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Robert Thomas Wilson


Robert Thomas Wilson

For other people named Robert Wilson, see Robert Wilson (disambiguation).
Sir Robert Wilson
File:Sir Robert Thomas Wilson.jpg
Sir Robert Wilson
Born 17 August 1777
London, United Kingdom
Died 9 May 1849
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Rank General
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars
Napoleonic Wars
Awards Knight Bachelor

General Sir Robert Thomas Wilson Kt (17 August 1777 – 9 May 1849) was a British general and politician who served in Flanders, Egypt, Spain, Prussia, and was seconded to the Imperial Russian Army in 1812. He sat as the Liberal Member of Parliament (MP) for Southwark from 1818 to 1831. He served as the Governor of Gibraltar from 1842 until his death in 1849.

Early career

Born in London, he was the grandson of a Leeds wool merchant, and the fourth child of painter and portraitist Benjamin Wilson (painter). Orphaned at the age of twelve he was raised and educated by his uncle and guardian, William Bosville.

He eloped in his twenties with Jemima, the daughter of Colonel William Belford. She bore him thirteen children in the following 15 years.

Military life

He had a distinguished career in the Army and the diplomatic service. In 1794, as an ensign in the 15th Light Dragoons, Wilson fought in the celebrated Battle of Villers-en-Cauchies where a handful of cavalry smashed a much larger French force. He was made a Knight Bachelor in 1801.[1] In 1804 he became a lieutenant-colonel in the 19th Light Dragoons. He was expelled from Russia as a spy after the Treaty of Tilsit. During the Peninsular War he organized Portuguese soldiers into the Loyal Lusitanian Legion.[2] During the British retreat from the Iberian peninsula in January 1809, Wilson refused to comply with the withdrawal and instead decided to oppose the incoming 9,000-man corps commanded by the French General Pierre Belon Lapisse. He installed half of his 1,200 Lusitanian Legion in the fortress of Almeida and arranged the rest in a thin screen. He then harried the opposition with such remorseless energy that Lapisse, convinced he was confronted by a far more numerous enemy, switched entirely to the defensive.[3] In summer 1809, Wilson's Legion again formed an important part of the Anglo-Portuguese network of advance posts and was placed on the Spanish frontier to provide early warning of French moves while the British commander Arthur Wellesley advanced on Oporto.[4] In Wellington's advance on Talavera in spring 1809, Wilson's Lusitanians again formed a valuable flank guard. In the aftermath of the Battle of Talavera, when the French General Victor and his corps threatened to cut Wellington's forces off from the south, Wilson's little flank column of 1,500 men surprised Victor's 19,600 men from the north. In the face of this unclear threat, Victor panicked and precipitously withdrew to Madrid.[5] On 12 August 1809, Wilson with 4,000 men, including two battalions of the Legion, was defeated by French forces under Marshal Michel Ney at the Battle of Puerto de Baños. Facing treble the number of French, Wilson nevertheless managed to maintain his position for nine hours.[6] He lost nearly 400 men while inflicting 185 casualties on the French.[7] Wilson returned to Russia in 1812 as a liaison officer. He was a sharp observer during the events of Napoleon's disastrous retreat from Moscow and was present at the Battle of Krasnoye.


In 1817, near the start of the Great Game, he published the anti-Russian "A Sketch of the Military and Political Power of Russia".[8]

In 1818, Wilson became an MP for Southwark.[9] In 1821, now a Radical MP he attended the funeral of Queen Caroline (the wife of George IV), a very controversial figure whose treatment by her husband had led her to be celebrated by the 'loud' section of the general populace. Her supporters, considering that they were not being allowed by the authorities to celebrate this occasion as they wished, began to become unruly. Soldiers escorting the cortege but also on duty because of the Establishment's fear of the mob, upon being stoned, fired over the heads of the crowd. Wilson strode up and stated that, "It is quite disgraceful to continue firing in this manner, for the people are unarmed. Remember you are soldiers of Waterloo; do not lose your honours gained on that occasion. You have had cannon shot at your head, never mind a few stones." The firing ceased as the officer in charge recognised Wilson, and the troops, although maintaining their cohesion 'retired'. A few weeks later Wilson was dismissed from the Army by the Duke of York. He was, however, to again serve his country.[10]

Later career

Wilson was promoted to lieutenant-general in 1830 and full general in 1841. He was appointed Governor of Gibraltar in 1842. He wrote a great deal about history and politics.[2]


  • Chandler, David. Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars. New York: Macmillan, 1979. ISBN 0-02-523670-9
  • Smith, Digby. The Napoleonic Wars Data Book. London: Greenhill, 1998. ISBN 1-85367-276-9
  • Gates, David. The Spanish Ulcer. London: Pimlico, 2002. ISBN 0-7126-9730-6
  • Robertson, Ian C. Wellington at War in the Peninsula. Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2000. ISBN 0-85052-660-4
  • Southey, Robert. History of the Peninsula War, Vol.IV. London: John Murray, 1828.

Other reading

Three biographies exist: Giovanni Costigan, Sir Robert Wilson: A Soldier of Fortune in the Napoleonic Wars, Madison, Wisconsin, 1932; Herbert Randolph, ed., Life of General Sir Robert Wilson, 2 vols., London, 1862; 'Ian Samuel 'An Astonishing Fellow. The life of General Sir Robert WilsonThe Kensall Press London 1985

External links

  • Hansard 1803–2005:
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Charles Calvert
Charles Barclay
Member of Parliament for Southwark
With: Charles Calvert to 1830
John Rawlinson Harris 1830
Charles Calvert from 1830
Succeeded by
Charles Calvert
William Brougham
Government offices
Preceded by
Sir Alexander Woodford
Governor of Gibraltar
Succeeded by
Sir Robert Gardiner

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