The Battle of Roliça, 17 August 1808

On 23rd July 1808, General Arthur Wellesley received a dispatch from Viscount Castlereagh, the Secretary of War, informing him that the French General Junot’s forces in Portugal now numbered more than 25,000. Castlereagh explained his plans to re-inforce the British army in Portugal with 15,000 men. General Sir John Moore was to proceed with an army from Sweden, and another force would be dispatched from Gibraltar. The command of this larger force would pass to Sir Hew Dalrymple (the Governor of Gibraltar).  He was to seconded by Sir Harry Burrard and attended by five other generals, all senior to Wellesley.

On 30 July 1808, General Wellesley started to disembark his troops at Mondego bay.  The landing took a number of days and it was not until the 10th of August, the army marched to Leiria. Wellesley arrived on the 11th.   The army then began its march toward Lisbon shadowing a detachment of the French army under the command of General Henri Delaborde. These troops had been sent by Junot to hold the British while he brought his larger army into position to oppose the Anglo-Portuguese forces.

By 14 August the British reached Óbidos. Here the British vanguard, consisting elements of the 5th/60th and 95th Rifles, clashed with the rear-guard of the French. The 4,000 French retired to the wooded hills around Óbidos and Roliça.  The French position to the north of Roliça, on the higher ground, allowed them to block the roads south towards Lisbon and the approaches to the village which are via four gullies which led up the hill.  Debris and the steep sides to these gullies made attack in formation impossible.  

Wellesley arrived at Óbidos on 16 August and advanced on Roliça on the next day.  With his army of 16,000 men, he attempted to a double envelopment manoeuvre, moving against both flanks of the French position, whilst distracting the French with a show of force in the centre. The French moved forward to the south and east of the village at the top of a steep hill to block its approaches.

The Battle of Rolica an aquatint by William Heath, 1795-1840. Copy in the museum collection

Colonel Lake of the 29th Regiment of Foot in the centre then advanced up a gully toward the French position. He arrived behind Delaborde, which cost Lake his life and most of the men in the 29th.

The enemy occupied the village of Columbeira, situated on the principal road to Lisbon, and of course necessary for our further operations. After some skirmishing, and under a heavy fire from the surrounding heights, we drove the French from this point; but their principal position was on the heights of Roleia, which overlook and overtop the village. These were our next objective …….  Our enterprising antagonist, you may be sure, had not neglected these; and, while climbing up through briars and brushwood, plied us successively with grape and musketry. I commanded the right centre company, the fifth from the right; each scrambled up the best way he could; and, on gaining the summit, I found several officers, and about 60 privates of the 29th who were in front of me; only one of my own company reached the top with me, the rest following fast. Here we lost that distinguished ornament of his profession, my good friend Colonel Lake, and many other gallant officers, long my companions in the regiment. My poor private, the moment he stepped up, was also knocked down by my side; in the agonies of death he asked leave to shake hands with me; he was a good soldier, and few knew their duty better. Upon advancing, we were immediately attacked by a platoon of 90 men, whom we repeatedly repulsed; these were, however, joined by another of the same number, who charged us with the bayonet, with whom we sustained the unequal conflict; but our little band being now considerably advanced in front, and reduced to 25, Major Way, Captain Ford, and myself, and our brave companions, were under the painful necessity of surrendering. Even this, however, did not satisfy the sanguinary enemy, who seemed bent on bayoneting us all. After many narrow escapes, General Brennier at last came up, and with difficulty put an end to the carnage, and to the distressing scene around the dead and dying. I have been oftener than once engaged with French troops, and my former opinion still remains unchanged; upon anything like equal terms, they have no chance with the British bayonet; so it would have been the case now.

This prompted a general attack in relief of the outnumbered British. The fight was rough and uphill.  Delaborde repulsed three assaults by the British until nearly 16:00 hours. By which time Wellesley reached positions at the top of the hill and Ferguson arrived over the hills to the east.  Delaborde began to withdraw in good order with effective aid from his cavalry. Without British cavalry to press the pursuit, they successfully withdrew to Montachique near Torres Vedras.

The Anglo-Portuguese lost 487 casualties, over half that number from the 29th. The French lost 700 men and three of their five guns. The following day Wellesley found that the 4,000 additional British troops had arrived from England and were off the coast. He marched away to cover their disembarkation rather than follow up his victory.

Killed, wounded and missing of the 29th Foot in the Battle of Rolica , 17th August 1808

Killed: 1 Lieut.-Colonel, 2 Serjeants, 31 Rank and File.

Wounded: 1 Major, 3 Captains, 4 Lieutenants, 6 Serjeants, 105 Rank and File.

Missing: 1 Major, 2 Captains, 5 Lieutenants, 1 Serjeant, 1 Drummer, 32 Rank and File.