Before more serious matters next time, this week’s entry will be a shorter lead-up.
William III arrived in Ireland on the 14th of June, at the head of a force of men that would, in the field, number well over 36’000. It was a gigantic armed force, meant to demonstrate William’s power and his commitment to crushing the enemy, and quickly. He was, after all, engaged in war against France on other fronts, and the redirection of this amount of men to the Irish theatre was not an insignificant decision. They were a varied and disparate lot: Danish, German, French, Dutch, Scottish and English as well as the Irish Protestants that had been doing most of the fighting thus far in the country. With a sizable amount of cavalry and a large amount of artillery, William was marching with the best force available to him, an army that had largely drained his territories of soldiers but which left him with a potentially decisive advantage over James.
William had a few options open to him after landing. He now replaced Schomburg as commander-in-chief of the Williamite forces in Ulster, but Schomburg had done good work that year already, taking Charlemont and essentially clearing Ulster of any Jacobite positions of consequence. That work opened up the possibility of amore westward approach, down into Connacht or through the midlands, there to threaten the Jacobite heartland and entice James into fighting a battle on more unknown ground. But the risks were obvious too: if James was not enticed, there was only so long William could stay in the field with an army that size. He had not come to Ireland to conduct sieges or grab territory: he wanted to face James in a proper battle and beat him. Aside from dealing a smashing blow to the Jacobite cause in general, such a result would legitimise William’s seizure of the crown in London, and tarnish James irrevocably. But it was not set to be an easy task: William himself had no great battlefield reputation up to that point, in comparison with James, who had at least one spectacular success, the Battle of the Dunes in 1658, to his name. William had never faced James on the field of battle during the Glorious Revolution, and that would have to change.
And so, William decided to move ahead with a simple approach: following the same route that Schomburg had taken the previous year in his ill-fated attempt to bait James, William would march down the east coast towards Drogheda and Dundalk, with the final goal being to capture Dublin itself. It was believed that James would never let his capital fall to the enemy without offering a fight, which is exactly what William wanted.
Because if it came to a battle, nearly everything favoured William. When, in the face of William’s arrival, James called a muster at Dundalk, he was left disappointed by the results. Between men who just didn’t turn up and the amount of troops that had been designated for garrison duty throughout the country – in many cases, quite unnecessarily – James’ muster only came up with somewhere in the region of 23’000 soldiers, a significant difference with William. This deficiency in numbers would inform much of James’ decisions in the days to come, but it was more than just that: the Jacobite army, due in no small part to James’ sloth during the winter and spring months, was under-trained and poorly armed. Where the Williamites had received modern military training and experience, or were professional soldiers already, and were armed with the latest flintlock muskets, the Irish Catholics of James’ army were press ganged amateurs, lucky if they had obsolete matchlocks with which to fight. Flintlock’s were lighter, easier to reload and fired better, and the disparity in arms quality was clear.
The sloth had also stopped the Jacobites from seizing the initiative earlier. If James had assembled his army in spring and marched north, he might have been able to catch the Williamites unawares and ruin William’s plan before they got started. But James had forgone his earlier bravery and daring in military affairs, perhaps too easily influenced by his French officers, who preached caution and defensive war: maybe because they were trying to preserve the French units that formed the core of the Jacobite army. Some still urged to King to relocate behind the Shannon, to make use of the natural defences open to him, but the King still refused to go that far. But he was trying to cover all of his bases: while happy to fight a defensive battle if he had to, entrenching at Dundalk and waiting for William to attack him, he also sent units westward to guard other avenues of approach into Leinster, under Patrick Sarsfield.
William was marching as June entered its final week. Newry and the Moyry Pass lay between him and his ultimate target, but for whatever reason, James was ill-disposed to properly defend these areas. Newry had already suffered greatly during the war, and wouldn’t have found much use as a bulwark, but the pass was different. If William wanted to get to Dublin efficiently, he’d have to take the pass, and if James adequately defended it, he could make the Williamites suffer grievously before any sort of set-piece battle. Such things and possibilities must have been on James’ mind, since his army was outnumbered: a defence of the Moyry Pass offered the chance to nullify that difference, even if it was only temporary.
But James did not do that. Instead, the only combat that took place in the pass was a skirmish between vanguards of the two armies, with a few hundred casualties, mostly injured, sustained between the two sides. James apparently only wanted to know the size of the enemy force, and received exaggerated reports: William had just been scouting the area out before moving on with his main army. The chance for a more substantial defence of the pass, as had been undertaken by Hugh O’Neill in 1600, went a begging.
The affair was a minor one, but worked out in favour of William overall, as James was persuaded to withdraw again, this time past Dundalk towards the town of Ardee, 40KM from Dublin. William was able to move most of his army through the pass without any further impediment. In the face of this further advance, James again retreated, this time in a south-easterly direction, eventually making it over a river near the town of Drogheda, on the 29th.
The river was the Boyne, one of the last natural barriers between William and Dublin, and soon to become immensely famous in the history of the Unionist movement. But James had little inkling of what was about to transpire. What his exact plans at this point were is not clear: he might still have been preparing for a set-piece engagement, but was seeking favourable ground on which to fight it, or maybe was hoping for a repeat of the Dundalk standoff with Schomburg, where the Williamites would suffer from the perils of disease. Encamping at the Boyne had advantages too: the river was wide and deep, and if the bridges and fords could be adequately guarded, any further attempt to move south taken by William could be checked more easily. Regardless of his exact intentions as the last days of June slipped away, James stayed put on the south banks of the river, just a few kilometres away from Drogheda, in or around the small village of Oldbridge.
William pressed on. He was keenly aware of the time factor – his giant army could not stay in the field forever, and he didn’t want to suffer the same fate as Schomburg had – and was intent on bringing matters to a head. On the 30th of June, his army arrived on the north banks of the Boyne. Situated on either side of the river, the two men who gave the War of the Two Kings its title now prepared for the only time they would command armies against each other in battle, a fateful engagement, whose result would echo down throughout history.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.