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Captain W. Siborne, Adjutant of the RMA (1843-1849)

Captain William Siborne (1797-1852) can with certainty be identified as the last casualty of the Battle of Waterloo. True as this statement is, Siborne was never wounded in battle, nor was he on the field of Waterloo on that fateful day, 18 July 1815. Not until 15 years after the Duke of Wellington, later Lord Wellington, with Prussian help, had won the day. Siborne's misfortune lay in his brilliance as a topographer, investigator, and researcher. Ultimately, his scholarship led to revealing Wellington, by then Commander in Chief of the Army, in a sin of omission, which sealed the Siborne's fate as surely as the hangman's noose makes a kicking swinger of a man condemned to die at the gallows.
'Born in Greenwich, Kent, in 1797, William Siborne had the conventional upbringing as the son of a gentleman of modest means. His father, who held a commission in a militia unit, transferred to a regular regiment of the line during the Napoleonic Wars. Siborne junior gained admission to the Royal Military College (1), graduated in 1814, and joined the 9th Foot (The Norfolk Regiment) with a commission. Although he missed the action at Waterloo, his unit formed part of the Army of Occupation in France where he remained until 1817. That year, like thousands of other officers, he was put on half-pay. By 1826, however, he secured a full time post as Assistant Military Secretary to the C-in-C of Ireland at Kilmainham, near Dublin.

Captain William Siborne

© Peter Hofschröer.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Brian Siborne.


Lieutenant Siborne established a reputation as an expert topographer over the next few years [his first book, Instructions for Civil and Military Surveyors in Topographical Plan-drawing, dedicated to Lord Hill, was published in 1822, so his reputation was established before the Dublin posting] and became a strong advocate of the use of models of battles as a training tool for officers. A fellow officer described him as "...a most able officer. A man of fine intellect and judgement...and very well informed." Siborne's diorama of the Battle of Borodino helped consolidate his reputation and bring him to the attention of the War Office. In 1830, he was offered a commission to create a model of the Battle of Waterloo, which was to be the main exhibit of the new United Services Museum (2) and a memorial to Wellington's crowning victory.

Siborne undertook the commission with alacrity and on an understanding that the War Office would fund the project. To his lasting regret, that understanding was not given in writing. Nevertheless, he put his heart and soul into the enterprise and, at his own expense, spent the next eight months on the battlefield of Waterloo making meticulous notes and sketches of the topography. [The WO refunded his expenses up to and including 1833, but cut off funding then, forcing Siborne to raise his own funds]. He also interviewed survivors on all sides of the last great conflict of the French wars: veterans of the French, German, British and Dutch armies.

The resulting work, first exhibited in 1838, should have brought Siborne public distinction and wealth. Instead, it brought him Wellington's implacable hostility and the lasting enmity of the military commander's admirers and subordinate general officers. Opposition was not universal. There were those – many who kept their heads below the parapets – who supported the lowly lieutenant's findings, for he would otherwise not have been appointed Adjutant (3) of the RMA.

Wellington wrote his Waterloo Despatch the day after the battle. It appeared in The Times four days later, on 22 June 1815. Acknowledging the 'timely assistance' of the Prussians, Wellington, put their arrival on the field of battle at 7 p. m. The evidence, from Siborne's extensive research and correspondence with numerous survivors from all armies, including official despatches and records, timed the arrival of the Marshall Blucher's army at 4.30 p.m. a considerable difference in timing indeed. Nor was the 4.30 p.m. arrival of Prussian reinforcements of a trivial order. They arrived in force and attacked the French enemy in force at the hinge of the battle between Napoleon's and Wellington's opposing armies.

At the start of the day, Wellington had 68,000 troops all arms against Napoleon's 72,000. By late afternoon, both sides were exhausted. The arrival of 48,000 Prussians in force spelled the difference between a stalemate and victory. In short, the Prussians came in overwhelming numbers at a crucial time that put the enemy firmly to rout.

Sir William Allen's painting, The Battle of Waterloo at 8 p.m. showing the field from Wellington's position.
The French are retiring, pursued by the advancing guards and Blucher's Prussians on the field since 4.30 p.m.

Intent on portraying the state of affairs at the moment of victory, Siborne set the time of his diorama of the battle at 7:15 p.m. It went on display in 1838 and showed the true position of the combatants with 48,000 Prussian troops actively engaged. The finished model measured 24 feet by 19 and included over 90,000 hand-painted lead soldiers. Siborne's model was a magnificent achievement, but he reckoned without the extreme displeasure of Wellington and his sycophantic supporters. This was bad news for Siborne, who suffered immensely for his honesty of purpose.

Wellington, like many a military commander before and since, did not like sharing the glory which was properly due to Blucher's Prussians. At 7:15 p.m., the Germans were in the right rear of the French position, staging their final assault on the Village of Pancenoit. Wellington made no mention of the massive arrival of his Prussian allies at 4.30 in the afternoon and deeply resented the junior officer deflating what he claimed was his rightful victory. Siborne was in trouble and, for shedding a catholic light on his superior officer's gross error of omission, suffered the consequences.

