Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars in the Iberian Peninsula: Battle at Vimeiro August 21, 1808



Introduction

The battle of Vimeiro tested Wellesley's tactics against the tried and successful French tactics for the first time. It is the first time that Wellesley met one of the senior Napoleonic French Generals with near equal troop strengths.

Battle of Vimeiro

Wellesley moved south from Roliça to Vimeiro and the mouth of the Maceira River. Here he covered the disembarkation of the Brigades under Brigadier General Wroth Palmer Acland and Brigadier General Robert Anstruther with their commander Lieutenant General Harry Burrard.

Current Situation in the Peninsula

The situation is, of course, much the same as prior to the previous battle at Roliça 4 days earlier. The French are embattled in several places in their quest to subdue and control the two countries on the Iberian peninsula. The Portuguese do not have an effective army, but what army they have and the people are more than ready to welcome and join the British army. The recent massacre at Evora by French General Loison practically guaranteed their enthusiastic support of the British troops.

Preliminaries

General Burrard's troops had disembarked from their ships. Wellesley joined Burrard on shipboard, recommending a flanking approach to attack Marshal Junot whom it was assumed was moving up the road from Lisbon. General Burrard decided on caution and chose to wait for the troops coming with General Moore. He stayed in his berth aboard ship overnight while Wellesley returned to shore.

During the night further intelligence was received of French movements. Wellesley placed his troops the following morning facing south in preparation for the French taking the road from Lisbon.

Terrain

The ground around Vimeiro consists of gently rolling hills covered by vineyards. There is an "Eastern" ridge that runs south to north, to the north of Vimeiro. There is a second smaller "Western" ridge, that curves away to the south and west of Vimeiro. The road toward Torres Vedras and Lisbon runs from between these ridges toward the south. There are two other towns, Toledo and Ventosa to the north along the Eastern ridge. Behind Wellesley to the west was the sea.

Participants

The French General Andoche Junot, joined by General de Laborde, General Loison, and General St. Claire met General Wellesley with his forces from the battle at Roliça, reinforced by the troops under General Burrard. General Burrard himself was not present to take command of the army as the battle began.

The British were arrayed facing the south expecting Junot along the highway. When dust was seen from his approach from the east, Wellesley quickly redeployed, leaving only Hill facing to the south.

The battle

Wellington got his wish to meet Junot in battle. Reports came in from scouts near midnight telling of French movements. In the morning by 9:00, dust from the approaching French could be spied toward the east. Since they were expected from Lisbon to the south, this necessitated a hurried repositioning of the British forces. Wellesley left General Hill on the Western Ridge. He placed Anstruther and General Fane on Vimeiro hill, a smaller hill south of town and between the 2 ridges. He moved the rest of his army along the Eastern ridge toward Ventosa to prevent Junot from flanking his original position.

Wellesley placed much of his force on the reverse downslope, behind the crest of hills facing the French. For the first time French tirailleurs met the British skirmishers trained by Moore. This lessened the effect the tirailleurs typically had on French opponents. The 7 French columns met these skirmishers, and a brief cannonade from 12 British guns. The Shrapnel shells were used to good effect against the French columns. The French then met the fire of the British 1st battalion of the 50th regiment in lines of infantry 2 deep "rolling their fire company to company across the French front and around their flank". When this put the columns in disarray the British rose using bayonet and thrust back the French advance. The French lost 7 guns in this first attack against Vimeiro hill.

The attack was repeated with the French this time losing additional guns. At about 10:30 behind Vimeiro, 3 French brigades attacked a position of 3,000 British including the reduced 29th. The French fell back and were reinforced. This time Wellesley arrived and led the 29th in a flanking attack. For the 5th time during the day French column met British line and failed.

By now it was only noon with the French losing 1,800 men, including General Solignac severely wounded and General Brennier captured, and 14 of 23 French guns. Wellesley galloped to the recently arrived Burrard and proposed an advance against Junot. He confidently predicted a triumphant entry to Lisbon within 3 days. It was not to happen. Burrard repeated the order of the previous evening, "Wait for Moore."

Anecdotes and ancillary events

Wellesley was ambitious, and wanted to follow and destroy the defeated French. He chafed at being restrained, and later referred to the 2 senior Generals as "Betty Burrard" and "Dowager Dalrymple". He paid little attention to the negotiations for armistice that followed the battle.

Results

The French suffered 1,800 casualties and lost 14 or their 23 guns.

Junot sent his General Kellerman to negotiate 48 hour armistice and terms. Without immediately pursuing the French this turned out to be the best solution for the British and by far the best for the French. The resulting terms came to be called the Convention of Cintra, named for the town to which General Dalrymple removed after he arrived on the 22nd of August and where he signed the Convention as Commander-in-chief.

Political situation

The mood in Britain was jubilant when news reached them of a great victory against Napoleon's army. Two victories in one week! The government was pleased and wanted the people to cheer the success. The news reached most through the medium of the Morning Post on September 2nd, declaring "Most Glorious news from Portugal".




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