Wellington’s Ri­fles

‘O’er the hills and o’er the main, through Flan­ders, Por­tu­gal and Spain’. Fol­low the 95th Ri­fles dur­ing the open­ing shots of the Penin­su­lar War

History of War - - CONTENTS - WORDS GARETH VIRR & ADAM BARNES

Equipped with Baker ri­fles, the men of the 95th con­front the elite French voltigeurs

In early June 1808 four com­pa­nies of the Sec­ond Battalion, 95th Ri­fles, numbering 443 of­fi­cers and men, em­barked at Dover, bound on an ex­pe­di­tion to South Amer­ica. How­ever, fol­low­ing Por­tu­gal’s plea for aid against the French in­va­sion, the force was di­verted to the Ibe­rian Penin­sula. Sir Arthur Welles­ley, who would later be­come the First Duke of Wellington, was placed in charge of the army sent to sup­port the Por­tuguese. More men, in­clud­ing two com­pa­nies from the First Battalion, 95th Ri­fles, were be­ing as­sem­bled in south­ern Eng­land to re­in­force Welles­ley’s army.

Af­ter dis­cus­sions with Span­ish and Por­tuguese of­fi­cials, it was de­cided that the best place to land the force was at Mon­dego Bay, around 160 kilo­me­tres (100 miles) north of Lis­bon. The main force ar­rived there on 30 July, and on 1 Au­gust the men of Sec­ond Battalion, 95th Ri­fles were the first to step foot on the Ibe­rian Penin­sula.

The wait for the or­der to dis­em­bark was far from com­fort­able, as de­scribed by Cap­tain Leach: “Al­though the weather was per­fectly calm, I never re­mem­ber to have ex­pe­ri­enced more mo­tion in a gale of wind… The long and heavy swell made the yards of the ship at times al­most touch the wa­ter, as she rolled from side to side, which caused some aw­ful break­ages

“ON 1 AU­GUST THE MEN OF SEC­OND BATTALION, 95TH RI­FLES WERE THE FIRST TO STEP FOOT ON THE IBE­RIAN PENIN­SULA”

among our wine glasses and crock­ery.” Once ashore, the men of the reg­i­ment helped se­cure the land­ing area with ad­vance guards and pic­quets. They soon set off south­wards, cov­er­ing around ten kilo­me­tres (six miles) be­fore halt­ing near the vil­lage of Lavos. Fur­ther marches through Leira, Batalha and Al­cobaca saw the ad­vance guard, of which the 95th were a part, move to the vil­lage of Obidos, where the French had in­fantry and cav­alry.

On 15 Au­gust the ad­vance guard re­ceived or­ders to push for­ward and dis­lodge the

French out­posts at Obidos. As they ad­vanced in the di­rec­tion of a wind­mill on the heights near the vil­lage, they came un­der fire from the French, who were po­si­tioned in and around the wind­mill. The ri­fle­men im­me­di­ately at­tacked the en­emy, driv­ing them from their posts and forc­ing them down from the heights.

“GAIN­ING IN CON­FI­DENCE, THE RI­FLE­MEN CON­TIN­UED TO PUSH THE EN­EMY DE­TACH­MENT TO­WARDS THE MAIN FRENCH FORCE AT ROLICA, CON­TRARY TO THE OR­DERS RE­CEIVED”

Gain­ing in con­fi­dence, the ri­fle­men con­tin­ued to push the en­emy de­tach­ment to­wards the main French force at Rolica, con­trary to their or­ders. Re­in­forced by fresh in­fantry, the French be­gan to put up stiff re­sis­tance, and Lieu­tenant Ralph Bun­bury was killed lead­ing his men in an at­tack. He was the first ca­su­alty suf­fered by the 95th, and the first Bri­tish of­fi­cer killed in the penin­sula. In the skir­mish at Obidos, the first mean­ing­ful fight of the Penin­su­lar War, the 95th Ri­fles suf­fered four men killed, three wounded and one miss­ing.

Lieu­tenant John Cox, who had only re­cently joined the 95th, painted a vivid pic­ture of the open­ing move­ments at Obidos: “On ap­proach­ing the place, the en­emy opened a fire of mus­ketry from a wind­mill on a ris­ing ground ad­join­ing the place, and a few shots came from the town; how­ever, a rapid ad­vance of the Ri­fle­men drew the French from all points of the posts, but be­ing rather too el­e­vated with this, our first col­li­sion with the foe, we dashed along the plain af­ter them like young sol­diers, but we were soon brought up by a body of French cav­alry ad­vanc­ing from the main force.

