In the third part of my story of the Peninsular war, as seen through the eyes of the British soldiers, we examine the battle of Rolica – an early success for Sir Arthur Wellesley and his men.
For my previous articles that explore the landings at Mondego bay and the first combat casualties of the campaign follow this link.
On the morning of the 17th August the British army prepared for battle. The men ate their breakfast and eagerly sipped wine from canteens as they tried to relax. For many it would be their first time under fire and they wandered nervously what to expect.
They outnumbered the French under General Delaborde significantly – nearly fifteen thousand infantry, four hundred and seventy cavalry and eighteen guns against four thousand infantry, two hundred and fifty light cavalry and five guns. But the French had chosen excellent defensive positions, utilising the advantageous topography of steep slopes and narrow defiles which promised to make any attack a difficult and dangerous one.
The British were divided into three distinct columns. The column on the left was composed of the 2nd and 4th Brigades totalling four thousand nine hundred men and was commanded by General Ferguson. On the right side was Colonel Trant and his small force of Portuguese cavalry and infantry that was tasked with turning the French flank and entering the mountains to Delaborde’s rear. In the centre Wellesley himself commanded the remaining nine thousand troops which he marched across the plain in a slow, imposing show of force towards the French. It was a movement of parade ground precision, executed perfectly by his redcoats. It was all part of Wellesley’s plan to draw Delaborde’s eye from his flanks and the planned pincer assault by Ferguson and Trant.
As usual the skirmishers from the Rifle regiments were first into action. Benjamin Harris was at the front and was impressed as he watched the French prepare,
“I remember observing the pleasing effect afforded by the sun’s rays glancing upon their arms as they formed in order of battle to receive us. Moving on in extended order, under whatever cover the nature afforded. . .we began a sharp fire upon them; and thus began the battle of Rolica.”
The British artillery opened fire and Ferguson’s column began it’s assault on the French right flank, Harry Ross-Lewin of the 32nd regiment was with them,
“We advanced in three columns. As we approached the enemy, the utmost order was preserved, and the columns were increased and diminished with as much regularity as if we were at review. When within musket shot of the enemy, the line was formed, and we advanced over the uneven ground, doubling when an obstacle presented itself, and moving up when we had passed it, with great exactness. The enemy appeared at the foot of the position outside of the wood but retired under cover as we advanced; this we had reason to expect from old soldiers, who knew how to take advantage of their ground. The columns pushed on, surmounting every obstacle and drove the enemy before them.”
At the same time Trant’s Portuguese, in their white jackets and feathered hats, appeared at the small village of Quinta Gruga threatening the French left. These excellently timed manoeuvres were wasted though as, under the cover of his skirmishers and screened by his cavalry, Delaborde skilfully, avoided the pincer movement and withdrew his force, repositioning it on a very steep hill two miles further south by the village of Columbeira.
The British followed them, struggling to keep order as they advanced through confined passes and across slopes strewn with slippery rocks and thick scrub. Captain Leach of the 95th Rifles found himself struggling from the intense heat as he and he is unit moved forward in pursuit of the French,
“Never before nor since do I remember to have felt more intense and suffocating heat than we experienced in climbing the mountains to the the attack; every mouthful of air was such as inhaled when looking into an oven.”
As the two sides took up new positions the firing continued thick and fast,
“In the act of collecting our men. . .to renew the attack on the second position. . .one of my brother officers, whilst holding his canteen to my mouth to give me some wine, well mulled by the sun, received a musket shot through his hand, and through the canteen which it split and gave me a sharp blow, which cut my mouth and spun me around like a top. For a few moments I concluded that I was wounded; but the mystery was soon explained by seeing my friend on the ground, bleeding profusely, and the broken canteen by his side.”
Leach had had a lucky escape as did his fellow officer Cockrane who despite his injury was soon back in action. It seems that the bright sunlight glinting off canteens attracted the fire of French sharpshooters, as Harris also attests to,
“Joseph Cochan was by my side loading and firing very industriously. . .Thirsting with heat and action, he lifted his canteen to his mouth; ‘Here’s to you, old boy,’ he said, as he took a pull at its contents. As he did so a bullet went through the canteen, and perforating his brain, killed him in a moment.”
Meanwhile Wellesley had reformed his troops and waited for Trant and Ferguson’s men to work their way around the French flanks. But Napoleonic battlefields were confusing places and communication was difficult. In a tragic error Colonel Lake, son of the famous General who had seen much success in India, prematurely lead his 29th Regiment into an unsupported frontal assault up a steep, narrow ravine. Captain Patterson of the 50th was a witness and takes up the story,
“The 29th commanded by the gallant Colonel Lake, pressed onward, to the gorge of the pass. While they were struggling up the rugged and precipitous ascent they were exposed to a shower of balls, and, in a few minutes, the grenadier company was nearly annihilated, the chivalrous Lake falling mortally wounded at their head.”
