Ireland’s Wars: Schomburg’s Campaign

Frederick Schomburg had a very interesting military career. Born in 1615 in the Palatinate, to a German count and the daughter of an English Baron, Schomburg entered the military life at the earliest opportunity, serving in the armies of the Prince of Orange, Sweden and France, all before his twentieth year. Wars in the Low Countries, France, Germany and Portugal dominated his career, and Schomburg had a justified reputation as a trustworthy General and one of the most distinguished professional soldiers in Europe, long before the Glorious Revolution ended up bringing him to prominence in Ireland. He also counted himself as a devoted Huguenot, a French Protestant, a fact that eventually resulted in him losing any land or legal rights he enjoyed in France. When William of Orange invaded Britain in 1688, Schomburg accompanied him, gaining reward and title for his efforts.

With William busy solidifying his rule in Britain, dealing with potential rebellion in Scotland, and engaging with a larger war with France, the task of pacifying Ireland and chasing James II out of the islands was delegated to Schomburg. Equipped with an army that was around 10’000 men strong, Schomburg was expected to land a hammer blow to the Jacobite cause after its repulse from Ulster, in a manner similar to that which Cromwell had inflicted decades before. What had remained of James’ standing army, distrusted by the new administration, had been either disbanded or sent to fight in the Netherlands, so this new army was a patchwork of nationalities: newly raised English levies, Dutch and exiled Huguenots formed its ranks, of varying degrees of battlefield experience. Many were just adventurers, joining up with William’s cause for money as much as religious sentiment. But they would be better supplied than the enemy and had a competent leader, albeit one who, at 74, might have been past his prime.

On the 13th of August 1689, the first of Schomburg’s troops landed near Carrickfergus, County Antrim, the rest joining him over the next few days. What possible resistance existed in the area scattered. Before they could do anything else, Carrickfergus itself had to be secured, being one of the last Jacobite positions held in Ulster. Schomburg’s army, supplemented by Ulster militia that he was now the commander-in-chief of, marched on Carrickfergus with only a little delay, placing it under siege by the 20th.

Carrickfergus, while a position of strength, could not possibly hope to hold out for too long under attack from such numbers, but neither James nor any of his subordinates in Dublin, still smarting from the losses at Londonderry and Newtownbutler, made any attempt to effect a relief.  Schomburg’s army built siege lines and bombarded the town, wanting to be on their way as soon as possible. The garrison, under a member of the McCarthy clan, held out obstinately for a week, but with nearly all of their powder used up, there was no point in continuing the fight, and the Jacobite forces surrendered the town upon assurances they would be allowed to march away freely. A couple of hundred casualties each had been the cost.

In Dublin, James was beset with conflicting advice on what he should do now, which might explain the hesitance in coming to Carrickfergus’ aid. Many of his French subordinates had little appetite for going toe to toe with Schomburg and his large force, believing that what troops James had to hand to be of the most untrustworthy sort imaginable. Many Irish regiments consisted of just a few hundred men and, in general, only the Irish cavalry was thought well of. The French advised James to abandon Dublin and the east of the country in favour of fighting a defensive war behind the Shannon, out of Athlone. Dublin would be difficult to defend, and James’ cause had little hope of success without further French support, in troops and money, anyway. The Irish under his command, like Richard Talbot, thought little of this plan, and urged James to hold the east and go out and face Schomburg with the combined force of what James had left. James had other issues plaguing him as well, namely a lack of money to pay for any sort of plan, possible revolts against William’s rule in Scotland to try and encourage and dealing with his new “Patriot Parliament” in Dublin, Catholic dominated, which was enacting legislation that was peeling back the decades of pro-Protestant rule, introducing measures that even James was wary of allowing.

Schomburg faced a bit of a dilemma as well, as to how he should proceed. William wanted James beaten, so the conventional thinking called for a march straight into the teeth of the Jacobite position, at Dublin, or at least to threaten Dublin enough that James would be forced to fight a battle. But there were practical problems to this: there were numerous towns and fortresses in-between Carrickfergus and Dublin that would have to be managed, it was late in the year with the campaigning season running out, and Schomburg was unsure how his army might fare in a set-piece battle. It was still a new force, and much of its make-up was untested in battle, with some sources, that do tend to be skewed in a Jacobite direction to be fair, pointing out significant discipline problems. Other options existed, such as simply moving into winter quarters there and then, spending the time training and preparing for a more decisive clash the following year. But Schomburg was pressed to be pro-active, and so moved onto the offensive shortly after Carrickfergus had fallen.

That advance, with Schomburg hugging the coastline so as to make resupply by sea easier, ran into difficulties, expected and unexpected. The town of Newry was one of the places Schomburg came to, but found that it had been abandoned and burnt by Jacobites under the Duke of Berwick. The terrain the troops crossed changed from mountainous to boggy, and was never that easy to travail. Hopes that this Williamite force would be able to live, at least partly, off the land were essentially dashed, as they marched into areas that had been picked clean, either in the fighting between Jacobites and Enniskilleners that had taken place already, or by an uncoordinated scorched earth policy by retreating Irish. Schomburg had to send his artillery horses back north to try and get more supplies coming his way. As they went south, Schomburg’s army also had to deal with attacks to his rear carried out by small, mobile guerrilla units, soon dubbed “rapparees”, the activities of which I will talk about in greater detail at a later date. The Jacobites did not attempt a defence of the Moyry Pass when they could have though, a mercy that Schomburg should have been thankful for.

