The Battle of Vimeiro, Portugal: 21 August 1808
By Robert Burnham, FINS
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. On 17 August, Wellesly beat a French force under General Delaborde at Roliça. General Delaborde retreated towards Lisbon and linked up with General Junot, who took command of their combined forces.
The British Forces
The British force had about 15,000 men:
Commander: Sir Arthur Wellesly1st Brigade: General Rowland Hill5th Foot
The French force consisted of about 13,000 men and 23 guns:
Commander: General Jean-Androche Junot1st Division: General Henri-François DelabordeBrigade: General Antoine-François Brenier de Montmorand3rd Battalion 2nd Légère
The Battle of Vimeiro
Wellesly decided to face the French in the vicinity of Vimeiro. There he would defend two ridgelines. He thought the French would attack the western ridge and decided Vimeiro Hill was the key to his position. He placed Hill's Brigade on his right flank, with Anstruther's just to Hill's left. Fane's Brigade would defend the town of Vimeiro, while Acland's, Nightingall's, Bowe's, Ferguson's, and Crawfurd's Brigades would be in reserve.
General Junot only made a cursory inspection of the British position before ordering his forces to attack. The main effort would be against the British left center, along the western ridgeline. In an attempt to turn the British left flank, he sent Brenier on a long march. Wellesly ralized the danger and sent Acland's, Nightingall's, Bowe's, Ferguson's Brigades to protect his left. Junot saw the movement of these troops and thinking that Brenier would be destroyed, sent Solignac's Brigade to support him. This divided his army in two, with over three kilometers between the two wings.
The battle began about 9:00 a.m. when General Junot sent Charlot's and Thomière's Brigades, along with seven guns, to attack the British on the ridgeline near Vimeiro. General Anstruther wrote later that:
"The enemy came rapidly along the road, directly in front of the 50th, and when within about nine hundred yards deployed to their left, so as to bring their front parallel to ours; heavy cannonade from our guns, which caused the enemy much loss, but did not check his advance. Brigadier-General Fane sent out nearly all the 60th and some companies 95th, to skirmish with their sharpshooters; after a good deal of firing our people were driven in. Sent the light company 97th and three companies 52nd to cover their retreat; the latter made a gallant stand, but were at length driven in almost to the position, and the enemy advanced to the edge of the copse, about one hundred and fifty yards from us."
The French continued on, and Anstruther:
"Ordered the 97th, who were concealed behind a dip of the ground, to rise and fire; after two or three rounds they (the 97th) began to advance from the position, and finding it impossible to stop them without great risk, ordered the 52nd to support them on their right, and, if possible to turn the left of the enemy. This they did very dexterously; whilst the 97th made a vigorous attack in front. The enemy soon gave way, and was pursued to the skirts of the wood, beyond which his superiority in cavalry made it imprudent to advance. Rallied the 97th and 52nd, and leaving strong piquets in the wood, brought them back to the position: the 9th remained in reserve, and was but little engaged."
The French under Thomière, hit Fane's Brigade, and according to Anstruther:
"In the mean time Brigadier-General Fane, on my left, was very warmly engaged. The enemy advanced with great boldness against the front of the 50th, whilst another column tried to penetrate into the village of Vimeiro on his left, along a deep hollow road which partly concealed them. Sent the 43rd and all the cavalry to Fane's assistance: the former being obliged to put two companies in the front houses of the village, the enemy being very near it. The 50th regiment, however, by a very bold attack, defeated the enemy opposed to them, taking all their guns, tumbrils, &c.; and the 43rd, with equal gallantry, came to the bayonet with the corps on the left, and drove them completely back. The rifle corps and the 20th dragoons then went out in pursuit, but the latter advancing too far, and getting near a wood filled with the enemy's infantry, suffered much."
The first French attack was stopped and all seven guns were captured. Junot ordered another attack, this time using the two battalions of the 2nd Reserve Grenadiers, under the command of Colonel St. Clair, along with eight guns. Oman states
"The second attack, however, failed even more disastrously than the first: the grenadiers, attacking on a narrow front and a single point, were blown to pieces by the converging fire of the 52nd, the 97th, and Fane's two rifle battalions, as well as by the battery on the hill. . . St. Clair's battalions climbed halfway up the hill, but could do no more. . . "
Junot made one last assault against Vimeiro. He ordered the 1st Reserve Grenadiers forward, this time under the command of General Kellerman. The column veered to the east of the town, avoiding Anstruther, and succeeded in reaching the church. There fierce street fighting took place and for a while neither side would budge. General Acland, acting upons his own initiative, brought his brigade into the fight and soon the numbers were too much for the French. The grenadiers withdrew to their initial positions. Wellesly then ordered his cavalry to charge. In what was to happen time and time again during the Peninsula War, the British cavalry charged magnificently, but soon all control was lost and they came close to being destroyed by the French cavalry. The British cavalry made it back to their lines, but lost 25% of their men, including their commander and twenty troopers killed, twenty-four wounded, and eleven captured. This ended the main effort.
