The battle of Rolica, 17 August 1808, was the first battle during the British involvement in the Peninsular War, and the first victory for Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future duke of Wellington). The Spanish uprising against Napoleon finally gave the British a theatre where their command of the sea would give the British army a chance to get involved in the war in a useful way. Portugal was seen as the ideal first step – the country was a long standing ally and it was believed that General Junot, commanding the French troops in the country, only had 5000 men. It was decided to send 10,000 men from Ireland under the command of Wellesley to Portugal. It would soon become apparent that Junot had many more men than had been believed, and the expedition was doubled in size. Wellesley was superseded by General Sir Hew Dalrymple, and ended up only fourth in command of the new force. He was, however, the man on the ground. Dalrymple and his second in command would not arrive until 21 August, by which time Wellesley had already won the campaign.
The British landed at Mondego Bay, some way to the north of Lisbon. Wellesley had command of his original 10,000 men, a force 5,000 strong brought up from Gibraltar and 1,500-2,000 Portuguese troops under Colonel Trant. On 10 August Wellington left Mondego Bay at the head of 13,000 British and perhaps 2,000 Portuguese troops, heading south along the coastal road towards Lisbon.
Junot sent General Delaborde and 6,000 men north to slow the British advance to give him time to concentrate his forces around Lisbon. By the time of the battle at Rolica Delaborde’s force had probably been reduced to around 4,000 men, some having been withdrawn by Junot to form a Grenadier reserve and others having left behind as garrisons. After a preliminary skirmish at Obidos, Delaborde took up his main position at Rolica.
The French position at Rolica was a strong one. The British had to advance along a valley, flanked by hills and with a line of hills at the far end. Delaborde took up a first position on the hill of Rolica, some way in front of the ridge at the end of the valley, but with the intention of retreating to this second line as soon as the British threatened the first position. That second position, on the ridge at the end of the valley, was protected by ravines on both flanks, and by a steep hillside, itself cut up by gullies.
On the morning of 17 August Wellington decided to launch a pincer attack on the first French position. He would attack up the centre with most of his infantry. Major General Ferguson would attack to the left and Colonel Trant with his Portuguese troops to the right. At the moment this pincer movement began to threaten the French position, Delaborde ordered his men back to the second position.
Wellesley intended to launch another pincer attack on this new position, but before the flank attacks could get into place part of his central front became engaged in the fighting and had to be reinforced. Two hours of gallant but bloody British attacks followed, each being repulsed, before finally the British were able to gain a lodgement at the top of the ridge.
At this point Delaborde ordered a retreat, which was carried out with some skill and the bulk of his army was able to escape. Although the British had been attacking a strong position, the French suffered higher casualties – 600 men killed, wounded or taken prisoner, while the British lost 474 men in the attack.
Although the fight at Rolica was a relatively minor affair, it provided a great morale boost to the British as the first victory over the French on European soil for some years. The British were not able to follow up their victory with a determined pursuit. On 17 August British reinforcements had arrived off the Portuguese coast, and Wellesley moved his army to Vimiero, close to the mouth of the Maceira River to rendezvous with these new troops.