presented to the New York Military Affairs Symposium
June 11, 2004
The CUNY Graduate Center
|Again, I should like to thank NYMAS for giving me the opportunity to present this discussion on their site. Like many people I have often heard references to the Battle of the Boyne throughout English and Irish History. It wasnít until a few years ago that I became really interested in the subject and began to do some research on it. It was then that I realized what a milestone the Boyne is in modern Irish History. Yet, how much do we actually know about it, not to mention the military aspects which have remained an obscure topic for many years. To this day in Ireland you will find passionate views toward it in both North and South of the country. The battle has been viewed in radically different terms depending on political agendas, and has much folklore associated with it. While the policies surrounding this event are complex, and can only be touched upon here, the actual details of the battle itself have remained little known even to this day. |
It shall be my intent in the next little while to explore the military aspects of the Boyne campaign of 1689-90 and examine how the battle was conducted, by whom, and why? In order to better understand the event we shall need to pay some attention to the realm of international politics at that time, which had a great influence on the battle. Few realize what a truly dynastic struggle the Boyne actually was, with the contending parties of William III and James II fighting for an English crown in Ireland. The extent of foreign involvement on both sides was significant. Many would be surprised to know that William of Orange actually counted among his numerous allies no other than the Pope himself who was against the policies of Louis XIV toward the church in France.
In fact we should not divorce the Boyne from the numerous wars of the Great Sun King of France, to which it was directly related. I hope to show what a truly international event this was, with Irish and English fighting on both sides, French, Danes, Dutch, and French-Huguenots taking part. Indeed, to view it as simply an Anglo/Irish affair is to take a simplistic outlook.
The battle has fascination as well as it illustrates the changing tactics and military technology of the period. The transition from the matchlock musket and pike to the early flintlock, as well as the bayonet would have profound influences in the wars of the late 17th and coming 18th century. The Boyne is therefor particularly interesting because it highlights all of these events, and this is what I wish to place special emphasis on.
Few battles have also had so profound an influence on a nationís history. While certainly not a great battle as compared to the numerous contests occurring on the European continent during these years, the Boyne can justly take its place in history because of the dramatic way it changed Ireland.Our story begins in England with the advent of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. We shall take a moment to examine some of the key players who were involved in this event, and the subsequent ones in Ireland. First it shall be necessary to clarify several terms which shall have frequent reference during the course of this discussion.
The conflict is also known by a number of different titles, all used commonly.
Julian vs Gregorian calendars - there is a difference of opinion as to when the battle was actually fought. Julian calendar has the date July 1, 1690. Gregorian has it 12 days later. I shall use the contemporary Julian dates for this lecture. It is interesting to note that the Orange Parades in Ireland today use the Gregorian date of July 12th to celebrate Williamís victory at the Boyne. This date actually corresponds to the date of the battle of Aughrim a year later, which was a far more decisive victory for the Williamite cause, but which is not widely known in Ireland today.
Now let us look at some of the principal players in involved in this drama:
James II - Duke of York, 2nd son of Charles I, brother to Charles II. His catholic leanings become obvious in the 1670s. Upon becoming King in 1685 he is faced with the Protestant Duke of Monmouth rebellion which he brutally suppresses at the battle of Sedgemoor. He becomes widely unpopular in England afterwards. He has some military experience from the continent, and served as Lord High Admiral in the Royal Navy where he has seen some action. His pro-catholic stance gains increasing enemies in parliament where there are attempts to shut him out of the succession, but Charles II decides not to do this. Jameís appointment of Lord Tyconnell in Ireland, a strong catholic supporter, is seen as evidence of his Popish leanings. Alliances with Louis XIV are not popular either. He is anti-parliament and autocratic, but whether he would have become oppressive in his Catholicism is not clear. It is doubtful that he would have become another Bloody Mary, so feared in English history, but just the hint of a possibility is enough to galvanize the English parliament into action. James unpopularity with that body will soon have them openly searching for a suitable candidate to replace him. Their choice will fall upon William of Orange, brother-in-law of James through his marriage to Mary, his sister. (James, Duke of York portrait from National Maritime Museum site Repro ID BHC2797© NMM London, Greenwich Hospital Collection at http://www.nmm.ac.uk/site/)
Richard Talbot, Duke of Tyconnell - is a key player in the coming Irish war. Appointed Lord Lieut. of Ireland in 1686 he begins the process of regaining Irish lands for catholic nobility who were disenfranchised by the Cromwellís colonization decades before. The Irish people will become mixed up in tug of war between the emerging Protestant nobility, and the old catholic gentry who are desirous to regain their lands. Either way, the Irish people stand to lose and will be forced to chose sides in a purely dynastic war.
