Ireland’s Wars: The Boyne

The 1st of July, 1690. The armies of William III and James II faced each other in County Meath, separated by the winding course of the River Boyne. Roughly 36’000 Williamite soldiers, of varying nationalities, prepared to come to battle with 24’000 Jacobites, Irish Catholic and French in make-up, their numbers somewhat boosted by the return of Patrick Sarsfield and his unit, which had previously been guarding the Ulster border to the west.

The battle itself was almost turned upside down before it had even started. The day before the fighting was joined, William came close to being killed when, upon advancing forward to observe the fording points he would attempt to take, he came under fire from a makeshift battery of small cannon from the Jacobite side of the river. One man accompanying William and two horses were killed, with William receiving a graze on his right shoulder. The wound was of no serious concern, though it affected William, a sickly man who was exhausted from the campaign already, more than it maybe should have. Rumours, as they tended to do, swirled around the Williamite camp about their leaders demise, and William was obliged to make the rounds and put on a brave face to refute them.

William’s death at that moment could very well have proved a fatal blow to the entire Williamite cause. It seems unlikely that a proper battle plan could have been executed immediately after, and who knows what benefits James would have been able to reap with his primary enemy dead and his larger faction in disarray. William had no, and never would have, sons, his designated heir being the infant child of his sister-in-law, Anne. Such a dynasty was in no way stable. But William did not die, and did lead his army into battle the next day. But oh, what might have been.

Early skirmishing the day before produced little lasting effect, advanced portions of either army taking pot-shots at each other over too great a distance to be really effective. William retained some worries that elements of his army would not stand under pressure, but was satisfied when those units stationed closest to the river did not break under some Jacobite artillery fire. That night, at a council of war with his chief lieutenants, William decided upon his battle plan. He received suggestions of both an all-out attack across the river, fordable near the village of Oldcastle, and differing opinions that suggested that the entire army should decamp and march to a safer crossing point up river.

Rejecting talk of an assault that night, William decided to take both sets of advice. His main force would indeed seek to force the passage of the river and engage the Jacobites directly, but he also dethatched a portion of his army, under Meinhardt Schomburg, son of Frederick, and James Douglas to move west, cross the Boyne at a point called Roughgrange, near Slane, a few miles away, from where it would swing back and attack into the Jacobite left flank. It was a simple plan, but one that had great potential: and certainly, there was little indication in the campaign thus far that James would be pro-active enough to do anything about it.

James and his army had not been completely idle though. Simple defences had been hurriedly thrown up near the riverbank, and Oldcastle itself had been manned and fortified as best it could. The ground had great natural advantages for the Jacobites regardless: aside from the difficulty in forcing the passage of a not shallow river like the Boyne, the southern side rose gradually, meaning that any Williamite forces that made it over the river would have to continue their attack uphill. James’ army could easily have made a stand at that position, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Williamites. James was intent on accepting battle, satisfied that he could absorb William’s attacks nd rejected suggestions that he retreat further. He was warned about the possible threat to his left flank, but only dethatched a small unit of dragoons to cover the crossing at Slane.

The following morning then, the battle evolved in two areas. At Oldbridge, William organised his remaining forces, placing his most able troops, his Dutch countrymen, on his right, with Danish and French Protestant soldiers in the centre. William himself commanded the mass of cavalry on the left flank, with Frederick Schomburg given command of the centre. The lines also included Enniskillen men at several points.

Schomburg’s son had been given plenty of infantry, cavalry and artillery to attempt his crossing further upstream, but his departure from the main Williamite body could not be concealed, and the Jacobites rapidly sent their reinforcements to cover the small party of dragoons. Both William and James would end up sending huge portions of their army to this side of the battlefield – the younger Schomburg may have had 10’000 men at his disposal at one point – but for the moment all the Williamites were able to do was to drive off the Jacobite dragoons from the bridge they had been guarding. Meanwhile, to the east, a small force of Williamite cavalry were checked in an attempt to cross at a point called Drybridge, a small divisionary operation. This unit was led by a Dutchman named Godart de Ginkell, who would soon achieve much greater fame in the conflict.

