Robert Dixon's early years


According to Robert Dixon’s army discharge papers he was born in Preston in 1790.

At the end of the 17th Century Preston had a population of about 3,000 people but by the beginning of the 19th century the population had risen dramatically, and by the time of the 1801 census the population of Preston was registered as being 11,887. By the standards of the time it was considered a large town. This large increase of population was brought about by the industrial revolution. Due to the introduction of the spinning jenny, large scale production of cotton was on the increase and many large cotton mills were being built in the area. Thousands of workers and their families flocked to the town in search of work which caused major over crowding, and like many towns of that era, Preston was dirty and unsanitary. Robert Dixon’s occupation was recorded as labourer, whether this was in the cotton mills we do not know, but his future prospects would have looked mediocre.

In 1807 a recruitment party of the 1st Royal Regiment of Foot passed through Preston and camped on the outskirts of the town. How grand the soldiers must have looked in their bright red jackets and marching regalia as they paraded through the town with all the pomp and ceremony of a Royal Regiment. Any young and impressionable 17year old would have seen joining up as a way out of a dreary life that held no prospects, and on the 9th day of May, 1807 Robert signed up for unlimited service.

Although Robert originally joined the 1st Battalion, the regimental muster rolls first show him in the 4th Battalion, which was one of two new battalions raised in 1804, based in Waldon, Devon. He was then transferred to the 3rd Battalion on the 25th December 1809 and sailed for Portugal. The first battle we have evidence that he was involved in was the Battle of Corunna. The Battle of Corunna was the first of seven battles that Robert took part in within the Peninsular War, the others being Battle of Bussaco, Fuentes de Onoro, Badajoz, Salamanca, Vittoria, and San Sebastion. His battalion then took part in the Battles of Nive and Nivelle.

BUSSACO 27 September, 1810

Retreating towards the impregnable defensive lines of Torres Vedras, the Duke of Wellington decided to buy himself more time to complete the withdrawal by checking Marshal Massena and his army of Portugal at Bussaco. The British numbered some 51,000 men while Massena, bolstered by the talents of Marshal Ney and generals Junot and Reynier had almost 66,000 troops at his disposal. Adopting his favoured tactic of hiding his true strength from the enemy, Wellington had drawn up only two divisions on a steep ridge in view of the French. Thinking this was only a rearguard, Massena sent Reynier's corps in a dawn attack, which reached the high ground on the British right before being repelled by a bayonet charge from the Connaught Rangers of the 88th. Within an hour two more attempts were made by the French to seize the ridge, but both failed with heavy losses. Just after 8am, Ney sent his corps against the British left and while successful in pushing the defenders back, the attack was stopped by concentrated firepower of cannons and muskets. The battle became sporadic after that with little serious effort by the French to advance and was eventually ended when Massena withdrew having lost 4500 men. Wellington, whose casualty list was just over 1250 men, continued on towards Torres Vedras.

FUENTES DE ONORO 3 and 5 May, 1811

Desperate to relieve the besieged fortress of Almeida, Marshal Massena moved with almost 50,000 men towards his target, but found himself up against some 36,000 troops under the Duke of Wellington. The first clash came on the 3rd, when five French battalions were sent against just over 2000 British light infantrymen. After heavy fighting the defenders were ejected from the village, but a counter attack by three regiments retook it. The British suffered 259 casualties to more than 650 by the French. Skirmishing on the 4th was replaced by a serious attempt by Massena to gain the village. An early assault by infantry and cavalry routed Spanish cavalry units and the British horsemen, under General Sir Stapleton Cotton. The push against the right was only just held off by Wellington's men, but they managed to conduct a textbook withdrawal in the face of the enemy. Halting at prepared defensive lines, the British kept the attackers at bay on the right while the village of Fuentes was bitterly defended. A steady stream of reinforcements allowed Wellington to hold the position against up to 28 enemy battalions thrown at it. Massena withdrew leaving 2192 men behind as opposed to Wellington's 1500.