William III - William is Stadtholder of the United Provinces in the Netherlands. He has a direct link to the English crown through Mary, James II ardently Protestant daughter. He has more command experience than James, but is no great general himself. He has been worsted in a series of battles against Louis XIVís generals in the Low Countries all through this period. His courage was more often admired than his conduct of these battles. But he is persistent, and always returns to the fight. He saves the Netherlands once by flooding the dikes and preventing the French from overrunning the Provinces. He is most adept at forming foreign alliances against Louis XIV. He allies with The Holy Roman Emperor of Hapsburg Austria, as well as the Elector of Brandenburg, and Christian V of Denmark. He even counts among his allies none other than the Pope of Rome who is against Louis XIVís nonchalant attitude toward the church in France. The Pope was also against the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, providing for protection of Franceís Protestants. This Edict dated back to Henry IV, which the Pope considered a moderating act. To remove it is provocative and unnecessary . In essence no one wanted to unleash the possibility of religious fanaticism again which had been part of the 30 Years War nearly half a century before. William is able to use Louisís heavy-handed policy in his favor, so that when offered the English crown by parliament, he accepts it eagerly, feeling confident that the English people will welcome him, and not mind the fact that he intends to drag them into his alliance against France. Through Mary, William will become de-facto ruler of England. (William III portrait from the Portuguese Culture website at www.malhatlantica.pt/ mediateca/politica1600.htm)
With James increasing unpopularity parliament decides to offer the crown to William and Mary which sees in England a relatively bloodless removal of James II. This is the famed Glorious Revolution in English History. There are also fears that with James having sired a recent male heir, parliament is afraid of being stuck with another catholic claimant to the crown. Better to act now and remove James quickly by bringing William over. To wait any longer seems folly. William manages an easy accession to the English crown. The Dutch have skillfully organized this operation, their masterly use of combined naval and land operations to move quickly on England surprises everyone and gives William a great advantage. Such is Williamís popularity once he lands in England with an army of Dutch troops that even the future John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough throws his support behind him. Though Williamís takeover is quick and bloodless in England, we shall see that in Scotland and Ireland this will not be so.
James II flees to France where he hopes to get support of Louis XIV to regain his crown. Louis is willing as he does not want William as King of England. But he is willing to do so only on limited terms. The Irish war will become a dynastic struggle involving two rival factions for the English crown. Ireland is merely a stepping stone for these two rival claimants. James never sees either Scotland or Ireland as anything more. It is surprising that Louis did not take more pre-emptive steps to prevent William from crossing the Channel. A French move on the Lowlands would almost certainly have ended Williamís venture and sent him scurrying back to the Netherlands. Instead, Louis embarks on a campaign in the Rhine , and misses the opportunity.
Killiekrankie - 27th July 1689 - Williamís progress in England to gain the crown is relatively easy, but it is in Scotland that the first major resistance occurs. James II is strongly supported in Scotland by John of Cleverhouse (the famed Bonnie Dundee) and the Highland Clans who raise the standard and manage to defeat a Williamite army at the battle of Killiekrankie. The ferocious Highland Charge with broadswords wins the day. Interesting to note as the plug-bayonet prevents the Williamite troops from maintaining their fire against the Highlanders. The Highlanders catch the Williamites just as they attempt to fix these devices on their muskets. The Plug-bayonet will play a role in the Boyne battle as well. One of the few Williamite troops who stand at the battle are the 25th Foot, Kings Own Scottish Borderers. This was a regiment that was raised in Edinburgh in 1689 by the beat of drum to support the Williamite cause and recruited a thousand men in a single day. We see here an example of Irish and Scots fighting on both sides of this dynastic conflict. The Death of Bonnie Dundee at the moment of his stunning victory effectively ends the Jacobite cause in Scotland. Without his inspired leadership the Highland clans will simply disperse home before James even has time to land in Scotland. Attention will shift to Ireland where the Jacobite cause has more time to grow under Tyconnellís influence.
James lands in Kinsale on 12th March 1689 with French officers and money. He is well received as he moves on toward Dublin. He is the first English monarch to set foot in Ireland since Richard II 300 some years before.
William sends Richard Hamilton to negotiate with Tyconnell. Hamilton is an ardent Catholic, but William pardons him in hopes of preventing conflict in Ireland. William wants to avoid an Irish campaign as much as possible, so that he can concentrate his new enhanced resources against Louis XIV. Upon his arrival at Dublin Hamilton urges Tyconnell to support James II and is given generalship in the forming Jacobite army. This is an example of how loyalties switch in this period. Soldiers saw their allegiance to a monarch, not a country. Williamís ploy has failed, he must fight now in Ireland.
James II rapidly forms a Jacobite army from loyal Catholic nobility and their estates. He occupies Dublin and moves North to secure Ulster.
Siege of Derry - The Jacobite Regiment Earl of Antrim attempts to enter Derry. The city fathers refuse its entrance thereby declaring for William. The war in Ireland is on. James sends additional troops under Hamilton and Sarsfield to subdue Derry and Inniskilling. The siege of Derry will last nearly four months and will become part of the Protestant folklore associated with this conflict. The city under the fiery sermons of Rev. George Walker will hold out until relived from sea in a timely fashion by a Williamite force under Percy Kirke. The Ulstermen will gain another significant victory at Newtownbutler where Viscount Mountcashel and his Irish brigade are roughly handled. These successes all contribute to the Protestant Northís mystique of righteous resistance against Popery which carries on to this day.