By the 7th of September, Schomburg’s tired and harassed army had reached ground near the town of Dundalk, County Louth, and there stopped, taking up position a mile to the north. Schomburg had intelligence that James and his gathered forces were on the move, and was resolved to wait there for a battle. But no movement of Jacobite forces as he expected occurred. Largely cut off from his base in the north and with his hopes of being reinforced by sea dashed by an incompetent effort getting ships to nearby Carlingford, Schomburg was obliged to dig in to his present position, turning it into a more permanent base.

James, pressed by some of Generals like de Rosen, did move eventually, marching an army that might have been 20’000 strong – though it would largely have been untrained, untested, unarmed and unreliable militia that made up the numbers, as liable to desert as they were to fight – northwards past Drogheda and on to Dundalk. By mid-September, he would have been within striking distance of Schomburg, if he actually wanted to strike. Instead, James and his army got close enough that an engagement could be arranged quickly, and then did nothing more.

There followed a standoff. Schomburg was being pressed to fight a battle, but was worried about the size of the enemy army, the preparedness of his own troops, and his lack of supplies. James was being pressed to a fight, but was worried about attacking a fortified position, the preparedness of his own troops and the possibility of another damaging defeat. And so, the two armies, quite large for the time and place, simply stayed in being within a few hours march of the other, and did nothing. De Rosen and other French officers were disgusted with the lack of action, when they thought they had a perfect opportunity to win a valuable victory: one source quotes de Rosen acidly telling James “If your Majesty had ten Kingdoms, you would lose them”. After one half-hearted attempt to draw Schomburg out, James retired behind the River Fane nearby.

But, remarkably enough, James decision not to attack, and instead to draw out this stalemate, ended up getting him a victory that he might not have been able to replicate if a battle had actually been fought early. Schomburg and his force were obliged to stay as they were, bar a onetime move to what was thought to be a slightly more favourable position, for the rest of September, all of October and into November. The ground was bad, the weather was poor, and much of the Williamite army, especially the English levies, lacked the training or the proper means to construct actual shelter. Tents and other structures could not be pitched on much of the bad ground, leading to overcrowding on some of the only suitable areas of land. Sanitation deteriorated rapidly.

The result was an absolute catastrophe, as the lack of supplies, weather and standard campaign conditions combined to create a crisis of disease and desertion in Schomburg’s army, which would eventually gut much of his force. Encamped armies always have to deal with the possibility of fever, dysentery and other common battlefield ailments, but the way that these illnesses now ripped through the Williamites was staggering. Stagnant water supplies, some of it from nearby bogs, exacerbated the problem.  We’ll never know for sure how many men Schomburg lost in the field, or had to send back under guard to hospitals to the north, not least because, with the Ulster additions, we don’t know just how many troops Schomburg had at the time (it might have been near 19’000 to begin with). One source claims that fully 8’000 of his army fell victim to disease, many never to recover. James, closer to his supply base and with access to nearby towns, did not suffer anywhere near as badly.

James was actually the first to withdraw. By the 4th of November, he decided his army should move into winter quarters back south while he himself retired to Dublin. Schomburg, his army in no sort of condition to press the issue, began a difficult and harassed march back north a few days after, losing more and more men as they went, the road back north littered with the dead and dying. The fighting, for the rest of that year at least, was over.

The campaign had been a disaster for the Williamites. Not only had Schomburg failed to fight any sort of a battle, decisive or otherwise, with James, but he had a lost a huge proportion of his men in the process. Having taken the momentum of the war into their hands at Londonderry and Newtownbutler, the Williamites offered it back to the Jacobites on a plate. Schomburg engaged in a campaign he had little enthusiasm for, and floundered in a stalemate that wrecked his own army. The losses incurred outside Dundalk were worse than most battles English armies ever fought in Ireland.

But the Jacobites had not covered themselves in glory either. Many saw James’ refusal to attack Schomburg as a sign of weakness, with many of his officers believing that the Williamites could have been completely destroyed if a battle had been forced. Instead, the result of the campaign was seen as a meek withdrawal by James, when he had the chance to win a vital victory, and turn the tide back in favour of his forces in a huge way.

Still, whatever about the popular perception of what had happened, the actual tangible results were in favour of the Jacobites. William, back in England, was disgusted, and soon began formulating plans to travel over the sea and take command of the effort in Ireland personally, truly turning the war into a clash of Kings. But before we discuss that, we need to head westwards, to talk about the way the war was progressing in Connacht. There, a Kildare born officer named Patrick Sarsfield, was ready to make a name for himself.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.



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7 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Schomburg’s Campaign

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