Ireland’s Wars: Aughrim

With Athlone’s fall, a major set-piece confrontation between the Jacobite and Williamite armies became inevitable. Ginkel’s multi-national force securing of Athlone and its defences gave them that vital bridgehead into Connacht, and they were soon marching out to seek that engagement, 20’000 men bent on ending what they saw as a rebellion against the newly ordained and rightful Protestant monarch. For St Ruth and his mixed Irish/French force, to run and hide behind the walls of Galway or Limerick would simply delay inevitable defeat. The only way the Jacobite cause would survive the campaigning season and regain the upper hand, would be if a battle could be won.

But it was not as simple as each side simply advancing towards the other and fighting it out. St Ruth was smart enough to know that his infantry were not completely reliable in a set-piece fight, as numerous clashes so far in the war had shown, so he wanted to find the right place to fight his battle. And Ginkel, his supply problems still existent, needed to engage his foe quickly, before his own army fell apart from starvation and disease. So, the nature of the coming battle was essentially set from the start: the Jacobites would be willingly on the defensive, while the Williamites would, by necessity, be on the offensive.

The question then became where the battle would be fought, with St Ruth in the enviable position of having a better chance of choosing the ground. On the approach to Athlone, flatter land than other places, would have been an ill-advised choice, and in the days following the capture of that town, the Jacobites withdrew from the immediate area, as Ginkel spent a few days shoring up its defences, in the event that his army had to retreat rapidly back towards it. Nearby Ballinasloe, around 10 km south-west from Athlone, was also considered as a point to make a stand and tempt Ginkel on, but after briefly occupying it, St Ruth found a different position he wanted to make his own.

That position would be the hills around the small Galway village of Aughrim, a minor settlement of no fame or notoriety up to that point, lying near the road to Limerick. Withdrawing from Ballinasloe and converging on Aughrim, St Ruth willingly let the larger town fall to the Williamites without a fight, once Ginkel’s army was on the move from Athlone. Aughrim, only a few km’s from Ballinasloe, would be the location for the battle, and there were obvious reasons for this.

Aughrim is dominated, even today, by a large hill to its south, named Kilcommadon. It has steep enough slopes, then dominated by hedgerows and small stone walls, perfect for creating multiple lines of defence. More than that, the foot of the hill was covered in bog and marshland, at its worst and most treacherous to the north, near the village itself, where only a small causeway of land allowed safe passage. Elsewhere, directly in front of the hill and to the south, the bog was less troublesome, but could still provide ample distraction and difficulty for any attacker. A small castle also existed to the north, overlooking the causeway, providing additional defence.

Kilcommadon offered perfect conditions for St Ruth, well advised that his Irish troops would fight better if they had walls to situate themselves behind. He had roughly 20’000 or so soldiers to place around, and relied on a simple enough disposition: massing his infantry in the centre, in skirmish lines at various points on the hill, with cavalry wings to the south and the north, with more cavalry units held behind the lines as a reserve. With more than enough time to place his troops as he pleased, St Ruth was able to make the battlefield one perilous for an attacker, no matter which way he tried to get up the slope. And from there, he awaited the coming of the Williamites.

Athlone had been taken on the last day of June, and Ginkel was on the move again by the 10th of July, leaving a portion of his army behind as a garrison. That made the force he commanded somewhere in the region of 20’000 men, near enough to the Jacobites, with the Irish perhaps having a small advantage in troops (but deficient in so many other ways). Coming near to Ballinasloe, he was satisfied to see the town unguarded, the passage over the River Suck open. St Ruth might have perhaps used this river crossing as a place and means to harass Ginkel, but opted against it, Ballinasloe having nowhere near the defensive properties of Athlone, and the Suck being nowhere near as difficult an obstacle to navigate as the Shannon, it being a tributary of the larger waterway.

Crossing, and leaving more troops behind to act as a baggage protection force, Ginkel came within sight of the Aughrim position, with the last advance coming on the morning of the 12th, a Sunday, with both sides occupying themselves with religious services for much of the early hours, battle imminent.

Ginkel delayed any attack until he had a chance to personally reconnoitre the place St Ruth had chosen to park his army. The option was always open to refuse a battle, to march away and try to get round the Jacobites and change the tempo of the campaign. But that carried risks as well as a perception of cowardice and dishonour: going off-road would be an invitation for the Jacobites to launch an attack in country they were knowledgeable of, and Ginkel’s whole purpose was to defeat St Ruth anyway, not to lead him on a chase through Connacht. So, while he was capable enough to recognise the strength of the position the Jacobites held, Ginkel was satisfied to contemplate an attack.

