Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Over the Hills (Play-test) - Rolica, 17th August 1808

British involvement in the Peninsular War may be said to have started on the 14th June 1808 when Sir Arthur Wellesley was appointed to command the British expeditionary force to Portugal of 9,500 men. 

His instructions from Lord Castlereagh, the Minister of War, were to support Portugal and Spain in “throwing off the yoke of France, and the final and absolute evacuation of the Peninsula by the troops of France.”

He discussed his task with an old friend, John Coker, and when asked his thoughts on the mission he said.

"Why, to say the truth, I am thinking of the French that I am going to fight. I have not seen them
since the campaign in Flanders, when they were capital soldiers, and a dozen years under Bonaparte must have made them better still..... My die is cast; they may overwhelm me, but I don't think they will out-manoeuvre me. First, because I am not afraid of them, as everybody else seems to be; and secondly because if what I hear of their system of manoeuvre is true, I think it is a false one against steady troops. I suspect all the continental armies were more than half-beaten before the battle was begun. I, at least, will not be frightened before-hand."

The confidence in his and his army's ability to overcome based on his appreciation of French tactics appear prophetic now with the benefit of hindsight; and display a sharp intellect that had led to the young Lieutenant General Wellesley established as a senior military advisor to the British government and now about to begin his association with the Anglo-Portuguese Peninsular Army.

The expeditionary force sailed from Cork on the 13th July, with Wellesley going ahead in the fast frigate Crocodile. They landed unopposed on 1st August at Figuiera de Foz at the mouth of the Mondego River, 80 miles north of Lisbon, and on the 5th, Wellesley’s 9,500 men were joined by an additional 5,000 men from Cadiz under Major General Sir Brent Spencer.

Wellesley's three columns of British infantry approach Delaborde's hill-top position close to the village of Rolica

Once ashore, Wellesley divided his force into six small brigades, each with three guns; he was very short of horses, having only enough to mount two-hundred and forty of his three-hundred and ninety light dragoons and to pull three of his five batteries of guns. But he immediately started to build up his supply system, which would give him a marked advantage over the French.

On 10th August he moved off south towards Lisbon, following the coast road, so that he remained in close touch with the Royal Navy. About this time he received news that his force was to be increased by a further 4,000 men, but as a result, command would have to go to someone more senior. The 39 year old Wellesley would therefore be superseded not only by General Sir Hew Dalrymple, but also beneath him by Lieutenant General Sir Harry Burrard.

When the French commander, General Jean-Andoche Junot, heard of Wellesley’s landing, he sent his ablest commander, General Henri François Delaborde, to delay him until reinforcements could arrive from Abrantes.

On 15th August the first encounter of the Peninsular War for the British Army occurred when there was a brief skirmish at Alcobaca. On the 16th Wellesley occupied Obidos, and the next morning he observed that Delaborde had taken up a defensive position just north of the village of Roliça, some four miles beyond Obidos.

Knowing that he out-numbered the French, but that reinforcements for them were only half a day’s march away, he decided to attack without delay. He divided his force into three columns and tried to outflank the French; but Delaborde saw through the manoeuvre and skilfully withdrew to a much stronger position on a steep ridge a mile south of Roliça.

Wellesley repeated his pincer movement, but the plan went wrong when one battalion attacked the enemy centre prematurely, and he was forced to launch a full attack to support them. The French were finally overrun, and by 16.00 were in full retreat southwards having lost 600 men and 3 guns against 479 British casualties.

Roliça was not a major battle, but it was significant simply because it was a victory.

General Hills column of the 1/5th, 1/9th and 1/38th Foot

The interesting aspect of this particular engagement is in the fighting of what was a common mission in the Peninsular War and wider Napoleonic conflict when a much smaller force was required to conduct a delaying action by forcing a much stronger foe to manoeuvre it out of its position and have to deploy off the march into its fighting formations to do so.

The two battalions of the 70me Ligne supported by the 8 lbr battery of foot guns 

General Delaborde was a highly efficient and experienced commander, so much so that Wellesley's earlier attempts to cause him to withdraw by parading the size of the British army had no effects other than to cause the British commander to close on his enemy to force the situation.

