At 2pm on 18 June 1815, Marshal Ney, one of Napoleon’s senior commanders, sensed an opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the English forces arrayed against them at Waterloo.
Ney ordered a cavalry charge he hoped would penetrate the British ranks and hand victory to the French. But instead of fleeing, the Duke of Wellington’s infantry stood its ground and cut the French horsemen to pieces.
“The devils kept firing with grapeshot which mowed us down like grass,” wrote one French cavalryman in an account of the pivotal battle that marked the beginning of the end for Napoleon.
The decisive moment is captured in forensic detail by a giant model being restored at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. It will go on display at the end of May to mark the 200th anniversary of the conflict.
The model, measuring 18ft 7in long by 7ft 9in wide, features around 3,000 tiny lead soldiers with movable heads, arms and weapons. It was designed and made by William Siborne – a British captain from 1842 to 1844. He had been a student at the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, where he had studied map-making and model- making, skills which made him an obvious candidate for the project.
Philip Abbott, archives and records manager at the Royal Armouries, said that Siborne’s method of researching his diorama was radical: he sought testimony from English and French eyewitnesses, an approach that caused him to fall foul of Wellington who felt the impertinent model-maker was “prying” into his victories.
Mr Abbott said: “The Duke had never really wanted to talk about his victories and hadn’t done so. When [Siborne] started to receive responses and look into the battle in much more depth, he started to uncover inaccuracies and inconsistencies.”
10 historic moments to mark in 2015
10 historic moments to mark in 2015
1/10 Death of Sir Winston Churchill, 24 January 1965
This January will be 50 years since the death of Britain’s wartime prime minister, and one of the towering figures of the twentieth century. Alongside defeating the Nazis, Churchill also enjoyed bricklaying, painting and Islamic culture. His death was followed by a state funeral, and thousands of people paying their respects along the route of the cortege to his burial site at Woodstock, Oxfordshire. You can visit the Cabinet War Rooms (020 7416 5000), London, and Churchill’s home, Chartwell (07132 868381), Kent, year-round.
2/10 Battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815
No one can claim that nothing important happens in Belgium – this was the site of one of the most famous showdowns in European history. On one side were the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, self-declared Emperor of France, and on the other the coalition of nations led by the Duke of Wellington. The battle was decisive in curbing the territorial ambitions of the Napoleonic regime. Wellington Arch (020 7930 2726), London, will host an exhibition about the battle. Walmer Castle (01304 364288), Kent, will re-produce the rooms where Wellington spent his final days.
3/10 Signing of the Magna Carta, 15 June 1215
The signing of the Magna Carta by King John at Runneymede, Surrey, may not be quite the defining event in the history of English liberty as it is sometimes presented. After all, John went on to ignore all of its demands. But the idea that it represented – the principle that kings, as well as subjects, are accountable to the law – is a cornerstone of our constitution. Take part in Magna Carta Trails at Dover Castle and Pevensey Castle. Copies of the document itself can be found at Salisbury Cathedral (01722 555120), Lincoln Castle (01522 782040 – closed until 1 April 2015), and the British Library (01937 546060)
4/10 Viking invasion of England by Cnut, 1015
“They miserably ravaged and pillaged everything; they trod the holy things under their polluted feet, they dug down the altars, and plundered all the treasures of the church.” So Symeon, a monk from Durham, described a Viking raid on Lindisfarne. King Cnut was no doubt equally terrifying when he arrived in Wessex in 1015, but after pillaging he chose to settle. He brought an age of prosperity after a period of warfare between Vikings and Saxons, and established an empire that stretched from England to Scandinavia. Lindisfarne Priory (01289 330733), Northumberland, will host a ‘Vikings in Lindisfarne’ even on 18/19 July.
5/10 First English parliament, 20 January 1265
The story of England’s first parliament, much like today’s Prime Minister’s Questions, is one of squabbles, upheaval and violence. 750 years ago, Simon de Montford, in the midst of civil war against King Henry III, called together an elected body of representatives from across the country in what is thought to be the first meeting of ‘the commons’. You can visit Kenilworth Castle (0870 333 1181), Warwickshire, where the forces of Simon de Montford besieged the royalist garrison.
6/10 Siege of Carlisle, 1315
700 years ago, the northern edge of England was in constant terror of invasion from the Scots, who regularly came south under the command of fierce warlords. None were more feared than Robert the Bruce, who invaded England after his victory at the Battle of Bannockburn. Having marched into Cumbria, his forces laid siege to Carlisle Castle, in a brutal fight that saw ladders and siege towers used in a futile attempt to capture the fort. Carlisle Castle (01228598596) will host a siege re-enactment on 6/7 July.
7/10 Evacuation of Dunkirk, 27 May to 4 June 1940
It is the triumph that emerged out of disaster – the removal of Allied troops from the beaches of northern France spared thousands of lives and allowed Hitler’s enemies to keep on fighting. The evacuation, which took place 75 years ago, has entered folklore on account of the actions of the ‘little ships’, which rescued soldiers and helped prevent a catastrophic defeat. The Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle, from which the evacuation was coordinated, can be visited all year round. Dover Castle’s (01304 211067) “WWII Weekend” will take place over the late May Bank Holiday (24 May).
8/10 Agincourt, 15 October 1415
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”. Henry V’s speech in 1415, admittedly invented by Shakespeare, embodies the myth of Agincourt. The small number of English and Welsh archers, standing up against the masses of French knights. Despite being ripped off by generations of football managers hoping for an inspirational team talk, it still holds its power. Porchester Castle (023 92378291), Hampshire, will be holding an event to celebrate the anniversary of the battle in October. More details released at a later date.
9/10 First World War, 1915
The optimism of 1914 was tempered by the horrors of the following year, when troops settled in for a long slog of trench warfare along the Western Front. Key events which took place 100 years ago this year include the first recorded use of chlorine gas and the start of Zeppelin attacks on England. Meanwhile, Winston’s Churchill’s failed Gallipoli invasion forced him to depart from the Admiralty. Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, will host a “Wrest at War” weekend. Details released at a later date.
10/10 VE Day, 8 May 1945
Victory in Europe Day – a public holiday to mark the Allies’ formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender – witnessed an outbreak of street parties across Britain. Huge crowds gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear Churchill’s speech broadcast over a tannoy, with one eye-witness noting an “extraordinary hush over the assembled multitude”. Audley End (01799522842) will host a WWII weekend event over the August Bank Holiday. Details released at a later date.
The incident certainly appears to have taken its toll on Siborne’s military career. Whether that was because there was little prospect of advancement in peacetime or a result of Wellington’s displeasure is open to debate. What is certain is that Siborne ran into trouble financing his Waterloo model. The War Office withdrew its funding and the model-maker was forced to finance the creation himself.
“When [the War Office] realised what he would be doing and the fact that he would be questioning the official account, they withdrew support without really being seen to do it,” said Mr Abbott. “They didn’t want to be seen to be completely sabotaging the project.”
The model is being restored by Cymbeline Storey, the museum’s conservator. Its size and complexity have presented her with a string of challenges.
“The model is in 10 sections, and they’re quite heavy, so it takes a team of about six people to move the model around,” she said. “I’m also doing the conservation in front of museum visitors, so people have the opportunity to ask me questions while I’m working.”
Ms Storey added that parts of the model’s surface are lifting off and some of the tiny soldiers have become detached or corroded “quite severely”. “I’m trying to stabilise it, treat it, clean it and make it look its best,” she said.Reuse content