Such was the disposition of sources, that you may have been forgiven that day for thinking that the main fighting would take place at Roughgrange and Slane, and not Oldcastle. Instead, William’s main blow would now fall there, with his enemy having moved most of his reserve and other regiments westward, leaving Richard Talbot with the task of holding the ground with a fraction of the soldiers he had been commanding. At Oldcastle the Williamites maintained a withering artillery fire, but it was not until William received word that Schomburg was over the river to his right that he ordered his own section of the army to advance. The possibilities were tempting: if all went to plan, James would be sent running, only for his routing army to be intercepted and destroyed in its flight by Schomburg’s arrival.

William advanced, his right wing the first into the river, the rest of the line entering the water in sequence, creating a staggered line from Williamite right to left. The Dutch Blue Guards, perhaps the best the entire Williamite army had, were the first into the fighting, sustaining and returning musket fire as they waded across the Boyne, waist deep in water and struggling through. Though they took heavy casualties in the process, they made it across the river, and were soon joined by the Huguenot, Danish and Enniskillen regiments. Attacks on the Jacobite breastworks and Oldcastle itself commenced, with the Irish defenders showing little appetite for an up close battle, many units turning and running after firing off only a few haphazard shocks, reforming at the next point of defence, and repeating the process.

But the Jacobites still had fresh cavalry, which charged down the slopes haphazardly, no set battle plan being followed outside of the actions of individual units, and the Williamite advance was checked. In fact, entire regiments were thrown back into the river, the Danish horse of the Williamite left was scattered, while the Dutch Blue Guards were barely able to hold the small beachhead they had managed to secure. All the while, cannon rumbled back and forth.

The elder Schomburg had grumbled about the battle plans and his lack of authority, but now dove headfirst into the fray, trying to stall a disaster, taking command of a leaderless regiment and pushing the attack once more. However, before he could make much headway in a resumed attack on Oldcastle, he received a shot to the neck, killing him near instantly. But he had done enough in reorganising the flagging line and launching a new attack, and now the Jacobites in Oldcastle were driven out of the village in brutal hand-to-hand fighting. His leadership at that moment might have forestalled a general retreat back across the river.

Across the line the Williamites reformed, massed ranks, held off repeated cavalry attacks and advanced again. The hedges and ditches the Jacobites were holding began to be abandoned, as more Williamites made it over the river and joined the assault, the Irish showing little willingness to stand and fight for more than a few shots at a time. William himself led an Enniskillen regiment forward on the left along with some Danish horse: delayed for a time after getting stuck in a patch of mire, he witnessed his Irish troops break apart the right of the Jacobite line only to be thrown back by a cavalry counter-attack, only for the intervention of following British regiments to stop this advance, blunting the cavalry assault and turning this portion of the field into a confusing mess of fighting.

Though this section of the battle was far from decided, the sight of it caused many of the Jacobites in the centre and left, being urged to advance upon the Williamites still down near the riverbank, to panic and begin an unordered retreat, despite the attempts of Richard Talbot and others to stop them. A terrible rout could have ensured, but for the action of the Duke of Berwick and General Richard Hamilton, whose remaining units of cavalry executed a desperate rearguard action to protect the retreating infantry, checking the initial Williamite pursuit, though it cost them many men and horses. The Irish infantry eventually were corralled into a more defensive formation at a rise near Donore, a few kilometres behind their starting positions, but from there another retreat, this time towards the nearby village of Duleek, was started. The Jacobite cavalry endured a difficult period of fighting in making this a possibility, forced to attack, retreat and attack again several times over, and were eventually obliged to withdraw as well. Their losses were grievous, but they had done enough to prevent a calamity.

Over on the west, an astonishing anti-climax developed. Despite the fact that huge numbers of Williamite and Jacobite soldiers and been sent in that direction in the expectation that the main clash would be fought there, very little actually fighting occurred. James’ designated commander, de Lauzen, never got a chance to properly engage before the news of what was happening at Oldcastle reached him. Realising that the battle was probably already lost, and that the best he could do now was retreat safely, he turned back from facing the younger Schomburg and Douglas, marching instead towards Duleek. In so doing, he might well have saved many lives, as if he gone ahead with an engagement or scattered in every direction, then the Jacobite casualties that day would have been far greater. While some of the Irish under his command did break and flee, most stayed in formation.

At Duleek the two separate sections of the Jacobite army, panicked and leaderless in some stretches, reformed, the Williamites not far behind, having decisively won the passage of the Boyne, and now continuing their advance. But the ground around Duleek was boggy and covered in hedges and ditches. Now the French infantry and artillery got involved to a greater extent, albeit very late, guarding the narrow roads and passes so that the Williamites could not maintain their attack without risking high loss. The Jacobites began to move off southwards from Duleek again, and soon night had fallen, preventing further pursuit.

