Vimiera (21st August 1808)
Four days after Roliça Junot, with 13,000 men and 24 guns, marched north from Lisbon to attack the British at Vimiera, a few miles south of Roliça. Wellesley himself had been reinforced by a further 4,000 men, belonging to the brigades of Anstruther and Acland, who had come ashore at the river of the Maceira river, about fifteen miles south of Roliça. These troops, which brought the number of men under Wellesley's command to 17,000, were welcome reinforcements. Not so welcome, however, was the 53 year-old Sir Harry Burrard who had arrived off the mouth of the Maceira on August 20th.
The 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment standing firm against a French attack at Vimiera - by R. Simkin
Burrard had arrived in Portugal to assume command of the army although this came as no great surprise to Wellesley who had been forewarned of his coming by Castlereagh. It was entirely a political move from which Wellesley could take little comfort. Furthermore, two more British officers, Sir Hew Dalrymple and Sir John Moore, both of whom were senior to him, were also on their way to Portugal. Nevertheless, Wellesley joined Burrard aboard his ship and having appraised him of the situation Burrard decided that it would be unwise to take any further offensive action before the arrival of Moore's reinforcements which were known to be due shortly. Having been informed of this Wellesley returned to his troops, determined to do his best as long as he remained in command, while Burrard remained on his ship for the night.
When Wellesley retired for the night he did so having placed six of his infantry brigades with eight guns on the western ridge lying on the south of and running parallel to the Maceira river while a single battalion was placed on the eastern ridge as guard. The river itself flowed south through a defile between the two ridges and continued on to the rear of the village of Vimiera which itself was situated on a flat-topped, round hill. Here, Wellesley had placed his other two infantry brigades as well as six guns. The village was separated from the two ridges not only by the Maceira but also by a tributary, which flowed along the southern foot of the eastern ridge.
The hush of night had hardly descended upon the British camp when reports came in that the French were advancing in force from the south. In fact, the French under Junot numbered around 13,000 men, still 4,000 fewer than Wellesley but having five more guns. Once again Delaborde's division was present along with 6,000 men under Loison.
Long before dawn showed itself on the morning of August 21st Wellesley was up on the western ridge, peering through his telescope, but as yet no French troops were to be seen so the British troops wiled away the early morning cooking their breakfasts. At about 9 o'clock, however, clouds of rising dust were spotted away to the east and soon the glint of bayonets, shako plates and other accoutrements could be seen as they sparkled in the shimmering sunlight.
From the direction of Junot's approach it was obvious that Wellesley's left flank was being threatened which prompted a hasty redeployment of his forces, mainly involving the transfer of three of his brigades from the western ridge to the eastern ridge, leaving Hill's brigade and two guns alone on the western ridge. Wellesley himself also moved to the eastern ridge from where he controlled the battle.
The village of Vimiera itself was held by the brigades of Fane and Anstruther and it was against this position that the main French thrust appeared to be heading. The British troops here consisted of four companies of the 2/95th and the 5/60th, all deployed in a heavy skirmishing line in front of Vimiera Hill, while on the crest itself were the 1/50th, the 2/97th and the 2/52nd. Behind them, on the reverse slope of the hill were the 2/9th and the 2/43rd, both in support. These troops were supported by twelve guns. Heading towards these 900 British infantrymen were some 2,400 French troops under General Thomieres who were formed into two columns supported by cavalry and artillery and screened by a shield of tirailleurs. The ensuing clash between the two sides marked a significant point in the Napoleonic Wars and set the pattern for a whole series of actions fought in the Peninsula between the British and French armies.
As the dusty French columns advanced against the British infantry on Vimiera Hill they did so in the traditional, and up until this point the all too successful, style that had swept Napoleon's armies to victory after victory. Cavalry cantered along on the flanks, field artillery bounded along over the broken ground, while in front of the columns hundreds of tirailleurs engaged the British skirmish line as a prelude to the assault on the main British line. The formula had been tried and tested and it had proved successful. And yet here, on the slopes of the hill in front of Vimiera, Wellesley's skirmishers had turned the tables for so effective was his light infantry screen that the men of the 5/60th and the 95th were only forced back following the intervention of the main French columns. The columns themselves were suffering at the hands of the British artillery, which dealt out death in a new form, shrapnel, which swept the French troops with dozens of musket balls from their exploding cases. But it was the clash between the British line and the French column that was to become the standard form of conflict and perhaps the most enduring image of the war in the Peninsula.
At Vimiera, this scenario was premiered with devastating results. The French columns, 30 ranks deep by 40 wide, advanced noisily and confidently against the 900 British troops, formed in a silent, two-deep line. As the French approached to within 100 yards the British troops, in this case the 1/50th, levelled their muskets and delivered a crashing volley into the tightly packed ranks of Frenchmen. As the column came on, so the effects of each of the succeeding volleys, fired at fifteen-second intervals, increased. The French ranks thinned at each discharge while they themselves were able to bring only 200 of their own muskets - those in front and on the flanks - to bear on the British. It was a somewhat simple mathematical equation that the French commanders were never quite to comprehend during the war and when they did try to deploy their men into line the effects of concentrated British musketry made it almost impossible. Thomieres did his best to get his men into line but it was hopeless. The columns melted away to the rear with Fane's riflemen close on their heels.
To the south of this first column, Thomieres' second column was making progress towards the British line. The column, also some 1,200-strong, suffered less from artillery fire owing to the nature of the terrain over which it passed but when it neared the British line it began to suffer the same fate as the column on its right. Anstruther's brigade duly dealt the decisive blows, the precise, controlled volleys of the 2/97th rolling from one end of its line to the other, ripping great gaps in the French column, and when the 2/52nd and 2/9th closed in on each side of them the French resolve disappeared and once again Fane's riflemen enjoyed a brief chase after them before being called back. In their panic, the French abandoned all seven of the guns they had brought forward with them, the horses and gunners falling victims earlier to the accurate fire of the Baker rifles.
