The Battle of Aughrim
A photograph of the battlefield of Aughrim; this photograph was taken on 20 September 1942 and is part of the Browne collection at Galway library.
With the fall of Athlone, St. Ruth (the French Jacobite commander), had no choice but to order a general retreat to a more favourable position. He crossed the Suck at Ballinasloe and halted on the slopes of Aughrim, about three miles further on. Sarsfield with the more able officers advised him against giving battle as they preferred to prolong the campaign over winter.
The soldiers of William's Army were composed of at least ten nationalities, they were foreign to a winter campaign in Ireland. Disease and pestilence, with shortage of food for man and beast, would decimate them. The Jacobite army with a good command, would harass them by avoiding giving battle and striking when the opportunity arose. St. Ruth could not be moved, he was afraid that word would reach the French King and that he might be recalled in disgrace, and perhaps end his days in the Bastile. He disregarded the advice of his officers and gave a general order to the whole army under his command, to hold themselves in readiness. He awaited on the historic slopes of Aughrim, an admirable position. Here he hoped to give battle to the enemy; he would avenge the defeat at the Boyne, and retrieve the error of Athlone; he may fall in battle with an external halo of honour to surround his name. These vain thoughts urged him on.
The Dutch General Godart Van Ginkel with his army followed in the footsteps of St. Ruth, and on the evening of the 11th July, some Jacobite troops were scouting and spotted an advance guard of Williamites approaching from the Ballinasloe direction. The Williamites entered a small field nearby and were in the act of replenishing their water supply from a well, when the Jacobites opened fire on them. A short, sharp, engagement ensued, and both parties withdrew to their lines. It was now only a matter of time before the decisive blow would be struck, and sentinels on both sides kept a vigilant watch during the night. As the dawn broke and the first rays of light appeared from the east it was evident that a great blanket of fog was casting its massive folds over the plains below, even Kilcommedon heights were invisible.
The position taken up by St. Ruth gave him marked advantage over the Williamites. The Hill of Kilcommedon extended to a distance of almost two miles from north to south, at places it inclined to a height of about 400 feet, and it varied from base to summit, to a quarter of a mile. In front was a morass of bog. At the extreme north end was the Castle of Aughrim, approached by a narrow pass between two bogs. To the south end lay the Pass of Urrachree, guarded by sand dunes or small hills. The hill of Kilcommedon was intersected by fences and thrown up trenches. Breaches were cut in places to allow cavalry to pass through. St. Ruth's main body manned those heights and trenches; his left was extended to Aughrim Castle; his position at the right rested at Urrachree.
Ginkel, the Williamite Commander of great experience and ability was a man who would listen to the good counsel of his officers and saw that his chances of success were not too hopeful, especially against such troops as he had previously met at Athlone. Unlike St. Ruth he would not act on his own initiative, so he went into council of war with his Officers. Mackay and Talmash advised him to give battle as they saw danger in delay, and on their advice he agreed, rather reluctantly, we are told. One thing certain Ginkel had on his side reliable officers, well disciplined, and with a first class training.
It is unfortunate to state that on the Jacobite side the same could not be said. Tyrconnell the Viceroy, was doubtful and weak; it was said that he was more interested in himself than his country. He interfered in military affairs when he should not, and was almost lynched at Athlone for undue interference. He disliked Sarsfield, and slighted him whenever he got the chance.
The strength of both armies was about the same, the Williamites 23,000, the Jacobites 22,500, but Williams army had 24 guns and the Jacobites only 10. St. Ruth was in position at an early hour and only awaited the disappearance of the fog from the moors below. At 12 o'clock the sun's rays pierced through, and both armies, in full view faced each other. St. Ruth placed five guns on his right, with De Tesse his second in command. On the left was Sheldon, with Henry Luttrell, Purcell and Parker as reserve supports. At Aughrim were placed two guns with Colonel Burke and a regiment of foot. The centre, and along the slopes were manned by infantry under Hamilton and Dorrington. The cavalry slightly to the rear were in charge of Galmoy. A battery of three guns was in position on the slope of the hill, and covering the bog and narrow pass leading to Aughrim Castle. Sarsfield was relegated to an inferior command, and was sent with the reserve cavalry two miles to the rear.
Ginkel had for his second in command the Duke of Wurtembur. At the centre were Mackay and Talmash, with the cavalry under Scavemore and De Ruvigny. Near the bog, at the centre, were two batteries, and two more at the advanced position covering the pass where it widened to Aughrim. To the left were the Danes, the Dutch and the French Huguenots commanded by La Melloniere, Tetteau, Nassau, and the Prince of Hesse. The cavalry to the extreme left were placed with La Forest, Eppinger and Portland in charge.
