‘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
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