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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Private Dixon Vallance...

a 22-year-old soldier in the 79th Cameron Highlanders, served with distinction during the Battle of Waterloo. He had been raised on a humble farm in Lanarkshire and had little formal education. But now, at the height of the Napoleonic wars, he put aside the plough and took up the musket. He was one among many farm-boys who either volunteered or were forced to join the service and fight under the Duke Wellington.

    News of the French advance reached Brussels on the evening of June 15, 1815, when many of the British officers were enjoying themselves at a ball held in their honor. Soldiers and civilians alike were roused to action, and Private Vallance scampered off to retrieve his shirts from a local laundress. Still soaking wet, he just had time enough to wring them out and stuff them in his knapsack before getting dressed in his full uniform. 

    He and his comrades tried to get some sleep in the few hours remaining, but they were rudely awakened at dawn by the skirl of bagpipes, blare of bugles, and rattle of drums. Their generous Belgian host gave Vallance and his three comrades a loaf of bread and a bumper of gin each before kissing them farewell. The 79th Regiment mustered at the Grand Place in the center of Brussels, and each kilted soldier was given another helping of gin. As they marched through the streets of the city, many of the pedestrians cheered them on, and to their great pleasure, the girls spontaneously rushed forward to embrace them.

    By midday, they were trekking through a wood where Vallance took the opportunity to get a drink of water at a brook and lay out his soggy shirts to dry. It was then he noticed his Bible laying at the bottom on his pack and decided to take up his “best, but much-neglected, companion” and read the psalms that he felt were appropriate for a soldier about to face possible death in battle. He was happy he was alone by the brook, because he knew he might incur the scorn of his less religious companions if he were caught meditating on Bible verses.

    At 2 p.m., the 79th reached a crossroads called Quatre Bras some 20 miles south of Brussels. The sounds of battle could not be clearly heard, and Dutch and Belgian soldiers staggered past the Highlanders to lick their wounds, while some fainted from loss of blood. Together with two other battalions, they prepared themselves to take the brunt of the French infantry and cavalry. Vallance’s battalion set up their position in a field of clover and rye, while the first shots from the enemy began to hit their mark. An old veteran from the 79th had the feather from his bonnet torn off by a ball, but he only laughed. “I have had many a one of that sort.” 

    Vallance had a ball whizz by him, smash through his canteen, and then wound a soldier behind him. The soldiers were soon ordered to lie down among the clover, but the bullets still were too close for comfort. One ricocheted off Vallance’s camp-kettle inside his knapsack and another slit across his belt. A soldier next to him was shot in the head and killed instantly. Soon, many men were struck, and Vallance found himself splattered with the blood of his comrades. Finally, they were ordered to charge the French position, chasing the enemy back a ways before returning to the clover field. Later, the French ordered a cavalry charge against the British position, but they were repulsed by the Highland fire power. The see-saw of attack and retreat went on all day.

    In another part of the battlefield, the Duke of Wellington stationed himself just behind the 92nd Gordon Highlanders Regiment, peering at the enemy lines through a spyglass as shells burst all around him and seemingly unperturbed by the danger he was putting himself in. At 5 p.m., he spotted a French column advancing towards them and ordered the Gordons to charge them. Colonel John Cameron of Fassiefern led the assault, but was mortally wounded in the process. Hot fighting broke out and continued between the two sides until 7:30 p.m., when the Brigade of Guards came to relieve the Highlanders.

    The Battle of Quatre Bras lasted until sundown, and resulted in a successful British defense that bought the Allies much needed time. Vallance spent the night on guard duty on the field, listening to the groans of the wounded and weathering the gusts of wind that swirled across the crossroads. Meanwhile, some of the other British soldiers looted the bodies of dead Frenchmen. The next morning, the Highlanders were given the rare treat of beef for breakfast in recognition of  their tenacious fighting the day before. Trying to live up to their fierce reputation, the Scottish soldiers removed the breastplates from the slain French soldiers and used them for frying pans.