Wellesley oversees the sighting of his guns separating the columns of Generals Nightingale and Fane

Delaborde's skill was in judging precisely the right time to issue orders to his smaller command to revert from a holding stance to an immediate withdrawal; looking to keep just ahead of the advancing British columns and, by turning to face occasionally, cause them to deploy into line or face damaging defensive fire on their march formation whist enduring harassing skirmish and artillery fire.

General Delaborde's view from Rolica Hill with the two battalions of Legere and the 4me Suisse to his right

Wellesley's skill was to cover the ground as quickly as possible with the minimum of casualties by using his columns to pin and turn any French rearguard as the advance pressed and sought to take advantage of any French confusion.

The design of this game required to look at the timings involved to allow the simulation to progress at a similar rate.

This meant looking at creating likely terrain bottle-necks that might delay the Anglo-Portuguese columns whilst also allowing the French to pull back and prepare another holding position as other parts of their force fell back to occupy similar positions.

Two squadrons of the 26me Chasseur a Cheval covering the French left

To work out a scenario time limit required us playing this advance to see if Delaborde could with careful use of his small force delay the allied advance to the two hours it took them to move up to the ridge line, covering ground that could be moved over unopposed in little over an hour and a half.

The forward French position with the stronger second ridge-line position closest to camera

My picture of the ridge-line at Rolica during a visit to the battlefield back in the nineties

With that in mind, the battle for the ridge that would inevitably occur was a much secondary concern as, being familiar with OTH and its combat mechanisms, the success of a French holding action on the ridge would be determined by how well they had performed the first part of their mission by reducing as much as possible the time allowed for any allied attack on their line whilst minimising their own casualties.

The British columns began their advance on Rolica at about 12.00 on the 17th August 1808

As the French commander my mission didn't start particularly well as my opening shots from my skirmish screen and gun line all missed but to make things worse my guns used up their ammunition in the attempt.

The French open fire on the British advance with little effect

Having toyed with the idea of contesting Rolica for a further turn to delay Fane's rifle brigade having already seen Nightingale's centre brigade waste time by deploying into line, I now decided I needed to put more space between my troops and the allies to allow my guns to replenish and hope to find another delaying point.

Simply looking to delay the British without becoming enveloped and destroyed, the French begin their withdrawal

The French about turned and thread their way down the back slopes of Rolica Hill accompanied by their flanking forces taking a few skirmish hits as they withdrew, but managing this time to return the compliment.

Rolica village is abandoned without a struggle

As the French commander I wasn't quite sure I was right to have pulled back as soon as I did, but with my orders given and my troops on the move had to think about things as they were not how they might have been.

The first elements of the French force enter the second position at about 13.30

It was then that an opportunity presented itself as Fane's riflemen chose to march through the broken terrain in and around Rolica in company column causing their approach to slow and allow my Legere battalions to extend the gap between them and their pursuers.

Every now and then as the British troops became entangled in the various obstacles likely to impede their progress the French would turn to face and cause casualties

Not needing a second invitation, the 3/2me Legere formed line on the road junction south of Rolica and prepared to contest the the allied advance covered by a strong skirmish screen and the deployed foot guns.

Skirmishing and harassing artillery fire characterised the French withdrawal

This manoeuvre felt quite nerve racking as I observed the multiple columns of British infantry threading their way forward down the rear slope of Rolica Hill.

However I felt slightly more assured as I started to move other French troops into the narrow defiles at the foot of the ridge and if we could delay the allies for another turn and get the Legere out we would be tracking Delaborde's performance.

The 70me Ligne firmly in position by 14.00 ready to contest any further British advance via the narrow defiles on the ridge

The next part of the French move went quite well and the combined fire of the guns and skirmishers were able to get several hits on the allied columns although my Legere in line missed, but had at least caused the troops to their front to waste more time deploying to meet them.

The 3/2me and 3/4me Legere supported by the 4me Suisse cover the other defile as the artillery looks to get in position to support

To get the most out of this scenario you really need to play the order issuing mechanisms which only add to the uncertainty of things going horribly wrong when everything seems to be going great. However I can't say it does much for ones blood pressure or stress levels checking everyone is in command and then to see if your couriers have arrived and the orders successfully transmitted.

