The Peninsular War 1808-1814

1808 Mondego Bay, Obidos, Rolica, Maceira Bay/Porto Novo, Vimeiro

Mondego Bay, Portugal

Figueira da Foz

On 1st August 1808 a British expeditionary force under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley landed at Figuiera da Foz in Mondego Bay. His task was to help Spain and Portugal in "throwing off the yoke of France, and the final and absolute evacuation of the Peninsula by the troops of France". After 5 days they were joined by another British brigade of 5,000 men from Cadiz. Landing the men, horses, guns, equipment and combat supplies over soft beaches through heavy surf was a slow, arduous and dangerous operation.

Figueira da Foz harbour

Fort Catalina's remains

The modern harbour is vast but very little remains of Fort Catalina. It was seized by Portuguese soldiers opposing the French occupation and reinforced by British marines in July 1808 prior to the August landings.

 

Wellesley's force now comprised his amphibious division plus a Portuguese brigade under the command of a British officer in Portuguese service. It totalled about 15,000 men but was limited in cavalry due to a shortage of horses.

 

When they were all ashore the British force advanced south to confront the French who were under the overall command of Marshal Junot. Their first contact was just north of the walled city of Obidos on 15th August. A skirmish with a rearguard from the retreating French resulted in 29 British casualties. Wellesley occupied Obidos the next day.

Obidos

Roliça

The first battle took place on the heights at Roliça on 17th August 1808. It was an encounter battle against 4,500 French troops under General Henri Delaborde. Wellesley achieved victory but with a heavy loss.

 

Lieutenant Colonel The Hon. George Lake commanding 29th Foot (Worcesters) led an attack on these heights where his regiment suffered 190 casualties and he died as they fought their way up this gully. The situation was recovered by the 9th Foot (East Norfolks) and the French lost 600 men and six guns. The French were not pursued and the advance continued south.

The Heights of Roliça

The 29th's gully

Lake's memorial

Roliça was followed four days later by the battle of Vimeiro - the first major battle of the campaign. Wellesley had marched south along the coast and was reinforced with about 5,000 men in two more brigades which landed at Maceira Bay, Praia de Porto Novo.

Porto Novo

Commemorative tiled panels illustrate the landings

A sandbar prevents access from the sea to the River Maceira

Whilst the brigades were landing a French force of 13,000 men, including 2,000 cavalry and 23 guns were approaching under command of General Junot. Wellesley had intended to continue his advance towards Lisbon but his orders were countermanded when Lieutenant General Sir Harry Burrard arrived in Maceira Bay. Burrard halted the advance with orders to wait until the more senior Lieutenant General Sir John Moore arrived with his corps which at this stage was still at sea 200 miles north. Wellesley kept his army on alert in anticipation of a French attack and adjusted its deployment when news of their approach was received in the early hours.

Map by Gregory Fremont-Barnes

Vimeiro with the Eastern Ridge leading off to the right

Vimeiro is south of the River Maceira in a gap of a north-south ridge which curves west at its southern end. Immediately east of Vimeiro is a large round hill. Wellesley expected the French, under Junot, to approach from the south but in the event they came from the east at 0900 hours on 21st August. He swiftly redeployed two brigades on Vimeiro Hill and four brigades on the ridge running north-east from the village. Initial attacks on Vimeiro Hill were repulsed four times and so Junot switched his attacks to the ridge. Two attempts here failed and the battle was over by midday. The French were beaten decisively.

 

Wellesley now had the opportunity of marching on to Lisbon but was again over-ruled by Burrard and told to wait until General Moore arrived.

Monument on Vimeiro Hill

Vimeiro today is quite remarkable.A monument was erected in 1908 on Vimeiro Hill on the south east of the village where Wellesley initially planned this defensive battle and which led to the French expulsion from Portugal. It was unveiled by King Manuel II of Portugal to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle. By 2008 this site was enhanced to include a museum, an impressive study centre and many tiled commemorative panels.

After Vimeiro there was the most almighty stink. Lieutenant General Sir Hew Dalrymple had arrived and he and Burrard negotiated a surrender document with Soult entitled the Convention of Sintra. It enabled all the French to return home with their weapons and loot in British ships. This was too much for the British government and the public to accept so the generals were summoned home to face an inquiry. Wellesley had also signed the convention and had to return as well. Fortunately he was eventually exonerated whilst the careers for the other two ground to a halt.

The castle at Torres Vedras

Officers' Mess (now a Parador), Queluz Palace

The convention was drafted in Torres Vedras and signed in Lisbon. Wellesley handed over command to Moore in Queluz before returning to London. Moore was now ordered into Spain to help the Spanish defeat the French. He advanced on 18th October 1808 towards Burgos, a major communications centre in north-west Spain, where the Spanish faced the French across the River Ebro. His force comprised 20,000 men and he was joined en route by his guns and cavalry. However Napoleon now entered Spain with 200,000 troops and marched on Madrid. Moore was unaware of this and his operation unfolded in three stages. When he reached Salamanca he heard the Spanish had failed to stop the French so he abandoned his plan and prepared to withdraw to Lisbon. He then learnt that Madrid was resisting Napoleon so he decided to continue his advance and make a diversionary attack on Marshal Soult who was north from him with 16,000 men. By now Moore had also been reinforced with 10,000 British troops arriving from Galicia but on Christmas Eve captured documents revealed that he was marching into a trap. Napoleon was advancing north with 150,000 men as Soult approached from the north.

 

Moore issued orders on Christmas Day for a tactical withdrawal to Corunna. It was not a popular decision and the march is known as "The Retreat to Corunna". It took place over 300 miles through the ice bound Galician mountains with 24,000 French troops under Soult in pursuit. The march took 18 days and despite discipline breaking down in some regiments the men stood and fought every time their pursuers were upon them. The cavalry fought numerous bloody encounters and inflicted enough delay for the infantry to march clear. No colours or guns were lost to the enemy.

 

Sir John Moore was the most famous soldier and influential general before Wellington and a legend in his time. He was an experienced officer and an accomplished trainer largely responsible for developing modern infantry tactics. His goal was to produce ‘the thinking fighting man’ and he was the creator of the Light Division.