- Marcus Cribb
The Battle of Vimeiro 21 August 1808 - Seeing them off in the 'same old style' for the first time.
The first British troops landed at Mondego Bay on 1 August 1808 and 4 days later Sir Arthur Wellesley had 13,000 troops ashore. On the 17 August, Wellesley beat a French force under General Delaborde at Roliça. (see my article on the Battle of Roliça and Wellington's first victory in the Peninsular) www.dukeofwellington.org/post/the-battle-of-roli%C3%A7a-17th-august-1808-wellington-s-first-peninsular-attack-and-victory
The French commander, General Delaborde retreated back towards Lisbon and linked up with General Junot, who took command of their combined forces.
Over the 19th & 20th August two fleets brought around 3,000 British reinforcements ashore, using small boats at Porto Novo. It wasn’t without causalities, as the current and surf swept away some boats and capsized others, causing some fatalities. Wellesley’s army was camped on the cliff tops nearby and waited for these much needed troops, which would tip the balance of numbers in their favour.
The fleet however also brought Sir Harry Burrard, who was to replace Wellesley (he in turn was replaced on the 22nd August, following Vimerio by Sir Hew Dalrymple). The replacement of British commander was not made until the evening of the 21st due both to the approaching French Army, and the fact Sir Harry Burrard stayed aboard his ship, HMS Brazen, for comfort, meaning Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, commanded the British force until the closing stages of the battle.
[Map of the Battle of Vimerio. Source British Battles]
The opposing forces on the 21st August 1808:
The British Forces of around 15,000 men:
Commander: Sir Arthur Wellesley
1st Brigade: General Rowland Hill
2nd Brigade: General Ronald Ferguson
3rd Brigade: General Miles Nightingall
4th Brigade: General Barnard Bowes
5th Brigade: General James Caitland Craufurd
6th Brigade: General Henry Fane
5th Battalion 60th Foot
2nd Battalion 95th Rifles
7th Brigade: General Robert Anstruther
2nd Battalion 9th Foot
2nd Battalion 43rd Light
2nd Battalion 52nd Light
2nd Battalion 97th Highlanders
8th Brigade: General Wroth Palmer Acland
20th Foot (7 and 1/2 Companies)
1st Battalion 95th Rifles (2 Companies)
20th Light Dragoons (Half Regiment)
3 Batteries of Royal Artillery (16 Guns)
Portuguese Troops: Colonel Nicolas Trant
6th, 11th, & 12th Cavalry Regiments (And Lisbon Police Cavalry)
12th, 21st, and 24th line Battalions
4th Artillery Regiment
13,000 men and 23 guns:
Commander: General Jean-Androche Junot
1st Division: General Henri-François Delaborde
Brigade: General Antoine-François Brenier de Montmorand
3rd Battalion 2nd Légère
3rd Battalion 4th Légère
70th Ligne Regiment (1st and 2nd Battalions)
Brigade: General Jean-Guillaume-Barthélemy Thomières
86th Ligne Regiment (1st and 2nd Battalions minus two companies left at Elvas)
4th Swiss Regiment (2 Companies)
2nd Division: General Louis-Henri Loison
Brigade: General Jean-Baptiste Solignac
3rd Battalion 12th Légère
3rd Battalion 15th Légère
3rd Battalion 58th Ligne
Brigade; General Hugues Charlot
3rd Battalion 32nd Ligne
3rd Battalion 82nd Ligne
Reserve of Grenadiers: François-Etienne Kellerman
1st Regiment (1st and 2nd Battalions)
2nd Regiment (1st and 2nd Battalions)
Cavalry Division: General Pierre Maragon
1st Provisional Chasseurs
3rd Provisional Dragoons
4th Provisional Dragoons
5th Provisional Dragoons
Squadron of Volunteer Cavalry
Wellesley decided to face the French in the vicinity of the coastal region near Vimeiro. There he would defend two strategic ridgelines. The ridgelines were littered with stone walls and vineyards, making them a good defensive position. Wellesley thought the French would attack the western ridge and decided the Vimeiro Hill was the key to his position. He placed General Hill's Brigade on his right flank, with Anstruther's just to their left. Fane's Brigade would defend the town of Vimeiro itself, while Acland's, Bowe's, Crawfurd's, Ferguson's and Nightingall's, Brigades would be in reserve. Trant’s Portuguese were held further back, except for the cavalry who were to support the small force of the 20th Light Dragoons (which consisted of just 240 mounted men).