    “They suited our purpose very well, only we lost a little of the gravy by the holes which our bullets had made,” Vallance later recalled nonchalantly.

    They invited some nearby Belgian soldiers to join them in the feast, but the Belgians were under the impression that the Highlanders were actually cooking the Frenchmen’s flesh, and understandably declined taking part in the cook-out!

    At the same time the British were celebrating their victory, news came that Napoleon had trounced the Prussians at Ligny on the same day. Wellington ordered his army to retreat from the hard-won crossroads at Quatre Bras and regroup closer to Brussels at the small village of Waterloo on June 17. The previous day’s fighting would prove to be only a taste of what was to come. As the British marched, a torrential storm blew up causing the ground to turn into a muddy morass and soaking the soldiers’ uniforms, packs, guns, and ammunition. They staggered on after nightfall, cold and wet and weary. When dawn finally came, many of the soldiers simply collapsed from exhaustion and did not wake up until they heard the whiz of cannonballs flying past them.

    To keep spirits up, the men were each issued a ration of gin. They hardly had the chance to enjoy it, however, because a little after noon the French columns advanced shouting their battle-cry, “Vive l’Empereur!” Wellington’s 68,000 British, Dutch, and Belgian troops faced off Napoleon’s 72,000 Frenchmen and Imperial sympathizers beside the road that led to the town of Ohain. The British were on the slope of a ridge, which meant they would be able to hide on the reverse slope when necessary while the French would have to exert great energy scaling the height. After testing Wellington’s right flank and finding it strong, Napoleon’s artillery opened fire in a massive barrage on his center near the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte. This was where Private Valance and the 79th Regiment under the divisional command of the Welsh-born Sir Thomas Picton were positioned.

    Lying flat on the ground to avoid the projectile, the Highlanders watched with relief as many of the cannonballs became imbedded in the muddy ground rather than bouncing towards their intended targets. Still, some of the men were struck, one soldier having his cheek torn off and unnerving him comrades by his agonized screams. Vallance would have been hit as well if not for the observation of one of his comrades that he was lying directly in line of the cannon fire. He quickly moved, and a ball fell in that spot almost immediately afterwards.

    When the barrage finally ended, the Highlanders stood up to find themselves facing 16,000 advancing French soldiers. The French fired their muskets at a distance, and most of the balls did more damage to the feathers in the Highlanders’ bonnets than to the Highlanders themselves. Meanwhile, the Highlanders were instructed only to open fire when the French were within striking range. The full brunt of the French assault was hard for the Highlanders to resist, especially when Sir Thomas Picton received a bullet in the brain and fell dead in front of them. He had been wounded two days before, but kept it a secret so that he could lead his men in the upcoming battle. When his uniform was late in arriving, he simply went into battle dressed in civilian clothes and a top hat, fearlessly cheering his men on from the front. His loss was a severe blow to morale.

    Seeing that the 79th were leaderless and seemed to have had “more than liked of it”, Wellington personally rode forward and reformed the line with the French just 20 yards away. Wellington’s horse, Copenhagen, carried him more than sixteen hours at the Battle of Waterloo, and his rider was showing no signs of wearying. He ordered them to fire, and the hail of bullets pushed the enemy back once again. Soon, the Highlanders drummed enough courage to give them chase. Some of the wounded Frenchmen lying prostrate feared the British would kill them where they lay and opened their knapsacks to the Highlanders in exchange for their lives. But the Highlanders were not interested in killing or plundering wounded, but only chasing the enemy. In spite of their bold offensive, the 79th was eventually driven back to its position by French firepower.

    At 3 p.m., the Earl of Uxbridge, commander of the allied cavalry, ordered three horse regiments to charge to French in hopes of relieving the hard-pressed British infantry. Among the horse regiments was the Union Brigade under the command of Sir William Ponsonby, so named because it included English, Scottish, and Irish troops, serving in the 1st Royal Dragoons, 2nd Royal North British (Scots Greys), and the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, respectively. The Scots Greys took the lead, riding between the beleaguered Highland soldiers who cheered them on with a rousing chorus of “Alba Gu Bra! Scotland Forever!”