The 26me Chass a Cheval cover another likely access point on the flank of The French position

So it was for me as having caused another delay in the allied advance and now needing to get all of my force onto and into the ridge line defence position I noticed one of my battalions was now out of command!

Fortunately it was not disastrous as it could have been as it was the 2/70me Ligne who were the furthest way from any potential British threat.

General Hill's column deploys ready to attack supported by the 20th Light Dragoons

The next moment of French stress came with the need to issue orders from Delaborde to his brigade commander Brennier to revert to hold orders otherwise the French infantry would end up marching off the table without any attempt at delaying the allies in such a strong position.

I rolled the dice getting a '4', indicating the orders would be received but with a one turn delay just about allowing my force to get into position and prepare to receive the allied attack.

As Wellesley's other two spearhead columns move in, Crawford'd brigade remains in reserve alongside the British guns atop the rear of Rolica Hill firing in support of the attack.

As with the actual engagement the British columns arrived at the foot of the ridge at 14.00 in readiness to begin the second phase of this little battle.

Fane's Rifle brigade supported by the 1/45th Foot deploy in readiness to attack the left most defile while Nightingale's column closes on the centre.

We didn't fight the final stage of the scenario as the concept of the set up was proven and the last moves of battle would be determined on how well the respective troops came out in the combat within the narrow defiles, with the allied troops well placed to stretch the French defences with attacks along most of the access routes.

The French had suffered on their withdrawal but looked in relatively good shape to make a fight of the last few turns to the scenario end and have a chance of bettering Delaborde's result.

The British attack about to commence at 14.00

As with other play-tests in this series, the playing is always the proof of concept and both Steve and I found this a challenging test of command and, for the British, particularly frustrating, as they attempted to come to grips with their slippery opponents. I could almost detect the eagerness of the allied columns to finally come to grips with the French line at the close.

Next up Market Garden battle sites from our trip to Holland this summer and the combat at Ventosa Farm, the next scenario in this series of OTH play-tests.


  1. A really interesting scenario, JJ. I love scenarios that have a more complex narrative, such as this, where it isn't simply a set piece battle. There is an interesting rearguard action at the Coa, I think during Moore's retreat to Corunna, that I want to try to model one day, a similar sort of delaying action, in this case neccesitating the withdrawl of the main British force over the Coa. I hope to try this one of yours some day. Thanks!

  2. Hi JJ. We will play this tomorrow. I was curious about a few things in this scenario (from the scenario book). I assume both sides have the +1 react ratings. And did you restrict movement up the ridge to columns for the larger British units or were line formations allowed to spill into the rough terrain? I also wondered whether skirmish formations could negotiate outside the gaps, in the rough terrain of the ridge. And finally, why the low skirmish rating for the Caçadores? Is it because they were poorly trained at this point of the war?

    1. Hi Bill,
      I hope you pick up my response in time.

      Yes, unless I say differently, assume that all the standard rule recommendations are in play, so a +1 react would seem appropriate.

      The ridge should be played as very restrictive to movement outside of the few gullies and only skirmishers should be able to operate on the slopes. We made the gullies as per the pictures, slightly too narrow for a six base line at their mid points, which generally allowed the Allies to get enough fire into them to cause the French to drop back before pushing Allied units through them. Frankly in our playthroughs very few moves were left when the Allies arrived at the ridge and the French have a problem covering all of the gullies adequately, so were generally happy to give ground knowing the bottleneck was just a delay once the Allied brigades closed on the approaches. Think of Colonel Lake and the 29th struggling up their route and getting ambushed through getting ahead of their supports and skirmish screen.

      Yes the Portuguese are deliberately rated poorly as these are pre-Beresford reform units and Wellesley only took the best of them with him onto the battlefield preferring to keep the rest out of harms way by sending them with Trant on a wide flaking march inland.

      I would highly recommend playing the orders rules in this scenario as particularly for the French, knowing when to issue an order to pull back or stand adds another decision point to the game as a delayed response or worse still no response can really mess up the day and illustrate how difficult an operation it was to retire in the face of enemy. The Allied player will also have similar issue when ordering his units to stop while others get into position to organise a methodical assault on the ridge, setting up a potential 'Colonel Lake incident'.

      Have fun

  3. That was a great help. Thank you for the quick reply - yes it arrived in time!