In the Ranks of Death

Issue: Spring 2004

When asked for his own account of the battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington replied that the very idea was foolish, that one might as well try to write the history of a ball. Perhaps he felt that his own official dispatch on the conflict should suffice for the ages (although the Duke went on to produce a further "Waterloo Memoran-dum" in 1842). And yet for almost 180 years, Waterloo was widely reckoned to be the most thoroughly described battle in history thanks to the pioneering work of Captain William Siborne, who sought to produce an exact model of the battle that ended the Napoleonic wars. He accumulated accounts and letters from many of the British participants, which probably introduced a certain bias, but by the time Thackeray sat down in the 1840s to write the Waterloo scenes of Vanity Fair, there was a massive body of eyewitness material to guide the novelist's imagination.

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