BADAJOZ 16 March, 1812

More than 30,000 British troops blockaded the fortress at Badajoz, which commanded the southern route between Spain and Portugal. The siege commenced and by 6 April the 5000 defenders were steeling themselves to be attacked through three breaches. The night assaults began bloodily against the formidable defences and more than 40 times did the redcoats throw themselves into attack. By midnight, two entries to the city had been forced and an hour later the defenders under General Phillipon holed up in Fort San Christobal and accepted terms later that day. French losses were almost 1500 men, while some 3500 British troops became casualties.

SALAMANCA 22 July, 1812

As more and more French troops were siphoned from Spain to prepare for the advance on Russia, the British position in the Peninsula became stronger. The Duke of Wellington was determined to maintain the pressure on his immediate counterpart, Marshal Marmont, and a dance of maneuver began as each side strove to get the upper hand. Wellington gained the advantage by capturing a series of forts at Salamanca, but word of fast-approaching additional French troops reached him. The British then set about preparing for another retreat to Portugal, with wagon convoys ordered to move the sick and injured, as well as baggage and unrequired stores, towards Ciudad Rodrigo. News of Wellington's imminent evacuation reached Marmont and he moved his army of 50,000 men, bolstered by almost 80 cannons, to try to catch the British on the march. He arrived at Salamanca on 21 July, but the only fighting was an initial series of fierce light-infantry skirmishes. The next morning, Marmont planned his battle and made two major mistakes. The terrain around Salamanca was filled with dead ground that hid many areas from view and he thought the left wing of Wellington's army was only a small rear guard force. The dusty clouds he could see in the distance added to his perception that the British were pulling out and so he decided to swing most of his army around the delaying force and cut Wellington off from Portugal. When the British commander saw Marmont marching his army across the front of his own drawn-up, but hidden force of some 48,000 men, he let out a whoop of delight. He knew that by doing so, Marmont had potentially led his men into serious trouble. The French position was not helped by the fact that the leading troops were outpacing the rest of the army, which was slowly being split into several bodies of men. Wellington acted quickly and sent his brother-in-law Sir Edward Pakenham and his 3rd Division to stop the advance French troops. The assault caught the French unawares and scattered a full division almost instantly. Then Wellington ordered a combined infantry and cavalry attack upon the second block of two French divisions which, also caught by surprise, were smashed and routed. During the fighting, one of Britain's best cavalry commanders - General John Le Marchant - was killed, and Marmont left the field, wounded by an exploding shell. The battle had only been going for some 40 minutes and it was effectively already won by the British. However, the new French Commander General Bertrand Clausel quickly stabilised the situation, fending off two British attacks and then going on to the offensive himself. In a superb combined infantry and cavalry attack he inflicted serious losses on the British 4th Division and, as he advanced into the centre of Wellington's men, looked as if he could be on the verge of a seemingly improbable victory. Quickly repositioning his men, Wellington caught Clausel's attack in a vicious crossfire that firstly halted them, then broke them. It was a costly success, with heavy casualties on both sides. With the French now on the verge of defeat Wellington released a counterattack that broke their cohesion and scattered them. Clausel's entire army could have been trapped had it not been for the failure of a Spanish force to block an escape route at the bridge at Alba de Tormes. More than 7000 French troops were killed or wounded, a further 7000 captured, while the British and their Portuguese allies suffered just under 5000 casualties. Salamanca was the decisive battle Wellington had needed to prise open France's grip on the Peninsula.