Campaign of 1689 - Shortly after the relief of Derry William sends the Duke of Schomberg to take command in Ireland with 17 Regiments of Foot and 6 cavalry. He lands at Belfast. These are mostly English and French Huguenot Protestant units. Schomberg is 84 years old, and is chosen to command over the younger Percy Kirke because of his experience. William does not like Kirke because of his ruthless suppression of the Monmouth rebellion under James II four years before. He then promptly switched sides when William landed. William prefers to have his Dutch and European officers in command as he does not trust the English yet. Schomberg had a varied career, first starting out in the Dutch army, before serving in the Elector of Brandenburgsís army, and then served in Louis XIVís army where he actually fought against William in one of the numerous campaigns in the Spanish Netherlands. His career is an example of the professional soldiers of the period who saw their employment toward monarchs as opposed to nations. Switching sides was common and was not looked upon as traitorous if done circumspectly. Even Richard Hamiltonís switch over, while extreme, is not totally out of line for this time. Louis XIVís revocation of the Edict of Nantes chased Schomberg and many other French Huguenots out of France. The policy created many enemies for Louis, while depriving France of many talented subjects. Schomberg brings with him several emigre French Huguenot Regiments to fight for William in Ireland.
James advances north from Dublin to Drogheda, at the mouth of the Boyne, scene of Cromwellís vicious sacking in 1648. James seeks battle with Schomberg north of the city, but the old general declines. He does not believe his army is up to the task at this time. He may be right, but he receives heavy criticism from William for not ending the War in Ireland a year earlier. James might have done better with a battle at this time, since a year later William will have better forces at his disposal against James. One of the many what-ifs of this campaign.
Both sides decide to build their strength for the following year. Schombergís army suffers heavy attrition during the winter season, mostly as a result of political infighting in London which does not provide adequate provisioning for the troops in timely fashion.
Schomberg receives reinforcements of three additional English regiments as well as additional Inniskilling regiments of horse and foot fresh from their victories in the North. These Ulster horse are hard riding and resistant toward discipline. They excel at light cavalry duties, but never get along too well with Schomberg. In time these units will become the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons and the 27th Inniskilling foot in the newly formed and growing British army.
James also receives reinforcements from France. But Louis also wants to from Irish brigade in French service. James switches Mountcashelís five Jacobite regiments for six French regiments under the Duc de Lauzan. James will be criticized for this exchange because the French, for all their reputation in this period will accomplish little in Ireland. This is also seen as an example of pettiness, since Mountcashel and his brigade failed against the Protestants at Newtonbutler, James wants to ride himself of them. The French will accomplish little in Ireland mainly due to the influence of the duc de Lauzan and his officers who are timid court appointees and not real veteran campaigners. Louis may also have instructed Lauzen not to take any undue risks with these troops while in Ireland. We can see the French kingís desire not to press matters too directly to gain Jameís crown back. If Louis had considered the matter more seriously he might have appointed a better general, or sent more troops. Luazan is not only incompetent, but arrogant as well. He almost gets into a dual with the governor of Dublin, and will be disliked by most of the Jacobite generals. Lauzan will also recommend avoiding battle, again perhaps following his kingís instructions, and this faulty council will influence James adversely in the coming months.
During this time William Secures alliance With Christian V of Denmark to send a Danish division under Wurttemberg Neustadt to Ireland. This will prove one of the best equipped Williamite contingents in the army. One can only imagine what the Irish would think of a return of the Danes to their country! Such moves are an example of Williamís skills as a alliance former against Louis XIV. Additional Dutch Troops arrive including the famous Dutch Blue Guards who marched up the Mall in London to secure William on his English throne. Arrival of these well trained and equipped troops begins to switch the qualitative edge of the forces towards the Williamite favor.
James wants to fight at the Boyne, but both Lauzan and Tyconnell advocate falling back into the West of Ireland to fight a more prolonged campaign there. Such a move would force Williams to besiege mant fortified irish towns. This is a conservative strategy which James believes is not in his best interests to pursue. To secure his claim to the English crown he must try and resolve matters quickly. This is why he wishes to stand and fight at the Boyne. He is perhaps right to consider a bolder course, but unfortunately this kind of resolve fails him at the actual battle.
Campaign of 1690 - William lands in Ireland to assume overall command over Schomberg who he dislikes for perceived failing to defeat James the previous year. William has gathered an army of 36,000 to march south against Jameís 26,000 near the Boyne. The size of the armies vary in different accounts, but there can be little doubt that these two armies are the largest that have ever campaigned in Ireland.
Jameís position north of the Boyne is considered exposed and he withdraws behind the River with his flank secured on the right with Drogheda, his center at the village of Oldbridge, and his left on the marshes of Rosnaree. It is a fairly strong position, but extended, and despite James feeling that it is the best to be had north of Dublin, it is really no better than any other position that could have been chosen elsewhere. Other battles of the period show that rivers often do not favor the defense as much as perceived. At Torrelli de Montgri in 1694 the French easily defeat a Spanish river defense. Marborough will also become most adept at forcing river lines in his later campaigns.
