The Battle of Roliça 17th August 1808. Wellington’s first Peninsular Attack and Victory.
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
In 1808 The British sent an expeditionary force to Portugal to help free the country from a recent swift invasion. The reasoning and the course of the invasion will be the topic of another post, but in brief: Napoleon Bonaparte wanted Portugal to cease trading with their oldest ally and staunch economic partner, Britain. He demanded an immediate cessation of all trade, to comply with his “Continental System” which was in effect the economic blockade of Britain. Alongside this Napoleon demanded that the Portuguese crown declare war on Britain also. In the face of a invasion, they relented and offered to join the Continental System on the 25th September 1807, but it was never truly acted upon, except the lacklustre order to impound British vessels, which led to the Royal Navy blockading Lisbon in retaliation. There was neither the will to fight against their former partners nor the time, as Napoleon gave little chance, with General Junot’s invading French troops reaching the Portuguese town of Abrantes by the 23rd November 1807. During the intervening months, despite the appearance of the impoundments and a blockade, Britain and Portugal had already held secret negations concerning the evacuation of the Portuguese Court from Lisbon.
The expeditionary force under Sir Arthur Wellesley left Cork on the 12th July 1808, arriving in Mondego Bay in August. (https://www.dukeofwellington.org/post/wellington-s-first-peninsular-command ).
[British Troops landing at Mondego Bay 1808. National Army Museum]
This was initially a small force. The Army which fought at Roliça consisted of 14,000 British Troops with just 1,600 Portuguese allies attached to the Army (this would soon grow, including the addition of the Loyal Lusitanian Legion of Portuguese emigrees. But remained initially a small force). This force was almost entirely Infantry, with only 380 men of the 20th Light Dragoons and artillery consisting of five 9 pounders, ten 6 pounders, and three mortars.
By the time that Wellesley landed, the French were disposed across Portugal. Marshal Junot, overall commander in the country, had about 25,000 men at his disposal. The French plan was for Loison’s force of around 6,500 men to move to meet with General Delaborde’s forces at Alcobaca (around 40 miles south of Mondego Bay). It was this second force that would be the first to fight the future Duke of Wellington in Portugal.
General Delaborde’s French force consisted of:
70eme of the Line (2 Battalions) 2eme Leger (1 Battalion) 4eme Leger (1 Battalion) 4eme Swiss (1 Battalion) 26eme Chasseurs (Cavalry)
Supported by 5 Guns.
The exact number of men in this force is a matter of great debate, with estimates ranging from 1,900 to 6,000 (Wellesley’s own estimate), but there were probably around 5,000 men (Oman).
Wellesley’s own force was already in a difficult situation, with little logistical support, Wellesley then showed his diplomatic ability, agreeing to train and teach a large number of local officers and men in the Portuguese army, in return for support from the local Junta. To support these were just two companies of the Irish Wagon Train (later the Royal Wagon Corps) with wagons led by bullocks. Even though the commissariat had little experience in leading these animals, Wellesley had, from his 9 years in India. This experience and local support meant his army could function well in the Iberian Peninsula, a region famed for starving armies across the vast terrain.
For the opening stages of the campaign, Wellesley enjoyed an advantage in numbers, something which was rare in the Peninsular War, a numerical superiority of roughly 3 to 1 was unheard of in his career. By this time Arthur Wellesley was a experienced officer, but little of that was fighting in Europe, he fought in Flanders at the Battle of Boxtel 1794 after which he spent 9 years in India, winning huge victories, on his return he commanded the British Reserves at the Second Battle of Copenhagen. But it would be in Portugal and Spain, that he would earn his fame as one of the greatest European generals to ever command.
[Map of the Battle of Rolica 1808. BritishBattles.com]
Wellesley exploited his advantage of numbers and moved against General Delaborde, who abandoned his position at Obidos on the 16th August, falling back to a more defensible position, around the village of Roliça. The ground there consisted of a long valley, surrounded by steep hills on all sides, except on the north, which was the route of British advance from Obidos. Wellesley decided to divide his army into three ‘columns’, more closely classes as attacking Brigades, under the commands of Generals, Hill, Nightingall and Catlin Craufurd marched against the village of Roliça, whilst two more ‘columns’ were away on the left and right flanks under Trant and Ferguson. It was, in effect a classic pincer movement, designed to engage in the centre and then wrap around the French flanks.
Though the French troops in Roliça were unaware of their perilous position, Delaborde watched the British March from the top of a windmill and saw the manoeuvre unfold. As the British troops advanced the French artillery exchanged shots with Wellesley’s guns. Whilst both side’s cavalry made a display on the flanks, looking for a opening, it had little affect, largely due to their limited number.
