Fire & Retire !

First hand accounts from
the Napoleonic Wars.

General Sir Robert Wilson's Russian Journal.
General Sir Robert Wilson's
Russian Journal.


General Sir Robert Wilson, K.M.T., Baron of Austria and of the Holy Roman Empire. G.C.St.A. of Russia, K.C.St.G. of Russia, etc. & British Commissioner at the head-quarters of the Russian Army.
Sir Robert Thomas Wilson was born in London, in August, 1777.

In the autumn of 1793 he received his first commission in the British army.

Very early in his military career he challenged the notice and won the confidence of men in power; and in successive years, down to the close of the war in 1814, occupied several posts of trust and importance.

From time to time during that period of general convulsion he obtained marks of distinguished approbation for zealous and effective services; and received from all the Sovereigns of the Great Alliance, except his own, amidst the acclamation of the armies of Europe and their chiefs, those personal decorations which exhibit the Royal recognition of conspicuous loyalty, pure honour, and foremost heroism in the fields of battle.

The exception was no impeachment of Sir Robert Wilson's deeds and character. He won his title to his Sovereign's favour nobly, and he claimed it proudly. His witnesses are Emperors and Kings, Commanders and Statesmen.

But this is neither the time nor the place to vindicate that title.

There are in the Editor's hands materials for a full memoir of Sir Robert Wilson's private and political as well as of his military life; and these will be prepared for publication as the only answer to works which from time to time issue from the press, reviving misapprehensions and misrepresentations of bygone years and of the passing day. His defence against such attacks as these will be veracious history.

The fact of Sir Robert Wilson's employment in the mission to Constantinople in the year 1812 - his presence and authorized action at S. Petersburg, and at the head-quarters of the Russian army through a large portion of the operations - his well known military capacity and personal energy and intelligence and, finally, the celebrity of his previous writings - raised a general expectation that he would be the historian of the campaign .

There were reasons, however, for withholding the narrative at that time with which every generous mind will sympathize. In a private letter, dated "at Plosk on the Vistula, February 5, 1813," he writes, "A letter from England offers me a thousand guineas for my papers relative to this campaign. I answered that 'I was a public servant, and could not publish without the sanction of His Majesty's Government, which I should not ask for, nor deem it expedient to make use of if granted.' I never write from pecuniary stimulants - other feelings must prompt me to undertake any military Work; but the events of this campaign will never be traced by me for the public during my life; a variety of considerations imperatively forbids the communication of my view of the past."

Alexander I: Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias; King of Poland; Grand Prince of Finland; Grand Prince of Lithuania. Among these considerations a principal one was that he had been in close personal intimacy with the Emperor Alexander, highly trusted and honoured by him. The disclosure of facts and opinions to which he could only have access through this confidence of a generous friendship would have prejudicially affected the relations of the Emperor with his great nobility; and, moreover, it would have given pain to some with whom he had himself relations of attachment and esteem formed by the fellowship of danger among the moving scenes of military service.

Meanwhile, he recorded with exact care the events of which he was a personal witness. He felt the claims of society; felt that the interests of mankind demand from competent narrators, for enduring example, a record of the actions of men entrusted with the conduct of the affairs of nations. The lapse of years, he knew, removes the obstacles which present themselves in the circumstances of the passing period, and liberates the historian's pen.

It appears to the Editor, and to others who have been consulted, that a sufficient time has now gone by; and that without offence against any of those courtesies which the Author himself was scrupulously careful to respect, his narrative may be given in its integrity.

It is therefore published in the full assurance that truth without exaggeration and without injurious suppression is the characteristic of its pages.

A brief relation of the Author's military and diplomatic services is proper in this place: it is given from a memorandum in his own handwriting.

Sir Robert Thomas Wilson joined the British army on the Continent, at the conclusion of the year 1793, as CornetSee the Box with Green text below. in the 15th Light Dragoons, the regiment of his own selection.

