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Battle of Roliça
Part of the Peninsular War
Batalha da Roliça.jpg
The British take the hill during the climax of the battle.
Date17 August 1808
LocationNear the village of Roliça in Portugal
Result British victory, tactical French retreat
Belligerents
United Kingdom United Kingdom France French Empire
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Sir Arthur Wellesley France Henri Delaborde
Strength
4,897 men ca. 4,765 men
Casualties and losses
441 kw&c 600 kw&c, 3 guns captured

In the Battle of Roliça (17 August 1808) an Anglo-Portuguese army under Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated an outnumbered French army under Henri François Delaborde, near the village of Roliça in Portugal. The French retired in good order. Formerly spelled Roleia in English, it was the first battle fought by the British army during the Peninsular War.[1]

Background[edit | edit source]

In the months after occupying Portugal, Napoleon undertook the conquest and control of Spain. He met much resistance but it was disorganised even when it was effective. By the end of July the Spanish had met the French a dozen times, winning, or at least not losing, at seven of those meetings. Their most spectacular victory was in southern Spain on 23 July 1808, when General Francisco Castaños surrounded and forced 18,000 French under General Pierre Dupont to surrender at Battle of Bailén. On 30 July 1808, the French massacred the population, men, women, and children, of Évora. Both of these events were to have an effect on the future of each nation's relationships with British troops. On the same day, Wellesley received a letter from Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. It informed Wellesley that General Jean-Andoche Junot's forces numbered more than 25,000. Castlereagh forwarded his plans to augment the British army in Portugal by another 15,000 men. General Sir John Moore was to arrive with an army from Sweden, and another force would be forwarded from Gibraltar. The command of this larger force would pass to Sir Hew Dalrymple (the Governor in Gibraltar, a 60-year-old general who had seen active service only in a failed campaign in Flanders in 1793–1794). Dalrymple would be seconded by Sir Harry Burrard, attended by five other generals, all senior to Wellesley (Dalrymple, Burrard, Moore, Hope, Fraser, and Lord Paget). The ambitious General Wellesley hoped to make something happen during the time he still commanded the army in Portugal.

On 30 July 1808, General Wellesley remet Admiral Cotton's convoy with Wellesley's troops at Mondego bay. Wellesley chose this as his landing point because students from Coimbra University had seized the fort making this a safer landing than any place nearer Lisbon. The disembarking of Wellesley's original 9,000 troops and supplies with the 5,000 they met off Portugal lasted from 1–8 August. Some landing craft capsized in the rough surf making the first British casualties in the Peninsula victims of drowning. The army marched off on the 10th on the hot and sandy 12 mile march to Leiria. Wellesley arrived the 11th and soon began arguing with General Freire, the commander of 6,000 Portuguese troops, about supplies and the best route to Lisbon. The result had Wellesley taking his preferred route, close to the sea and his supplies, with 1,700 of the Portuguese under the command of Colonel Trant, a British officer in service with the Portuguese Army. The army then began its march toward Lisbon following a force of the French army. The French were under the command of General Henri François, Comte Delaborde. These troops had been sent by Junot to harass and hold the British while he brought his larger army into position to oppose the Anglo-Portuguese forces. By 14 August the British reached Alcobaça and moved on to Óbidos. Here the British vanguard, mostly 95th Rifles, met pickets and the rearguard of the French forces. The 4,000 French were outnumbered approximately 4 to 1.

Battlefield[edit | edit source]

The village of Roliça is placed in the centre of a horseshoe shape of steep hills approximately one mile wide and two deep. The open end opens North North East toward Óbidos where the 95th had met the French the day before. The hills around Óbidos and Roliça were well wooded.

The French began the day to the north of Roliça backed up to the higher ground allowing them to block or protect the roads south toward Lisbon. On the hill about one mile to the south of the village where the French first fell back, there were four defiles, or gullies leading into the new French position. The field below these hills were grassy, but boulders and the steep sides to the gullies made attack in formation impossible. In the first stages of the battle, Delaborde pulled his troops back to the top of the hill.