And what of James? He had moved throughout the battlefield during the day, but at some point panic appears to have taken hold of him, and he bolted. Not waiting to see the final end of the battle, convinced that the day was lost far earlier than it actually was, he fell back to Duleek ahead of his army, and from there to Dublin, as fast as his horse could take him. The famous, though very likely apocryphal, story sums up the situation: James, meeting Talbot’s wife, told her “Madam, your countrymen can run well!” To which, with a biting Irish wit, she replied: “I see your majesty has won the race”.

James’ flight tarnished what little was left of his reputation, and it was made all the worse because of how William had conducted himself during the fighting, leading cavalry attacks and rallying retreating troops, even as he struggled to raise his sword because of his injured shoulder. The day was his, and now a huge swath of the county, not least Dublin itself, lay open to him.

But despite all of that, it is remarkable how what became known as the Battle of the Boyne turned out. The casualties, relative to the massive size of the armies engaged, were comparatively small: maybe 2’000 dead out of 60’000 combatants, most of them Jacobites of course. But the Williamites suffered more wounded, though it was hardly a terrible loss considering the force they had engaged and the difficult manoeuvres they had pulled off. The lack of casualties has much to do with the successful rearguard action of the Irish cavalry, who prevented what could have been a massacre of routing infantry: Berwick and Hamilton’s intervention at that crucial point prevented William’s ambition of his reformed army crushing the Jacobites between two pincers. The Jacobite army was bruised, but intact, and still had capable men – Talbot, Hamilton, Berwick, de Lauzen and Sarsfield – who could have commanded it.

But it lacked a King, and in some ways I feel that it is the role of the two monarchs at the Boyne that really marks it out in Irish history. It was the only time that William and James commanded armies against each other in battle, and while the short-term results were hardly terrible for the Jacobites, it was the conduct of James that made it a really crushing defeat. The Jacobite figurehead ran away, while his counterpart mopped up, and so what could have been viewed as a large skirmish and half a battle instead became a giant moment in the history of the British Isles and Ireland.

The other reason why the Boyne has become such a popular part of Unionist historical commemoration is actually down to matters of calendar and miscalculation. The battle took place on the 1st of July, but in the Old Style, before the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Ireland. Unionists originally celebrated the anniversary of Aughrim, in 1691, which took place on the 12th of July OS. In the Gregorian calendar, this became the 22nd, and, because of a mistake in the calculations of a few digits, the Boyne became the 12th. Rather than alter the date of Unionist celebrations, the focal point of the commemorations changed to the Boyne, despite its lack of status as a battle that decided the war. It didn’t, but “the Twelfth” is a Protestant celebration that has long gone past such vagaries of history.

The Jacobites were always going to be up against it at the Boyne, but made it harder for themselves through the decision to split the army up. Keeping the army in one force would have carried risk, but the younger Schomburg’s detachment would have struggled to make a big impact with its initial size, even if it had managed to make the tiring journey west, then over the river, then back east. By that time, a larger Jacobite force might have blunted William’s direct attack at Oldcastle, and have been in a position to absorb any flanking attempt. Certainly if larger amounts of Jacobite infantry, especially those crucial French units, had been present at the main point of fighting, then William may never have been able to make the crossing that he did.

But the way that the actually battle panned out illustrated all of the established weaknesses of the Jacobites. The peasant Irish infantry could not be compelled to stand fast long enough to stop the Williamite attacks, and were driven off by determined advances of Dutch, Danish and Huguenot troops several times over, even if the Irish had the advantage of cover, prepared positions and the village of Oldcastle. The Jacobite cavalry, as was often the case, acquitted itself well, but William’s own wings of horse could not be held back forever. The Williamite infantry was outstanding, absorbing many setbacks yet still mounting attacks and counter-attacks.

In the end, the battle was largely decided when James made the choice of sending most of his army westwards to face down the Williamite flanking attempt, leaving his central position dangerously undermanned. Now, there could be no denying that the war had turned decisively against the Jacobites. Their army was still in being, but Leinster and the east coast – Drogheda, Dundalk and the jewel of Dublin – were there for the taking if the Williamites had a mind to take them (and they did). Hard choices lay ahead for the Jacobites. They would not be made by James.

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

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13 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Boyne

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