Review: A Model Victory

A Model VictoryTitle: A Model Victory: Waterloo and the Battle for History
Author: Malcolm Balen
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: HarperPerennial (2006)
Language: English

I was looking for a small and accessible history of the Napoleonic Wars or of Waterloo (most books on the subject are neither) when I found this gem. It’s not so much a history of Waterloo, as I originally thought, but a description of how of the Battle for the Battle of Waterloo in which various force vie to be the one who writes the history of that fateful day — a much more interesting subject as it turns out.

William Siborne, more than fifteen years after the event, hit upon the idea of making a large, scale model of the battle which would explain the momentous occasion to the public. Initially, Siborne even garnered some government funding for the project. He also gained government approval for the job. At least until they learned of his aim.

Siborne wanted to show the “crisis” of the battle, that is, the moment at which the battle was won or lost rather than the smaller, more heroic actions of the day (the fight at Hougoumont or La Haye Sainte, the charge of the Scots’ Grays, etc) or the positions of the troops at the start of the day. Worst still, after several years of diligent reseach, surveying the field of battle and interviewing surviving officers for their recollections of the day, Siborne had the audacity to suggest that perhaps the arrival of the Prussian army on the field late in the day turned the tide against Napoleon.

This outraged the government and the Duke of Wellington in particular and all support and funding immediately dried up. After so much suffering and British blood spilled that day, how could a place in the history books be awarded to an army which turned up nine hours late to the field? Whether the Prussian arrival in the rear and flank of the French army caused the French rout or whether that rout had already begun after the final British charge has not been settled to this day.

The core question asked (and ultimately left unresolved) by the book is who writes the history of warefare, the generals or the troops on the ground?
Siborne made his model, which now lies in the National Army Museum, London. Then, he made a smaller model — this one in line with the view of authorities — with which he attempted unsuccessfully to recoup the cost of the first model. Later he turned his hand to writing histories of the Napoleonic Wars from the masses of correspondence he collected over the years from the officers involved.

The book, however, attempts to interleave the progress of the Battle of Waterloo with Siborne’s fortunes in the war to gain support for his endeavour. These chapters are perhaps best skipped in order to concentrate on the wonderfully fascinating history of the model itself.