The last act in the War of the Two Kings was about to begin. The army of Godert de Ginkel made its final approach on the last enemy stronghold of significance, while the Jacobite defenders of Limerick made their last preparations before the fighting began in earnest. For the Williamites, the goal was simply to take the city, neutralise its garrison and bring the war to an end. For the Jacobites, the goal was to hold out until the coming bad weather made the siege untenable, and then to reassess the situation, possibly with French reinforcements to swing the scales back towards their favour.
And the possibility of the Jacobites actually making it that far was not unlikely. The defences of Limerick had actually been improved significantly since the previous year’s assault, one of the only places in Jacobite territory to have received upgrades to its bulwarks and walls, thanks in no small part to French engineers. The breach that the Williamites had created in 1690, then failed to take, had been fully repaired. Earthen embankments had been piled up next to the walls, to limit the damage that cannon could do to them. Forts outside the walls had been upgraded, and connected with trenches, some of them first built during the Parliamentarian effort to take the city decades before. The city had stockpiled an adequate amount of supplies that starvation would not be an issue in the medium term. The garrison, while in many respects under-trained and poorly equipped, was sizable enough that no part of the city’s defences was under-manned or ignored. Additionally, cavalry units were kept on hand over the River Shannon in County Clare, to be called upon if needed.
Added onto that were the defensive properties that we have already covered in previous entries, but which might bare a little going over: Next to an awkward bend of the Shannon and straddling the Abbey River, with “English Town” or King’s Island to the North and “Irish Town” to the south, Limerick had thick walls, a sizable internal fortification in the form of King’s John’s Castle and a location that made encircling the entire city a very difficult thing to accomplish. In sum, Limerick was an ever harder position than it had been the previous year, despite the many military setbacks that the Jacobites had suffered in the intervening time.
Its command was a bit more complicated. Tyrconnel had left several Chief Justice’s to act in his stead after his death, but in military terms the French remained, nominally at least, in charge, with officers like the Marquis d’Usson among their highest ranked. However, their enthusiasm for the fight was rather suspect, and as things continued, it would be Irish officers, like Patrick Sarsfield, making more and more command decisions. The relationship between these two groups was already difficult though, not least due to a difference in how to approach the fighting. Some wanted to fight on till the end. Others wanted to negotiate a settlement then and there. For the meantime, there was enough of an agreement to defend Limerick militarily, but to what extent remained up in the air. What occurred between the opening of the siege and its end was a defence that was largely reactive rather than proactive, and the narration that follows reflects that, as events were dominated by what the Williamites were doing, be they failures or a successes.
Troubling for the Williamites was the state of their own forces. While the Williamite army remained, man for man, superior to their equivalents fighting for King James, they were numerically inferior to the army that had tried and failed to take Limerick in 1690. They had been marching and fighting for some time now, the campaign having been opened several months ago, so fatigue was starting to become a factor. And with the campaigning season inevitably coming to an end soon, as the weather began to worsen, they had a very clear time limit to their activities.
In terms of supplies, Ginkel at least had less to worry about. The march south, crossing the Shannon at Banagher and taking a lengthy route through Offaly and Tipperary, had been required so that a supply train from the east could be more firmly established. The Williamites, at least, would not starve to death themselves. A delay did have to be borne for that though, which was added to by the need to arrange for the transportation and guarding of siege guns, Ginkel unwilling to risk a repeat of the Ballyneety raid.
Artillery remained one thing that the Williamites had an unquestionable advantage in, but it remained to be seen if that kind of firepower would be enough to take the city. Ginkel approached through County Limerick, content to take on the city from the south-east. An approach from both sides of the River might have been possible, but would have meant splitting his already reduced army in two and leaving one half to march through enemy held territory in County Clare, potentially easy prey for Jacobite cavalry ambushes. With an English fleet having parked in the Shannon estuary to aid in the effort, blockading that route and offering supplies, Ginkel did not have to worry too much about any imminently arriving French reinforcements.
