The visual representation of data: how the Duke of Wellington was destroyed by an army of toy soldiers.

  • We tend to think of the visual display of quantitative information, in terms of boring old graphs and pie charts.

    And yet the visual representation of a narrative is often a more dynamic and powerful storytelling medium than the use of mere words.

    What’s more, because it is often more readily understood than the complex data that it represents, a visual representation also tends to be believed more readily.

    it is often said that history is written by the victor. But history is a complex affair. And this is the story of how the visual representation of data first subverted and then overturned the victors version of history.

    According to popular history, the battle of Waterloo was a stunning victory for both Britain and the Duke of Wellington, and a crushing defeat for both France and Napoleon Bonaparte.

    In fact, the truth was never quite this simple. And Duke of Wellington’s victory hung in the balance for many years after the event, and was only won after decades of campaigning against an army composed, strangely enough… of thousands of toy soldiers.

    Information Graphics or “infographics” as they are more often called, owe much of their popularity to the fact that they can make even the most complex subject accessible, by translating large amounts of complex data into more accessible, more readily understandable, visual media.

    In the early 19th century, Information Graphics, began to be used as a means of giving complex quantitative information a clear visual narrative. An early, and justly celebrated, example of Information Graphics is Charles Minard’s graphic representation of Napoleon Bonaparte’s disastrous march on Moscow in 1812. In his “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information”, Edward Tufte says it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn”. Because, at a glance, the viewer can see immediately the real, data-based, story of the campaign.

    Because they make the complex simple for the casual viewer, visual displays of quantitative information of this sort, are also extraordinarily powerful storytelling devices. And, because they are more readily understood than the data that they represent, these stories also tend to be believed more readily.

    It was this simple fact that eventually led to the downfall of a contemporary of Charles Minard, an Englishman called William Siborne.

    In a story that is a curiously British reflection of that of Charles Minard and Napoleon, William Siborne had set about the task of creating a vast visual representation of The Duke of Wellington’s great victory over Napoleon, at The Battle of Waterloo

    Unfortunately, for Siborne, his visual representation directly questioned the Duke of Wellington and the British Establishment’s account of how the battle had been won… and indeed who in fact had actually won the battle.

    William Siborne came upon his explosive discovery quite by accident. In 1829, the British army proposed the creation of a United Services Museum and wanted a scale model of the Battle of Waterloo as its central exhibit. Lieutenant Siborne, a brilliant topographer and military surveyor, then aged 32, received the commission.

    Siborne was a meticulous researcher. He spent eight months surveying the battlefield in minute detail, and a further eight years clarifying each soldier’s position, at each stage of the battle. He compared accounts from official dispatches, printed memoirs, and by means of some rather modern looking, pre-printed questionnaires, conducted an unpecedented research programme with surviving veterans from all sides – English, French, and Prussian. It was the first time in history that a battle had been so carefully researched, and at the end of the process, Siborne had an unrivalled understanding of the position of almost every soldier on the field of battle.

    This almost god-like, universal knowledge of the battle, gathered from so many sources, was translated into the scale model that Siborne built.

    His model was planned on an enormous scale: covering almost 400 square feet, it would represent perfectly every tree, road, and contour of the field of battle. Some 75,000 tin models would represent the deployment of the various forces at the moment of the “Crisis of the Battle” – 7 pm on June 18, 1815 – when events turned decisively against the French Emperor. By this point, the 68,000 British troops with which the Duke of Wellington had started the battle were severely reduced, and his allies – 40,000 Prussians under Field Marshal Blucher von Wahlstadt – were staging their third major attack on the French positions in the village of Plancenoit.

    At a time before aerial photography, or for that matter of any type of photography at all, the diorama provided the viewer with a clear vision of the battle, that could be viewed from any angle.

    It was, in fact Information Graphics in 3D.

    After innumerable practical problems, the model eventually went on show in London, where it was greeted by rapturous reviews and visited by 100,000 people in its first year.

