Napoleon declared war on Portugal at the end of October 1807. His army under Marshal Andoche Juno entered Lisbon in November. By July 1808, the Portuguese had an envoy in London requesting that the British aid in attacking the French with the object of freeing Portugal. The British had been hoping to oblige and promptly sent 14,000 men under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley. He disembarked and and wasted no time preparing for the first meeting with French troops. Within days he met General Henri François, Comte de Laborde at Roliça.
In the months after occupying Portugal, Napoleon undertook the conquest and control of Spain. He met much resistance but it was disorganized 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 7 of those meetings. The most spectacular victory for Spain was in southern Spain on July 23,rd 1808, when General Castaños surrounded and forced 18,000 French under General DuPont to surrender at Baylen . On the 30th of July 1808, the French General Loison massacred the population, men women and children, of Evora, Portugal. Both of these events were to have an effect on the future of each nation's relationships with British troops.
Also on the 30th, Wellesley caught up to a letter from Castlereagh, the Secretary of War. 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 (A 60 year old General who saw active service only in 1793-1794 in a failed campaign in Flanders. He was currently Governor in Gibraltar.) Dalrymple would be seconded by Sir Harry Burrard, attended by 4 other generals all senior to Wellington. (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 July 30th,1808, General Wellesley re-met Admiral Cotton's convoy with Wellesley's troops at Mondego bay. Wellington 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 August 1st through the 8th. Some landing craft capsized in the rough surf making the first British casualties in the Peninsula drowning victims.
The army marched off on the 10th on the hot and sandy 12 mile march to Leiria. Wellington 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 marching 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 de Laborde. These troops were sent by Junot to harass and hold the British while he brought his larger army into position to oppose the Anglo-Portuguese forces.
By August 14th, the British reached Alcobaça and moved on to Obidos. Here the British vanguard, mostly 95th rifles, met pickets and rearguard of the French forces. The 4,000 French were outnumbered approximately 3 to 1.
The village of Roliça is placed in the center of a horseshoe shape of steep hills approximately one mile wide and two deep. The open end opens north northeast toward Obidos, where the 95th had met the French the day before. The hills around Obidos 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 1 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, de Laborde pulled his troops back to the top of the hill.
The British were formed in six brigades under General Hill, General Ferguson, General Nightingale, General Bowes, General Crawfurd, 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 3 companies of riflemen and some light artillery were to force the French right and hold against the possible arrival of French General Loison. General Sir Hill and generals Nightingale, Crawfurd, Fane with the remaining Portuguese, and the rest of the guns and cavalry were to push the center
The French, as mentioned above, were under de Laborde consisting of 5 battalions, including 1 Swiss, and 5 guns.
Wellesley arrived at Obidos August 16th and moved toward Roliça on the 17th. At the beginning of the battle, de Laborde occupied a position to the north northwest of the village of Roliça. Wellesley attempted to maneuver 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.
General Wellesley sent Colonel Trant to the west, and a stronger force under Generals Ferguson and Bowes with 6 guns to the east, while he distracted the French with a show of force and noise in the center. Wellesley tried the maneuver twice starting at 9:00 in the morning, but the battlewise François 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.
At this point, things were made interesting by a mistake. Colonel Lake of the 29th in the center dashed up a gully toward the French position, and arrived behind Laborde. This cost Lake his life and lost 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 Laborde hoping for support to arrive from Loison. He repulsed 3 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 de Laborde began to withdraw in good order with effective aid from his cavalry until his armies discipline broke, and his army ran. Without British Cavalry to press the pursuit, they successfully withdrew to Montachique near Torres Vedras.
General Wellesley complained to Castlereagh of a bad commissariat under James Pipon. He could do no more than complain, since in the British army organization, the commissariat had a separate command structure.
The British soldiers leading up to the battle were confident, although tired, from the heat and marching as mentioned in a letter home by Major Warre.
The British won with 487 lost, wounded and dead; over half that number from the precipitate 29th. The French lost 700 men and 3 of their 5 guns. General de Laborde himself was wounded. The following day Wellesley found that 4,000 additional British troops had arrived from England and were off the coast. He marched his men to cover their disembarkation rather than follow de Laborde.
The French, especially Napoleon, formed a poor first impression of Wellington's abilities as an attacking General, partly due to the precipitate attack of the 29th Brigade.
Wellington finally realized his ambition of Generalship in the wars on the European continent. He had taken advantage of the loophole in his instructions to continue preparations for the march toward Lisbon informing that he was to be superceded in his command. It had taken little time to land, prepare, and march right into the first battle for the British in the Peninsular war.
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