VITORIA 21 June, 1813

Vitoria was the battle that broke the back of the French occupation of Spain and led to common Allied soldiers becoming wealthy men overnight, as they looted a baggage train containing some 5.5 million francs’ worth of treasure. In the lead up to Vitoria, the Duke of Wellington split his army of some 70,000 men in two and sent the majority of them (40,000 under General Graham) on a series of hook marches that would force the French to continually look at their defensive flanks. The remaining men would shepherd King Joseph and Marshal Jourdan's force of 50,000 towards their own border. At Vitoria, the sides collided and a series of French errors - most crucially not guarding a key bridge at Tres Puentes - allowed Wellington to cross the major Zadorra River with several divisions. From there the British began flank attacks on the French defenders, pushing them slowly back towards the village of Vitoria. The French fought with great courage in an attempt to allow the massive baggage trains enough breathing space to get a head start on their journey back to France. The French line of communications now came under threat from Graham's late-arriving troops, who seized heights overlooking a crucial position at the village of Gamarra Mayor and quickly occupied the hamlet itself. Desperate to win back Gamarra Mayor, the French launched several ferocious counterattacks, but these were all beaten off. Continuing his advance, Graham found himself unable to cross the Zadorra in the face of exceptionally positioned French troops, who only took a step backwards after the battle was won by Wellington finally breaking their army's central position. The British lost some 5000 men, while 7500 Frenchmen became casualties. Fleeing to the east, the French soldiers officially abandoned the treasure wagons and, while occasionally stopping to help British troops loot them, ran to avoid capture. The Allied mopping-up operation was ruined by the wealth on offer to poorly paid soldiers and a furious Wellington found himself with only some 250,000 francs to bolster his war chest.

SAN SEBASTIAN 7 July - 8 September, 1813

The port and fortress of San Sebastian was a French strongpoint on the northern coast of Spain that threatened the supply lines of any army moving into France. To prepare for the invasion of France, the Duke of Wellington had to clear the potential menace posed by General Louis Rey and his garrison of 3000 men. The siege began on 7 July and an impatient Wellington ordered a storming on the 25th. The British attack was repulsed with heavy losses and the reports of a French counterattack through the Pyrenees forced the commander to weaken his besieging force and move to stop Marshal Soult's offensive. When the danger had been ended at the battle of Sorauren, Wellington moved back to San Sebastian and brought his full force against the defenders. On 31 August he sent in a second attack and despite heavy losses - more than 2000 men - the British captured the town, although the French still held the important castle. With the failure of a final relief attempt in early September, Rey had little choice but to negotiate a surrender. He and his men were allowed to march out with full honours of war, having defied Wellington's army for more than two months. Rey's men had suffered more than 2000 causalities, while the British lost almost twice as many.

BATTLE OF NIVELLE 10 November 1813

The Battle of Nivelle took place in front of the River Nivelle near the end of the Peninsular War. After the Allied siege of San Sebastian, Wellington's 80,000 British, Portuguese and Spanish troops (20,000 of the Spaniards were untried in battle) were in hot pursuit of Marshal Soult who only had 60,000 men to place in a 20-mile perimeter. After the Light Division, the main British army was ordered to attack and the 3rd Division split Soult's army into two. By 2 o'clock, Soult was in retreat and the British in a strong offensive position. Soult had lost 4,351 men to Wellington's 2,450.