Armies[edit | edit source]

The Anglo-Portuguese were formed in six brigades under General Rowland Hill, 1st Viscount Hill, General Ferguson, General Nightingale, General Bowes, General Craufurd, and General Fane with the Portuguese under Colonel Trant. Colonel Trant with the Portuguese and 50 cavalry formed the right and were to turn the French left. Generals Ferguson and Bowes with three companies of riflemen and some light artillery were to force the French right and hold against the possible arrival of French General Loisson. General Hill and generals Nightingale, Craufurd, Fane with the remaining Portuguese, and the rest of the guns and cavalry were to push the centre.

The French were under Delaborde consisting of four battalions, and six guns.[2]

British Forces[edit | edit source]

French Forces[edit | edit source]

  • 1st Division, 1st Corps of Observation of the Gironde (Army of Portugal), commanded by Général de Division Henri François Delaborde[2]
    • 26th Regiment of Mounted Chasseurs (26éme Régiment de Chasseurs à Cheval) (3 sqns)
    • 1 Foot Artillery Battery (6 guns)
    • Brigade Avril, commanded by Général de Brigade Jean-Jacques Avril
      • 70th Regiment of Line Infantry (70éme Régiment d'Infanterie Légère) (2 battalions)
    • Brigade Thomieres, commanded by Général de Brigade Jean Guillaume Barthélemy Thomières
      • 2nd Regiment of Light Infantry (2éme Régiment d'Infanterie Légère) (1 battalion)
      • 4th Regiment of Light Infantry (4éme Régiment d'Infanterie Légère) (1 battalion)

Battle[edit | edit source]

Wellesley arrived at Óbidos 16 August and moved toward Roliça on the following day. At the beginning of the battle, Delaborde occupied a position to the North north West of the village of Roliça. Wellesley attempted to manoeuvre his forces into a double enclosure, moving to each flank of the French position. This could be attempted since the Anglo-Portuguese army outnumbered the French forces present by over 3 to 1. He sent Colonel Trant to the west, and a stronger force under Generals Ferguson and Bowes with six guns to the east, while he distracted the French with a show of force and noise in the centre. Wellesley tried the manoeuvre twice starting at 9:00 in the morning, but the battle-wise French fell back each time. At this time the French final position was to the south and east of the village at the top of a steep hill. Colonel Lake of the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot in the centre then made the mistake of dashing up a gully toward the French position. He arrived behind Delaborde, which cost Lake his life and most of the men in the 29th. This prompted a general attack in relief by the outnumbering British. The fight was rough and uphill with Delaborde hoping for support to arrive from Loison. He repulsed three assaults by the British until nearly 4:00 in the afternoon. At this time Wellesley reached positions at the top of the hill and Ferguson arrived over the hills to the east. General Delaborde began to withdraw in good order with effective aid from his cavalry until his army's discipline broke and his army ran. Without British Cavalry to press the pursuit, they successfully withdrew to Montachique near Torres Vedras.

Footnotes[edit | edit source]

  1. Wellington: The Years of the Sword, Elizabeth Longford, Harper & Row, 1969, pp. 148-152
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Smith, p. 266.
  3. Leslie, p. 12.
  4. Oman
  5. 5.0 5.1 Duncan, Volume II, pp. 203, 207.
  6. Duncan, Volume I, pp. 407

References[edit | edit source]

  • Major Francis Duncan, History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery Volume I, 1870, John Murray, Woolwich, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
  • Major Francis Duncan, History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery Volume II, 1873, John Murray, Woolwich, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
  • Major John H. Leslie, The Services of the Royal Regiment of Artillery in the Peninsular War 1808 to 1814, 1908 Hugh Rees, Limited, London, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
  • Sir Charles Oman, A History of the Peninsular War Volume I, Pickle Partners Publishing, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
  • Digby Smith, The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book: Actions and Losses in Personnel, Colours, Standards, and Artillery, 1792–1815, 1998 Greenhill Books, London, United Kingdom. ISBN 1-85367-276-9.
  • The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, Benjamin Harris and Henry Curling, 1848.
  • The French Army 1600-1900
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