Despite these setbacks, the French did not give up. General Solignac in the north, attempted to turn the British left flank. There he ran into 6,000 men under the command of General Ferguson, who had concealed his force on the reverse slope. The British made short work of the French. Within a few minutes, the French took heavy casualties (including General Solignac) and were forced to withdraw, leaving their guns. General Brenier, hearing the firing, attempted to assist Solignac. His initial attack against the 71st and 82nd Foot was successful and he recaptured Solignac's lost guns. However the attack faltered under the heavy fire of the other battalions. Brenier's Brigade fell back, abandoning both Solignac's and their own guns, leaving their commander wounded on the field, to be captured by the British.
A Scottish soldier in the 71st Foot, which was part of Ferguson's Brigade, wrote of the fighting:
"We marched out two miles to meet the enemy, formed line and lay under cover of a hill for about an hour, until they came to us. We gave them one volley and three cheers — three distinct cheers. Then all was as still as death. They came upon us, crying and shouting, to the very point of our bayonets. Our awful silence and determined advance they could not stand. They put about and fled without much resistance. At this charge we took thirteen guns and one General."
After five separate attacks, the French had had enough. They began to withdraw to Lisbon. If the British had conducted a vigorous pursuit, there was a good chance that they could have destroyed the disorganized French. However, at this point Wellesly was replaced in command by Sir Harry Burrard (who was senior to Wellesly), who ordered the British to stand down. French casualties were about 1,800 killed and wounded, and 14 of 23 guns captured. The British had about 700 casualties.
The British victory at Vimeiro made the French position in Portugal untenable. The Convention of Cintra was signed on 30 August and the French were transported back to France, with full honors. Portugal would be free from the French until March,1809, when Marshal Soult invaded northern Portugal. Vimeiro was also the first time the new artillery shield, invented by Colonel Shrapnel, was used in combat. It was also the first time Wellington used the reverse slope of a ridgeline to hide his forces from the attacking French — a tactic he would use many times over the next five years!
Views of the Battlefield
Click on any thumbnail image for a larger view.
Vimeiro has not changed much in two hundred years. The town has spread out to the south and covers the crest of the the hill that Anstruther defended. On this hill there is a monument commemorating the battle. All of the French approaches, except Solignac's, are still fields with few buildings. There is a large factory near the start point for Solignac's approach on the northern flank of the British position. In the town itself, the church and the building that was used by Wellington for his headquarters are still there.
Vimeiro, Vimiera, Vimeïro, or Vimiero?
Depending on your source, there are several ways to spell the name of the battle. Oman spells it Vimiero. The official spelling for British Battle Honours is Vimiera. Georges Six, the French biographer, spells it Vimeïro. On the Portuguese monument commemorating the battle, it is spelled Vimeiro and modern road maps also spell it that way. I have kept the Portuguese spelling for this article.
How to Get There
From Lisbon, go north on A8 until Torres Vedras. From Torres Vedras go northwest towards Peniche. About 6 km outside of Torres Vedras there will be a road going west towards Vimeiro (about 10 km away.) (Note there are two other Vimeiros in Portugal and Spain.)
Anstruther, Robert. "Memoir" in James Wyld's Atlas Containing Plans of the Principal Battles, Sieges, and Affairs in which the British Troops were engaged During the War in the Spanish Peninsula and the South of France from 1808 to 1814 London; 1841.
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.
Hibbert, Christopher (ed.) The Recollections of Rifleman Haris London : Leo Cooper; 1977.
Leach, Jonathan. Rough Sketches of the Life of an Old Soldier Cambridge : Ken Trotman; 1986.
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.
Six, Georges. Dictionnaire Biographique des Generaux et Amiraux Français de la Revolution et de l'Empire 1792-1814 Paris; 1974.
I would like to thank my travelling companion to Spain and Portugal in 1997, Kevin Kelley, who gave me permission to use images 2, 4, & 6 that were from his private collection. Also Howie Muir who cheerfully provided names of British commanders, details on the more obscure French order-of-battle, and Anstruther's description of the battle.
Placed on the Napoleon Series September 2000