In 1829 the British Army decided it would have a United Services Museum like every other European army. When the British military topographer Captain William Siborne (47th Foot) was commissioned in 1830 to construct a miniature model of the Waterloo battlefield intended to become the museum’s central exhibit, he experimented for years until he hit on the right scale. Writes military historian Peter Hofschröer in his monography Wellington’s Smallest Victory (Faber & faber, 2004, pp 74-76):
As Siborne had some experience of the construction of relief maps – he was, after all, a published authority on the subject – he knew what problems he would have to face when planning the model. The first decisions he had to make regarded the questions of size and scale and what proportion to take for the necessary differences between the horizontal and vertical scales. To explain, in topographical modelling, if the same scale is used both horizontally and vertically, things will appear out of proportion. This is because of the great disparity between the view obtained when crossing terrain and that presented by a model of it. When crossing terrain, the eye is only five or six feet above the ground and it sees all objects in profile, or nearly so, and consequently in their greatest apparent magnitude. However, when viewing a model, the perspective is as if the eye is several miles above the ground, as if floating in a balloon. In choosing the size of the vertical scale for a model, both the horizontal scale and the character of the terrain had to be taken into account to give a realistic impression to the viewer.
Siborne’s earlier work on the subject had shown that horizontal scales of six inches or more to a mile were best suited to produce the effect desired. One third had to be added to the horizontal scale if the terrain were mountainous, one half if hilly and two thirds if composed of of gentle undulations. If the horizontal scale were less than six inches to a mile, these additions for the vertical scale would be increased in proportion.
Siborne chose a horizontal scale of nine feet, or 108 inches, to the mile, roughly1:600, which was a much larger scale than he had used for his previous work. His vertical scale was roughly 1:180, this combination of scales giving a good feel for the terrain. Siborne must have undertaken considerable experimentation to establish this.
Each figure displayed on the Large Model represented two actual soldiers. These figures were disproportionately large when compared to the terrain features, but the units occupy the correct area on the model. This too was a compromise between accurate realism and aesthetics. The final result was ‘the most perfect model’. It looked right and conveyed a most realistic impression of the battle.
Wargamers shouldn’t be at all surprised that our illustrious precedessor opted for the 1:180 scale, in other words God’s own scale of 10mm, which gives ‘a good feel for the terrain’ and, we might add, involves a goodly mass of models to reflect the high drama of the occasion. Coupled with the amazing detail enabled by modern production facilities and the timeless talent of sculptors, 10mm armies these days are virtually ‘unbeatable’.
Siborne’s ‘Large Model’ detailing the positions on the Waterloo battlefield during the crisis of 19.00 hrs on June 18, 1815, is now on display at the National Army Museum in London. Mind you, ‘alf the Prussians are missing since the Duke of Wellington wouldn’t accept that they – and not he – saved the day at Waterloo.