A ret­ro­grade move­ment was now im­per­a­tive, in which we lost an of­fi­cer and a few men.”

The en­gage­ment at Obidos – de­scribed in a dis­patch from Welles­ley to the Duke of Rich­mond as “a lit­tle af­fair of ad­vanced posts, fool­ishly brought on by the over-ea­ger­ness of the Ri­fle­men in the pur­suit of an en­emy’s pic­quet… the troops be­haved re­mark­ably well, but not with great pru­dence” – can­not be deemed a suc­cess or fail­ure. In­stead it shows that the ri­fle­men were ea­ger to take the fight to the en­emy. How­ever, lessons were learned about when it was pru­dent to hold po­si­tion un­til sup­port was re­ceived.

With the army rested, on the morn­ing of 17 Au­gust Welles­ley or­dered his men for­ward to at­tack the French around Rolica, some five kilo­me­tres (three miles) south of Obidos. With the 95th Ri­fles again among the ad­vance guard, they at­tacked the first French po­si­tion, and it was here they en­coun­tered the French voltigeurs for the first time. Un­der the pro­tec­tion of their voltigeurs, the French pulled back to their main po­si­tion just south of Rolica atop a range of hills.

With the 95th Ri­fles har­ry­ing the voltigeurs as the French army re­formed at its main po­si­tion, the 29th Reg­i­ment ad­vanced pre­ma­turely, and so the ri­fle­men were or­dered to push for­ward on the French right in or­der to help ex­tri­cate the 29th. Threat­ened with an en­velop­ing ac­tion, the French brought up re­in­force­ments, man­ag­ing to see off three suc­ces­sive at­tacks by the Bri­tish in­fantry as they strug­gled to form into line at the top of the ridge. Through­out these ad­vances, the ri­fle­men were oc­cu­pied in their own pri­vate bat­tle with the throngs of French voltigeurs oc­cu­py­ing the hill to their front.

Thanks to the ri­fle’s su­pe­rior range and ac­cu­racy, the fight swung in the 95th’s favour, successively driv­ing each pocket of re­sis­tance out. The ar­rival of Bri­tish re­in­force­ments late in the day on the French flank saw a close to the bat­tle, with a well-or­dered French with­drawal screened by cav­alry. The losses of the 95th Ri­fles in­cluded 17 killed and 33 wounded.

Jonathan Leach again pro­vides a vivid ac­count of this ac­tion: “We had to as­cend

“THEY DASHED UPON THE EN­EMY LIKE A TOR­RENT BREAK­ING BOUNDS, AND THE FRENCH, UN­ABLE EVEN TO BEAR THE SIGHT OF THEM, TURNED AND FLED” – Ri­fle­man Ben­jamin Har­ris

first one moun­tain so cov­ered with brush­wood that our legs were ready to sink un­der us, the en­emy on the top of it ly­ing down in the heath keep­ing up a hot and con­stant fire in our face and the men drop­ping all round us. Be­fore we could gain the sum­mit the French had re­treated to the next hill, when they again lay con­cealed and kept up a run­ning, galling fire on us as we as­cended. Hav­ing beaten them off the sec­ond hill and taken pos­ses­sion of it, the en­emy re­treated to a wood, there be­ing a val­ley be­tween us, and [they] recom­menced a most tremen­dous fire.”

Af­ter the Bat­tle of Rolica, Welles­ley’s army re­ceived re­in­force­ments, in­clud­ing two com­pa­nies of First Battalion, 95th Ri­fles, bring­ing the to­tal num­ber of ri­fle­men in the Ibe­rian Penin­sula to six com­pa­nies. To pro­tect the

land­ing of these re­in­force­ments at Ma­ceira Bay, Welles­ley po­si­tioned his army along the Va­longo Ridge, which ran to­wards the vil­lage of Vimeiro. His right flank was pro­tected by the sea and his left was an­chored by a deep gorge in the heights. The land­ings be­gan on 20 Au­gust. Dur­ing the night, men from the 95th, along with fel­low ri­fle­men from the 60th, acted as pic­quets.

In the early hours of the morn­ing it was these men that de­tected the move­ment of a sub­stan­tial French force, re­ported to be around 20,000 men.

Welles­ley had in­tended to move against the French on 22 Au­gust once his re­in­force­ments and stores had landed, but the news of the French ad­vance changed that. Welles­ley had length­ened his line along the ridge us­ing those re­in­force­ments that had al­ready landed. The vil­lage of Vimeiro now lay roughly at the cen­tre of his line, and it was here that the French chose to launch their first at­tack, which was to di­vert at­ten­tion from the Bri­tish left flank, where a sec­ond French at­tack would try to smash Welles­ley’s line. See­ing the French in­ten­tions the Bri­tish al­tered their line slightly so as not to be out­flanked. The ri­fle­men from the four Sec­ond Battalion com­pa­nies were sent in skir­mish or­der to at­tack the head of the French col­umn ad­vanc­ing to­wards their po­si­tions around Vimeiro.

