Dictators on the Loose

Miles Taylor

  • Wellington’s Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo by Peter Hofschröer
    Faber, 324 pp, £14.99, April 2004, ISBN 0 571 21768 0

The Duke of Wellington may have defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, but it was English surgeons who finally cut the French emperor down to size. After his death on St Helena in May 1821, an autopsy was hastily arranged in order to quash claims that he had died from neglect. Napoleon’s height was recorded as a diminutive 5’2”, although he was actually 5’6”. His vital organs were removed, and reported to be unusually small. Indeed, his penis was rumoured to be tiny, and was cut off and secreted by his valet. The one organ that was abnormally large – his bloated liver, betraying the effects of the arsenic which had in all probability killed him – was missed altogether. Not that the English doctors cared. Their sloppy surgery merely confirmed what the world already knew: the Corsican had conquered most of Europe to compensate for his own lack of stature. Years later Alfred Adler would develop the notion of the ‘Napoleon complex’ to account for feelings of inferiority, but in 1821 it was proved that the English cartoonists had been right all along: the Battle of Waterloo was a cock-fight between little ‘Boney’ and old ‘Nosey’.

As Peter Hofschröer’s elegant and meticulous book shows, Wellington did not escape being cut down to size himself. Wellington’s Smallest Victory describes the model of the battlefield of Waterloo constructed by Captain William Siborne, first exhibited in London in 1838 and now on permanent display in the National Army Museum. The original model featured 75,000 metal soldiers, one centimetre high, in the positions they occupied at the vital moment of the conflict: Napoleon’s final attempt, around 7.15 p.m. on 18 June, to break Wellington’s front line, while holding off at his flanks the Prussian forces led by Field Marshal Blücher. The model proved controversial, for its version of events differed from the most famous of all accounts of the battle, Wellington’s own terse despatch, written immediately after the routing of the French. Siborne’s model placed the Prussian forces at a more advanced position than Wellington had done, and so undermined the duke’s assertion that victory had been won largely by valiant British forces, with only a little help from the tardy Prussians.

Siborne’s heresy, Hofschröer contends, proved his undoing. He took enormous care in the construction of the model: an experienced cartographer, he visited the site in Belgium, and he read all the accounts of the battle. Most diligently of all, he questioned as many Waterloo veterans – British, Hanoverian, Prussian and even French – as he could find, hoping to produce from their eyewitness statements an accurate reconstruction of the position and deployment of all the major regiments. But there was one witness, the Duke of Wellington, who would not comply with Siborne’s investigation. Wellington insisted that Siborne’s model captured only one moment of the action, and moreover allowed each soldier to choose from memory his own position on the field. His famous despatch, Wellington maintained, required no embellishment – and via his friends at the War Office and the Horse Guards, he made it difficult for Siborne to continue to receive official patronage for his model, which ended up costing £3000 and nearly bankrupted the hapless captain. When the model was finally exhibited in 1838, Wellington instigated a whispering campaign against Siborne, accusing him of Prussian bias and, by implication, lack of patriotism and esprit de corps. The whistleblower was forced to climb down. Siborne removed 40,000 Prussian soldiers from his model, published a history of the Waterloo campaign which tallied with Wellington’s version and, a year later in 1845, exhibited a new, smaller model, depicting the moment in the battle when the Marquess of Anglesey (who lost his leg) and Sir Thomas Picton (who lost his life) led the celebrated charge against Napoleon’s forces. The official version was restored, and British – or rather Irish and Welsh – heroism given its due.

The Iron Duke had some good reasons for seeing off Siborne’s tin and lead Prussians – but not many. Blücher was hardly a knight in shining armour. He had wanted to follow up victory at Waterloo by sacking France as revenge for Austerlitz and Jena. And Wellington and his friends at court and in the cabinet remained wary of Prussian ambition long after 1815, preferring to cement dynastic and commercial alliances with the smaller German duchies and principalities and the Hanseatic states. Hofschröer is undoubtedly right to insist that Wellington’s subtle offensive against Siborne was down to vanity. By the 1840s, he had come to personify the battle of Waterloo to such an extent that any other narrative of the day’s events was inadmissible.