The first engagement took place at Urrachree, where some Jacobite troops advanced to a stream and were fired on by a party of William's Danes. Fighting developed at this sector, and reinforcements were rushed by both sides but the Williamites were driven back. There was a lull in the conflict and Ginkel held a further council of war. He was in doubt as to the advisability of giving battle. Again the strong hand of Mackay carried sway and after two hours' silence the guns from the English lines boomed forth. The battle renewed, Ginkel led the way towards Urrachree. William's Danish troops made an attempt to manoeuvre a flanking movement but the Jacobites extended their line of defence and stemmed their advance. The Huguenots advanced to attack the hedges near the pass, and the Jacobites according to plan, retired and fired them on. With terrible effect a flanking fire was opened on them and they fell back in disorder, the Jacobite horse attacking them as they retreated. Again Ginkel brought up the reserves, but yet again the Williamites were beaten back and driven into the bog below. To hold this position intact, St. Ruth moved a regiment from near Aughrim, with fatal results later. It was said that he carried out this movement on the advice of Luttrell. Mackay spotted the weakness at this sector and took full advantage of it; he sent his infantry across the bog. After an hour and a half of hard fighting the attack was called off
It was at 6.30pm that 3,000 men fighting for William advanced once more through the morass under cover of their artillery, and faced the hill in a vigorous attack on the Jacobite positions there. Again the Jacobites enticed them on until they were almost at the summit of the hill; then faced about and opened a deadly fire on Williamites and with the cavalry coming on they were cut to pieces and in disarray. In this attack they suffered a severe reverse losing many officers. At one place only did the Williamites make any advance that seemed dangerous. A couple of regiments converged, and gained a foothold among some walls and fences near Aughrim Castle. Colonel Burke's turn now came but to his dismay, he found that the ammunition given to his men was too large; they were compelled to use chapped ram rods and even buttons from their tunics. However, word was quickly conveyed to a body of cavalry in the immediate vicinity, and after a stiff engagement, the Williamites were driven back.
It is told that Mackay in all those defeats insisted in one last stand. He advanced with a body of cavalry through the pass at Aughrim, with only a couple of horses riding abreast at the time. St. Ruth watched the advance from the position above, and exclaimed "Pity to see such brave fellows throw away their lives in this way." He sent word to Sarsfield to send up 400 horse but stay on with the remainder, and await further orders. On the arrival of the body of cavalry St. Ruth placed himself at their head. He was in great heart and stated he would drive the Williamites to the gates of Dublin. As he charged down the hill veering towards one of his gunners to convey an order, a burst of chain shot hit him, and his headless body rolled from the saddle.
In that fatal charge a Williamite gunner targeted him as he sped across the plain to meet Mackay. The first shot missed and a young ensign named Trench took the gun in hand and fired. The gunner remarked to Trench "his hat is knocked off Sir." "Yes," said Trench, "but you will find his head in it too." The cavalry in their dash were halted with no responsible officer to lead them. St. Ruth's body covered with a trooper's cloak was carried to the rear and an attempt was made to conceal his fate, but the true facts leaked out. The result was, his regiment of Blue Guards (French cavalry) retired from the field, followed by the rest of the Jacobites.
No assistance came to Galmoy in his endeavour to hold up Mackay and the Williamites made a flanking movement at Aughrim Castle. At the same time, Ginkel pressed at the centre and broke the front line of defence. The Jacobite infantry under Dorrington, were compelled to fall back in broken formation. At one place known as the Bloody Hollow about 2,000 Jacobites were encircled, and trapped; the remainder retired in hot haste. Sarsfield galloped to the scene of battle but too late, and with a heavy heart, he gathered together the remnants of a defeated army. The slaughter was great, the Williamites lost 2,700 killed and wounded, the Jacobites about 5,000. Included in this would be those surrendered in the bloody hollow. The dead were left unburied, and Story, the Williamite historian, said that a human being was not to be seen for miles around. Great packs of roving dogs took possession of the battlefield and devoured the bodies of the dead, and for months it was unsafe for the traveller to pass that way.
Sarsfield retreated through Limerick; on his way he passed through Woodford and according to tradition, at that town he buried some pieces of artillery at Derrycregg wood. The enemy must have harassed him on the way, as at Woodford he reversed the shoes on his cavalry.
On the night of the 14th we find that Ginkel, with a body of cavalry, arrived at Eyrecourt, and bivouacked in the grounds of Eyrecourt Castle that night. Eyre received him with great pomp and splendour.
So ended the battle of Aughrim.