Battle of Vimeiro - Conflict & Date:
The Battle of Vimeiro was fought August 21, 1808, during the Peninsular War which was part of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).
Armies & Commanders
Battle of Vimeiro - Background:
In August 1808, British forces under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Wellesley landed near Coimbra, Portugal to aid the Portuguese in resisting the French. Defeating a small French force at Rolica on August 17, he moved inland and established a position near the village of Vimeiro. To defend the village, the he positioned the brigades of Brigadier Generals Henry Fane and Robert Anstruther on a rise to the east, while holding the remainder of his forces in reserve. Having advanced north from his base at Lisbon with 14,000 men, Major General Jean-Andoche Junot sought to turn back the British incursion (Map).
Approaching the British position, Junot intended to attack Vimeiro with the brigades of Brigadier Generals Jean Thomieres, Jean Baptiste Solignac, and Hugues Charlot. As this assault moved forward, the large brigade of Brigadier General Antoine François Brenier de Montmorand was to swing in a wide flanking maneuver to capture an unoccupied ridge north of the village. Brigadier General Pierre Margaron's Cavalry Division and Major General François Étienne de Kellermann's composite force of grenadiers were held in reserve to the rear.
The Battle of Vimeiro:
As the French forces began deploying, Wellesley learned of Brenier's movements toward the northern ridge. Acting quickly, he dispatched the brigades of Brigadier Generals Miles Nightingall, Ronald Fergusson, and Barnard Bowes to the ridge where they assumed a position to block the French advance. Alerted to the British presence, Junot withdrew Solignac's men from the Vimeiro attack and ordered them to shift north to support Brenier. Rather than wait for Brenier and Solignac's men to strike, he ordered Charlot and Thomieres to advance at once.
This decision resulted in a series of piecemeal assaults on the Anglo-Portuguese lines. Moving against Fane's position, Thomieres was the first to attack. Advancing in columns of companies, the French relied on their skirmishers to protect their flanks. Pushing forward, the French skirmishers were driven back allowing elements of the 50th Regiment of Foot to swing out to assault the flanks of Thomieres' column. Caught in a deadly crossfire, the French retreated, abandoning three guns. A similar situation unfolded to the south where Charlot's men attacked Anstruther's brigade (Map).
Initially hidden behind the crest of the hill, Anstruther's men opened fire on the French and quickly advanced a battalion to strike at Charlot's flank. As in the earlier attack, the French retreated in disorder. Hoping to turn the tide, Junot ordered Kellermann to move forward with the grenadiers. Avoiding the mistakes of the earlier efforts, he swung to the right and succeeded in penetrating into Vimeiro. Vigorously counterattacked by Anstruther's and Brigadier General Wroth Acland's brigades, Kellermann was forced to pull back. They were harried in their retreat by Colonel C.D. Taylor's 20th Light Dragoons.
Over-pursuing the enemy, the British horse soon encountered Margaron's cavalry division and was in turn put to flight with Taylor being killed in the action. The battle in the village had effectively concluded when the fighting began to the north. Forced to move farther north than anticipated due to a deep ravine along the front of the ridge, Brenier and Solignac became delayed and separated. Solignac was the first to encounter the British and immediately attacked. Striking Nightingall and Fergusson's brigades, the French were unable to deploy properly and came under heavy volley fire.
Unable to hold their position, Solignac's men retreated from the ridge. Marching to the sound of the fighting, Brenier's brigade finally arrived on the scene and attacked with four battalions abreast. Driving back the British, they were ultimately stopped by the 29th Regiment of Foot from Nightingall's command. Counterattacking, the British drove Brenier's men from the field. During the course of the battle, Wellesley was superseded in command by General Sir Harry Burrard. Though Wellesley urged a vigorous pursuit of the defeated French, Burrard was content to hold his position.
Aftermath of Vimeiro:
In the fighting at Vimeiro, the Allies lost around 720 killed and wounded, while the French suffered around 2,000. The day after the battle, General Sir Hew Dalrymple took command of the Allied force from Burrard. Though eager to fight, Wellesley was ordered to hold his position. Defeated and effectively cut off from escape, Junot began surrender negotiations. These culminated in the Convention of Sintra on August 30. By the terms, the French were permitted to return to France with their personal property which included loot taken during the campaign. Transportation to Rochefort was to be provided by the Royal Navy.
The convention was seen as a disgrace in Britain and Dalrymple, Burrard, and Wellesley were all recalled to face a court of inquiry. As Wellesley had only signed the preliminary armistice under orders, he was cleared and returned to action in April 1809. Though Dalrymple and Burrard were cleared, the two aged generals were pushing into retirement. In their absence, command passed to Lieutenant General Sir John Moore who was killed at the Battle of Corunna in January 1809.