The Battle of Vimeiro, 1808

The Battle of Vimeiro took place on this day in 1808 when the British under General Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated the French under Major-General Junot near the village of Vimeiro in Portugal.

Four days earlier, Wellesley had defeated the French at the Battle of Rolica. Wellesley knew that his command of the army was temporary; he was seen as too junior a general to have overall command and he had been informed that more senior commanders were on their way. Sir Harry Burrard arrived during the battle and Sir Hew Dalrymple arrived soon after while Sir John Moore landed in time to take command of the British forces and lead them into Spain.

Nevertheless it was Wellesley who was in command when the army was attacked by Junot After Rolica, Wellesley had taken up a position near the village of Vimeiro, deploying his forces to hold the village and several ridges to the west which protected the landing point at Maceira Bay. Wellesley had hoped to march on Lisbon once his reinforcements had landed. He had eight infantry brigades, around two hundred and forty light cavalry and two thousand Portuguese troops, outnumbering Junot by around six thousand men.

Junot’s first move was to attempt to outflank the British by taking an unoccupied ridge to the north-east of the village. Wellesley’s men held Vimeiro and the western ridge, but he moved quickly to take the ridge ahead of Junot. Junot sent reinforcements to join the battle on the flank but made the decision to launch an attack on the village without waiting to see the outcome of his outflanking manoeuvre.

The first attack was made by Thomieres brigade who marched on the British position in column, with skirmishers and artillery in support. The British countered with four companies of riflemen from the 60th and 95th and their attack was so successful that the French skirmishers were pushed back, leaving the main French column facing the 50th regiment. At 100 yards the British opened fire while several companies began moving in towards the French flanks. The French reeled under the lethal musketry of the British infantry and were unable to deploy into line. They fled, leaving three cannons to be captured.

Shortly afterwards, Charlot’s brigade attacked Anstruther’s brigade which was hidden behind a crest and before they could deploy from column into line were struck in the flank by a second battalion which sent them fleeing in disorder from the deadly volleys. Junot sent in his grenadier reserve which was initially pushed back. Two battalions to the right managed to enter Vimeiro but were driven out by a British counterattack and then routed in flight by the light dragoons. The cavalry appear to have become carried away by their success and charged out of control, straight into the French cavalry division. They retreated to the loss of Colonel Taylor and approximately a quarter of his men.

Solignac led the French attack on the northeastern ridge, this time in a three column formation. Once again they left it too late to deploy into line and were shattered by British musket volleys and fled. Brenier’s brigade, coming up with four battalions, had some success against two British battalions who appeared unprepared after their success against Solignac. However the French were stopped by the firepower of the 29th and the two remaining battalions rallied to join them in pushing Brenier’s men back.

By the end of the battle, Sir Arthur Wellesley’s command had been superseded by Sir Harry Burrard. Burrard did not interfere with Wellesley’s conduct of the battle, but once it was done, he stepped in to prevent Wellesley pursuing the French retreat, apparently believing that Junot had troops in reserve.

Vimeiro was a welcome triumph for the British but the aftermath was a disaster. Junot offered complete surrender and was probably astonished at the terms offered by Sir Hew Dalrymple. Under the Convention of Cintra, the defeated army was transported back to France by the British navy, complete with guns, equipment and the loot it had stolen from Portugal. The Convention caused an outcry in Britain and all three generals were recalled to face an official enquiry.

Wellesley had wanted to fight on. He had signed the preliminary Armistice under orders but took no part in negotiating the Convention and did not sign it. Dalrymple appeared keen to lay the blame onto Wellesley but at the enquiry, which was held in the Great Hall at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea in November and December of 1808 all three generals were officially cleared. Wellesley, however, was returned to duty in Portugal where the British had suffered the loss of Sir John Moore at Corunna; neither Burrard or Dalrymple were given active commands again.

The battle of Vimeiro gave hope to the people of Lisbon and should have been a sharp reminder to the French that they were not invincible. Wellesley, up until this point, had been known mainly for his achievements in India and some years later Napoleon was to use the term “sepoy general” to belittle the importance of that experience. Rolica and Vimeiro, however, brought Wellesley very firmly onto the European stage and when the dust from the convention of Cintra had settled, Sir John Moore was dead and Burrard and Dalrymple were no longer considered suitable for command. The sepoy general was given his opportunity and on his return to Portugal in 1809 he was quick to prove himself worthy of it with a swift and decisive victory at Oporto.

In the Peninsular War saga, Paul van Daan is present at the battle of Vimeiro but the battle itself does not feature in An Unconventional Officer; if I’d included every battle in depth it would have been longer than the Bible. It’s an interesting battle, though, with a lot of features which have become very familiar to me as I follow Wellesley and his army through the long years of the war in Portugal and Spain. Reading about it once again on the anniversary, I find myself wondering if this early time in Portugal is something I’d like to revisit at a later stage.

The next book in the Peninsular War Saga is due for publication on 30th November 2018. It will be followed by the second book in the Manxman series the following year, which follows Captain Hugh Kelly RN through the Walcheren campaign of 1809.

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