Siborne's reputation did not end at his death, but has been questioned again and again by legions of military historians. Even so, he was not entirely without his supporters who, though not as strong and influential as those who ruined him, he did receive some protection. What is more, some of those who helped him were in positions of influence. He got his appointment (4) [He purchased his captaincy in 1840. See: PRO WO76/186 fol 29] to the post of Adjutant of the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea, occurred in 1843 (five years after the row with those in authority at the War Office erupted), when he replaced Captain J. Ludgard who had been with the Asylum since it opened its doors in 1803. Ludgard died in office, having held the post for the past forty years.

Considering the tight circle of senior officers in which the affairs of the RMA were enclosed, it is inconceivable that Captain Siborne would have been given the post had he not had sympathetic supporters on the board of commissioners. The board ran the RMA according to the policies of the Privy Council and appointed from among its number the selection committee for interviewing and appointing the senior officers of the institution. It is therefore not entirely true to assert that Siborne died in poverty. To the contrary, during the five years he served on the staff of the RMA, he and his family enjoyed comfortable quarters on the premises. Siborne had an annual salary of £120 (equivalent in today's funds of £10,000 according to Dr. A. Mackley [One needs to multiply by at least 100, and probably more. I would say his salary was nearer £20,000 in today’s money] (5) plus coals and candles for two rooms and a bushel a week for the office. The Siborne family was not on the bread line.

On the other hand, he was subjected by the powers that be in the War Office to injustice and a profound dismissal of his legitimate expenses. In addition to his diorama of the battle, he also published a History of the War in France in 1815, based on his research. This was republished in a U.S.A. edition in 1845 and a German edition in 1846, which would have brought him additional income. On the other hand, his work was plagiarized without mercy by none other than the Rev. G. R. Gleig (6), which led to litigation.

Indeed, Siborne truly suffered the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' during his life time and long after, more recently by one David Hamilton-Williams (7) who accuses his son Major-General Herbert Siborne of doctoring the Waterloo Letters and warping the account to make those officers who supported his father look good. The accusation of course is patently untrue. One may have no doubt that he edited the correspondence, but any idiot with the slightest knowledge of publishing knows that correspondence to be published must be edited.

Planning his research, Siborne had sent a copy of his plan to Lord Wellington for approval. Wellington told his close advisor, presumably Lord Fitzroy Somerset that he did not know "the position of each body of the troops under my command, much less of the Prussian Army (8)." The Horse Guards invited Siborne to explain his numbers (regarding the disposition and numbers of the Prussian Army), advising that Lord Fitzroy Somerset 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 (9). Similarly, in the same correspondence, the War Office warned Siborne to "Keep the object of your journey quiet but," wrote the correspondent "believe me you will do well to come."

In conducting his research, Siborne had contacted the armies of the various German states; the Prussian General Staff; the French Ministry of War; and obtained a copy of the Prince of Orange's papers. Not surprisingly, Siborne refused to bend to the will of the War Office and refused to attend the pleasure of Fitzroy Somerset.

Five years after the first public appearance of the diorama (the year he was appointed Adjutant of the RMA), Siborne, removed the figures representing 40,000 Prussian soldiers from the model. It was a gesture on his part to pacify, appease and mollify Wellington in the hope that the War Office would release to funds to pay off his debts. Official silence greeted Siborne’s  gesture. Unlike Chamberlain in 1938, he even lacked a piece of paper to wave in mock victory over his enemies.

Captain Siborne, one-time Adjutant of the RMA, has been vindicated and history must condemn Wellington for his monstrous ego and his failure to share his victory with his Prussian allies, but more roundly for exercising his immense influence to demean a gallant and scholarly junior officer, hounding him to an early grave. See Wellington on Waterloo for further discussion of the subject.


1. Now the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. (back to 1)

2. Today, the diorama is at the National Army Museum. (back to 2)

3. In contemporary school life, for 'adjutant' read 'bursar'. (back to 3)

4. See: PRO WO76/186 fol 29 and Army List 1843, p 494. (back to 4)

5. Dr. Alan Mackley, Alan, co-author with Dr. Richard Wilson of Creating Paradise: The building of the English Country House 1660-1880 pub: Hambeldon and London, 2000. Mackley writes that a standard conversion factor cannot apply. 'People spend money on different things now: mass produced goods are relatively cheaper; not all incomes will have risen by the same factor. High official salaries have risen far less than those of lowly tradesmen; the self-employed and directors setting their own incomes are own their own.' (back to 5) [See my note in the text].

6. Gleig, G. R., The Story of Waterloo (1847) (back to 6)

7. Hamilton-Williams, David, Waterloo, New Perspectives. The Great Battle Reappraised. (back to 7)

8. Supplementary Despatches, Correspondence and Memoranda of Field Marshal Arthur Duke of Wellington, vol. x, p 513.((back to 8)

9.British Library Add MSS 34,706 fols. 173-6. (back to 9)

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