Nov 01 2010
The large tile mosaic in the museum at Vimeiro, showing a general view of the battle.
Anyone with an interest in military history of the Napoleonic period, particularly the Peninsular War, will be aware that a visit to Portugal, with its wealth of relevant sites, is well worthwhile. Portugal also boasts some impressive museums, including the National Army Museum in Lisbon and the museum at Bussaco dedicated to the battle fought there in 1810. Since 2008 there has been another museum well worth a visit, the Centro de Interpretaçao Batalha do Vimeiro.
The battle of Vimeiro was fought on the 21st August, 1808, four days after a successful action against a smaller French force under General Delaborde at Roliça. Sir Arthur Wellesley chose Vimeiro as his headquarters in order to cover the landing of more British troops at the mouth of the Maceira River some miles to the west. Marshal Junot, therefore, decided on an attack at Vimeiro in order to stop the British invasion of French-occupied Portugal before it had really started.
Sir Arthur Wellesley’s landing site for his troops, at the mouth of the river Maceira.
Initially Wellesley posted his troops in front of the village of Vimeiro, on a gentle slope, and on a ridge to the west of the village. Junot aimed to turn Wellesley’s left, which would enable him to roll up the British and Portuguese forces. To achieve this he sent General Brenier’s division on a march well to the right of the French position, supported by General Solignac’s division. In the dry conditions, however, Brenier’s progress was revealed by the dust cloud the marching troops created.
Forewarned, Wellesley moved five brigades from the western ridge to the ridge of Ventosa, to the north east. The other three brigades remained posted in the vicinity of Vimeiro, Anstruther’s and Fane’s on the forward slope of Vimeiro hill, and Acland’s covering them in the village itself. Thus, for the first time, the French found themselves in a situation which would later become familiar, obliged to attack a British infantry line uphill. (see: www.peninsularwar.org/map_vm.html for a useful map which links the disposition of the troops to the modern landscape.)
Another plan of the battle, this one a tile picture which forms part of a display outside the museum at Vimeiro
Junot initiated his attack by sending the brigades of Thomières and Charlot against the Vimeiro position held by Anstruther and Fane, but they were quickly beaten back by British infantry fire, the deadliest in the world as Fortescue described it. Two battalions of grenadiers under St Clair were also driven back. Junot then launched his two remaining grenadier battalions directly against the village but they were equally unsuccessful, falling under crossfire from Acland’s brigade and Anstruther and Fane’s.
Just as this part of the battle was drawing to a conclusion, Brenier and Solignac finally arrived within reach of the Ventosa ridge. Their march had been protracted by the lie of the land, particularly by a ravine that they had unexpectedly encountered.
Solignac’s brigade attacked directly up the ridge but was overwhelmed by fire from Ferguson and Nightingall’s brigades, losing its commander and its guns. At this point Brenier, who had searched out an easier route to ascend the ridge, arrived to overwhelm the 71st and 82nd regiments (possibly resting on their laurels after their easy triumph over Solignac’s brigade). Brenier’s success was short-lived, however, as the two regiments rallied on the rest of the British forces on the ridge. The French now suffered heavy casualties.
The scene was now set for a pursuit which could well have mopped up the French but General Sir Harry Burrard, recently arrived and superior to Wellesley. refused to allow it. He in turn was superseded by General Sir Hew Dalrymple, whose strategy was to “talk” the French out of Portugal. As a result of the notorious Convention of Cintra the French army was conveyed back to France in British ships, taking all their plunder with them.
A visit to the Centro de Interpraçao, under its curator, Snr Rui Filipe, is an excellent way to gain an insight into the events of the 21st August 1808. Situated in the square which marks the position of Anstruther and Fane’s brigades, it contains a wealth of material relevant to the battle as well as an excellent interpretation of the course of the action. Furthermore, thanks to a large picture window it is possible to stand on one part of the battlefield while gaining a panoramic view of the Ventosa ridge and the route followed by Brenier and Solignac. Indeed, the museum at Vimeiro is an object lesson in how to bring a battle to life for a modern audience.
In the area immediatly outside the museum is a series of six large tile pictures showing the sequence of events in the battle:
Across the road from the museum is a memorial to the battle. This memorial was erected on the centenary of the battle in 1908.
[This article gives only an outline of the battle. Fuller accounts can be found on www.napoleon-series.com/peninsula-vimeiro.html and www.peninsularwar.org/vimeiro.html. There is a detailed order of battle at en.wikipedia.org/wikiBattle_of_vimeiro_order_of_battle]