General Junot has pushed his men on through the night of the 20th/21st in order to reach Vimerio before Sir John Moore’s army of an additional 12,000 men could link up with Wellesley’s at the coast. British cavalry patrols has spotted the marching French troops about 5 kilometres south of Vimerio and reported this intelligence back to Wellesley who, expecting to be replaced as commander soon, ordered the British troops to be stood to, and “under arms by three o’clock in the morning” (Chartrand p.64).
[20th Light Dragoons on patrol to gather intelligence, spotting the enemy. By W.B. Wollen]
For the opening stage of the battle, Junot directed Brenier’s Brigade, comprising the 4 battalions that had fought under Delaborde at Roliça earlier that week, with a regiment of dragoons, to advance onto the eastern Ridge. Brenier was to continue north and, turn west, to march onto the East Ridge at its furthest point. Junot’s intention was, as soon as Brenier’s attack was well under way, to launch an assault on Vimeiro Hill in Wellesley’s centre.
Seeing the dust arising from Brenier’s trooping marching to the north, Wellesley ordered the four Brigades of, Acland, Bowes’ Ferguson and Nightingall to move to the East Ridge, to repulse the attacking French. As they approached, the two forces moving to the ridge were roughly marching in parallel to one another. Within minutes of reaching the ridge’s top, the British regiments deployed, in a smooth and efficient manner, a way in which the French had not encountered in Spain or Portugal yet.
Seeing British deploying onto the eastern ridge, Junot ordered the three battalion’s from Solignac’s Brigade to support Brennier’s men.
Junot now felt that the best course of success now lay with a frontal attack on the Vimeiro Hill. This was made by Thomière’s Brigade and Charlot’s Brigade, comprising 4 ½ battalions. Confidence was high and the men advance in their famous columns. General Delaborde led Thomière’s Brigade on the right and Loison led Charlot’s Brigade on the left, with 7 Guns.
The French attack on Vimeiro Hill fell on Fane’s Brigade on the British left, which largely consisted of riflemen of the 5/60th and 95th Regiments. These skirmishers would fire and fall back as the French approached. Also in good cover was Anstruther’s Brigade on the British right. The British infantry were supported by 12 guns. When the French columns got close enough, the red coated infantry poured volley fire of steady muskets into them, with the artillery in close support. As the French took heavy casualties, the 97th (Queen’s Germans) moved out of their covered position and attacked the front of the columns, which the 52nd (Light Infantry) fell onto its flank. This was too much for the French, even in column and they broke, running back down the slope of the ridge. Seeing this, the 50th (West Kent) supported by Riflemen did the same to Thomière’s column. Among the heavy casualties, general Delaborde and Charlot were wounded.
[The British advance on the French columns, as Riflemen of the 5/60th fall back. Source Devon Wargaming blog]
Though the failure to capture the ridge caused heavy casualties and must have been frustrating to Junot, it was not his main attack and he still had reserves. Calling up the two battalion of the 2nd Grenadier Reserve Regiment and rallying the fleeing survivors of the first attack, they made their way back up the eastern ridge again.
The British on the ridge were ready to meet the second attack. The Riflemen and skirmishers had been recalled, so the Artillery had a clear field of fire down the slope. For the first time in a battle, a new type of weapon was about to be used, Shrapnel shells. Devised by their namesake, Sir Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery. These shells (officially designated “spherical case”) could be fired by cannon to rain their deadly payload of musket balls at increased range and lethality. These shells found a perfect target on the densely packed French columns, though they were twice as wide as they were deep for each battalion, they were closely supported by a following battalion, giving them a ‘snaking’ effect from the British viewpoint.
The French Grenadiers did not make it halfway up the ridge, before the jubilant 52nd, 97th and Rifle battalions added their weight of fire to the gunners. Unable to advance against the intense volleys and with men falling on the slope, they broke back down the slope, leaving many dead and dying alongside those of the earlier attack.
