The campaigning season had finally arrived. After months of raids and minor operations, of reinforcements and political manoeuvring, both sides would now put their respective mettles to the test again, properly. From the east, the Williamites under Ginkel would attempt to strike a blow through the Shannon defensive line, while to the west, the St Ruth led Jacobites would try and stand fast.
The armies were gathering in May of 1691. It had taken that long due to various factors: the weather, the influx of more soldiers, the reorganisation of armies and the working out of plans. The Jacobites were, naturally, the more static of the two sides, awaiting the blow, spending much of their time constructing better defences on and around the Shannon. They ceded the initiative to the Williamites, content to see where the strike would come and react from there. The Williamites took time to get everything together as they would want, between distractions in the civil administration and the war abroad.
Ginkel was a cautious man in many ways. He had been a soldier for a long time, first commissioned in the Dutch army at the age of 12, after which he became part of a cavalry regiment. His early career has little of note to mark it out, but he was able to move up the ranks to the extent that he accompanied William across the sea during the Glorious Revolution. He was one of the few Dutch commanders who actually saw combat during this event, heading off an attempted mutiny by a Scottish regiment in 1690, something that clearly brought him to the attention of William, who brought Ginkel with him when he travelled across to Ireland. Ginkel was present at the Boyne and commanded an aborted flanking movement there, missing most of the battle but proving himself as having some worth. When William later left the country, he placed faith in Ginkel’s ability to see the rest of the war out, though the Dutchman’s command performance since his appointment had been decidedly mixed. But, importantly, he was Dutch, and William obviously preferred officers from his native land.
His opposite, the French general Charles Chalmont, the Marquis of St Ruth, was similar in many respects. He too had been a military man since a young age, without any great distinction for most of his early career. As part of religious conflicts between France and its neighbours, he had led forces into the Duchy of Savoy and helped win a few minor battles and sieges there, most notably at Staffarda in 1690, earning enough respect for Louis to consider him just the man to lead the Jacobites, with their core of French soldiery, in Ireland. He had been in Ireland less than two months when it became clear that the Williamites were making their move, spending that time with the work of integrating the French units into the larger army, raising new levies and trying to get the rapparee bands to become a more formal part of the larger Jacobite military.
Ginkel assembled his army at Mullingar, a town that essentially marked the western-most frontier of Williamite control. As in the previous year, the army was vast when all were counted– nearly 20’000 strong – and made up of a large amount of different nationalities: Dutch, English, Scottish, French, German, Danish and numerous other Duchy’s and principalities were represented. While the Williamites still had some deficiencies in cavalry when compared to the Jacobites, they had a resounding superiority in artillery, with the Williamite reserves of both guns and ammunition having been improved over the winter, with the express intention of battering holes into Jacobite held fortifications, William’s forces having learned the lesson of Limerick and Sarsfield’s Ride. The general superiority of Williamite troops when compared to the Jacobites was also still evident, despite Jacobite attempts at offsetting this discrepancy over the winter. The Jacobite armed forces were a little better now, but the Williamites still had better trained and more battle hardened men. Ginkel was also committing nearly everything that he had, with large swaths of Williamite controlled Ireland drained of its garrisons, their defence left in the hands of civilian militia. This was done much to the consternation of the Dublin authorities, who greatly feared the possibility of rapparee attack in the meantime. According to some sources at least, Ginkel had little care about it, irritated at the civil administrations unwillingness to play ball with his idea for proclamations of pardon.
Ginkel’s plan of attack was very simple. His army would be kept in one mass, unlike the way the Williamites had been split the previous year, and would attack the Shannon defensive line at a single point. And that single point would be the fortified town of Athlone, 30 miles west of Mullingar, one of the key Jacobite strongholds. Athlone had successfully repelled a poorly organised Williamite assault in 1690, the first Jacobite success since the Boyne and a precursor to the Williamite failure at Limerick. But Ginkel had no intention of repeating that result, bringing with him more men and more artillery for the task. The Shannon had to be crossed, and it had to be crossed at a secure point, one with a strong bridge and available defences, so a large army could get to the other side of the river in safety. Athlone, and Limerick, were the only real options.
The Williamite army, slow to move because of its size, was on the march by late May/early June. Before taking on the problem of Athlone, another obstacle was in the way, in the form of the castle and small town at Ballymore. The Jacobites, recognising the potential of having a sizable garrison and strong fortification in this frontier area, had manned the town and castle with a sizable amount of men, expecting them to provide a bulwark against any Williamite movement towards Athlone.
