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. 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.