June 1691: The Williamite army of Godert de Ginkel had taken the eastern half of Athlone, smashing through its outer defences after only a brief bombardment. But the bridge connecting both sides of the town over the Shannon had not be captured intact, and now Ginkel faced the agonising task of somehow getting over the river and capturing the rest of the town, with the Jacobite army of the Marquis of St Ruth camped nearby, ready to stop him.
Ginkel’s one great advantage was in artillery. He had dozens of huge sieges guns, and many smaller pieces, as well as plenty of mortars. These he now set up in the ruins of Athlone’s eastern side, anywhere he could get a bearing on the west, taking up as much high ground as he could. Very quickly, these numerous batteries were laying down a ferocious fire upon Jacobite held Athlone.
One of the first main targets was Athlone’s castle, located just over the river, and within easy reach. The structure was old and not weak in its construction, but could no more withstand the withering fire than the eastern walls of Athlone could. Within a short time, its walls holed in numerous places, the Jacobite garrison abandoned it, before it collapsed entirely. Next, fire was directed on or around a mill, located on the river and next to the ruined bridge, within which a small Jacobite outpost was stationed. It soon took extensive damage, caught fire, and was abandoned, with many men burned alive inside it. Ginkel was eliminating all of the positions of strength that he could, in order to make the eventual attack across the river more likely to succeed.
From there a more general fire was laid down upon Athlone, its walls and its buildings, and such was the volume of cannonballs that much was destroyed in a short amount of time. The majority of the fight now consisted of Williamite artillery levelling whatever was in its path, and Jacobite defenders building them back up again as well as they could, though there was only so much that they could do. The river remained the primary defence, and along the banks of the Shannon in particular, the man-made defences remained rudimentary, now battered beyond recognition. Buildings were fired, workmen died in droves and thanks to a secure supply line going back to Dublin, Ginkel had no immediate fears about running out of ammunition, with large amounts of cannonballs and powder arriving frequently. The bombardment went on and on, with the Jacobite side little able to respond. The nearby army of St Ruth allowed for relief regiments to be sent at intervals, but life in bombarded Athlone remained difficult for those soldiers tasked with its defence. The time of year didn’t help, with the long June days allowing the Williamites plenty of decent firing light.
But it all seemed to be coming to naught. Ginkel’s artillery could reduce Athlone to dust, but it couldn’t get his army what it needed: the broken bridge remained broken and the Williamites remained on the eastern side. And while Ginkel’s could rely on streams of artillery-based supplies coming from Dublin, the same could not be said for foodstuffs, with the local area largely picked clean. The Williamites could ill-afford to spend much longer firing away without success at Athlone which was, of course, exactly what the Jacobites were aiming to cause. They could withstand the explosive assault.
Despairing, Ginkel considered his remaining options. Continuing the bombardment must have seemed largely pointless. Retreat was not to be countenanced, not yet anyway. An assault over the Shannon in boats or over a pontoon bridge was far too risky. An attempt at the fording point at Lanesborough, to the north, was contemplated, but the Jacobites had built up the fortifications there, to the point where any attempted crossing would have likely resulted in a prime opportunity for St Ruth’s nearby army to inflict a disaster.
There remained the bridge, a no man’s land between the two sides, with a broken down arch rendering it useless as it was. But that gap could be bridged itself, with a wooden gallery sufficing to allow enough troops across to secure possession, before more permanent repairs could be done. It was a terribly risky plan, with whoever went forward to affect the gallery open to unceasing fire and attack from the Jacobite side. The bridge was narrow enough, and enfilade fire could be directed upon it from both sides, not to mention from right in front. And, of course, even if a crossing could be made possible, the Williamite army would still have to actually fight their way over, and potentially straight into a messy and up-in-the-air confrontation with the larger Jacobite army.
So the fight over the bridge commenced. Ginkel reordered some of his guns so that they could lay fire directly across the bridge at the walls and breast-works that lay closest to it on the Jacobite side. Engineers and wood workers went forward, inch by inch, repairing lesser damage to the structure as they went and setting up defences, with grenadiers behind continually lumping explosives to the other side. Musketry rang out over the river from both sides, as desperate Williamite works struggled to get close enough to the broken arch, and from there to work up the gallery, which would require heavy wooden beams suitably prepared and constructed, before planks could be laid across.
After several days of brutal back-and-forth fighting, the Williamites caught a break, or so it seemed to them, as the Jacobite breastwork nearest to the arch caught fire, the troops there having to abandon it to the flames. Given a crucial moment of respite from enemy fire, the beams were put into position. Before the operation could be completed though, a sudden Jacobite sally, made by men reported to have been in full armour, came back over the flame-engulfed breast-work, attacking the engineers and their woodwork. Two small waves were sent. Most were killed by cannon fire from the eastern bank, but their sudden appearance put the Williamites to flight, and they were able to destroy the gallery, casting its broken pieces into the river.
The set-back was mortifying for Ginkel, and morale in the Williamite camp, starting to feel the bite of hunger, plummeted. But he still refused to contemplate a retreat. His immediate subordinates were of like mind, believing that to head east now would be to cede all initiative in the war to the Jacobites, and to leave eastern Ireland open to an enemy offensive. But if they were not to retreat, then how were they to gain their objective?
The answer came, according to one source anyway, through the fates of three Danish soldiers of the Williamite army. They had been sentenced to death for unrecorded offences – unauthorised looting, desertion or rapine seems likely – but they managed to buy their lives by agreeing to be part of a risky experiment. Now at the height of summer, the waters of the Shannon were not as high as they usually were, and Ginkel had heard rumours that it could possibly be forded at points it otherwise would not be.