Where exactly it would be made was a different question. The boggy north looked uninviting and the centre looked steep and well defended. The south, with a more gradual incline, more firm ground and seemingly less defenders than other parts of the field, was much more inviting, and it was there that Ginkel struck his first blow. Between the final march, the preparations and everything else, the opening moves, from the firing of artillery between the two sides to the advance of the Williamites on the southern flank, did not take place until late enough in the day, around 3:00PM.

The resulting fight evolved slowly, running from south to north. Before troops came into contact with each other, opposing artillery were duelling it out, but this was no fight where cannon would prove the decisive factor. Ginkel aimed to attack and turn the Jacobite right flank, weakening the centre, before sending forward a decisive thrust right up the middle with the majority of the soldiers available to him.

But things did not go to plan. Danish dragoons and then native Ulster regiments were sent to attack the south flank, but ran into unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Jacobites there, headed by St Ruth’s second-in-command, General De Tesse. What started as a reinforced probe grew and grew, as both sides moved more units to this section of the fighting. Every time the Williamites made some headway, reinforced Jacobite cavalry threw them back, until there was a maelstrom of fighting, to and fro, neither side initially willing to back down. The Williamites made some small gains of ground, but turned no flanks and made no breakthroughs, getting as good as they gave in terms of casualties.

Ginkel was perturbed by the lack of results from this opening attack, and at a quick council of war between his senior officers, considered his options. With the day wearing on and the light soon to start vanishing, it was initially decided that the attacks would be called off for the day, with a renewed offensive in the morning. But the urgings of General Hugh Mackay, the man who had led the triumphant attack over the Shannon to take Athlone, altered minds. Mackay favoured a renewed assault instantly, with a divisionary attack on the Jacobite left and centre left, followed by a giant infantry-led hammer blow at the centre right. Mackay got his way, and the Williamite infantry, mostly a mixture of Dutch and British, went forward.

Numerous attacks were made on Kilcommadon at this point, it now being past 5:00 PM. But the Irish infantry, better trained over the winter, wanting to wipe out the memory of the Boyne and in excellent defensive ground, did the job St Ruth had asked of them. The Williamites struggled first through the bogland in front of the hill, coming under fire all the time. Getting out of that morass, they then had to attack into the first Irish line. The Irish continually fired from behind hedgerows and walls before retreating back up the hill to the next line of defences, repeating the process as the Williamite regiments pursued. The general structure of the attack was disjointed, with the centre portions moving beyond the advances to the south, buoyed by apparent success that soon turned to disaster.

With muskets and cannon firing amongst them, and having to clear Irish troops by brutal hand-to-hand fighting at moments, the Williamites went up the hill, but in nowhere near enough strength. St Ruth expected them, and as his own soldiers retreated to the pre arranged positions, the gaps opened up and the Jacobite cavalry of the centre swept down.

The exhausted and battered Williamite infantry was swept away, with the Jacobite infantry racing back down the hill in the same moments. All along the south and centre, a gigantic melee erupted between Irish, Danish, Dutch, British and French regiments, infantry and cavalry, with artillery firing all the while. Twice more Williamite infantry advances were attempted, and twice more they were turned back. Losses were heavy for both sides though the Williamite suffered more. The section of the battlefield associated with the heaviest fighting, a growing mass of chaos, has been known as the “Bloody Hollow” ever since, with witnesses reporting the ground to have been made slippery with the blood of fallen soldiers. Here, little quarter was asked for or given, as both sides fought a terrible battle to the death. Ginkel sent more units of infantry into the fray, but could not force the enemy back. Here, perhaps, was the worst fighting of the entire war, and some of the most deadly ever seen in Ireland, before or since.

And it was the Jacobites who were winning, sending the Williamite left and the centre scurrying back, with at least one regiment pushing forward far enough to capture a few pieces of Williamite artillery. Only the Williamite attacks to the centre-right had any kind of staying power. Ginkel had sent forward most of the infantry available to him at this section of the battlefield, and his artillery was of little use really, as the fighting now took place at the bottom of the hill, where cannonballs were as likely to kill his own troops as the enemy. The Williamites couldn’t force the Irish back, the usually unreliable peasant infantry fighting with an unexpected ferocity (one rather pointed comment from a somewhat biased chronicler describes the Irish as fighting “like men of another nation”). Even the most ardently pro-Williamite accounts of the day declare that the Irish were in a prime position to win the battle at this point.

