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Monday, 22 July 2013

22 July 1691: The Battle of Aughrim (Irish: Cath Eachroma)

22 July [N.S.] [12 July O.S.] 1691: The Battle of Aughrim (Irish: Cath Eachroma) was fought on this day. It was the final battle of the Williamite War in Ireland. It was fought between the Armies of James II and of William III - neither of whom was in Ireland at the time.

The commander of the Jacobite Army was the French general the Marquis St Ruth and that of the Williamite Army the Dutch General Godert de Ginkell. The Catholic Army had perhaps something just short of 20,000 men in its ranks, the Protestant one perhaps a little above that figure. But for all intents and purposes they were about equal in fighting manpower. Ginkel did however have the advanatge in gunnery with some 24 guns to St Ruth's 10 pieces.

The Jacobite Army was falling back from the banks of the Shannon after the fall of Athlone and was trying to cover any advance upon either Galway or Limerick by the Protestant Army. St Ruth was embarrassed by the loss of Athlone and was determined to give battle if possible once a secure position was reached. Near the village of Aughrim in Co Galway he surveyed the elongated hill of Kilcommadan  and decide to draw up his army there to await the enemy.

The feature stretched roughly two miles in a north west-south east direction and peaked at about 400 feet - thus giving theoretically a fine view of the approach of Ginkel and of his dispositions when he came up. The hill was lined with small stone walls and hedgerows which marked the boundaries of farmers' fields, but which could also be improved and then used as earthworks for the Jacobite infantry to shelter behind. In front was a boggy morass into which any troops would have to wade through to reach the other side. The left of the position was bounded by a bog near Aughrim Castle, through which there was only one causeway, overlooked by Aughrim village and the ruined castle. To the south was the narrow pass of Urrachree.

When dawn broke that morning a fine mist hung over both armies as  Ginkels army crossed the river Suck and advanced towards the hill of Kilcommadan. Thus it was not until later in the afternoon that Ginkel, after holding a Council of  War, gave the order for his troops to attack the opposing army.

Fighting commenced at extreme southern end of the line as the Williamites attempted to turn the Irish right flank. Their attempts were checked and Ginkel realised that another plan would have to be tried. He sent his foot regiments into the morass with orders to storm Kilcommadan Hill.  Here the Irish gave ground falling back through the hedgerows and low stone walls as their opponents advanced almost to the foot of the hill. Then a devastating counter attack was launched and the original attackers were pushed back onto the own lines.

Further north where the morass was of a narrower width the Williamites also tried to get across. Here too they were thrown back and the Irish were able almost to reach the the battery of artillery on the other side before they called off their pursuit.

Ginkel was now in two minds to continue but his Council urged him to try again. The Scottish General Mackay in particular wanted to continue the fight and had spotted what he perceived to be a weakness in the disposition of the forces drawn up opposite him to the south of Aughrim Castle.

Marquis St Ruth had so far fought a competent defensive battle and was constantly on the move exhorting his troops and directing reinforcements as and where needed. However his focus was almost entirely upon the centre and right of his line. To counter the actions of the enemy there he had drawn off forces from his northern flank and a vulnerable breach was left open to exploitation should the enemy take their chances.

His position started to unravel when Ginkel switched his attacks onto the extreme left wing of the Irish position at Aughrim castle and the narrow causeway there. It was just wide enough for two men on horseback abreast to enter. The Williamite Cavalry made a dash across and met with only scattered fire from the garrison in the castle, which legend has it were issued with English balls for French muskets!

A bit further to the south General Mackay sent some English Foot regiments across the open ground to his front where the boggy ground was narrowest. His hunch that the open ground on the other side (a cornfield) was no longer guarded proved correct and he sent across more units to back up the ones already across.

This was the critical moment of the battle. The only hope in saving the Jacobite Army from defeat was with the Irish cavalry. The men on the spot were Luttrells troopers. But Henry Luttrell was a bought man - in the pay of King William himself.* He ordered his men to withdraw as the Williamite cavalry debouched from the narrow pass at Aughrim Castle.

The other major body was with Patrick Sarsfield to the rear of the Army but too far back to be of immediate assistance. He had been given specific orders by St Ruth not to stir from his position until called upon to do so - the order never came!

So the hinge of fate fell upon St Ruth himself to save the day. He rode up towards where the breakthroughs were underway with his own French cavalry regiment. Riding down upon the enemy his distinctive white horse was spotted by the Williamite gunners who opened up upon the horsemen. A cannon shot took off his head. His stunned companions took a few moments to realise what had happened before they took themselves off and away from the battle:

Then, drawing his sword, and giving the word to advance for a charge, he exclaimed to his officers: "They are beaten, gentlemen; let us drive them back to the gates of Dublin." With a cheer, rising above the roar of the artillery—which, from the other side, was playing furiously on this decisive Irish advance—the squadron made reply; when, suddenly, louder still, at its close, there arose a cry—a shriek—from some one near the general. All eyes were turned upon the spot, and for an instant many failed to discern the cause for such a startling utterance. There sat the glittering uniformed figure upon his charger. It needed, with some, a second glance to detect the horrible catastrophe that had befallen. There sat the body of St. Ruth indeed, but it was his lifeless corpse—a headless trunk. A cannon shot from the Williamite batteries had struck the head from his body, as if the Tyburn ax and block had done their fearful work. St. Ruth, the vain, the brave, was no more!
By A. M. Sullivan

With the Jacobite army rudderless the whole position began to unravel and as night fell Victory rested with General Ginkel and his men.

Thousands of soldiers on Kilcommadan Hill were surrounded and left to their fate that night. When morning came those not already captured laid down their arms and were herded together in one great mass - where they were slaughtered. 

Patrick Sarsfield gathered what remained of the shattered remanents and led them away from the battlefield. Darkness, heavy rain and exhaustion hampered the Williamites from pursuing their defeated foes with any great vigour.

The Jacobite Army suffered some 7,000 men killed, wounded or made prisoner. Ginkel only admitted to some 1,500 men lost but it is likely this is an underestimate given that he was attacking a well defended position.

Aughrim was the last battle of the War, and the last big battle fought in Ireland (over 40,000 combatents). Galway surrendered soon afterwards and Limerick in October 1691. A new phase in the History of Ireland began.

* He paid for his treachery some years later with a bullet in his back when he was cut down on a Dublin street.