One of those points was just upstream of the bridge the two sides were fighting over. Posing as deserters, and with some Williamite troops firing over their heads to complete the illusion, the three soldiers were tasked with wading into the Shannon and seeing if they could make it to the other side without getting swept away. The Jacobites, falling for the ruse, didn’t fire, deserters often being a key outlet for intelligence on the enemy.
Astonishingly, though it took them a while and the water got very high, they made it across unharmed, proving that, for a time at least, the Shannon could potentially be forded right there at Athlone, without recourse to pontoons. The Danes, having reached the other side, scrambled back, the defenders firing at them having realised the deception, but unable to land a fatal hit.
For Ginkel, this reality of the Shannon was a lifeline, but was still no magic bullet for his problems. Any force of men that crossed the Shannon in the manner required would be slow moving, and easy targets for a committed defence. But with artillery backing them and diversionary assaults elsewhere, it might have a chance of making an impact.
Certainly, the Jacobites do not seem to have made any great preparations for repelling this specific kind of assault, so unlikely was it to be attempted. The local commanders were still confident of their position, to the extent that, despite St Ruth’s requests otherwise, little work was done on opening up the outer defences of western Athlone, in the event that the larger Jacobite army had to move rapidly on the town.
In fact, the Jacobites were entirely unsuspecting of what was about to occur, the higher-ups believing that the battle for Athlone, with Ginkel’s failure to win the bridge, being near to completion. St Ruth was looking forward to the rest of the campaign season, and future moves east of the Shannon, when Ginkel and his army eventually choose to cut their losses and fall back. A certain degree of complacency became evident in the days following the failed bridge assault then, as some troops were withdrawn from Athlone entirely. They may well have been encouraged by the sight of the Williamite siege guns being removed from their positions and sent away, Ginkel happy to let the Jacobites believe that his whole army would pack up shortly.
Instead, he was planning three very pivotal points of attack. A unit of infantry, heavily armoured and supported by a sudden bombardment of artillery, would ford the river just upstream of the bridge, head through one of the holes blasted in the riverside’s rudimentary defences and then swing towards the bridge. At the same time, another infantry attack would be pressed on the bridge itself, while further to the south, a divisionary pontoon bridge crossing would also be out in place, though with little expectation of success. Attacking late in the evening, Ginkel hoped that the Jacobites would be unable to respond in time, his larger army ready to speed across the bridge once it was secured and the fallen arch given the rudimentary repair job required.
On the 30th of June, around 12 or so days after the beginning of the siege, Ginkel put his plan into action. The timing was fortuitous, with St Ruth spending the evening at an arranged party, he and his officers very distracted by non-military matters. With the backing of a sudden and unexpected firing of what artillery remained, the three branches of the Williamite assault moved out.
Roughly 60 soldiers, all in heavy armour, waded into the Shannon, which remarkably may have only been thigh deep. The Jacobite defenders responded as best that they could to the sudden attack, firing down at the crossing soldiers while also reacting to the other attacks, but they had been badly caught out at that moment, with not enough men in the immediate vicinity of the outer defences to stop what was about to happen.
The Williamites fought through the fire and made it to the opposite bank, slipping through one of the numerous breaches and into Athlone proper, fighting off what few Jacobites were there to impede them. Having made their initial objective, they sped down the course of the riverside to the bridge, scattering its few defenders and allowing the rapid work of laying down the planks to go on unmolested.
The basic structure was in place and secured within just a few minutes, long before the stunned Jacobites were able to organise a counter-response. The ready troops stormed across the bridge, over the planks and into the rest of Athlone. A messy but limited street fight erupted. This side of Athlone had been largely ruined by the week of bombardment beforehand, many buildings destroyed and the streets filled with rubble and debris. With stunned Jacobites both running for their lives and trying to rally in different measures, the confusion would have been immense, but there was only one possible outcome. The few regiments of foot that St Ruth had left there that evening would not have sufficed to keep the Williamites at bay, let alone forced them back over the river. Leaving behind a unit of infantry surrounded in the remains of the castle, the rest of the Jacobites took flight and scattered out of the town, heading in the general direction of the Jacobite army. Athlone had fallen.
The taking of the town itself was surprisingly bloodless. The Williamites suffered only a few casualties in the effort, and most of the Jacobite defenders there that day were able to escape with their lives. Those trapped in the castle were allowed to surrender, and even Irish chronicles note the mercy of Ginkel’s advancing soldiers. Athlone had been a vicious and costly fight at times, but a wholesale bloodletting was avoided with its capture.
When St Ruth heard the news, he was stunned and disbelieving, only acting when the vanguard of the retreating garrison began to turn up at his army camp. Some elements of that army now got their act together to march towards Athlone, but it was far too late for them to be very effective, aside from deterring any pursuing Williamites seeking to make mincemeat of the retreating infantry. If the outer defences of Athlone had been opened up, and if St Ruth could have acted quicker, it is possible that he may have been able to re-take Athlone, or at least have made the Williamites pay a bigger cost for its capture. But the chance was lost, and soon St Ruth was turning away.
The loss of Athlone cannot be underestimated in terms of being a truly catastrophic moment for the Jacobite movement in Ireland. In a stroke, Ginkel pierced the Shannon defensive line, moving past one of the few truly decisive advantages that the Jacobites held, and doing it without having to lose many men in the process. Athlone as it was should have been more easily defendable, but due to a variety of factors, not least the underestimation of Williamite chances by St Ruth, the town had fallen to the advancing enemy. In terms of Ginkel’s military legacy, the capture of Athlone must surely rate highly, though a more glorious moment for him was yet to come.
Jacobite options now narrowed severely. Ginkel wanted the war over and done with, which meant fighting and destroying the Jacobite army. St Ruth could either hide behind walls or risk a field engagement. The decision was not long in coming.
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