In truth, a total disaster was upon Ginkel. His infantry couldn’t just stay in place and fight themselves to death, and a retreat, almost inevitable it seemed, through the bog and into flat land, could produce a bloody rout if the Jacobite cavalry had anything to say about it. From there could only come a dishonourable and catastrophic retreat to Athlone, and a failure of that campaign. St Ruth, from his position on the top of Kilcommadon, certainly smelled victory, declaring that his soldiers would soon send the enemy running all the way to the gates of Dublin.

In desperation, Ginkel looked to the north, hitherto largely ignored. He hoped that a sudden cavalry attack through the causeway, despite its narrowness, might succeed in demolishing the Jacobite left flank, reliving the pressure of the centre and turning the tide of the battle. But the hope was a thin one: in making the attack, whatever cavalry went forward might only be able to ride two abreast at points, and would come under fire from both the castle and the hill. Moreover, St Ruth had placed some of his own cavalry, under an officer named Henry Luttrell, nearby, to act as a further bulwark against any probe from that direction.

Thus, St Ruth was surprised when he saw the Williamite cavalry, followed by some of the last available units of infantry in support, go forward, asking his subordinates what they could have been doing. When informed that they must be trying an attack, St Ruth expressed admiration for their bravery – and regret at their imminent destruction. Seeing the movement of the horse to their right, the Williamite infantry in the centre rallied once more, and pressed the Irish back to the foot of the hill.

The cavalry charged along the causeway, with fire from the castle and hill inflicting casualties as they went. But three crucial things allowed them to succeed in their mad attack, from where the battle swung decisively against the Jacobites.

The first was that the castle garrison hadn’t been supplied with enough ammunition to make the most effective defence possible, with some sources stating that their reserve ammunition was unsuitable for the guns they were using. This being the case, they soon became incapable of firing at the passing cavalry. In fact, cut off from the rest of the army, they would actually be forced to surrender before too long.

The second was the actions of Luttrell. Now would have been the best moment to launch a counter attack, and drive the forward elements of the Williamite north flank attack back, over the causeway or into the bog. But Luttrell did not attack, instead signalling his unit to retreat west away from the battlefield. Why he did so has never been clearly established, though he may simply have viewed his unit as being too small for the task appointed to it. Suggestions that he may have been in the pay of the Williamites have dogged his reputation ever since, suggestions that received ample fuel due to subsequent developments later in the war, though they were never conclusively proven. Regardless, he took no part in the battle, and there was precious little in the direct path of the Williamites as they moved past the castle. Beyond the hill, there were the reserve units of infantry and cavalry that St Ruth had saved, that could have been called upon for just such a moment, but the call never came.

And that was because of the third event. St Ruth, observing both the progress of the north flank attack and the state of the battle in the centre, had placed himself in an open position without cover. Perhaps on the verge of ordering his reserve cavalry into the fray to save the north, he was struck by artillery fire, decapitated by either a cannonball or chain shot. His body was rapidly covered by his aides and transported to the rear.

The fall of St Ruth at this pivotal moment was where the battle was won and lost, though it did not need to be so. The command of the Jacobites was frozen: nobody stepped up to take over, not De Tesse to the south or Sarsfield, whose exact role that day remains confusing, with sources differing on whether he commanded cavalry on the Jacobite right, commanded cavalry in the reserve that was never called up, or if he had any command at all, having never gotten along very well with St Ruth.  With no one around to direct units or the order of battle – must crucially the commitment of the reserves – the Jacobites began to splinter. Moreover, the fall of St Ruth could not be hidden from the army: rumours and portents fly around battlefields at the speed of sound, and it did not take very long for various Jacobite regiments to become fearful at the sudden absence of their commander and begin to give ground.

What truly settled it was the collapse of the north flank. The Williamite cavalry practically ended up in the Jacobite rear, and soon horses and cavalry from that section were spilling over to the centre of the battlefield, where reinvigorated infantry assaulted fearful and shattered Jacobites once more. Seeing the apparent collapse of their north flank, many of the Jacobites soldiers retreated, in various states of disorder, back up the hill, now with no cavalry to come and save them. To the south, where the Jacobites had remained strong, the situation forced them to fall back too, or be surrounded.