As the British advance neared, Delaborde’s skirmishers, the Tirailleurs deployed to fight against the Light Infantry and Riflemen of the British columns. As the deadly duel of these troops began in front of the main body of troops, Delaborde calmly ordered his small army to withdraw to a second position of the day. The trap fell upon a empty town, much to Wellesley’s frustration.
Wellesley’s frustration grew when he saw the French secondary positions to the south. They lay atop steep hills at the head of the valley, about one mile away, leading up to these new positions were 4 distinct gullies, part of the rocky, difficult terrain, on which the fighting must now take place in order to reach the cliff tops above.
After a reconnaissance, Wellesley decided to repeat the earlier plan, again the two flanking columns marched out to the east and west, with Ferguson’s men coming into a fight with a outlying unit who were posted to link to the expected French reinforcements.
While the main force waited for the two flanking movements to develop, the Green Jacketed men of the 5/60th (Royal American) and 95th Rifles, took advantage of the scattered rocks to engage the French from behind good cover.
Before the order could be given for the main assault, Lieutenant Colonel Lake of the 29th Worcestershire Regiment, led his regiment forward in a lone premature attack up one of the steep gullies. Wellesley had intended to wait until the flanking columns were in position to attack together.
The 29th reached the top of the gully, under a heavy fire from their flanks, where they met the 4th Swiss Regiment waiting for them. Astonishingly the Swiss soldiers attempted to change sides, reversing their muskets and advancing to shake the hands of the British soldiers.
In the confusion that followed, the 29th was attacked in the rear by a French battalion and found themselves cut off, 200 yards in the rear of the French positions. Lake then tried to lead his isolated regiment back to the gully, but they found themselves assailed from all sides, they fought on bravely, but firing up into good defensive positions, these line infantrymen stood little chance and the regiment was virtually annihilated. Colonel Lake, who had ridden his horse up the steep slope, was killed and 4 officers and 30 men of his regiment taken prisoner, the majority of the rest of the 29th Worcestershire Regiment were killed or staggered back down the gully wounded.
General Hill watched this unfold and ordered the 9th (East Norfolk) Regiment forward to support. The survivors of the 29th joined their comrades from the East Norfolk Regiment and fought their way back up the gullies they had just come from. As these men charged up the slopes, Wellesley decided it was time to order a general advance, soon the steep rock faces were swarming with British troops in the red-coats and green-jackets, who massed across the difficult outcrops as well as the gullies to get at the enemy.
[The 29th Regiment attack up the rocky gully. Pinterest]
As the 95th Rifles climbed the hill they were held up by French troops holding two stone buildings. The Riflemen fought from cover, using the rocks, until a Rifleman shouted “Over, boys, over!” The regiment responded shouting “Over, over” and rushed the two buildings at the point of their sword bayonets.
The French launched three determined counter-attacks with his four remaining battalions, but was unable to prevent the British infantry from clawing their way the top of the cliff, supported by artillery fire. Delaborde could now see that Ferguson’s British troops were only one mile from his right rear flank and that he was in serious danger of being trapped on the cliff edge. The French battalions withdrew in pairs, in good order two at a time, while Delaborde’s small cavalry force threatened to charge the British infantry, causing them to hold off the British a while with skilful horsemanship.
After managing to restart the pursuit through, The British infantry caught up with the French near Zambugeira and captured three guns and took some infantry prisoner .
Wellesley, concerned that enemy reinforcements were approaching the battlefield, abandoned the pursuit and Delaborde was left to march away.
[Wellesley view the 9th Regiment's attack]
The battle ended with Wellesley able to march on towards the Portuguese capital, Lisbon. The larger Battle of Vimerio would follow just four days later, 10 miles to the south against Marshal Junot.
Wellesley had lost just 4 officers and 66 soldiers killed with 20 officers and 315 soldiers wounded and 4 officers and 78 men missing or taken prisoner. Compared with, 600 French casualties killed, wounded or captured along with 3 guns lost.
Compared to many battles of the Peninsular War, Roliça was a small action, but important as it was the first major engagement of the British and French armies in battle. Interestingly, Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, is often, albeit wrongly remembered as a defensive general, famed for his mastery of the “reverse slope” tactic. At Roliça this was reversed, it was Delaborde who defended a steep slope and Wellington who went on the offensive in incredibly difficult terrain, taking the fight to the enemy and driving home an early victory.
[Memorial Cross the Lieutenant Lake. Killed at the Battle of Rolica 17th August 1808. Source http://pennyhampson.co.uk/tag/rolica/ ]
Sources by: Jac Weller
Sir Charles Oman
Ron McGuian & Robert Burnham.