The early plan to take the city then involved probing its defences for weak points, initiating a bombardment of the city itself and possibly making arrangements to cross the River and began a blockade from both sides. But there were other matters to attend to first.
The 1691 siege is held to have begun on the 25th of August, when Ginkel’s army encamped outside the walls. The first goal was to clear the way to the city itself, with the outlying forts a serious problem. But, to the surprise of the Williamites, both Cromwell and Ireton Forts fell remarkably quickly after early assaults, the defenders offering only slight resistance before retreating back inside Limerick proper. Whether it was a calculated move or a lack of will in the soldiers assigned the job, the Williamites gladly took this early bit of luck, before settling in to the monotony of siege work: digging trenches, finding suitable ground for artillery batteries and wondering how much it was going to take for the city to capitulate.
The weather had already begun to turn by this time, Ireland never being too famous for its summers, and it took time and much effort for suitable ground to be discovered for the artillery to be effective, which mostly arrived a week after the rest of the army. Too soft or muddy, and the guns couldn’t be moved or set up properly. In the early stages of the siege, such as it was, only limited amounts of firing were possible, the opening bombardment directed mostly at Irish Town.
It didn’t take Ginkel long to realise that this wasn’t working. His opening moves had been directed at the south of the city, where the breach had been made the previous year, but this wasn’t having the desired effect. Better ground and better targets would be available if a switch was made to English Town, and so Ginkel went about moving his artillery in early September, situating it as close to the river on the southern side as he could, so that a clear shot could be found at places like Thomond Bridge and King John’s Castle, a citadel that could prove a formidable obstacle in any assault on the city.
In the end, the targeting of these two points achieved little. With more artillery arriving by the day and more effective batteries being set-up, the Williamites were soon able to send a more steady fire onto the city. The bombardment would never be as intense or devastating as that which had wrecked a large part of Athlone a few months previously, but still did a great deal of damage in the city of Limerick, civilians and soldiers scurrying to avoid mortars and cannonballs. The Jacobites were not totally impotent in this regards themselves, and fired back with their defensive guns as best they could, but they would never be able to match the amount of fire coming at them from outside the walls. But with the improvement in the defences, it didn’t really matter.
Ginkel soon switched targets again, setting up new batteries to the east of the city. Eventually focusing fire on a selected portion of the walls, Ginkel’s artillery was able to create a breach, in a section that covered present day Island Road, which eventually was grown to quite a large size, maybe 40 feet across. The masonry, while thick and high, remained relatively ancient in comparison to the guns firing at it. Such a wide breach would have proved a tempting target for any commander, but there was a very significant problem: the Abbey River, which separated the Williamites from the breach.
Ginkel had chosen that point because intelligence had informed him the wall was weaker there, and it was, but the water defences would still have to be navigated. The Abbey was neither large nor wide, but it was still in the way. With the breach now made, Ginkel hesitated. Boats could be acquired that could ferry troops across for an assault, but this added an additional layer of danger and complexity to an already perilous task, a task that the Williamite army had failed to accomplish the previous year, something the common Williamite soldier must have been all too aware of. A Jacobite sally around that time destroyed a few boats, creating further doubts.
In truth, the Williamite options were painfully limited, and more than one subordinate suggested that the siege should be called off altogether. A direct assault at the city had a high chance of failure with bad casualties being incurred. Instead, the Williamites could withdraw into winter quarters, and use the time to devastate areas like Clare, Kerry and County Limerick, places that the Jacobites were reliant on for foodstuffs and additional support. With the navy preventing French reinforcements, the Williamites could return to Limerick in 1692 when the weather was better and the campaign season just beginning, then to starve the garrison into surrendering.
Ginkel, a cautious enough man, must have considered the possibility seriously but eventually discounted it. His army was getting smaller day by day, the war in Europe beckoned, and his orders were to put an end to the conflict in Ireland that year. I’m sure the idea of having to come back to Limerick a third time was also galling. The created breach might not actually be tenable, but additional possibilities to put the squeeze on Limerick still remained to him. And, after all, he might not have to actually assault the city. Morale among the defenders was hardly sky-high, and numerous officers were already seeking a way out of a lost cause.
