Exploring French Mistakes On the Peninsula -- Part I Vimeiro 1808

Doug at Cry Havoc and I are deep into a third scenario of Bonaparte's Peninsular War by John Tiller software featuring the Battle of Albuera.  Like the previous scenarios we have played, it is clear that the French commander Marshal Soult should not have attacked the Allied positions around Albuera (in this case an army of Spanish regulars/militia under Joaquin Blake and Marshal William Beresford's Anglo-Portugese force).  The terrain features a number of gullies and streams.  The western bank above the Albuera river at the village of Albuera is steep enough to slow an advance down and disorder French troops. Plus the lack of roads makes lateral movement almost impossible between the two French wings.

Soult's main axis of attack is in the south.  The river and a valley filled with olive trees separate his two forces.  The British and Spanish brigades in the south are arrayed in a linear formation and are unconcerned about being flanked due to the terrain.

As Doug and I have been playing these scenarios, we've been debating why French commanders on the peninsula made poor choices in terms of battlefield selection.  Our conversation keeps coming back to these four things:
  1. The French after Austerlitz and Jena are mostly arrogant, 
  2. The French lack continuity in the chain of command between the campaign seasons (so no lessons are learned), 
  3. The quality of French troops is also lacking 
  4. French doctrine isn't well-suited for the peninsula fighting.
To explore these ideas, I've selected three of the more important battles on the Peninsula: Vimeiro 1808, Bussaco 1810 and Albuera 1811 that in my mind encapsulate the French failures on the peninsula and buttress our working theory.  This blog is about the first major battle on the Peninsula between the British and the French.

Vimeiro August 21, 1808:  At Vimeiro, General Arthur Wellesley takes command of the Anglo-Portugese relief army sent to repel the French from Portugal.

 The French are under the command of General Jean-Andoche Junot. Junot served with distinction in Italy during the 1790s, where he was wounded, and again under Napoleon at Austerlitz in 1805 as an aide-de-camp. His ties to Bonaparte were personal, stretching back to Revolutionary days, and very likely it was these personal connections and his stints as aide-de-camp to the Emperor which helped him gain command of the Army invading Portugal in 1807.

His early successes against the Portugese in 1807 and early 1808 led him to be overly confident in the ability of his force to repel the British, a force that neither he or his soldiers had faced before.  At Rolica (the opening salvo of the British campaign) and Vimeiro, the French were battling the British force under Wellington for the first time.

Junot's force, like Junot, was mostly inexperienced,  as they were forced into service through conscription.  The experienced 1805 French Army was not present in Portugal in 1808.  Junot's best units are two regiments of Grenadiers Reunis, over 2,000 experienced soldiers. In JTS terms, these regiments are A quality troops. His line regiments however are C quality with multiple companies of D quality Swiss mercenaries.

Wellington's force by contrast, includes many regiments of B quality infantry (including the 71st and 91st Highlanders, the new Light infantry division with A quality Light infantry (think Sharpe's rifles).

Overall, the British have the edge in infantry, the French have more cavalry present and they have more artillery 21 guns to 12 guns present.  There is a Portugese brigade under Colonel Trant which plays a supporting role to Wellington's infantry in the battle.
This is the initial troop placement at Vimeiro.  It is historically accurate and shows very clearly the superior ground that Wellington occupied ahead of the French advance.
 What the British lack in artillery and cavalry (the latter a constant complaint by Wellington to his superiors), they make up for with superior battlefield positioning.  Wellington, as was his habit, preferred to ride ahead of the advance of his army and personally scout the ground his army would occupy.  In the screenshot above, you can see he grabbed the hilly ground in front of Vimeiro and the ridge that dominates the ground to the north of the town.

To Viscount Castlereagh,
Vimeiro, August 22, 1808

"After I wrote to you yesterday morning, we were attacked by the whole of the French army, Sir Harry Burrard being still on board ship, and I gained a complete victory.  It was impossible for troops to behave better than ours did; we only wanted a few hundred more cavalry to annihilate the French army..."

Junot's column meanwhile is strung out along one of the few roads leading into Vimeiro.  Showing his inexperience, he would attack the village and Wellington's defending force piecemeal with his main column and siphon off his strength by detaching a full brigade to reinforce his flying column to the north, which is bearing down on Ventosa farm in a flanking movement.  These two columns will be met by three of Wellington's brigades in the north and defeated in succession, having failed to combine (one column took the wrong road).

In Vimeiro itself, Wellington's infantry will turn back the main French column multiple times before the Guard regiments under Kellerman are committed by Junot into the attack.  Two regiments will break the right flank and enter Vimeiro until they are turned back by the determined defense of units from Acland's and Anstruther's brigades.

So how does the aftermath at Vimeiro match up against our working theory?  Let's take a look:
  1. The French after Austerlitz and Jena are mostly arrogant:  This turns out to be true of Junot.  Inexplicably, Junot divides his force into three columns.  They are defeated in succession and unable to combine.  My gut tells me the success Junot experienced in 1807 as his army seized Portugal, gave him a false sense of confidence in the capability of his army.  Had he met someone other than Wellington, and had Junot been fighting say the Spanish army of 1808, his tactics might have worked.  However, he is fighting Wellington and the disciplined, British army and they did not.
  2. The French lack continuity in the chain of command between the campaign seasons (so no lessons are learned),:  This doesn't apply to this battle as it was the first meeting between the armies. What is true, is that Junot's lack of command experience, gave him nothing to draw upon when challenged by Wellington. 
  3. The quality of French troops is also lacking:  This is true.  The army that entered Portugal was mainly inexperienced conscripts.  It was not the more experienced army that conquered half of Europe. 
  4. French doctrine isn't well-suited for the peninsula fighting:  In my opinion, Napoleon's emphasis on attacking and seizing the initiative will be a contributing factor for many French defeats on the Peninsula.  For inexperienced commanders like Junot, or commanders living in Napoleon's shadow (Massena) they will take risks more prudent commanders would have avoided at all costs.  This is especially true of Bussaco the next battle I will review.
Score:  3 out of 4  Three of the underlying factors Doug and I have been discussing are present at Vimeiro.

In my next blog, I will examine Bussaco in 1810 to see if the experienced French commander Massena makes the mistakes of Junot...