The Battle of Roliça, Portugal: 17 August 1808
By Robert Burnham, FINS
The first action between British and French troops during the Peninsular War occurred near the little town of Roliça, Portugal. There, a badly outnumbered French force, was forced from two successive positions before retreating under pressure from the field.
The Strategic Situation
In June 1808, the British government received word of the Spanish uprising against the French. The British had a tradition of supporting the Portuguese and used the Spanish insurrection as an excuse to send an expeditionary force to Portugal. Their mission was to expel the French Army, under the command of General Junot, from Portugal. The initial British force would be under the command of a young general who had made his reputation in India: Sir Arthur Wellesly.
The first British troops landed at Mondego Bay on 1 August 1808 and 4 days later Wellesly had 13,000 troops ashore. The British were re-inforced with 2,000 Portuguese troops who were placed under the command of a British Officer: Colonel Nicholas Trant.After a week spent organizing his commissary, Wellesly began his march on Lisbon.
The French commander in Portugal, General Jean-Androche Junot, received word of the British landing and sent General Henri-François Delaborde to observe ". . . and, if possible, contain Wellesly, till Junot should have concentrated his whole field-army and be ready to fight." Delaborde advanced to Alcobaça, but could not find a suitable defensive position. He withdrew to Roliça, where he placed his force on a low hill just west of the town. About 2 kilometers to his rear was a ridgeline that ran east-west. There he waited for the British.
The British Forces
The British force had about 15,000 men:
Commander: Sir Arthur Wellesly1st Brigade: General Hill5th Foot
The French force consisted of about 4,350 men:
Commander: General Delaborde70th Ligne Regiment (2 Battalions)
The Battle of Roliça
Wellesly's planned to trap the French forces using a double envelopment. According to Charles Oman:
"On the right Colonel Trant, with three battalions of Portuguese infantry and fifty horse of the same nation, moved along the foot of the western range of heights, to turn the Roliça position by a wide circular movement. On the left General Ferguson, with his own brigade, that of Bowes, and six guns, struck over the hills to get round the eastern flank of the French. In the centre the remainder of the army -- four brigades of British infantry, 400 cavalry, half English and half Portuguese, with the battalion of Cazadores and twelve guns, advanced on a broad front in two lines. . . Hill's brigade formed the right, Fane's the left, Nightingale's the center, while Catlin Crawfurd's two battalions and the Cazadores acted as the reserve."
Soon after the riflemen of Fane's brigade engaged the French skirmishers, General Delaborde gave the order to pull back to the heights two kilometers to their rear. The French retreated to the ridgeline without difficulty and easily avoided the trap that Wellesly tried to set. The British had to re-deploy for an attack on the French positions. Wellesly decided to use the same plan, with Ferguson and Trant turning the French flanks. Once they threatened the French, he would launch the attack on the center. Four gullies led up to the French position and each one would be assaulted by a different British regiment.
Unfortunately for the British, the attack did not go as plan. The 29th Foot, under the command of Colonel Lake, attacked prematurely up its assigned gully (the second from the right) and soon found itself surrounded on three sides by French troops. Despite the devastating fire, the right wing of the regiment made it to the top of the ridge, when it was charged from the rear . The 29th Foot was forced to retreat, leaving Colonel Lake dead on the field and six officers and thirty soldiers captured.
A second attack, also poorly coordinated, was made via the two gullies on each end: the riflemen in the east and the 5th Foot in the west. The terrain was extremely rugged and according to Jonathan Leach of the 95th Rifles "Neither before nor since do I remember to have felt more intense and suffocating heat than we experienced in climbing the mountains to the attack; every mouthful of air was such as is inhaled when looking into an oven." The French, relatively fresh, waited until the British troops reached the crest of the hill and then charged each regiment separately, forcing them back down the hill. A third assault, much better coordinated, also failed.
A fourth assault was made about the same time Ferguson's movement to the east began to threaten the French right. The French commander realized that his force was in danger of being outflanked and he gave the order to retreat. According to Charles Oman
"He retired by alternate battalions, two in turn holding back the disordered pursuers, while the other two doubled to the rear. His regiment of chasseurs à cheval also executed several partial charges against the British skirmishers, and lost its commander mortally wounded: the Portuguese cavalry refused to face them. In this way the French reached the pass behind Zambugeira, a mile to the rear, without any great loss. But in passing through this defile, they were forced to club together by the narrowness of the road, were roughly hustled by their pursuers, and lost three of their guns and a few prisoners. The rest of the force escaped. . . "
The battle of Roliça was insignificant in terms of number of troops involved or results. General Delaborde, fought a brillant delaying action against a force that outnumbered him almost 4 to 1. The French lost about 600 men and three guns, but escaped in good fighting order and would fight again at Vimiero 4 days later. The British lost about 500 men, of which 190 were from the 29th Foot. After Vimiero, it would be 5 long years before the British would be able to outnumber their enemy on the battlefield again.
Views of the Battlefield
Click on any thumbnail image for a larger view.
Roliça has not changed much in two hundred years. It is still possible to stand on Delaborde's initial position and to climb the gullies that the British fought up. Several of the streets have Napoleonic names (Beco Sir Arthur Wellesly -- which leads to the first French position; Rua Coronel Nicolau Trante -- in honor of the British commander of the Portuguese forces; and surprisingly there is even a street named for the French -- Rua Das Invasoes Francesas.) There is a monument commemorating the battle in Roliça. Behind the French final positions, accessible by foot, is a small monument to Lieutenant Colonel Lake, who died in the fight.
How to Get There
From Lisbon, go north on A8 until Torres Vedras. From Torres Vedras go north towards Obidos. About 10 km south of Obidos there will be an exit for Carvalhal. Go west (go under the highway) for about 5 km.
Fletcher, Ian. Fields of Fire: Battlefields of the Peninsular War New York : Sarpedon; 1994.
Hibbert, Christopher (ed.) A Soldier of the Seventy-First Warren : Squadron/Signal Publications; 1976.
Leach, Jonathan. Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier Cambridge : Ken Trotman; 1986.
Maxwell, W. H. Peninsular Sketches Vol. 1; Cambridge : Ken Trotman; 1998.
Oman, Charles. A History of the Peninsular War Vol. V; New York : AMS; 1980.
Paget, Julian. Wellington's Peninsular War: Battles and Battlefields London : Leo Cooper; 1996.
Rathbone, Julian. Wellington's War: His Peninsular Dispatches London : Michael Joseph; 1984.
Placed on the Napoleon Series August 2000