Ginkel decided that, if the siege was to have any chance of success going forward, then it would have to be enacted from both sides of the river, not just the south. If Williamite soldiers could be placed to the north, they could bar the way to Limerick from that direction, spread the garrison out even more and potentially force the defenders to consider terms before they were cut off completely. And, if nothing else, a successful crossing would also allow him to begin an offensive in Clare from that direction, if it came to it.
Crossing the river was no easy task though. It was wide and deep all around that area, and bent around Limerick so that the city’s garrison could keep a close eye on any attempt to ford it. Further, the cavalry units on the north side were bound to interfere with any crossing attempt. If it was to be done successfully, a hard and easily defended beachhead would have to be established quickly.
The plan went ahead on the night of the 15th of September. Despite nearby Jacobite cavalry being alerted to the danger, the crossing was made without any resistance, a crucial failure of the Jacobite military machine, which allowed a few hundred engineers and a hundred grenadiers to secure a pontoon bridge over the river, and a landing zone that could then be easily defended. Accusations of incompetence and treachery abound, but the most important thing was that the Williamites were over the river, the opportunity missed to inflict a potentially fatal blow to their plans.
With this success, Ginkel pressed ahead with the new plan, to cross the Shannon in force, swing around the bend, and approach Limerick from the western side, where Thomond Bridge provided its main line of communication with Clare. Ginkel devoted a huge portion of his remaining army, ten regiments, most of the cavalry and his own personal command, to the operation, though he made sure to strengthen his own siege lines to the south, lest an attempted Jacobite breakout hit him while he was occupied elsewhere. It was still a big gamble, but the potential rewards were great. Up to that point, the siege had been a problematic affair, with Ginkel’s indecision and constant changing of targets evidence of a man who was unsure whether the entire campaign had any realistic goal. Now, Ginkel smelled an opportunity to actually win the fight outright. After preparing for a week, and having a summons ignored, Ginkel moved off on the 22nd of September, crossing the Shannon at a point further downstream, where the pontoon bridge had been moved.
With the other bank secure and the Jacobites unwilling to try an assault, the Williamites got over the river without too much trouble, before beginning their march, easing around the bend and then turning south, heading straight for Thomond Bridge.
It was there that a Colonel Stapleton commanded a brief resistance, in charge of a small Irish force and a few rudimentary defences. What his goal was is not exactly clear, but it is likely that he intended to offer only a brief impediment to the advancing enemy, a skirmish line to inflict a few casualties and then retreat. But the Williamites, perhaps happy to have a more conventional fight, came on stronger than expected, and soon the Irish soldiers were running pell-mell back to the safety of the walls.
The Williamite cavalry, released from the main force, was right behind them. And there, with both armies converging on the bridge, was where perhaps the most controversial incident of the war, in Jacobite terms, occurred. A French major raised the drawbridge upon seeing the flight, convinced that the Williamites were too close, and that they would enter and take the city if the way was left open for the retreating Jacobites.
The action resulted in a slaughter on the bridge, as the Irish, trapped, had nowhere to go. Some were killed by the oncoming Williamites. Some were crushed under the feet of their fellow soldiers in the panic that followed. Some, voluntarily or not, went into the river, and drowned. Some, the very lucky, were taken prisoner or somehow managed to escape. The actual death toll of Thomond Bridge is very much in dispute – one Jacobite source claims just 80 or so men died there, others say 800 – but the numbers must have been high enough, enough to justify what followed. With this action, the Williamites completed a ring around Limerick, but they had won nothing yet really.
The Jacobites still held Limerick, but were now surrounded on all sides, cut off from their Clare based forces. Morale had been low enough already, because of the many defeats, lack of offensive action or proactive command and superiority of the enemy. They still had the defences of Limerick, but the will to hold them was fading away. The relationship between Irish and French officers within the city had grown rancorous, and the incident at Thomond Bridge proved a final straw.
Outside, Ginkel waited, his gamble paying off despite his numerous disadvantages. The end was coming.
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