As the Jacobite army withdrawals to take up its position south of the Boyne, a sharpe skirmish is fought at the Moyle Pass. As relayed in Padraig Lanihanís excellent book on the Boyne, the action is a minor Jacobite success as the Williamite advance guard is ambushed by Galmoyís Horse and some collected elite companies from several Jacobite foot regiments. The Williamite infantry initially repulses Galmoyís Horse with a solid volley which knocks over 7 or 8 horses and men including their colonel. The Jacobite Grenadiers advance behind their horse and charge upon the Williamites giving them a volley at point blank range before rushing in upon them. Supported by the rallied Galmoyís Horse, the Willimaite advance guard comprised of 200 English infantry is defeated and thrown back with a loss of 26 men. The Skirmish boosts Jacobite morale and convinces James that he should offer battle on the far side of the Boyne. Some believe James should have fought instead at the Moyle Pass where rugged terrain would have been in his favor and more of an advantage than the Boyne position. Bonnie Dundee won KIlliekrankie fighting in such terrain. But the Jacobites are fearful of a possible Williamite flanking movement to the West that might turn them out of the pass and pin them against the coastline.
This small encounter also illustrates the fine cooperation that was possible between small numbers of elite horse and foot. Such coordination was often not possible on a larger scale. If one seeks tactical innovation in the warfare of this period, it is the small petite actions that should be examined. As we shall see, the limited command control of the larger armies often prevented much flexibility.
Composition of armies - The Williamite army is larger and contains more professional troops. William counts mostly on his foreign troops. He will employ the English contingent marginally in the coming battle. The Danish Division is also professional and will be used as well. The Williamites have more cavalry and artillery. They are also better armed with the newer Snaphance muskets which are the proto-type of the early flintlock musket. Only the Huguenot contingent and some English regiments have the older Matchlock musket/Pike combination, so typical of 17th Century warfare.
In contrast the Jacobite army is largely raw levies armed with pikes and Matchlock Muskets. Some good regiments are present, such as the Royal Regiment of Guards, the Grand Priors Regiment and Antrimís foot but most are still armed with older Matchlock Muskets which provide for slower rate of fire. The Jacobite cavalry is by far the best element, comprised of Catholic gentry who are eager to support James and have everything to gain or lose in this conflict. They will give the best account of themselves.
Transitional Period of Warfare - The 1690s was a changing period of warfare. Most infantry that were still armed with matchlocks and pikes were deployed in 6 rank lines. This was very much how troops had fought in the 30 Years War and English Civil War a half century earlier. Some tactical innovations were taking place, most notably with the increase in the ratio between musketeers and pikes in most battalions of the period. This often saw the pikes deployed in the middle ranks of the battalion or to the flanks in order to support against cavalry. The advent of the new flintlock musket and bayonet would begin to change things drastically. Even with the plug bayonet the matchlock musket needed the support of the pike more often than not. The flintlock musket and socket bayonet meant that the battalion could do away with pikes all together, increase its firepower, and still have adequate means of defense against cavalry. What makes the Boyne such an interesting battle is that all the armies of the period were in different stages of this development. The transition from pike/ matchlock to flintlock/bayonet was an ongoing process, and was far from complete in most armies of the period.
Matchlock vs. Flintlock:
The matchlock musket was a complex and cumbersome affair. Even in skilled hands its rate of mis-fire was likely to be as high as 50%. The musketeer was required to keep a match or cord lighted as a slow burning fuse. This smoldering fuse was inserted into the cock or aperture of the upper portion of the weapon. Once the trigger was pulled the lighted match was brought down on the pan which contained the priming powder. On being ignited, the flash from the pan passed through a small hole directly into the barrel of the weapon where the charge lay. Musketeers wore a bandoleer of a dozen flasks of fine grained priming powder that hung from a belt that was worn over the left shoulder. They also carried a bullet bag, additional priming powder and a spare unlit match. The wooden flasks contained the main charge of powder that was poured down the barrel with the ball. The matchlock was lucky to get off one shot a minute, with any wind, rain or mist playing havoc with the entire mechanism. The desire to increase firepower toward the end of the century resulted in the gradual elongation of the infantry formations, with the flanks becoming more vulnerable as a result. The number of pikemen was also reduced. The pike was a lance 16 feet or so in length, which when jammed into the ground and tilted forward acted as an effective defense against cavalry. The plug bayonet was intended to replace the pike, allowing the musketeer to provide his own defense. We have seen however that this was by no means perfect, since the plug-bayonet prevented any use of additional fire-power at close range. The plug bayonet was a simple blade with a handle on the end which was placed into the muzzle of the musket. The alternative was the newer ring or socket bayonet which was just being introduced at the time of the Boyne. The introduction of the newer flintlock musket, which dispensed completely with the crude match and fuse, enabled the musketeer to simply prime his pan without having to apply the fuse to ignite the charge. The flint would do this for him as it was released by the pull of the trigger, producing the flash in the pan that sent the charge directly into the barrel to set off the charge and fire the weapon. The flintlock effectively doubled the rate of fire over the matchlock, was simpler to load, and was somewhat less vulnerable to weather. This new musket would allow for the development of various firing systems such as platoon fire that would greatly influence firepower and warfare in the 18th century.
Both forces encamped opposite each other, with Williamís army taking up position opposite the Boyne on June 29th, 1690.