This Ballymore accomplished, though it held out much shorter than many would have hoped. The castle suffered a bombardment and a rapid attack, and the other parts of the town underwent the same treatment soon after. Within a few days, the garrison surrendered, passing into captivity and sent east. Few died on either side, with Ballymore hardly being a place worth dying over anyway. The Williamite advance was delayed for a few days at the cost of at least 500 soldiers: a debatable bargain to say the least.
Ginkel’s troops were moving on to nearby Athlone from there, but their opponents had not been idle either. St Ruth had assembled his own forces by the time Ginkel had got moving, and had surveyed the defences of Athlone and encamped relatively close. St Ruth’s attitude to the coming fight was positive: he felt that Ginkel may not even make an attack with the larger Jacobite army nearby and even if he did, the Williamite army would not be able to take Athlone anyway. Situated within reasonable distance of Athlone, St Ruth could also offer reinforcements and relief regiments if required. This was crucial: because of the nature of Athlone’s geography and the nearby support offered by St Ruth, the Williamites would not be able to starve Athlone into submission.
Ginkel and the Williamites were outside the eastern walls of Athlone on the 18th of June. It might serve to remind readers about the defensive strengths of Athlone, to better understand all that followed: the town straddled the Shannon, with a single stone bridge manning the waterway between east and west. Both sides of Athlone were protected with walls of substantial thickness, reinforced by earthen ramparts that had been thrown up in the meantime, though the banks of the river were crucially deficient in this aspect. Athlone’s make-up meant that any attack was bound to be costly, as the entire eastern side could be fought over and taken without a crossing over the Shannon being accomplished.
Unlike the previous year, when the garrison commander had burned the eastern side and focused entirely upon defending the west, St Ruth ordered that both sides of the town be defended this time. The reasoning was sound enough: with more soldiers available for Athlone’s defence this time, it was possible to make the Williamites fight for a larger proportion of the town, and even if they were able to break in and seize the eastern side, it would be possible to effect a retreat over the bridge and into the western side, wherein the fighting could begin again. St Ruth, while attracting an aura of vanity and pompousness from some Irish chroniclers, was not a fool, and preparations were made to cast sections of the bridge down if they had to be. His nearby presence had another, more crucial effect, as it prevented any scheme that Ginkel may have had of erecting a pontoon bridge to get his army over the Shannon and bypass Athlone completely: any attempt to have done so would have made the Williamites sitting ducks for a nearby Jacobite army.
Knowing that he could not wait, or attempt to starve Athlone out, Ginkel set to work as fast as he could, digging siege lines and preparing artillery batteries for his substantial number of guns. Time was precious: there was little forage in the surrounding countryside to keep his army fed, and the longer they remained in place the higher the likelihood of disease striking. If Athlone could not be taken quickly, then the entire affair could rapidly turn into a repeat of the Schomburg’s disastrous campaign earlier in the war. To that end, even if Athlone had to be levelled to the ground, Ginkel was committed to taking it quickly.
The eastern walls were manned by Jacobites, but they could do little but await the storm. Ginkel’s bombardment was extremely heavy once his guns were in place, with the walls and the buildings behind having already suffered during the earlier siege. Now they got battered again and were quickly cast down in many places, the old stone unable to withstand the might of modern cannon.
Ginkel was in a rush, and allowed an attack on the walls within just a couple of days. The sources little note this fight, with Ginkel attacking the crumbling defences at the widest breach created, with an overwhelming show of force. The officer leading the forlorn hope – somewhat ironically, a Frenchman – was killed, but the men he commanded charged up after him.
The few companies of Jacobite foot within the walls fought for a time, inflicting enough casualties to give Ginkel pause later, but were unable to defend the already largely ruined eastern side. They soon retreated back over the bridge and into the western half of Athlone, English sources claiming that some were killed in the resulting crush. The chosen arch of the bridge was cast down after them, cutting the Williamites off, Ginkel’s troops being nowhere near fast enough to effect a daring seizure of the crossing before it could be damaged. Other breach assaults in the war were far more hazardous to the attackers, but at Athlone the opposite was the case. The breach, assaulted with numerous troops, wide enough that it could not be used to effect a narrow defence, and with defenders who had a strong fallback position to run to, was a perfect target for a strong attack. But while taking it was a boon to the Williamites, it still didn’t get them what they really wanted.
Ginkel dug trenches on his side of the bridge to ward off any attempted recapture and took occupation of the eastern side of Athlone, though it was hardly much of a prize. Half the job was done, but taking the other half would be far more difficult. The river was seemingly impassable, the bridge was seemingly unusable, the enemy could be easily reinforced and Ginkel had already taken casualties. But the Williamite commander was not to be deterred, and soon resupplied himself with even more guns, set up his batteries with the aim of bombarding the rest of Athlone and its Jacobite defenders into submission. The resulting fight would be one of the most vicious and bloody of the war.
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