The centre had already been the scene of terrible slaughter, but an ever greater bloodbath now became evident. Growing ever more panicked at the state of things and the lack or orders, Jacobite infantry threw down their weapons and fled, proving easy prey for chasing Williamites, especially the cavalry. The pursuit was deadly, even if it did not reach far beyond the crest of Kilcommadon, which the Williamites soon reached. A vestige of a rearguard action, possibly by Sarsfield-led cavalry, blunted the Williamite assault enough to essentially bring an end to the battle, along with the coming of night and a suddenly falling rain, but the result was beyond doubt. Despite being in a position where they had been literal minutes away from a terrible defeat, the Williamites had turned it around, and smashed the army of St Ruth. Ginkel had won. The Jacobite remnant, in pieces and without firm command, limped away westward. The Williamites paused, to rest and bury the dead.

And the dead were many. The battlefield, especially in the centre, was littered with corpses and the wounded, Jacobite and Williamite mixed in together. The casualties of what became known as the Battle of Aughrim, have always been difficult to determine, due to the tendency of both sides to downplay their dead and exaggerate the fallen of the enemy.

But it was an utterly brutal contest. It’s likely that 2’000 to 3’000 Williamites fell, with many more wounded, entire regiments broken to pieces. For the Jacobites, the cost was far worse: somewhere between 5’000 and 7’000 soldiers were left on the field, with a few thousand more taken prisoner or wounded. The toll then, for the 40’000 or so soldiers engaged, must have been above 25%, a truly gigantic proportion for any moment of history.

And it easily makes Aughrim the bloodiest battle in Irish history, with dead and wounded far behind any fight in any war that occurred before or after. It’s somewhat astonishing to compare Aughrim to events like the Battles of Kinsale, Benburb, Clonmel, Scarrifholis, or even the more widely recognised Boyne. Aughrim outstripped them all. Its likely more men died on that Galway hill in a single afternoon and evening, than fell in the entire Irish revolutionary period of 1916 to 1923.

The effects were immediately apparent. The Jacobite cause was blown to bits at Aughrim. Between dead, wounded, captured and subsequent deserters, it’s fair to say that over half of the standing Jacobite army was eliminated at Aughrim or in the days afterwards. Many of the casualties were officers that could not be easily replaced, and in St Ruth, a seemingly competent, capable general had been lost, in what could, without hyperbole, be described as the most important shot ever fired on Irish soil. The Williamite losses were heavy too, but sustainable. They would press on, and very quickly too. The Jacobites would flee behind walls.

The result is all the more fascinating because it was, plainly put, one of the few battles in the country’s military history that the Irish didn’t really deserve to lose. They had been commanded well and fought well, executing a plan of organised retreat and rapid counter-attack at numerous points. The defences of the entire position had been well organised, and the cavalry performed superbly for most of the day. In contrast, Ginkel was largely unimaginative for much of his attacks, relying too much on an expectation that the Irish Jacobites would just turn and run at the sight of an advancing enemy army. Even his decisive thrust, to the north, had an air of being more of a faint hope of overturning the situation than a genuinely committed flank attack. Then again, one must acknowledge the hardiness of the Williamite soldier, be he Danish, Dutch, French, English or Ulsterman, who advanced again and again against a well entrenched enemy, never broke completely even in dire circumstances, and eventually won the day.

It could have been so different. If St Ruth had lived, even just for another few minutes, the reserve units could have forced the Williamites back in the north, probably precipitating a collapse of the Williamites along the line. That collapse could easily have turned into a bloody rout, with the Williamites taking horrendous casualties. The aftermath would have been severe: Ginkel would have been forced to retreat back to Athlone, and hold it from a Jacobite attack. Who knows if his bruised and under-supplied army could have held out? His own replacement would have been inevitable too, and the entire tempo of the war could have been drastically different beyond that. Victories breed victories in war, and news of a success at Aughrim might have induced more French assistance, even as William would have been forced to divert more troops back to the Irish front. If St Ruth had lived, or if a proper chain of command had been established whereby someone could have taken over quickly, then I deem it likely that the Jacobites would have won the Battle of Aughrim, and much would have been different.

But that is not what happened. St Ruth was cut down, the reserves were never committed and the battle, from a point with Jacobite victory was looking inevitable, was lost. It was the decisive clash of the War of the Two Kings. Now would come the painful aftermath.

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

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Aughrim

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