William observed the Jacobite army across the River. One of his staff dismissively remarks about Jameís "petite army". William responds that the dips and folds in the countryside could conceal more enemy than appears. This shows Williamís limited appreciation for military matters from past experience. He has commanded field armies before, albeit carelessly for the most part, whereas James really has not. William brings forth his Dutch Blue Guards to draw the fire of the Jacobite guns and judge their strength and position. What develops from this is a desultory artillery dual. Gunnery is not very accurate in this period due to lack of elevation devices on the guns that would be added later in the century. Essentially the guns must be reset after every discharge, greatly reducing accuracy and rate of fire. The Dutch Guards are fully exposed for a length of time, and only a handful are hit. The more numerous Williamite artillery damages several houses in the the village of Oldbridge across the river which is the center of the Jacobite line. The Jacobites take several gun losses as well.
William, feeling confident, and wishing to set an example of bravado to the army, decides to take lunch on the banks of the Boyne. There is some debate whether this was actually lunch or just a staff ride to observe the ground. Just as William mentioned before about hidden enemies in the folds of the terrain, so a pair of six pounder guns awaits its opportunity in the hedges of the damaged town. As William prepares to depart the area the Jacobite guns open fire striking several staff members and nicking William with a solid shot on his right shoulder. The Williamite cause is almost finished there and then, but William quickly makes light of the near fatal wound by saying it is nothing. His sang-froid is amazing and he is very fortunate indeed that he escapes with just a grazing wound that will require him to wear a sling on the day of battle.
At the Williamite council of war that evening several options of attack are discussed. Schomberg wants to flank the Jacobite position at Oldbridge. Percy Kirke and English officers agree. Solms-Braunfels and other Dutch officers advocate a frontal attack. To do otherwise they believe is cowardice. Signs of division between the Dutch and English officers are evident, but William takes matters into his own hands and opts for a compromise. He will demonstrate against the Jacobite left at Slane and then attack at Oldbridge when James draws troops away to protect his flank. He decides to send Schombergís son Meinhard to make the turning movement at the ford of Rosnaree. It is a compromise plan and shows Williamís ability to work with rival factions within his own command.
In contrast, James has really no plan but to stand behind the Boyne and await developments. For the most part his troops donít even bother to improve the riverline position with breastworks. To some this is evidence that James did not really intend to fight at the Boyne, and was considering a withdrawal under the advice of some of his generals. Throughout the coming battle Jameís intentions are largely unclear. The same vacillation that lost him his crown just a year earlier seems to have returned where it will deny him his ability to regain it.
Fight at Rosnaree - Meinhard proceeds toward Jacobite left early on the morning of July 1, 1690 (old style) with 3,000 men. He will be reinforced by Douglas with another 4,000 English troops as the battle develops. James has placed no troops in this vicinity, except for a single regiment of Jacobite dragoons under Sir Neil OíNeil who takes it upon himself early that morning to secure the ford against possible Williamite attack. OíNeil is typical of many Jacobite Catholic gentry who support James. He has important lands, is rich in assets, and has raised his regiment at his own expense so fervently does he believe in the Jacobite cause. OíNeil upon discerning Meinhardís approach dismounts his dragoons (this is a period when dragoons still fought dismounted) and directs them open fire on Meinhardís advance guard of grenadiers. Grenadiers were a new type of soldier at this time. Their purpose was to hurl a small grenade against enemy troops in fortified positions. Because the new grenade was so dangerous to the user, the grenadiers were already assuming a role instead as shock troops that would become common for them in the next century. While OíNeilís gallant stand is futile, he forces Meinhard to deploy his men, thus slowing his advance on the ford. Meinhard sends 100 picked grenadiers of the advance guard to clear the ford, they sustain a few casualties as they start to wade across the water Meinhard supports this move with Eppingerís Dragoons and a regiment of Huguenot horse. OíNeil responds by re-mounting his dragoons and charging as the Williamites cross the ford. This is a brave gesture, but weight of numbers ensures the eventual success of Meinhardís progress. OíNeilís Dragoons are forced back, broken, with over 50 casualties and the mortal wounding of their gallent commander. This opening engagement slows Meinhardís advance by an hour.
James notes the movement on his left, and becomes alarmed at the possibility of being turned. In the only major decision he will make during the day, he begins to draw off troops to face Meinhardís perceived threat. Luazanís French Brigade, six guns and other troops under Patrick Sarsfield are rushed toward Rosnaree. Tyconnell and Richard Hamilton are left with 7,500 men at Oldbridge to resist what will be the bulk of Williamís army across the Boyne. Almost by accident William has achieved local superiority at the point of his main attack. It might have worked differently had James not over-reacted to this development. In response to James shifting his main weight to the left, William sends Douglas to reinforce Meinhard for fear that James might overwhelm him. It is a confusing series of opening moves that will see both sides squandering large portions of their armies to no avail. Because the Williamite army is larger the loss of 7,000 men on the flank does not hurt their cause as much as it does the Jacobites.
Initial Oldbridge Assault - At 10:00 AM William orders his first attack across the Boyne. Low tide of the river influences his decision, as to wait longer risks a higher tide making for a more difficult crossing.
At Oldbridge Jacobite Antrim and Earl of Clanricardeís Regiments. are enscounced in the partially ruined town. They have secured a strong tactical position behind the walls and hedges of the town which extends down to the river. Richard Hamiliton has five other Jacobite regiments in support including the Royal Foot Guards and the Grand Priors Regiment along with less reliable levies.
