The Battle of Roliça (August 17 1808) the British under Wellesley defeated the French under General Henri Delaborde, near the village of Roliça in Portugal. Formerly spelled Roleia in English, it was the first battle fought by the British army during the Peninsular War.
On July 30th, 1808 General Wellesley remet 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 lasts 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 Leira. 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 North East 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 Loisson. General Hill and generals Nightingale, Crawfurd, Fane with the remaining Portuguese, and the rest of the guns and cavalry were to push the centre.
The French were under de Laborde consisting of five battalions, including one Swiss, and five guns.
Wellesley arrived at Obidos August 16th and moved toward Roliça on the 17th. 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 6 guns to the east, while he distracted the French with a show of force and noise in the center. Wellesley tried the manoeuver twice starting at 9:00 in the morning, but the battlewise 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.
At this point things were made interesting by a mistake. Colonel Lake of the 29th Regiment of Foot 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 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 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.
The British won with 487 casualties. Over half that number from the precipitate 29th. The French lost 700 men and three of their five guns. General de Labord himself was wounded. The following day Wellesley found that the 4,000 additional British troops had arrived from England were off the coast. He marched his men to cover their disembarkation rather than follow de Laborde.
* The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, Benjamin Harris and Henry Curling, 1848.
* The French Army 1600-1900
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