Junot knew this position must be taken, so he called up both battalions the 1st Grenadier Reserve Regiment to “Pour en finir – put an end to it” (Chartrand p. 73) and capture the ridge. This time General Kellerman led the attack, instead of coming straight up the slope and hoping for success where failure was met twice before, he attempted to outflank the British by moving along a lower ridge, if they succeeded they would open up the road to the town of Vimerio.
Though a bold and clever plan, they had been spotted by Brigadier-General Anstruther who moved the 43rd (Monmouthshire) Light Infantry, who had not yet been engaged in the fighting on the ridge. They took up position in a high-walled churchyard by the road. Using this elevated and protected position the 43rd Light Infantry were able to fire into the advancing French Grenadiers, who were not able to scale the wall or have a clear view of their enemy. On the Grenadier’s other flank, two companies of 95th Rifles, joined by the Light Companies of the 2nd (The Queen’s Royal) and 20th (East Devonshire), supported by Fane’s Brigade guns opened fire. Shrapnel exploded overhead, whilst musket volleys cut down large numbers, with rifle shots picking out individuals, yet still the Grenadiers came on, hoping to push their way up the road and into the town, they might have succeeded, despite the casualties if the 50th and 43rd regiments had not been added to the fray, charging into their flank, the fighting was desperate, with reports that at this stage most muskets were fired within 5 foot of the enemy along with bayonet attacks. This fierce fighting pushed the balance, forcing the French to flee, but not before inflicting casualties on their attackers also.
[The 43rd use the Churchyard wall to attack the 1st Grenadier Reserve Regiment from multiple sides. Note the Belgic Shakos were introduced in 1812 onward in the British Army but are common in artistic impressions]
Observing this third attack fail, Wellesley now decided it was the perfect time to commit his cavalry. Reportedly turning to Lieutenant Colonel Taylor of the 20th Light Dragoons, raising his hat and rather mirroring his order to the Guards at Waterloo “Now 20th, now is the time!” (Chartrand P.76). The 240 British Troopers advanced from their position in the rear with 260 Portuguese cavalry on their flanks, some of whom were the Lisbon Police detachment, who had been hastily added to the cavalry’s ranks.
The cavalry formed line and went after the retreating French, some of whom saw that their best chance was to turn and fight. The muskets must have caused some casualties in the Portuguese ranks, who were very inexperienced, many panicked and galloped away to take shelter back behind British lines. But not all as it was noted that a Commandant of the Lisbon Police was killed much further on. Now largely unsupported, the two squadrons of the 20th Light Dragoons pushed on, through the fleeing French infantry, into a unit of enemy Dragoons, who they manage to surprise and overpower. They were still able to push on and on further up the far hill, until checked by a stone wall, it was here that the two regiments of French Dragoons who had been held in reserve fell upon them. Outnumbered and spent from their charge, the Light Dragoons should have been massacred, but in a great act of daring, most of the troopers managed to escape, with just the loss of 21 killed, 24 wounded and 11 captured. Even General Junot praised the bravery of these men to one of the captured officers. However the charge had mostly failed from the moment the Portuguese left.
[The charge of the 20th Light Dragoons and counter charge. WikiGallery]
By this point in the battle, Junot had committed nearly all of his troops into the attacks on Vimeiro. By comparison, Wellesley still had fresh reserves and not all the troops on the ridge had actually been fully engaged, so had full ranks and plenty of ammunition but were now spurred on with the successes of the day so far.
With repeated frontal attacks failing, Junot's hope lay in outflanking the British position. For this wide move he chose Brenier’s Brigade again, who had led the opening attack in the morning. The plan was to sweep round the north-east, towards a farm at Ventosa. Thinking that his supporting artillery could not use the roads due to hills and ravines, he decided to make a wide detour, going far round the position and adding time onto the march. Junot supported Brenier with a brigade under Solignac. As Solignac was trying to catch Brenier up, he went on the more direct road through the ravines and pressed up. Much to Solignac’s surprise he reached the farm of Ventosa first as Brenier had yet to reach it.
Spotting a thin line of British Infantry in the distance, in their recognisable red coat, Solignac deployed the three battalions under his command at the foot of a hill, what he did not know was what, if anything lay over the hill. Obscured by the rise and shielded by the skirmishers were three Brigades of British infantry under Bowes, Ferguson and Nightingall, consisting of seven battalions on infantry in two lines. Furthermore Acland’s and Crauford’s Brigades were only a little less than 2 kilometres away.