The Jacobite cavalry under Dominic Sheldon are held in reserve on the reverse slops of Donore, behind the main line.
Solms-Braunfels leads 1900 men of the elite Dutch Blue Guards into the Boyne. Their fifes and drums play the derogatory "Lilliebureo" the tune that became popular to mock James II and his Catholic Irish followers. The Dutch Guards march ominously to this music. These were the men that placed William on the throne in London. They are the elite of the army armed with the new Snaphance muskets which give them a higher rate of fire. They are arrayed in ten ranks with the elite grenadiers in the lead as they march in perfect unison into the swift current of the Boyne. At places they are forced to hold their muskets and powder high above their heads because of the riverís swift current.
Tyconnell believes this is the main Williamite attack taking place. Incredibly, he does not send a messenger to inform James of this development who has ridden off to the left in response Meinhardís movement. To support Oldbridge Tyconnell moves the Royal regiment and the Jacobite Foot Guards into the town to swell its defenders to around 2,000.
The Jacobites open fire with ragged volleys as Dutch Blue Guards approach the center of the Boyne. The Jacobite fire is heavy, but largely ineffectual. A few Dutch Guards and an officer are struck down. This shows the overall less effectiveness of the matchlock muskets, as well as the inexperienced troops in James army who until only a few days before had not received adequate training in how to use their cumbersome weapons. The Dutch in contrast hold their fire until reaching the far side of the river.
The Dutch Guards quicken their pace with shouldered muskets as they near the Jacobite side of the Boyne. They halt briefly to deliver a heavy volley at the waters edge, and then rush in with their socket bayonets against the hedges and walls of Oldbridge. This is a standard tactic of the period, to advance, hold your fire until close range, then fire and charge home. Only well trained troops like the Dutch Guards can pull it off effectively. The French advocate very much these kinds of tactics on the Continent.
The Dutch Guards and Jacobite Foot Guards briefly cross bayonets among the ruined edges of town. Major Thomas Arthur commanding the Jacobite Foot Guards seizes a pike from one of his men and rushes forward to plunge it into the chest of the nearest Dutch officer. His men follow him while he is immediately brought down by a Dutch grenadier who discharges his musket at point blank range. This is an example of some of the close quarter fighting which raged in Oldbridge. Such fighting was not common in this period except in built up areas like towns and fortified positions. The Dutch Guards later claim it is one of their harder fights. The Jacobites are nonetheless gradually pushed back allowing the Dutch to form up on the far side of the Boyne in Oldbridge. They lose 120 men securing this foot-hold. The Jacobite infantry, while inferior in training and weapons, attempts several local counter-attacks, each time drawing back after exchanging a few largely ineffective volleys.
Tyconnell on the Hill of Donore above Oldbridge decides to launch the Jacobite cavalry under Sheldon to support the hard pressed defenders of the town.
Sheldon and Duke of Berwick, James II illegitimate son, form up and lead the Jacobite squadrons of the Royal Regiment of Horse, and the Regiments of Hugh Sutherland and John Parker in a series of cavalry charges. Duke of Berwick is only 19, but is one of the best Jacobite officers and shall live to have a distinguished career in the French army. He will fight prominently throughout this battle. These massed cavalry charges strike the Dutch Guards as they are preparing to evict the Jacobites from Oldbridge. They receive the charges in tight formation and fire by platoons which cause great havoc among the Jacobite horse. The Dutch were the first to devise this method of platoon fire which the English will perfect in the wars of Marlborough. The Dutch Guards then form a series of tight squares. Some accounts also have the Dutch using portable abatis, known in the past as Swedish Feathers to repulse the cavalry as well.
William watching from across the Boyne exclaims "oh, my poor Guards! my poor Guards!" But the situation looks worse than it really is, as the Dutch Guards hold firm and repulse attack after attack of Berwickís cavalry. Additional Williamite units are also crossing to support the Dutch Guards, these include the Inniskilling Regiments, the Huguenot Regiments of Callemotte and Cambron as well as several English regiments including Herbertís which will become the future Royal Welch Fusiliers who gain their first battle honor at the Boyne.
To his credit Berwick rallies the gallant Irish cavalry and continues to charge with them. As the additional Williamites cross the Boyne Richard Hamilton tries to prevent their out-flanking Oldbridge and brings forth the remaining Irish levy infantry. Forming after their crossing the English and Huguenot infantry deliver several shattering volleys into the Irish levies, who, having little more than pikes and a few old matchlock muskets quickly fall apart in the ensuing firelight. As they retreat in disorder they take the Antrim Regiment with them further weakening Oldbridge. This is the only significant part of the battle the English contingent will take part in.
Richard Hamiliton, enraged by the faltering Irish levies, finds a squadron of 60 Jacobite horse which he furiously charges into the Williamite mass emerging from the Boyne. They disorder two Dutch line regiments before they are decimated by the enfilading fire of the Dutch Blue Guards near Oldbridge. Richard Hamilton returns with only 12 of the originally 60 men. Still spoiling for a fight, Hamilton, rightly called the Marshall Ney of the Boyne, seizes another squadron and again plunges into the Dutch and Huguenots forcing them almost back into the Boyne. In particular the Huguenot regiments suffer some losses from the Jacobite sabers as they lack plug bayonets for their matchlock muskets and have few pikes to ward off the cavalry. This success, if supported by Jacobite infantry, might have repulsed the Williamite attack, but most of the Irish levies are broken and the best Jacobite infantry are still embroiled with the Dutch Guards in Oldbridge.