Until 1871, when the office was abolished, 'Cornet' was the lowest grade of commissioned officer in a British cavalry troop as the Cornet carried the standard, which was itself also known as a Cornet. A troop of cavalry may also be called a Cornet, because it is accompanied by a cornet player.

His first commission was given to him by the Duke of York, on application for a commission in the Guards or cavalry sanctioned by His Majesty George the Third, as an act of personal favour.
Francis I: Holy Roman Emperor, King of the Romans.
All his other steps were obtained by purchase.See the Box with Green text below. On the 24th of April, 1794, he was present with his corps in the action of Villars en Couché. For conduct in this action the Emperor Francis I. conferred on each officer a gold medal struck for the occasion, with the inscription, "Forti Britanno in exercitu fœderato ad Cameracum, 24º Aprilis 1794," and further approved the decision of the Aulic CouncilSee the Box with Green text below. which gave them the Cross of Maria Theresa and diplomas of Barons of the Austrian States.See the Box with Green text below.

He served with his corps through the campaigns of Flanders and Holland, and re-embarked with it in the year 1796, having purchased his Lieutenancy, and soon after purchasing a troop.

Gaining further promotion by purchasing one's proposed new rank was common practice in the British Army at the time.
The Aulic Council was originally an executive-judicial council for the Holy Roman Empire held at the Imperial residence, in Vienna. After an Emperor died, the Council was dissolved and had to be reconstructed by the new Emperor. After Napoleon's post-Battle-of-Austerlitz gains, the Holy Roman Empire ceased to exist in 1806 alongwith the Aulic Council.
Barons who received their title from the Holy Roman Emperor were known as Barons of the Holy Roman Empire, 'Reichsfreiherr', although the title was sometimes shortened to 'Freiherr'.

† Sir Robert Wilson was present in all the battles, combats, and operations of these campaigns, the 15th being always engaged; and he was in the famous Peloton, ("Peloton" was the origin of the military term "Platoon" which, originally meant a small group of soldiers organised in Files rather than in Ranks for attacking purposes. Sometimes used instead as a cavalry formation the peloton could be devastating - like an armour-plated spear thrust at the enemy), which penetrated through the French army, sixty thousand strong and advancing on Bortel, to General Pichegru's headquarters, where it surprised and put to flight the head-quarters staff, taking one of the aides-de-camp, a secretary, and some gensdarmes; (Gensdarmes, or Coistrel, were fully armoured heavy cavalrymen), all of whom it brought off safe to the advanced posts of the British army, though pursued by several regiments of cavalry and, for the last league, in view and under their fire. Among the many actions in which the 15th was conspicuous were those of the 17th, 18th, 24th, 26th of April - 10th, 17th, 18th, 22nd of May. Sortie of Nimeguen, Duffel, on the Waal, &c.

In the year 1797 he was allowed to quit his corps to go on Major-General St. John's staff to Ireland, where he served as Brigade-Major, and afterwards as Aide-de-camp during the rebellion.

In 1799, on hearing that there was about to be an expedition to the Continent, he rejoined the 15th Light Dragoons, and proceeded to the HelderThe 'Helder expedition' was a classic example of political desires prevailing over military advice: As part of a decisive Austro-Russian campaign in Switzerland and Italy, northern Holland was selected as the British theatre for political reasons. From a military viewpoint there were strong objections, such as: the problems inherent in a seaborne operation, the risks in an opposed assault landing and the size of the force - the number of horses and land transport being restrained by the number of ships available. Alongwith this there was the uncertainty of seaborne resupply and the dubious quality of the last minute volunteers from the militia used to bulk up the British Army as well as the unknown quality of the expected Russian contingent from the Baltic. with his troop, which was engaged in all the affairs. On the convention being signed, he returned with his corps to England.

† In one action, on the 10th of October, the 15th charged and took the two guns that swept the beach.