The three French Battalions went up the hill, their voltigeurs deployed out to the front, in order to engage the British light troops. Expecting to fight a deadly duel that light infantry fought, but with close support from their approaching line infantry the voltiguers pushed on and the Light Companies withdrew, for they knew what lay beyond the hill.
As the French reached the crest they saw over double their number of British Infantry marching towards them, the red coated infantry were so numerous, that even in a double line of battalions they overlapped the French. Solignac had little choice but to stand and fight. At less than 100 meters, the British presented their muskets and delivered a devastating volley, effectively wiping out the voltiguers to their front and wounding General Jean-Baptiste Solignac. The whole British line reloaded and stepped forward, ready to engage the main French force. The French returned ineffective fire, there was already mass confusion after the surprise of the three advancing brigades, they were outnumbered, suffering casualties and their commander was wounded. With a road to their rear, Solignac’s men broke and ran, some British regiments, namely the 36th (Herefordshire) and 40th (2nd Somersetshire) gave pursuit, firing at their backs and catching up with men as they went, taking many prisoner and capturing three guns.
[Reenactors at Vimerio march to new positions]
At the captured guns the 71st (Glasgow Highland) Light Infantry and 82nd (Prince of Wales’s Volunteers) Regiments stopped and paused, observing them was General Brenier who had just arrived on the scene. Brenier immediately ordered his two squadrons of Dragoons to charge down the slope and catch the men of the 71st and 82nd by surprise and maybe recapture the guns. The British troops were caught unawares by the charging Dragoons, but they fell back, rallied and formed a defensive line. Unfortunately for the attacking French Dragoons the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment who had recently lost their commander, Colonel Lake at Roliça just 4 days earlier, came to their aid. The three British Regiments formed a formidable line and advanced against the French cavalry, firing volleys into them. They carried on up the hill and continued their volleys against the infantry, in a repeat of the earlier attacks Brenier was wounded and the French broke and ran this time leaving their commander behind, so General Antoine-François Brenier de Montmorand was captured on the final attack of the day, after having led the first one of the battle.
[The 71st capture General Brenier]
There were still unengaged troops from these three British Brigades and Crauford’s Brigade was nearing the position as well as Colonel Vane’s Portuguese troops who were marching hard to join the fighting.
The flanking movement had utterly failed, attacking without supporting each other and being surprised in turn, much of the French army was it full retreat and being taken prisoner, Junot had led a disastrous series of attacks and could expect to lose thousands more into captivity, after less than three hours fighting. At this time a shocking new order came to the British officers. They were to stop their pursuit and halt. A new British Commander had arrived, Sir Harry Burrard.
Waiting, wisely for Wellesley to command the troops through the battle, Burrard assumed the chief command after victory seemed assured, and, believing the French had a reserve as yet untouched, forbade Ferguson to advance. The very next day Sir Hew Dalrymple assumed the chief command. Sir Harry Burrard and Sir Hew Dalrymple agreed and signed the controversial Convention of Cintra, while Arthur Wellesley was ordered to do so despite his opposition to the convention. All three generals were recalled, back to England. I feel that the Convention of Cintra is worthy of its own investigation and perhaps the topic of a future article.
The Battle of Vimerio should have been a total strategic success for the British, but they were muzzled at their moment of success by Sir Harry Burrard.
It was a desperately fought engagement, the French reported 1,500 officers and men killed or wounded with 300 to 400 taken prisoner, including General Brenier and the loss of three guns.
The British suffered their own losses, but were less than half that of their foe at, 720 in total killed or wounded, which broke down as, 4 officers and 131 men killed, 37 officers and 497 men wounded, 2 officers and 49 missing (likely captured), the Portuguese suffered at least 1 fatality from the Lisbon Police along a cadet and others wounded from their cavalry charge.
Burrard only held onto the command for one day, but all three generals would return to England, eventually leaving the command to Sir John Moore. By the time he was admonished for his part in the Convention of Cintra and return to Portugal, Sir Arthur Wellesley would be too late to save his army from the events leading to Corunna which would cost Sir John Moore and thousands of men and horses their lives.