In further desperation Tyconnell decides to commit all of Dominic Sheldonís cavalry to throw the Williamites back across the Boyne. Nearly 1,500 Jacobite horse, the best troops in James army, hurl themselves against the rapidly expanding Williamite position in and around Oldbridge. The Duke of Berwick leads them once again. It is a repeat of the early attacks. Some Jacobite horse suffer heavily including Parkerís who lose nearly three quarters of their men. The Jacobite Horse Guards will lose well over a third of their men as they press their attacks home. In the Williamite ranks it is the Inniskilling and Huguenots who suffer again from the Jacobite sword play as they lack the means to defend themselves adequately. But their losses are still slight compared to Jacobite horse who suffer heavily from the Dutch platoon fire. The Commander of the Huguenot Cambron Regiment is killed. His dying words are: "For glory my boys, for glory!" Also the reverend George Walker of Derry fame is brought down by a Jacobite saber slash while trying to inspire his flock among the Inniskilling foot. The rest of Williamís infantry holds firm and inflicts heavy losses on the Jacobite cavalry, who without infantry support can not break the enemy. The lack of coordination between horse and foot is evident here.
The Duke of Schomberg is unhorsed in one of the last Jacobite charges. Commanding in person in the melee of horse and foot, a young officer in the Jacobite Horse Guards seeks out the old general and fires his pistol into the back of his head. Struck already from several saber cuts the octengenerian general is fatally wounded. William when learning of Schombergís death orders that word of his loss not be spread among the army. The Williamite command and control appears more sound than the Jacobites who could not have sustained a similar loss with their less professional army.
William Crosses the Boyne - on hearing of the death of Schomberg, William decides to commit the Danish Division and makes preparations to cross himself. The Danes cross the Boyne at Yellow Island. Like the Dutch Guards before them they must hold their muskets above the water because of its swiftly moving current. Nine Danish Regiments all well armed and add decisive numbers to the struggling fight at Oldbridge. There is little the Jacobites can do to oppose these attacks as Tyconnell has no more reserves to commit. James, still off to the left where a stand-off has developed with Meinhard, does not respond to events at Oldbridge.
William orders the cavalry under Baron Ginkel to complete the defeat and encirclement of the Jacobite right.
The Jacobite Regiment Lord Walter Duncan tries to hold the Danes as they emerge from the Boyne but they are repulsed by heavy volleys.
William rides in person with the Dutch and Inniskilling cavalry, his arm still in a sling from yesterdays close call. William gets stuck with his horse in the mud and has to be helped out. He is nearly shot by his own men. William cries out " Do you not know your own friends".
The Williamite cavalry attempts to envelop the Jacobite position. A desperate effort by the Jacobite OíGara dragoons is repulsed. In the process a family drama is played out. A 17 year old boy, William Mulloy is in the Jacobite OíGara dragoons. Opposing him is his father, a captain in the Williamite dragoons. The young boy is captured in the cavalry strife, and because of his fathers good service to William is pardoned and sent home. Still the Jacobite cavalry, while worn from their earlier charges are more than able to hold their own, repulsing several Williamite dragoon regiments and roughly handling the over-zealous Inniskillings who are caught in a defile before Donore Hill.
By this point in the battle the Jacobites begin to retire in disorder all along the line, but while shacken, they are not defeated. The Jacobite cavalry under Sheldon and Berwick effectively cover the retreat by charging the advancing Williamites. Though worn from earlier charges, the Jacobite cavalry again rises to the occasion to protect their retreating comrades.
The Jacobite retreat becomes general as they head toward the bridge and town of Duleek in the rear of their position.
To buy time Richard Hamiliton dismounts his remaining dragoons in the ruins of Dunore church to form a rearguard.
At this time a messenger is finally sent to inform James of the defeat of his right flank at 2:00 PM
The Dutch Blue Guards and Inniskillings attack the churchyard of Dunore from two directions. One of many friendly fire episodes ensues, in which William is nearly shot by mistake. Friendly fire episodes were common in this period, and at the Boyne the multi-national armies were all wearing different colored uniforms.
Some attempts were made to distinguish the sides, the Williamite troops wear a sprig of green in their hats, while Jacobites sport white cockades, but in the confusion of battle with black powder weapons and smoke, friendly fire incidents were common.
The Jacobite dragoons are chased out of Dunore in a close quarter fight. Richard Hamiliton rallies them for yet another charge before Duleek in which he sends the Danish cavalry regiment Montz Von Dunop back in disorder. Hamilton, still fighting like a mad-man is unhorsed but recognized by William at the last minute and spared. He will spend time in the Tower before changing sides again to fight for William and dying for him at Steenkirk a few years later in the Low Countires.
James II still does nothing on the left. When he receives word of the defeat of his right he decides to attack Meinhard Schombergís wing opposite him which has held his men in place the whole day. Lauzan and other French officers recommend against it, even Patrick Sarsfeld, no coward, says the boughs are too difficult to get at the enemy. The French who were never keen at fighting at the Boyne in the first place quickly opt for retreat.
