The battle of Vimiero was the decisive battle of the first British expedition to Portugal during the Peninsular War. The Spanish revolt had isolated General Junot’s French army in Portugal, and given the British a chance to use their command of the sea to strike a meaningful blow against the French. Accordingly an army 10,000 strong under Sir Arthur Wellesley had been dispatched from Ireland, landing at Mondago Bay, to the north of Lisbon, at the start of August 1808. After spending a week organising his forces, Wellesley began his march south on 10 August. His first major clash with the French came on 17 August, at Rolica, where the British forced a French army to abandon a strong defensive position. From Rolica, Wellesley’s army then moved back to the coast, to Porto Novo, at the mouth of the Maceira River, where reinforcements were expected. The Allied army took up a position on the heights of Vimiero.
Soon after Wellesley’ expedition had left Ireland it had become apparent that Junot had far more men then had been believed. According another 10,000 men were added to the expedition, and overall command was given to Sir Hew Dalrymple, with Lieutenant General Sir Harry Burrard as second in command and Sir John Moore third in command, pushing Wellesley back to fourth. Wellesley had only learnt of these changes when he reached Spain.
Now, on 20 August Lieutenant General Sir Harry Burrard arrived offshore and took over command of the expedition. His first orders were to forbid any further advance towards Lisbon until the rest of the expedition had arrived. Luckily for Wellesley, Burrard then decided to spend another night onboard ship, leaving Wellesley still in charge of the army for one more day.
An even biggest stroke of luck was about to fall into Wellesley’s lap. General Junot had reluctantly decided to march north, leaving Lisbon on 15 August at the head of his reserve. By 19 August Junot had been joined by detachments under Generals Loison and Delaborde, giving him a probably force of 10,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. On 20 August the French were only ten miles from Vimiero.
Wellesley had three big advantages at Vimiero. First, he had a strong position, on the heights of Vimiero. Second, he now outnumbered Junot, having just under 17,000 British and 2,000 Portuguese troops. Third, Junot had a very low opinion of the British army. He therefore decided to launch a frontal assault on the British lines with his main force, while sending a second column to attack the British left. Vimiero would thus be the first of many times during the Peninsular War when a British line would face a French column.
The first of the frontal assaults began at around nine on the morning of 21 August, and was repulsed with ease by a combination of British artillery and musket fire. Junot responded with a second attack at the some point, which was also repulsed, this time with the help of shrapnel shells. A third and final attack was launched, and reached the village of Vimiero before being repulsed.
Only now, after the failure of the main attack, did Junot’s flanking attack on the British left finally take place. Even then only half of the original force took part, the brigade under General Brennier having disappeared off to the north in an attempt to find a away around a ravine. The remaining brigade, under General Solignac, had crossed that ravine and formed up ready to launch an attack up the hill at what appeared to be a thin line of British skirmishers.
They were actually facing seven battalions, hidden behind the crest of the hill. As the French column reached the top of the hill they came under fire from 3,300 men arranged in a long thin (two man deep) line. The French column broke and fled, and was only saved from further destruction by the late arrival of Brennier. His force launched a counterattack, which stopped the British pursuit before itself being beaten off. Brennier himself was captured.
By 12.30 the French were retreating all across the battlefield, but Wellesley was not given a chance to exploit this chance of a crushing victory. General Burrard had finally come ashore. Having left Wellesley in charge during the French attack, he then refused to authorise any further action, and Junot was able to get away with most of his army intact. Even so, French casualties were high. At least 2,000 of Junot’s original 13,000 men had been lost at Vimiero, while the British had only lost 720 men, amongst them 135 dead.
On the day after the battle General Dalrymple finally arrived in Portugal to take command of his army. He was just as cautious as Burrard, and made it clear that he did not approve of the risks Wellesley had taken, even though they had resulted in a clear victory. On 22 August a French delegation appeared at the British camp, and negotiations began. Eventually Dalrymple and Burrard agreed to the Convention of Cintra, under which it was agreed that the Royal Navy would evacuate the French from Portugal, complete with all of their military equipment. Wellesley was involved in the negotiations, and as fourth in command had no choice but to sign it, but he made it clear that he disagreed with the terms of the convention. So did the British public. Dalrymple, Burrard and Wellesley were all recalled to Britain, to take part in a court of enquiry into the terms of the convention, and of the three men only Wellesley would survive with his reputation and his career intact.
Vimiero is the Spanish spelling of the name, but also the version used in most early British accounts including Oman. The Portuguese spelling is Vimeiro.