    Lady Elizabeth Butler would later depict the charge as a pulse-pounding gallop in her famous painting Scotland for Ever!, but the wet ground and casualties littering the battlefield would have made it impossible for the Scots Greys to have rushed forward in a mad dash. In fact, some enthusiastic Highland infantrymen were noted for being able to cling onto the stirrups and run alongside the horses as they briskly trotted forward to meet the enemy. But even though there was no dramatic headlong charge, the efforts of the cavalry successfully blunted the main thrust of Napoleon’s infantry, with 2000 Frenchmen being killed and two of their prized eagle standards being captured. On the downside for the British, Sir William Ponsonby was shot dead during the attack. 

    Now it was Napoleon’s turn to unleash his horsepower. Marshal Ney led his lavishly dressed Cuirassiers, hussars, and lancers in a charge to smash the British infantry resistance and regain the ground lost to the Union Brigade. The redcoats and Highlanders were ordered to form British Squares, with the soldiers of each first line going down on one knee with their bayonets upturned as a porcupine-like defense mechanism. When the French cavalry finally reached them after charging uphill across the muddy terrain, they were raked by British musket balls and unable to penetrate the protective bayonet barrier. Eventually, after slashing and smashing at the squares as best they could with little success and exhausting their horses, the French retreated. Even so, the fighting continued sporadically into the evening, and a strong wind blew the gunpowder smoke into the British soldiers’ faces so they could not even see where the enemy was.

    The next day, Napoleon launched a last-ditch effort to break the British lines. He sent out his elite Old Guard, hardened veterans and the most loyal of the Imperial troops. However, even these warriors were unable to dislodge the tenacious British and Allied soldiers who refused to be pushed back even though their energy was almost spent and many of them were raw recruits. When the Old Guard was forced to withdraw, Napoleon began to realize that his lucky star had finally been snuffed out. At long last, the Prussians appeared on the scene, and a relieved Wellington ordered his Highlanders forward in a final charge, shouting “In for penny, in for a pound!”

    The fighting continued until dusk, when Private Vallance was struck in the face with a musket ball. It tore through his cheek and right eye, leaving him half-blind in a state of total shock. He collapsed on the ground among the dead and dying and remained that way throughout the long night. The victors of the battle were too exhausted to properly take care of the wounded, and Vallance had to endure the horror of watching a friend and fellow soldier die slowly beside him, begging for Vallance to shoot him and end the pain, which Vallance could not bring himself to do. Prussian soldiers also came to plunder the wounded, stabbing helpless Frenchmen in a show of petty vengeance.

    As the sun rose the next morning, Vallance managed to stand up and get some water for himself and the wounded nearby who had survived the night. Soon after, field parties finally began to come forward to assist the wounded of both sides that were treated by British and Belgian doctors at a field hospital at Mont St. Jean farm and later transferred to hospitals in Brussels. Vallance eventually made it back to Dundee where his severe wound healed slowly but surely. By 1816, he was honorably discharged from the army and received a pension of ninepence a day.

     In total, 2,000 British soldiers were killed and 7,000 wounded at the Battle of Waterloo. Throughout his life, Wellington would be haunted by his greatest and bloodiest victory and go silent every time Waterloo was mentioned. “It has been too much to see such brave men, so equally matched, cutting each other to pieces as they did,” he confessed to a mortally wounded friend just before the friend died.

    “It is a bad thing to be always fighting,” he reiterated later on. “It is quite impossible to think of glory. Both mind and feelings are exhausted. I am wretched at the moment of victory. Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained.”

Scotland Forever!


  1. My great great grandfather, just found out this story today, and WHAT A STORY !

    1. Hi Ivan, which descendant are you from. We descend from Dixon's son James. Interested as my Dad is doing the Family Tree.


      Elizabeth Vallance

    2. I am Dixon's Great-Great-Great Grand-Daughter. We descend from James, his son. Which one of his children do you come from. Dad was interested as he does the Family Tree.

  2. Very interesting write up of Pte. Dixon Vallance