Few men have been so lionised in their own lifetime as the Duke of Wellington. Statues and monuments studded the skyline in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Devoted colonial governors and emigrating Britons named the new settlements, mountains, valleys and coastlines of the antipodes, the Cape and the Canadas after the duke and his famous victory. In the mid 1830s, as Siborne was putting the finishing touches to his model, hero-worship of Wellington reached new heights with the publication of all his despatches and correspondence from the Indian and Peninsular campaigns. To cap it all, in 1842 he became commander-in-chief in Peel’s ministry. He was now Siborne’s boss, and the cautious captain proved reluctant to go on biting a feeding hand.

Siborne’s battle was not only with the hero of Waterloo, however, but also with the way in which Waterloo was remembered by the British in the thirty years after 1815. In modern memory great wars are essentially democratic: an official version of the campaign sits alongside popular remembrance. For every HMSO and regimental history of Britain at war in the 20th century – from Gallipoli to the Gulf – there are a thousand personal narratives: poems, diaries, autobiographies, photographs and parochial memorials. For much of the 19th century it was not so. Until the arrival on the scene during the Crimean campaign of the Times’s correspondent, William Howard Russell, and the photographer Roger Fenton, the only alternative to accepting the official line was to go and see for yourself.

Which is what many people did in 1815. As Hofschröer notes, by the time Siborne’s model went on show in 1838, most people already had a pretty good idea of what Waterloo looked like. Battlefield tourism had begun while the corpses were still fresh. Sir Walter Scott was one of many who picked his way through the mud in the midsummer of 1815, taking home a sword here, a captured flag there, and later assembling a grisly collection of skulls and other relics at Abbotsford. Byron, Southey and Wordsworth all followed the pilgrim’s trail, and on their return conjured windy verse out of the carnage. Bringing home a piece of the action became all the rage for the curious traveller, of whom there were still some four thousand a year in the late 1830s. One man even took home the famous tree under which Wellington was supposed to have decided on his final battle plan. And for those who couldn’t make the trip, enterprising showmen back in London staged panoramas and theatrical reconstructions. Napoleon’s captured carriage was put on display at John Sainsbury’s Napoleon Museum in Piccadilly. Marengo, his horse, followed several years later, going on show in Pall Mall in 1823 before being put out to stud. On his deathbed, Napoleon even feared that his corpse would be exhibited in Westminster Abbey, but this was simply another delusion of grandeur. In 1843 his effigy, along with his atlas, toothbrush and other memorabilia, ended up in Madame Tussaud’s. Appropriately enough, the Duke of Wellington joined the crowds flocking to see these spectacles.

The official version of what happened at Waterloo was also upheld by the officers who served alongside Wellington. Within days of the victory, tales of chivalry and derring-do were flooding across the Channel: the duke dancing away the eve of battle at the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels; the Marquess of Anglesey gallantly submitting his leg to the surgeon’s knife with the stoic observation that his days as a ‘beau’ were over anyway; Lady de Lancey hunting down her missing husband on the battlefield and cradling his dying body in her arms. The fact that so many wives accompanied their officer husbands to the war zone – Thackeray described Waterloo as not so much a battlefield as a ‘fashionable tour’ – added gentility and pathos to these stories. In time, the memories and myths generated by the officers and gentlemen at Waterloo served as a cordon around the Wellington despatch. They were ritualised in the annual banquet, hosted by Wellington and held in Apsley House, the home chosen by the duke as one of the many gifts to him from a grateful nation. Officers attending the banquet would ascend the staircase, passing Canova’s huge statue of Napoleon, before entering the magnificent Waterloo gallery, its windows fitted with sliding mirrors so that it might be transformed into a Versailles-style galerie des glaces. Dinner was served at a table seating 85 guests, adorned with plate presented by the Spanish and Portuguese governments, and on dinner plates of Prussian porcelain – the duke did remember the Prussian contribution after all. But he forgot completely the part played in the victory by the rank and file.