    A detail of “The Large Model” 1838, Siborne’s 3D visualisation of the quantitative information that he had gathered from surviving eyewitnesses.

    One person, however, failed to share the popular enthusiasm for the model. While Wellington had initially approved of the project as a monument to his military genius, he had become cooler, and eventually downright obstructive, as Siborne’s researches had progressed.

    The key point at issue was the role of the Prussians in changing the course of the battle.

    After comparing the records of the Prussian General Staff with those of Wellington’s own officers, Siborne had discovered serious inconsistencies in Wellington’s own account of the battle, which had become the official version of events.

    Whilst Wellington had always insisted that the Prussians had arrived later in the day, when the battle was already won, Siborne could now prove, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that they had actually joined the battle several hours earlier than Wellington claimed, and consequently had played a far greater part in the victory than was credited to them by Wellington.

    Wellington responded by insisting that Siborne was “mistaken” and demanding that most of the Prussian troops displayed on the model be removed.

    In questioning Wellington’s version of events, Siborne was not only undermining a pillar of the British Establishment, but subverting what had become a central element of national mythology: the conviction that Britain alone – and the genius of the Iron Duke – saved Europe from the tyranny of Napoleon.

    However, rather than concede to this kind of pressure, Siborne raised the stakes even further, and published, in two lavish octavo volumes with an accompanying folio volume of maps, irrefutable evidence of the decisive Prussian contribution to the victory at Waterloo.

    A detail from the folio volume of maps that accompanied the two octavo volumes of Siborne’s “History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815”

    Siborne paid heavily for this act of defiance. Wellington’s colleagues at the War Office declined to purchase the model they had commissioned. A proposal for the display of the model at the newly opened National Gallery in Trafalgar Square was quietly shelved.

    And as if to underscore the fact that the model, as a visual representation of the data, was more effective than a written text, whilst his own account of the war had sold relatively poorly, he had to watch as it was plagiarised by the Reverend George Gleig, a Wellington-backed rival, for a best-selling of the campaign that shamelessly corroborated the official version.

    But Wellington had good reason to campaign so aggressively to discredit both Siborne’s model and his reliability as an historian.

    In the early 19th century Britain’s military reputation was still badly tarnished by it’s humiliating defeat in the Americas. And in 1815, Britain’s relations with Prussia were acutely strained by the suspicion that its ally was intent on territorial expansionism. As Hofschröer points out in  “The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo”, “had the Duke given the Prussians full credit for their role in the battle, it would probably have led to them making even louder demands for further territorial aggrandisement, upsetting the balance of power so laboriously established at the Congress of Vienna”.

    But Wellington had good reason to campaign so aggressively to discredit both Siborne’s model and his reliability as an historian.

    In the early 19th century Britain’s military reputation was still badly tarnished by it’s humiliating defeat in the Americas. And in 1815, Britain’s relations with Prussia were acutely strained by the suspicion that its ally was intent on territorial expansionism. As Hofschröer points out in  “The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo”, “had the Duke given the Prussians full credit for their role in the battle, it would probably have led to them making even louder demands for further territorial aggrandisement, upsetting the balance of power so laboriously established at the Congress of Vienna”.

    So the Duke had little alternative but to seek to discredit Siborne if Britain’s post-war military reputation – were not to be revealed as being founded on a falsehood.

    The Duke won his battle… eventually. And Siborne died in poverty and obscurity in 1851.

    After almost 200 years, and after many years in storage, Siborne’s Large Model of Waterloo is once again on public display – in the National Army Museum, in London. Ironically, right beside the Chelsea Hospital, where Siborne ended his days in poverty.

    The 4,000 Prussians that Siborne had so carefully hand-painted, are still missing. But it is an extraordinary testament to a time when an army of model soldiers struck fear in the hearts of the British Establishment. And to the fact that, in a contest between quantitative data, and the clear visual representation of that quantitative data, it is always the visual that will persuade more effectively.

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