The Duke of Wellington dismissively observed to William Siborne, “You can as well write the history of a ball as of a battle.”
Siborne had asked for the Duke’s memories of the day amongst others to help accurately construct his diorama model of Waterloo, which now rests in the National Army Museum. Well worth visiting in its new restoration.
A short account of this model can be found in Harry Pearson’s autobiography Achtung Schweinhund! featured as a warning against investing too much money in toy soldiers over the years (whoops!); a longer account can be found in a book by Miniature Wargames games writer and historian Peter Hofschroer’s cleverly titled Wellington’s Smallest Victory (Faber, 2004).
Having just finished one longish games write up (the longer as sections of it wiped once), I find this Wellington quote interesting as the possible difference between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ – the point of view (or continuously confusing shifting point of view if you are Virginia Woolf) that it’s written from. Is it an impersonal lab report? Is it the skeleton plot of historical fiction? A confused blend of both?
As I write up recent tabletop skirmishes, I have been thinking about the links between fiction and gaming. Writing up games reports of past battles, I am reminded of Wellington’s (dismissive?) quote. Commonly many games bloggers feel that their thrilling accounts can appear somewhat tedious for other readers.
Some of the more interesting ones (insert your favourites here) go further than a blow-by-blow account; they reflect on the rule changes or improvisations that crop up, being a form of playtesting.
Such blog write ups become demonstration games for rules, very much in the spirit of H.G. Wells in “The Battle of Hook’s Farm” section of Little Wars or Donald Featherstone’s classic battles in his 1962 War Games. Others like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Yallobelly Times newspaper style battle reports take on a life of their own.
Games reports also hopefully share and remember the escapist “joy and forgetfulness” that gaming brings with itself.
The full Wellington quotes from the ever reliable WikiQuotes are:
“The history of a battle, is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.” Letter to John Croker (8 August 1815), as quoted in The History of England from the Ascension of James II (1848) by Macaulay, Volume 1 Chapter 5; and in The Waterloo Letters (1891) edited by H. T. Siborne.
“Just to show you how little reliance can be placed even on what are supposed the best accounts of a battle, I mention that there are some circumstances mentioned in General —’s account which did not occur as he relates them. It is impossible to say when each important occurrence took place, or in what order.” Wellington’s papers (17 August 1815), as quoted in The History of England from the Ascension of James II (1848) by Thomas Babington Macaulay.
Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), being Wellington’s shorter lived contemporary (Wellington lived 1769 – 1852), would have something to say about the value of writing the history of a ball, from many shifting viewpoints and many carefully observed details, especially if you want to point up character. The famous Brussels ball on the eve of Waterloo also features in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847/8).
There is an interesting social history book In These Times by Jenny Uglow on the Georgian / Regency background of Waterloo and the Napoleonic Wars https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/06/in-these-times-living-in-britain-through-napoleons-wars-1793-1815-jenny-uglow-review
Inside Peter Hofschroer’s book (page 178 ) is another version of the “writing a battle and ball” quote, when Wellington talked about his view the accuracy of Siborne’s Waterloo model (quoted by Hofschroer from Sir John R. Mowbray, “Seventy Years at Westminster”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine July 1898):
“… If you want to know my opinion it’s all farce, fudge! They went to one gentleman and said “What did you do?” “I did so and so.” To another, “What did you do?” “I did such and such a thing.” One did it at ten and another at twelve, and they have mixed up the whole. The fact is, a battle is like a ball; they kept footing it all the day through.”
And to another, Francis Egerton in 1845 (Hofschroer, page 179):
” … of which beautiful work he [Siborne] has made a scene of confusion, such as would be a drawing or representation in one view of all the scenes and acts of a play in five acts.”
Wellington in his old age in his actions towards Siborne does not come out of this account by Peter Hofschroer too well.
And now for some gratuitous photographs of the few Peter Laing 15mm Waterloo / Napoleonic figures I bought as a young teenager, still much as I painted them 30+ years ago. They are due for rebasing and some odd retouches of paint soon. I wished I had bought more and have since acquired a few additional ones for future small skirmish games.
Posted by Mr MIN, Man of TIN, 25 August 2016.