How Wellington Covered Up the Role the Germans Played in His Victory

Roundup: Talking About History

Jack Malvern, in the London Times (March 20, 2004):

THE Duke of Wellington's victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo was as much a German as a British triumph, according to a leading historian who has discovered evidence of a cover-up.

The truth lies in the story of the official model of the battle, first revealed to the public in 1838, that showed 48,000 soldiers coming to the aid of the British Army. When the model was displayed for the second time seven years later, 40,000 of the German soldiers had disappeared.

The shrinking of the Prussian forces on the model, now on display at the National Army Museum in London, can be attributed to a bitter dispute between William Siborne, the model's maker, and the Duke of Wellington.

The Iron Duke realised from the beginning that Waterloo would be his making. He wrote his official account, the Waterloo Despatch, the day after the battle and it was published in The Times four days later on June 22, 1815.

Despite acknowledging the "cordial and timely assistance" of the Prussians, Wellington only mentions their arrival at 7pm, when the battle was coming to a close. It was a prime example of the winner writing the history books, but Siborne, a former captain in the British Army, discovered that the Prussians played a far more important role. Rather than arriving in the evening after Wellington had repelled the French attack, they appeared at 4.30pm. Nor did they come in small numbers, Siborne learnt.

Wellington's army of 68,000 men was bolstered by about 48,000 Prussians against Napoleon's force of 72,000. Peter Hofschroer, a British Napoleonic expert who has examined Siborne's archive at the British Library, said that the model maker was meticulous in his research. "He sent a questionnaire to all surviving British officers, to the German forces in Wellington's army, the Prussian General Staff and to the Ministry of War in Paris," Mr Hofschroer wrote in BBC History magazine. "He also obtained a copy of the papers of the Prince of Orange, who had commanded the Netherlanders, and then cross-referenced all this material, sought corroboration, and marked up the positions on a map of the battlefield."

He sent his plan to Wellington for approval. Despite Wellington saying in a memorandum to his closest adviser that he did not know "the position of each body of the troops under my command, much less of the Prussian Army", he realised that Siborne's map downplayed his glory.

The Prussians were shown sweeping to the rescue while Wellington's troops fended off the French attack. Worse still, it humiliated Wellington because it contradicted the Waterloo Despatch.

The duke's displeasure with the model plans was made clear in a sinister letter from "Lindsay", a Horseguards officer, inviting Siborne to clarify his numbers.

The letter explained that Lord FitzRoy Somerset, Wellington's adviser, wished to discuss "some points which are very material to the perfect accuracy of your plan, especially touching the share the Prussians actually had in deciding the battle".

Lindsay warned Siborne: "Keep the object of your journey quiet but believe me you will do well to come."

Siborne refused, but it was a move he came to regret. In 1833, three years after he was commissioned to build the model, the War Office queried his expenses and said that he would have to fund the rest of the building costs himself.

Freshly discovered preparatory drawings show the depth of his research into the exact regimental colours of each unit, a level of dedication that was to push the cost of the model to more than £3,000, about £160,000 today.

Even after the model went on display to public acclaim in 1838, Siborne received only £800 of the £5,000 raised from ticket sales because of an unscrupulous organiser. In an attempt to ease the flow of funds from the Government, Siborne wrote to Wellington to ask what alterations he required.

When Wellington refused to reply, Siborne made a conciliatory gesture by announcing publicly that he was removing 40,000 Prussians from the model. Still he received no money, and he died in poverty in 1849.

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Art Cockerill - 8/18/2006

Jack Malvern's exposure of Wellington's cover-up of the Battle of Waterloo published in the London Times (20 March 2004) is an interesting one. However, one might point out that Captain Siborne's dispute with Wellington and the retribution that fell as a result on his luckless head has been well reported. Siborne, Adjutant of the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea, was not without his supporters (else he would not have been appointed to the post) is reported in The Charity of Mars: A history of the Royal Military Asylum (1801-1892) pub. Black Cat Press (2002). Junior officers who expose the weaknesses of their superior officers always get sat upon. A fuller report of the shoddy treatment of Captain Siborne is to be found at URL

Art W. Cockerill