BATTLE OF THE NIVE 9-13 December 1813

Despite poor weather, Hill led five Anglo-Portuguese divisions across to the east bank of the Nive near Ustaritz on 9 December. Meanwhile, the remainder of the British force under Hope, launched diversionary attacks towards Bayonne on the west bank of the Nive About 630 casualties were suffered in these operations. Soult launched a counter-attack with eight divisions against Hope the following day, and despite several fierce actions the British line held until reinforced by more troops coming up from Saint-Jean-de-Luz. The right flank of Hope's line was held by one brigade of the 7th Division at the bridge of Urdains. Charles Alten's Light Division defended the center near Bassussary. The left, under John Wilson, was held by Bradford and Campbell's independent Portuguese brigades north of Barroilhet. The ravine-filled terrain forced the French into these three corridors of attack. The 5th Division lay three miles to the rear while the 1st Division and Lord Aylmer's independent British brigade were ten miles away. Though Wellington ordered the line to be fortified, Hope failed to do this. Ignoring the impregnable position at the bridge of Urdains, Soult committed five divisions under Bertrand Clausel against Bassussary and three divisions led by Honoré Charles Reille against Barroilhet. The four divisions leading the attack were fresh while the supporting troops were tired from skirmishing with Hill's troops. The Light Division's outpost line alertly detected the coming attack, though 50 men were cut off and captured. The French advance soon came upon the ridge of Arcangues, topped by a chateau and a church. After one attack was beaten off with ease by the 4,000 men of the Light Division, Clausel settled down to a futile artillery bombardment and probing attacks against the very strongly built structures. Aylmer's brigade arrived about 2 pm. The picket line on Hope's left flank was quickly gobbled up by Reille's attack and 200 men captured. For the most part, the Portuguese held sturdily, but one unit was broken by French cavalry. Fighting their way back to Barroilhet, the Portuguese held onto the village and awaited reinforcements. The 5th Division arrived, but due to a staff blunder, was low on ammunition. Soult sent Eugene-Casimir Villatte's Reserve Division from Bayonne and one division from Clausel to assist Reille's attack. After hours of heavy fighting, he ordered one last charge. This attack drove to the mayor's house of Barroilhet, the French skirmishers wounding and nearly capturing Hope. At this point, the 1st Division came up and Soult called off his attacks soon afterward. That night Soult's army was weakened when two Nassau battalions, having learned the result of the Battle of Leipzig the previous month, went over in their entirety from the French to the Allies. A third Nassau battalion was intercepted and disarmed. This event subtracted 2,000 infantry from the French army. Both sides lost around 1,600 troops before Soult called off the assault. Of these, the Anglo-Allies lost 500 captured, the largest total of any one day of fighting under Wellington. Clausel turned in an unusually uninspired performance on 10 December. Sporadic clashes occurred over the next two days though neither side was willing to initiate a full-scale attack

This brought the Peninsular War to an end, and Robert’s Battalion was deployed to Belgium to take part in the Battle of Waterloo.

THE BATTLE OF WATERLOO Sunday 18 June 1815

The Battle of Waterloo was fought near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. An Imperial French army under the command of Emperor Napoleon was defeated by combined armies of the Seventh Coalition, an Anglo-Allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington combined with a Prussian army under the command of Gebhard von Blücher. It was the culminating battle of the Waterloo Campaign and Napoleon's last. The defeat at Waterloo put an end to Napoleon's rule as Emperor of the French and marked the end of his Hundred Days return from exile. Upon Napoleon's return to power in 1815, many states that had opposed him formed the Seventh Coalition and began to mobilise armies. Two large forces under Wellington and Blücher assembled close to the north-eastern border of France. Napoleon chose to attack in the hope of destroying them before they could join in a coordinated invasion of France with other members of the coalition. The decisive engagement of this three-day Waterloo Campaign (16–19 June 1815) occurred at the Battle of Waterloo. According to Wellington, the battle was "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life. Napoleon delayed giving battle until noon on 18 June to allow the ground to dry. Wellington's army, positioned across the Brussels road on the Mont-Saint-Jean escarpment, withstood repeated attacks by the French, until, in the evening, the Prussians arrived in force and broke through Napoleon's right flank. At that moment, Wellington's Anglo-Allied army counter-attacked and drove the French army in disorder from the field. Pursuing coalition forces entered France and restored King Louis XVII to the French throne. Napoleon abdicated, surrendered to the British, and was exiled to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.

After the victory at Waterloo Robert'a Battalion returned to Canterbury and was disbanded on the 24 Apr 1817. By the 30th May he had been transferred to the 1st Battalion and was stationed in Enniskillen, where he stayed for 6 months before being transferred again, this time to the 2nd Battalion who on the 6 Oct 1817 began the long and arduous journey to India where Robert stayed for the next nine and a half years.