Battle of Roliça
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|Battle of Roliça|
|Part of the Peninsular War|
| United Kingdom
| French Empire
|Commanders and leaders|
|Sir Arthur Wellesley||Henri Delaborde|
|14,800-15,700 infantry and cavalry||4,000-4,930 infantry and cavalry
|Casualties and losses|
|487 killed and wounded||700 killed and wounded,
3 guns captured
In the Battle of Roliça (17 August 1808) an Anglo-Portuguese army under Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated an outnumbered French army under General Henri Delaborde, near the village of Roliça in Portugal. The French retired in good order. Formerly spelled Roleia in English, it was the first battle fought by the British army during the Peninsular War.
In the months after occupying Portugal, Napoleon undertook the conquest and control of Spain. He met much resistance but it was disorganised even when it was effective. By the end of July the Spanish had met the French a dozen times, winning, or at least not losing, at seven of those meetings. The most spectacular victory was in southern Spain on 23 July 1808, when General Castaños surrounded and forced 18,000 French under General Dupont to surrender at Baylen. On 30 July 1808 the French General Loison massacred the population, men, women, and children, of Évora. Both of these events were to have an effect on the future of each nations' relationships with British troops.
On the same day Wellesley caught up to a letter from Castlereagh, the Secretary of War. It informed Wellesley that General Jean-Andoche Junot's forces numbered more than 25,000. Castlereagh forwarded his plans to augment the British army in Portugal by another 15,000 men. General Sir John Moore was to arrive with an army from Sweden, and another force would be forwarded from Gibraltar. The command of this larger force will pass to Sir Hew Dalrymple (A 60-year-old General who saw active service only in 1793–1794 in a failed campaign in Flanders. He was currently Governor in Gibraltar.) Dalrymple would be seconded by Sir Harry Burrard, attended by five other generals all senior to Wellesley. (Dalrymple, Burrard, Moore, Hope, Fraser, and Lord Paget.) The ambitious General Wellesley hoped to make something happen during the time he still commanded the army in Portugal.
On 30 July 1808, General Wellesley remet Admiral Cotton's convoy with Wellesley's troops at Mondego bay. Wellesley 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 lasted from 1–8 August. 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 Leiria. Wellesley 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 Delaborde. 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 14 August the British reached Alcobaça and moved on to Óbidos. Here the British vanguard, mostly 95th rifles, met pickets and rearguard of the French forces. The 4,000 French were outnumbered approximately 4 to 1.
The village of Roliça is placed in the centre of a horseshoe shape of steep hills approximately one mile wide and two deep. The open end opens North North East toward Óbidos where the 95th had met the French the day before. The hills around Óbidos 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 one 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, Delaborde pulled his troops back to the top of the hill.
The Anglo-Portuguese were formed in six brigades under General Hill, General Ferguson, General Nightingale, General Bowes, General Craufurd, 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 three 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, Craufurd, Fane with the remaining Portuguese, and the rest of the guns and cavalry were to push the centre.
The French were under Delaborde consisting of five battalions, including one Swiss, and five guns.
Wellesley arrived at Óbidos 16 August and moved toward Roliça on the following day. 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 six guns to the east, while he distracted the French with a show of force and noise in the centre. Wellesley tried the manoeuvre twice starting at 9:00 in the morning, but the battle-wise 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.
Colonel Lake of the 29th Regiment of Foot in the centre then made the mistake of dashing 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 by the outnumbering British. The fight was rough and uphill with Delaborde 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 Delaborde began to withdraw in good order with effective aid from his cavalry until his army's discipline broke and his army ran. Without British Cavalry to press the pursuit, they successfully withdrew to Montachique near Torres Vedras.
The Anglo-Portuguese won with 487 casualties, over half that number from the precipitate 29th. The French lost 700 men and three of their five guns. General Delaborde himself was wounded. The following day Wellesley found that the 4,000 additional British troops had arrived from England and were off the coast. He marched his men to cover their disembarkation rather than follow Delaborde.
- Ralph Baker in The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006) 825.
- Ralph Baker in The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars by Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006) 826.
- Wellington: The Years of the Sword, Elizabeth Longford, Harper & Row, 1969, pp. 148-152
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Further reading 
- The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, Benjamin Harris and Henry Curling, 1848.
- The French Army 1600-1900