Battle: Battle of Vimiero (or Vimeiro)
War: Peninsular War
Date: 21st August 1808Place: Vimeiro, Central Portugal
Combatants: British against the French
Generals: Major General Sir Arthur Wellesley against General Junot
The Battle of Vimeiro : View from the river over the town to the hill beyond
Size of the armies:
The British Army comprised 500 British and Portuguese Cavalry, 20,000 infantry and 18 guns. The French Army comprised 3 Infantry Divisions and 1 Cavalry Division of 14,000 men and 23 light guns.
Uniforms, arms, equipment and training:
The British infantry wore red waist jackets, white trousers, and stovepipe shakos. Fusilier regiments wore bearskin caps. The two rifle regiments wore dark green jackets.
The 20th Light Dragoons wore light blue. The Royal Artillery wore blue tunics.
Highland regiments wore the kilt with red tunics and tall black ostrich feather caps.
The King’s German Legion, which comprised both cavalry and infantry
regiments wore black, as did other German units in the British
The French army wore a wide variety of uniforms. The basic infantry uniform was dark blue.
The French cavalry comprised Cuirassiers wearing heavy burnished metal breastplate and crested helmet, Dragoons largely in green, Hussars in the conventional uniform worn by this arm across Europe and Chasseurs à Cheval also dressed as hussars.
The French artillery dressed in uniforms similar to the infantry, the horse artillery in hussar uniform.
Piper George Clark of the 71st Highlanders, although wounded continues to play
The standard infantry weapon across all the armies was the musket. It could be fired at three or four times a minute, throwing a heavy ball inaccurately for only a hundred metres or so. Each infantryman carried a bayonet which fitted the muzzle of his musket.
The four British rifle battalions (60th and 95th Rifles) carried the Baker rifle, a more accurate weapon but slower to fire, and a sword bayonet.
Field guns fired a ball projectile, by its nature of limited use against troops in the field, unless closely formed. Guns also fired case shot or canister which fragmented, but was effective only over a short range. Exploding shells fired by howitzers, as yet in their infancy were of particular use against buildings. The British had the secret development in this field of ‘shrapnel’.
Throughout the Peninsula War and the Waterloo campaign the Duke of Wellington was plagued by a shortage of artillery. The British Army was sustained by the haphazard system of volunteer recruitment and the Royal Artillery was never able to recruit a sufficient number of gunners.
Napoleon had exploited the advances in gunnery techniques of the last years of the Ancient Regime to create his powerful and highly mobile artillery. Many of his battles had been won using a combination of the manoeuvrability and fire power of his guns and the speed of his columns of infantry, supported by the mass of his cavalry.
While the French conscript infantry moved about the battle field in fast moving columns the British trained to fight in line. The Duke of Wellington reduced the number of ranks to two to exploit fully the firepower of his regiments.
20th Light Dragoons later the 20th Hussars, then 14th/20th King’s Hussars and now the King’s Royal Hussars
2nd Foot, later Queen’s Surreys and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment
5th Foot, later the Northumberland Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
6th Foot, later the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
Map of the Battle of Vimeiro
9th Foot, later the Norfolk Regiment and now the Royal Anglian
20th Foot, later the Lancashire Fusiliers and now the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
29th Foot, later the Worcestershire Regiment and now the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment
32nd Foot, later the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and now the Light Infantry
36th Foot, later the Worcestershire Regiment and now the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment
38th Foot, later the South Staffordshire Regiment and now the Staffordshire Regiment
40th Foot, later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment
43rd Foot, later Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets
45th Foot, later the Sherwood Foresters and now the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment
50th Foot, later the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment
52nd Foot, later Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and now the Royal Green Jackets
60th Foot, later the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and now the Royal Green Jackets
71st Foot, the Highland Light Infantry and now the Royal Highland Fusiliers
82nd Foot, later the South Lancashire Regiment and now the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment
91st Foot, now the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders
95th Foot, later the Rifle Brigade and now the Royal Green Jackets
97th Foot, later the Queen’s Own Royal West Kents and now the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment.
Vimeiro is a battle honour for all the above regiments.