James and the troops of his left, containing the French Brigade and other good units, retire toward Duleek after having done nothing all day. Surely James must have heard the sounds of battle at Oldbridge a few miles away, but his attention seems to have been completely focused on Williamís accidental flanking movement.
As James retires with his left, they come upon the defeated right at the bridge of Duleek. Here the infection of defeat pervades the entire army as they attempt to cross the single bridge, fearful of being over-taken by the Williamites in the process. The Jacobite cavalry, finally exhausted, panics and rides over several fresh infantry regiments which causes more disorder than the battle has done. Crowds of fugitives block the bridge, forcing the French Zurlauben regiment under colonel Zurlauben, to clear the way with a volley. It is the first fire delivered by French troops that day. This French regiment, made up of captured Protestants from the Continent will form an effective rearguard for Jamesís army. Zurlauben is the only French officer who will emerge with credit to his name from this campaign. Lauzan and others will be disgraced.
James flees to Dublin where he is advised by the French to take ship for France. James agrees to do so, abandoning the Jacobite cause in Ireland. If he had been inclined to stay it is possible that that the set-back at the Boyne might have been overcome. Subsequent events will show that the Jacobite army still had plenty of fight left in it. Future Jacobite pretenders will do the same in their bid for the English crown in later years. Most notably Bonnie Prince Charles will also abandon his followers after the defeat at Culloden in 1746.
There is a story that when James returned to Dublin after the battle he was greeted by Lady Tyconnell who asked the dejected King if he would like to eat. James is said to have replied: "Your countrymen, madam can run well." To which she responded "not so well as your majesty, for I see you have won the race."
To be honest, James had exhibited competence and bravery while serving as admiral of the fleet under his brother Charles II, but his abilities as a land commander seem to have been inferior even to Williamís modest ability. Likewise, Williamís failure to follow-up his victory will lose him the opportunity to end the campaign in Ireland quickly. Sluggish post battle pursuits were characteristic of this period as command control had not evolved to the point where such coordination can take place. The Williamite army was also worn from pre-battle marching.
The Boyne is not a costly battle by the standards of the day. The
Jacobites take slightly more than 1,500 while the Williamites lose around 1,000. Many of these losses are disproportionately taken on a few units on each side, while the majority of units suffer little or any loss. In contrast the battle of Flurus fought within days of the Boyne in the Low countries results in over 12,000 casualties.
The Jacobites will continue the fight under Patrick Sarsfield for another 18 months. Sarsfield, a fierce Irish patriot, instills determination to resist against the Williamites. He turns the struggle into a patriotic struggle against the English in an effort to arouse the populace. But the gesture is too late. He will lead an inspired defense in the siege of Limerick in which a daring raid by his cavalry will destroy the Williamite siege train, thereby delaying the capture of the city. Limerick, as the second city of Ireland has thick walls and proves difficult to take. The Williamites will have to return in 1691 to finally capture it.
William leaves Ireland to attend to matters in England and the Continent. A recent French defeat of the Anglo-Dutch fleet at Beachy-Head in the English Channel as well as another French land victory at Flurus in the Low countries has England fearful of a possible French invasion.
Under Baron Ginkel the Williamites continue the campaign. Another battle is fought at Aughrim in 1691 in which the Jacobites are decisively defeated, losing over 7,000 in the process. It is a far heavier defeat than the Boyne and will prove the death-nell of the Jacobite cause in Ireland. Tyconnell dies of ill health shortly after the battle. Oddly enough it is Aughrim that ensures the Williamite cause in Ireland, even though the Boyne is the battle most remembered. The Williamites renew the siege of Limerick forcing its final capitulation a few months later. In the peace negotiations that follow Patrick Sarsfield is heard to say "change Kings and we would fight you again."
A Treaty is drawn up in which the Williamites agree not to molest adherents of the Catholic faith. William advocates freedom of religious expression. The French are allowed to go home, as well as any Irish Jacobites who wish to join them. Patrick Sarsfield and 12,000 Irish soldiers agree to leave and will seek service as the famed Wild-Geese under Louis XIV. Sarsfield soldiers on and will die at the battle of Landen in 1693 which is a defeat for the Williamites by the French. His last words: "If Only it was for Ireland"
William of Oranges generous terms for the defeated Jacobite Catholics is unfortunately not upheld by the predominately Irish Protestant Parliament. These Protestant nobles have been champing at the bit to get at the remaining Irish Catholic lands. Many of Williamís soldiers also seek land and money for their victory in the Irish War. By the end of the 17th century the dispossession of Catholics will have begun to slip Ireland into the doldrums of mass poverty, paving the way for the rebellions of the late 18th century.
Ellis, Peter Berresford, The Boyne Water, 1976, Kinross, John, The Boyne and Aughrim, 1997
Lenihan, Padraig, 1690: Battle of the Boyne, 2003
McCoy, G.A. Hayes, Irish Battles: A Military History of Ireland, 1969
George, Christopher T., Collision of Kings in Ireland, Military History, June 2001
Hyland, John O, The Battle of the Boyne, Command Magazine, May 1997
Lenihan, Padraig, King Billy: A Military Assessment, History Ireland, Spring 2004
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