It recounts the story of an admirer of Wellington, Captain William Siborne. To commemorate the great victory, he decided to construct a miniature scale model of the battle of Waterloo. They did such things in the days before television, movies, and other electronic imagination robbers. To get the most accurate picture of the battle, he began interviewing veterans. He picked a particular moment of the battle--the presumed turning point at 7 p.m. The Duke of Wellington with 68,000 soldiers, was turning back an attack by Napoleon.

With painstaking care to show that accurately, Siborne displayed Wellington's battle strength. He also displayed the 48,000 Prussian (who were allied with the English) soldiers who were attacking Napoleon's right rear guard. That Prussian charge likely turned the battle.
Now the rising conflict. When Siborne had completed his miniature, he hoped to sell tickets--such displays were routinely carted around the country and people came to see them. To drum up a big opening, he invited the Duke of Wellington--the hero of the battle--to come and see it.

The Duke was stunned. He had written his own account, and had greatly downplayed the role of the Prussians. In fact, he insisted there were only 8,000 Prussian soldiers. He absolutely refused to endorse Siborne's representation, and refused any correction of his view. Poor Siborne. He reworked the miniature, taking out 40,000 Prussians. But the Duke was not assuaged. He began a vicious campaign against Siborne.

Siborne lost his backers who were going to help fund the miniature and its tour. He died a beaten broken and penniless man. The little book has helped restore his reputation. However, the Duke of Wellington won his smallest victory by defeating an alternative view of the battle of Waterloo which would have somewhat lessened his great victory.

Thus endeth the lesson.
The painting is William Sadler's The Battle of Waterloo


Nance said...

Wonderful! I've been steeped in all things Napoleonic (from the point of view of the British Navy) by my love of Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series, so I'd have loved this tour.

Ginnie said...

How interesting. I love it when blogger friends unearth little known facts and blog about them.

Anvilcloud said...

I take it that the book believes that Siborne was correct?

troutbirder said...

And a very interesting lesson it was indeed. Such ego. I'm reminded of Longstreet taken the fall for Gettysburg from the souther romantic "lost cause" gang, even though he gave Lee some sound advice... :)

NCmountainwoman said...

I just realized how little I actually know about Waterloo, pretty much limited to Napoleon's downfall. You've stimulated me to learn a bit more about it.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

I missed Waterloo when I was in Belgium. I have a blogging friend that lives there I had hoped to meet. Next tripI will get there.