Being desirous of joining the British army in the Mediterranean, under the orders of Sir Ralph Abercromby,See the Box with Green text below. he bought the Majority of Hompesch's Hussars.See the Box with Green text below. His Majesty's Government then despatched him to Lord Minto at Vienna, by whom he was sent to the Austrian army in Italy. Having communicated with General Bellegarde and Lord William Bentinck,See the Box with Green text below. then commissioned with the Austrian army, he proceeded to get information for Sir Ralph Abercromby (whose army it was then supposed would act in Italy) at Naples and in Sicily.

Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734-1801) British general who led the expeditionary force that conquered St. Lucia and Trinidad in 1795-96. He commanded troops in the Mediterranean in 1800, defeated the French at Alexandria in 1801 and died of wounds received there. He is credited with restoring the discipline and efficiency of the British army.
Hompesch's Hussars, the 'notorious Hessians'. As in most armies of the eighteenth century, the men were mainly conscripts, debtors, or the victims of impressment; some were also petty criminals. Pay was low; some soldiers received nothing but their daily food. The officer corps usually consisted of career officers who had served in earlier European wars.
In May 1799 he was attached to the headquarters of Marshal Suwarrof's army in the north of Italy, and remained in that country throughout the campaign of 1799, and subsequently until 1801 with the Austrian forces, being present at the battles of the Trebbia, Novi, Savigliano, and Marengo, the passages of the Mincio and the Adige, the sieges of Alessandria and Coni, and various other affairs.

Before, however, he reached Malta the army had sailed; the expedition to Italy having been countermanded, and that to Egypt ordered. He then joined Sir Ralph Abercromby at Marmorice BaySee the Box with Green text below. in Asia Minor, and took the command of his corps, with which he landed in Egypt, and served the whole campaign, being attached to the army that moved on Cairo.

Marmorice Bay, Latitude 36' 52" N, Longitude 28' 31" E, about forty miles north of the island of Rhodes, on the Turkish coast.

† Sir Robert Wilson was all but lost twice in making the attempt to go from Messina - once in a small boat of the country, which was thrown on shore; and again in a brig that was dismasted, being taken aback just as she was within half cable's length of the breakers.

After the capture of Alexandria and embarkation of the French forces he joined the expedition destined against Corfu.

The preliminaries of peace being ratified on the passage, the expedition bore up for Malta, when Sir Robert Wilson returned to England by way of France.

General Simcoe. On the renewal of the war he was made inspecting field officer, under the orders of General Simcoe, in the counties of Devon and Somerset.

After two years' employment he was allowed to purchase a Lieutenant-Colonelcy in the 19th Light Dragoons, and to exchange into the 20th Light Dragoons.

The effective part of the regiment was in Sicily, but he organized the remaining troops so rapidly that they were in a short time reported fit for service; and he was sent with them, and in command of the cavalry detachments proceeding to India, to join the expedition of Sir David Baird then rendezvousing at Cork.

The expedition proceeded to the Brazils, where he purchased the horses for the cavalry, and thence to the Cape of Good Hope.

† On going to the Brazils Sir Robert Wilson was detached in the 'Pique' frigate with half a dozen ships, to precede the fleet at San Salvador, Whilst running at night the 'Pique' found herself embayed in the breakers of the Roccas, and several of the convoy ran ashore. The 'King George' was lost, and General Yorke drowned m an attempt to descend the bowsprit into the surf. The 'Britannia,' a 1200-ton Chinaman, got off and then foundered. The 'Streatham' lost her masts, &c., and the 'Pique' was unaccountably saved, for she got into deep water without her way through the breakers being discovered. On returning to England he was also nearly lost when in an open boat without water or provisions, and in the midst of the Atlantic. He was at sunset endeavouring to pass from one ship to the other that had not backed sails as supposed. Darkness surprising the boat and the wind rising, there was scarcely a hope, when one of the convoy providentially passed ahead and heard the hail - for the last signal musket shot had been fired in vain.

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Researched & Compiled by Way-Mark.

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Updated: 15th June, 2011.
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