Highlanders and Rifle Brigade at the Battle of Vimeiro
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British order of battle:
Cavalry: 20th Light Dragoons
Right Wing: 1st Brigade, General Hill: 5th Foot, 9th Foot and 38th Foot
Centre: 6th Brigade, Brigadier General Fane: 50th Foot, 60th Foot and 2nd/95th Foot
7th Brigade, Brigadier General Anstruther: 2nd/43rd Foot, 2nd/52nd Foot and 97th Foot.
Left Wing: 2nd Brigade, Major General Ferguson: 36th Foot, 40th Foot and 71st Foot
3rd Brigade, Major General Nightingale: 29th Foot and 82nd Foot
4th Brigade, Brigadier General Bowes: 6th Foot and 32nd Foot
8th Brigade, Major General Acland: 2nd Foot and 20th Foot
Reserve: 5th Brigade, Brigadier General C. Crawfurd: 45th Foot, 91st Foot
Artillery: 18 guns (6 and 9 pounders) and 660 all ranks
Portuguese: Colonel Trant
The Battle of Vimeiro
Having landed his army near Coimbra in central Portugal, Major General Sir Arthur Wellesley awaited the French Army of General Junot that was marching north from Lisbon to tackle him.
Wellesley took up a position against the coast and awaited the expected French assault, his army deployed on a hill to the landward side of the town of Vimeiro and along a ridge stretching to the North of the town.
Fane’s and Anstruther’s brigades were positioned on the hill to the
east of the town.
A second mountain stretched from behind the town hill to the south curving back to the coast, on the far side of the River Maceira.
The French army marched in on the morning of 21st August 1808 heading along the road that led to the extreme left of the British position. Several of the British brigades on the right were brought across the intervening river and formed on the mountain stretching to the left of the British position that the French were threatening to turn.
French brigades commanded by Laborde and Brenier marched forward to attack the British centre and left simultaneously supported by further forces commanded by Kellerman and Loisin.
Brenier’s brigade became ensnared in a deep ravine that lay along the front of the mountain on which the British left was positioned and his troops drifted away to the French right.
Laborde’s and Loisin’s attacks pressed on up the hill but were subjected to heavy artillery fire. Reaching the summit they were attacked and driven back down the hill by the 50th Foot and other regiments.
Kellerman’s grenadiers made some progress against Anstruther’s 2nd/43rd Foot at the top of the hill but in some hard hand to hand fighting the 43rd drove the French grenadiers off the hill.
The brigade of Solignac attacked the British left flank but was driven back from the mountain by Ferguson’s brigade which captured six French guns. The 71st Highlanders and 82nd Foot were left to guard the guns. These two regiments were surprised by Brenier, as he finally developed his assault on the mountain, and driven off the guns. Rallying, the regiments returned to the attack, recaptured the guns and inflicted heavy casualties on Brenier’s brigade. Brenier was wounded and captured. Ferguson’s brigade was well on the way to capturing numbers of the defeated French troops when the brigade commander received an order not to continue with the pursuit. Brenier’s and Solignac’s brigades had been forced along the mountain ridge away to the North, while Loisin and Laborde were driven due East. All along the line the pursuit was abandoned.
Sir Arthur Wellesley’s plan was to swing his unengaged right flank forward across the road to Lisbon and the French Army would have been cut off from its base.
Had Sir Arthur Wellesley been permitted to continue it seems that the French Army might have been compelled to surrender entirely.
The ‘stop’ order had been given by Sir Harry Burrard, an officer
senior to Wellesley, who had arrived from England and taken command.
720 British killed and wounded. The French casualties were around 2,000 including several hundred prisoners. 13 French guns were captured.
After the battle Junot asked for a capitulation on the
terms that he and his army be repatriated to France. The 2 officers
who had superceded Wellesley agreed to the terms and the French Army
was transported by the British Fleet to France complete with the loot
it had taken from Potrugal. There was outrage in Britain and the 3
senior officers involved, Dalrymple, Burrard and Wellesley were
subjected to an enquiry.
In the meantime command in Spain fell on Sir John Moore.
In due course Wellesley was exonerated, but in the meantime Moore had fought the retreat to La Corunna and been killed.
Regimental anecdotes and traditions:
In the course of the fighting on the hill Sergeant Patrick of the 43rd and a French soldier were found dead having bayoneted each other simultaneously through the body.