With the initial French attacks having been repulsed Sir Harry Burrard picked his moment to appear on the battlefield. There appeared little danger to the British at this time, however, and Sir Harry allowed Wellesley to finish the battle himself.
No sooner had Burrard satisfied himself as to the progress of the battle than the French committed two more columns to the attack. Once again the village of Vimiera was the centre of the attack, carried out by two columns, each of two battalions of grenadiers. The British line steadied itself once more and braced itself for yet another attack. Colonel Robe's gunners worked furiously at their guns as they poured shot and shell into the leading French column. Enemy artillery attempted to reply but their fire was ineffective and there was a real danger of firing into their own men who were skirmishing with Fane's riflemen. In spite of the fire being poured into the column it pushed on, moving across the ground lying between the routes of the last two French attacks. Gradually, the enveloping fire from 2,000 British muskets of the 2/9th, the 1/50th and the 2/97nd brought the column shuddering to a halt and as Wellesley's men advanced down the hill the French column finally gave way and scattered, abandoning four guns that had been brought forward with it.
While this last attack had been in progress the second column of grenadiers had managed to move round the left flank of the 1/50th and soon had a clear run into the village of Vimiera itself. The French incurred heavy losses as they swept into the village through a hail of lead and cannon shot. Here, in the narrow, jumbled maze of houses - a sort of prequel to the fighting at Fuentes de Oñoro - the French came face to face with the 2/43rd which Anstruther had thrown forward. The ensuing fighting was chaotic and confused and bayonets were bent and bloodied. The British troops, in spite of their inferior numbers, managed to thrust the French from the village and the British line was restored.
Wellesley had just 240 British cavalry available to him, all from the 20th Light Dragoons under Colonel Taylor, but with all of the French attacks until now having been repulsed he chose the moment to launch them in a counter-attack. Taylor's men, having dispersed a French infantry square, quickly became intoxicated with their success and rode on at speed, outdistancing their own supporting guns and doing little damage to the French. Almost half the light dragoons were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner - including Taylor himself who was mortally wounded - when they collided with fresh, and more numerous French cavalry. The charge was just the first in a sad series of misadventures of the British cavalry in the Peninsula, punctuated by rare but glorious triumphs.
On the eastern ridge above Ventosa, which lay at the eastern end of the ridge, the French were again attacking in strength with 3,000 French infantry under General Solignac who was supported by a small number of cavalry and three guns and a further 3,200 infantry, supported by dragoons, under General Brennier. These first of these two forces advanced on Ventosa itself while the second force passed to the north with the intention of attacking the ridge from the north-east.
The results of both of these attacks were predictably similar to the earlier French attacks elsewhere on the battlefield as both Solignac and Brennier advanced in column against their British adversaries who waited for them in line. The first force, consisting of three columns, struck that part of the line held by Ferguson's brigade. The French were met by a devastating series of volleys, fired by platoons, which blasted away the heads of the columns and prevented Solignac, desperately trying to deploy his own men into line, from making any progress at all. After a few minutes the French were in full retreat, once more abandoning their guns.
No sooner had Solignac's attack come to grief than Brennier's columns fell upon the rear and flank of three of Ferguson's battalions, the 1/71st, 1/82nd and 1/29th. By the time the first two of these battalions adjusted their positions to meet them Brennier's men closed on them and in a confused fight both the 71st and 82nd were pushed back, the French retaking the guns which had been abandoned by Solignac. However, the 1/29th had sufficient time to alter its position and was soon setting about the right flank of the attacking French columns who were forced to halt in the face of the 29th's musketry. Ferguson's other two battalions reformed and together the three British units forced Brennier's men back. The French appeared to have little stomach for the fight and were soon fleeing in a disorderly fashion, leaving behind them their commander, Brennier, who was wounded and taken prisoner. The three guns, retaken briefly by the French were once again in Wellesley's hands along with a further three guns which had accompanied Brennier.
It was barely noon, and every single French infantry battalion present at Vimiera had been thrown into the attack, only to be seen off by the devastating effects of British musketry. 720 British troops had been either killed or wounded whereas the French had suffered three times that number including 450 killed. Now was the time to advance and pursue the defeated French who had been all but routed that morning. The road to Lisbon now lay open, a fact that should have spelt the end for Junot and his army but Sir Harry Burrard decided that any further action was unnecessary and the glorious opportunity went begging despite the impassioned pleas of a very frustrated and angry Sir Arthur Wellesley. Junot's force, therefore, was allowed to retreat to Lisbon without any hindrance.
Burrard himself did not enjoy the position of commander-in-chief for too long for the very next day an even older general, Sir Hew Dalrymple, in turn superseded him. Dalrymple also decided that any further action was unnecessary and together the two elderly generals, devoid of any real military experience and totally failing to grasp the advantageous military situation facing them, agreed to the notorious Convention of Cintra, whereby it was agreed that Junot and his army, along with their arms and accumulated plunder, would be given free passage back to France unmolested. Following this, Burrard, Dalrymple and Wellesley were recalled to England to explain before a Court of Enquiry how they had allowed the French army to escape. Wellesley himself had not even been privy to the treaty but signed it nevertheless when ordered to do so by Dalrymple.
With all three men having returned to England command of the 30,000 British troops in Portugal devolved upon the 47 year-old Sir John Moore who was about to lead the army through one of the most tragic episodes in the Peninsular War, an episode which was ultimately to cost him his life.