No record or memory exists of the ordinary soldiers who fought at Waterloo. The roll-call of the dead did not name them, and posterity has forgotten them. Wellington notoriously referred to his army as ‘scum of the earth’ – men looking for drink, absconded fathers chased by poor law guardians, petty criminals on the run. At St Peter’s Field in Manchester in 1819, Britain got a reminder of what the military really thought of the labouring poor who supplied its recruits, when troops of the 15th Hussars, many of them wearing their Waterloo medals, put down a reform meeting, killing 11 civilians with their cutlasses and wounding many others. Although in no way responsible for Peterloo, Wellington never quite rid himself of the image of a military dictator on the loose, and suspicion of the Horse Guards and the army in general remained a hallmark of popular culture for decades to come.

When the duke died in 1852, the memory of Waterloo died with him. The annual banquet ceased, and within a few years Wellington’s rivalry with Blücher had been so far forgotten that the meeting of the two commanders could be depicted without controversy – and without a clock – in Daniel Maclise’s mural in the new House of Lords. The 50th anniversary passed without any commemoration by the British, and in 1883 London’s West End was relieved of the grotesque equestrian statue of Wellington. It was not until 1890 that a monumental vault was built at Evere to commemorate the British officers and men who fell on the day. In France it was a different story, as Sudhir Hazareesingh has recently shown in The Legend of Napoleon.[*] Napoleon was resurrected as a national hero in 1840, when Louis-Philippe’s regime, weakened by conspiracy and corruption, repatriated the emperor’s corpse from St Helena and had it reinterred to public acclaim in the Invalides. A decade or so later Napoleon III proclaimed his uncle’s birthday a public holiday. The day of battle itself was immortalised in Hugo’s Les Misérables in 1862, and the oldest French veteran, Louis-Victor Baillot – a conscript – was awarded the Légion d’Honneur. In 1904, 100,000 people attended the official opening of the Wounded Eagle memorial to the French combatants. The nation that gave the world democracy had democratised one of the worst days in its history.

In the late 19th century, the most revered British veteran of Waterloo was not an ordinary private, but a woman – Barbara Moon – who died in 1903, still able to recall being driven as a four-year-old over the battlefield by her officer father. And when the centenary year approached, Britain came up not with a memorial, but a movie. The director Charles Weston took over part of the Northamptonshire countryside, borrowed a local regiment for cavalry, recruited three hundred unemployed men for infantry, and combed the county’s abattoirs for a supply of dead horses. Older folk who saw the film reported its similarity to the Waterloo panoramas of their childhood.

The Battle of Waterloo produced probably the greatest loss of life in a single day of modern warfare – more than 40,000 men killed in ten hours – putting even the first day of the Somme into the shade. After Waterloo, France remained occupied by a foreign army of 150,000 men under the command of Wellington for three years, an overwhelming display of military might to rival the Allied presence in Germany after 1945 or the American forces now entrenched in Iraq. And yet Waterloo never assumed epic proportions in the British imagination. While Balzac, Hugo, Stendhal and Tolstoy grappled with the meaning of Napoleon, Thackeray gave the world Vanity Fair, Wellington released his table-talk, and Thomas Cook gathered another party of tourists for a trip across the Channel. For some reason, Anglophone culture has often found it easier to ridicule the vanquished than explain the victory. Napoleon was put in his place in 1815, but ancien régime Europe, with its officers, gentlemen and scum of the earth, was never the same again, as the years which followed the Peterloo massacre were to prove. Like the Americans, the British have won many wars, but they have not always been very good at remembering how or why.

[*] Granta, 336 pp., £20, August 2004, 1 86207 667 7.