Thursday, October 8, 2009


On 17 August 1808, just 16 days after he landed in Portugal, Wellesley fought his first battle of the Peninsular War a few miles south of Obidos at small village of Rolica.

The battle was a small affair in Napoleonic terms and very one sided. 16,000 British (including a few Portuguese) against 4,400 French. Its only real claim to fame is that it was the first British victory of many.

The first French position was on a hill which dominated the approach from Obidos. With his superior numbers Wellesley could easily outflank this position with a pincer movement, and the French withdrew to their second, and much stronger, position about a mile south overlooking the village of Columbeira.

This was a tougher nut to crack and Wellington lost about 500 casualties taking it.

The village of Rolica was easy to find, but not the actual hill on which the French based their first position. The directions sounded easy enough: “Turn off the N8 towards the village of Rolica and just after crossing the railway, take the first turning right. After about a mile, stop on the crest of the ridge. You are now on the first French position”

All went well to start. We crossed the railway without any trouble, we even found the first turning right. But then we were driving on a dirt track surrounded by a sea of high plants as high as the car. “after about a mile, stop on the crest of the ridge” sounds pretty easy – not so. After what seemed a long time we came to a small clearing, with a parked car. By now we were totally lost and disorientated, so we decided to get out of the car and have a look around on foot.

After half an hour we were almost on the verge of giving up, when we heard loud masculine voices and soon met a couple of Portuguese hunters. At least I hope they were hunters, because they were carrying rifles. Our total lack of Portuguese meant we could not ask for directions, but I did show them the map (above) and they pointed back the way they had come. We climbed the path, and came to this strange white building

From here we had a magnificent view of the valley leading to Obidos. I didn’t really need the map and compass to confirm that we were on the first French position. This was the only hill overlooking the valley from the south, and we could easily make out the hills on either side where the pincer movement took place.

More by luck than judgment we had found the right place. It had been more difficult, and taken much more time, than we had anticipated. We were hot and tired after our walking and climbing, but we settled down with our informative Jac Weller and had a picnic lunch whilst reading the details of the battle.

The second French position was much easier to find. “drive back into Rolica, turn right and continue for quarter mile to the next village, Columberia. Stop where there is a clear view to the south and you can see, about a mile away, the second French position”.

Leaving the car in the village we consulted the photo above and walked around until we could find the spot from which it was taken. This proved to be quite easy, but we read that the second French position lay on the central section of these hills.

Leaving the village by a farm track and walking towards the hills we found this second spot. Wellesley planned a second pincer movement against the French, and this led to the most famous incident of this battle. Colonel Lake led one of the four battalions in the centre column, which should have limited their action to skirmishing, while the flanking columns closed in. However Lake led half of his battalion straight up one of the gullies into the centre of the French position where they soon found themselves cut off. In desperate fighting Lake was killed and only 34 men survived. The central cleft in the photo was the gully entered by Lake.

A closer view of Lake’s gully.
With Lake in such a desperate position Wellesley ordered his whole line to advance. The French took a heavy toll of them as they advanced over the rocks and boulders and climbed the steep grassy slopes between the gullies. By sheer tenacity they gained the top of the ridge and Delaborde, the French commander, skillfully withdrew his force without too much trouble

Rolica is well worth a visit, but some preparation is necessary particularly if you want to view the first French position. This visit was a good lesson for us, as it made us realize just how difficult it can be to find just the right spot even with directions which appear to be comprehensive. But it was well worth the time and trouble, and indeed the difficulty just added to our enjoyment once we found our spot.

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