The sheer weight of en­emy num­bers forced the ri­fle­men to slowly give ground: one man would re­tire a short dis­tance, then cover his part­ner as he moved past him. In such a fash­ion they re­tired to their orig­i­nal po­si­tion on Vimeiro hill. The 95th then formed a re­serve on the hill be­hind the 50th Foot. The 50th de­liv­ered a few well-timed vol­leys into the French col­umn then charged with the bay­o­net, and the French broke. Ben­jamin Har­ris watched on: “They dashed upon the en­emy like a tor­rent break­ing bounds, and the French, un­able even to bear the sight of them, turned and fled.” These tac­tics would be seen time and again through­out the Penin­su­lar War. The fight­ing had been in­tense – so much so that around this time Ri­fle­man Brother­wood, who was along­side Ben­jamin Har­ris and had been part of the pic­quet dur­ing the night, re­ported that he had run out of am­mu­ni­tion.

With the French re­tir­ing to re­or­gan­ise, the 95th Ri­fles, along with the 60th Ri­fles, were again sent out in skir­mish or­der to­wards the en­emy. The sec­ond French at­tack would come soon, con­sist­ing of four bat­tal­ions of grenadiers.

They ad­vanced in a sim­i­lar di­rec­tion to the pre­vi­ous as­sault, to­wards Vimeiro and the hill nearby. Once again they came un­der the ac­cu­rate and dis­ci­plined fire of the ri­fle­men. Ri­fle­man Har­ris de­scribed them as “fine look­ing young men wear­ing red shoul­der knots and tremen­dous-look­ing mous­taches.” The Bri­tish skir­mish­ers took their toll on the grenadiers be­fore re­tir­ing be­hind the main line. The French at­tack was again beaten back by thun­der­ous Bri­tish vol­leys fol­lowed by a bay­o­net charge.

The French flank­ing move­ment, ini­tially in­tended to roll up the Bri­tish left, now came up against a force of seven Bri­tish bat­tal­ions in two lines. At­tack­ing with­out sup­port, and with their com­rades to the south blood­ied, they stood lit­tle chance of ac­tu­ally break­ing through. This as­sault was also driven back with dis­ci­plined vol­leys and bay­o­net charges. Dur­ing the bat­tle the 95th lost 37 men killed, 47 wounded and two men miss­ing.

Al­though the bat­tle had been won and the French were now fall­ing back to­wards Lis­bon, hav­ing lost a lit­tle over 2,000 men, the vic­tory wasn’t as de­ci­sive as it could have been. Some of the Bri­tish units had not been en­gaged at all, and Welles­ley wanted to throw these men for­ward to pur­sue the en­emy, but his or­ders were coun­ter­manded by more se­nior gen­er­als, who had ar­rived with the re­in­force­ments. In the com­ing days Welles­ley was su­per­seded by Sir Harry Bur­rard and Sir Hew Dal­rym­ple. With the French army in dis­ar­ray, The Bri­tish in such a strong po­si­tion and ru­mours of Por­tuguese troops mov­ing to­wards the French in and around Lis­bon, The French en­tered into talks for a cease­fire and with­drawal from Por­tu­gal.

The treaty be­came known as the Con­ven­tion of Cin­tra, and its terms were very favourable to the French. Welles­ley, Bur­rard and

Dal­rym­ple would be re­called to Eng­land to face a gov­ern­ment en­quiry over the treaty’s scan­dalous terms. The army would be placed un­der the com­mand of Sir John Moore, who would soon lead the 95th and the army into Spain and on a long, cold road to Corunna.

The 95th Ri­fles, equipped with highly ac­cu­rate Baker ri­fles, fea­tured promi­nently dur­ing the Penin­su­lar War

The Third Battalion, 95th Ri­fles reen­act­ment group demon­strate fight­ing in pairs – as one reloads the other cov­ers and fires

The wind­mill at Obidos, which was the scene of fight­ing be­tween the 95th Ri­fles and French out­posts

The 95th Ri­fles had bay­o­nets known as ‘swords’ that would at­tach to the side to avoid im­ped­ing the view through the sights

A Ri­fles of­fi­cer. The red sash in­di­cates his rank (as an of­fi­cer or sergeant) The Bat­tle of Vimeiro

Ri­fle­men ha­rass a French van­guard

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