Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Siborne, William

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SIBORNE or SIBORN, WILLIAM (1797–1849), historian of the Waterloo campaign, was the son of Captain Benjamin Siborn of the 9th or Norfolk regiment of foot, who was wounded at the battle of Nivelle in the Peninsular war, and died while serving with his regiment at St. Vincent in the West Indies on 14 July 1819. William Siborne was born on 15 Oct. 1797, was partly educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and received a commission as ensign in the 9th foot on 9 Sept. 1813. He joined the second battalion at Canterbury, accompanied it to Chatham in February 1815, and to Sheerness in the summer. In August he was one of those drafted to join the army of the Duke of Wellington. On 17 Aug. they landed at Ostend, and marched to Paris, where they arrived on 5 Sept. and encamped near St. Denis. Siborne was promoted to be lieutenant in his regiment on 8 Nov. 1815, and about that date he accompanied it to Boulogne as part of the British army of occupation of France. In February 1817 the regiment was reduced to one battalion, and Siborne found himself placed on half-pay. He was brought back to full pay as a lieutenant in the 47th or Lancashire regiment on 11 Nov. 1824.

In March 1826 Siborne was appointed assistant military secretary to Lieutenant-general Sir George Murray (1772–1846) [q. v.], commanding the forces in Ireland, and held the same appointment with Murray's successors, Sir John Byng, Sir R. Hussey, and Sir Edward Blakeney—until 1843. He was promoted to be captain unattached on 31 Jan. 1840, and on the same date was placed upon half-pay, although he continued to hold the staff appointment of military secretary in Dublin.

In 1822 Siborne published ‘Instructions for Civil and Military Surveyors in Topographical Plan-drawing, founded upon the system of John George Lehman,’ London, 4to; and in 1827 ‘A Practical Treatise on Topographical Surveying and Drawing, containing a simple and easy Mode of Surveying the Detail of any portion of Country, to which are added Instructions in Topographical Modelling,’ London, 8vo. The book was dedicated to his chief, Sir George Murray.

In 1830 Siborne was commissioned by the commander-in-chief to undertake the construction of a model of the field of Waterloo. He accordingly lived for eight months at the farm of La Haye Sainte on the field of battle, and made an accurate survey of the whole ground, upon which he based the construction of the model. The execution of this work occupied some years, as Siborne devoted to it only such leisure time as his professional duties permitted. Siborne consulted surviving officers who had taken part in the campaign. In 1833 the progress of the work was interrupted by the refusal of the new ministry to allot funds for it. Siborne was thus thrown upon his own resources. He continued the work until its completion in 1838, at a cost of nearly 3,000l. The model was publicly exhibited in London and in other places, but the receipts barely covered the expenses of exhibition, and Siborne never recovered the cost of its construction. It is now the property of the Royal United Service Institution. Siborne also constructed a smaller model on a larger scale of a portion of the field of battle. A ‘Guide to Captain Siborne's New Waterloo Model’ was published, London, n. d.

Having amassed a very large amount of information from surviving officers on the subject, not only of the battle but of the whole campaign, Siborne in 1844 published his ‘History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815, containing Minute Details of the Battles of Quatre-Bras, Ligny, Wavre, and Waterloo,’ in two octavo volumes, with folio atlas, London. The work reached a fourth edition in 1894 (Arber's ‘War Library’), and is still a text-book on the subject.

On 6 Nov. 1844 Siborne was appointed secretary and adjutant of the Royal Military Asylum at Chelsea, and died there while holding the appointment on 9 Jan. 1849. He was buried at Brompton cemetery.

Siborne married, in 1824, Helen, daughter of Colonel Aitken of Todhall, near Cupar, Fifeshire, by whom he had two sons and two daughters. The second son, Major-general Herbert Taylor Siborne, born 18 Oct. 1826, edited in 1891, with explanatory notes, ‘Waterloo Letters: a Selection from Original and hitherto Unpublished Letters bearing on the Operations of the 16th, 17th, and 18th June 1815, by Officers who served in the Campaign.’ It is a selection from the letters which his father received concerning the battle and campaign of Waterloo. The whole of the letters are now the property of the British Museum.

A miniature portrait of Siborne dressed in uniform, painted by Samuel Lover, R.H.A., and taken about 1833, is in the possession of his daughter Clara, Mrs. Earl.

[War Office Records; Royal Hospital, Dublin, Records; private sources; works quoted in text.]

R. H. V.