Colonel Lake took a musket ball under the arm that passed through him, knocking from his horse as he tried to organise a bayonet charge. One of his men, Sergeant-Major Richards, seeing him fall rushed forward to defend the body but he was soon riddled with bullets and died from thirteen wounds. His last words were, “I should have died happy if our gallant Colonel had been spared.”
Lake must have had a premonition of his death that day. Colonel Landmann saw him before the attack and noted his new uniform with shiny leather boots, hat and epaulettes. His hair was powdered and his hat was worn, in the strictest accordance of King’s regulations. “I could not refrain from observing to Lake, ‘well, Colonel you are dressed as if you are going to be received by the King,” remembered Landmann after the battle, “Lake smiled and replied with a dignified air, ‘Egad, Sir. If I am killed today I mean to die like a Gentleman.”
In an attempt to try and save Lake and his men Wellesley ordered a general attack. Up steep slopes and through thick brush the redcoats attacked and were met were murderous French fire. Amongst those at the forefront was a very young Lieutenant George Wood of the 82nd regiment, going into battle for the first time,
“Having previously fixed bayonets, primed and loaded we drew nearer and nearer to the scene of the action. It was now that I could have dispensed with the honours of a military life; and had it been as honourable to have gone to the rear as to the front, I should certainly certainly have preferred the former, and that in double quick time; for me I must confess it caused a little imperceptible tremor…We now began to advance over those who had fallen, among them was my brother officer, who had been out skirmishing; and we came under what I thought then was pretty hot fire, both of field pieces and musketry, not having witnessed the like before…I was soon knocked down by a musket ball striking me on the left groin, and I only escaped a severe wound due to having some papers in the pocket of my pantaloons, which prevented it penetrating the flesh.”
Eventually, supported by Colonel Robe’s artillery, the British worked their way up onto the crest of the hill. Ferguson was soon pressing the French right flank and General Delaborde wisely decided to withdraw.
Protected by their cavalry screen the French fell back skilfully, though three guns were abandoned and a number of prisoners taken. Just after four o’clock the firing stopped.
Though a relatively small battle it had been a tough days fighting, The French lost around six hundred men killed, wounded or captured. While the British army had suffered four hundred and eighty seven casualties including two Lieutenant Colonels killed. A heavy toll given the relatively small number of troops actually engaged.
But facts and figures rarely tell the story of the dead. After battle the survivors have to come to terms with their loss. Many soldiers had gone on campaign with their wives, and on returning to his lines Benjamin Harris had been forced to break the bad news to the wife of Joseph Cochan, shot in the head while taking a drink. He took her to find her husband’s body,
“She embraced a stiffened corpse, and after rising and contemplating his disfigured face for some minutes, with hands clasped, and tears streaming down her cheeks she took a prayer book from her pocket, and kneeling down, repeated the service for the dead over the body. When she had finished she appeared a good deal comforted.”
Rolica was the the first British battle of the Peninsular war. It hadn’t been a decisive victory but the British, and their commander had given a decent account of themselves. Although they were by far the larger force the actual number of troops engaged was fairly similar. To a Britain that had grown used to defeat, and the failure of their army, the battle had shown that the French weren’t invincible and could be matched on the battlefield. Wars are won and lost by such psychological factors.
Wellesley, who must have been apprehensive given his lack of experience against European troops, always maintained that the battle was very important. He’d seen the French show skill in their defensive positioning and concealment, traits he was to master himself over the coming years. As a commander Wellesley showed his ability to plan and organise his battles successfully while dealing with surprises, like Lake’s premature attack against the French centre.
In his letter to Secretary of State Castlereagh, describing the battle, Wellesley was full of praise for his men, most of whom were experiencing action for the first time,
“I cannot sufficiently applaud the conduct of the troops throughout this action. The enemy’s positions were formidable and he took them up with his usual celerity and defended them most gallantly. . .The troops actually engaged in the heat of the action were, from unavoidable circumstances, only the 5th, 9th, 29th, the Riflemen of the 95th and 60th, and the flank companies of Major General Hill’s brigade; being a number by no means equal to the enemy. There conduct deserves the highest commendations.”
There was no time for resting on laurels though. Intelligence soon arrived that French reinforcements under General Loison were rapidly approaching and battle would soon be upon them again.
To find out what happened next please click here for my article on the incredibly important battle of Vimeiro.
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