Battle of the Boyne

A. M. Sullivan
c. 1900


TUESDAY, July 1, 1690, dawned cloudlessly on those embattled hosts, and as the early sunlight streamed out from over the eastern hills, the stillness of that summer morning was broken by the Williamite drums and bugles sounding the generale. In accordance with the plan of battle arranged the previous night, the first move on William's side was the march of ten thousand men (the Scotch foot-guards under Lieutenant-General Douglas, and the Danish horse under Meinhart Schomberg), with five pieces of artillery, for the bridge of Slane, where, and at the fords between it and Ross-na-ree (two miles nearer to Oldbridge), they were to cross the river, and turn the left flank of James' army. The infantry portion of this force crossing at Slane, while the horse were getting over at Ross-na-ree, came upon Sir Neal O'Neill and his five hundred dragoons on the extreme left of the Jacobite position.

For fully an hour did the gallant O'Neill hold this force in check, he himself falling mortally wounded in the thick of the fight. But soon, the Danish horse crossing at Ross-na-ree, the full force of ten thousand men united and advanced upon the Jacobite flank, endeavoring to get between the royalist army and Duleek. Just at this moment, however, there arrived a force of French and Swiss infantry, and some Irish horse and foot, with six pieces of cannon under Lauzun, sent up hurriedly from Oldbridge by James, who now began to think all the fight would be on his left. Lauzun so skillfully posted his checking force on the slope of a hill with a marsh in front that Douglas and Schomberg, notwithstanding their enormous numerical superiority, halted and did not venture on an attack until they had sent for and obtained an additional supply of troops. Then only did their infantry advance, while the cavalry, amounting to twenty-four squadrons, proceeded round the bog and extended on toward Duleek. completely overlapping or flanking the Jacobite left wing.

Meanwhile, about ten o'clock in the forenoon, Schomberg the elder (in charge of the Williamite center), finding that his son and Douglas had made good their way across on the extreme right, and had the Jacobites well engaged there, gave the word for the passage of Oldbridge fords. Tyrconnell's regiment of foot-guards, with other Irish foot (only a few of them being armed with muskets), occupied the ruined breastwork fences and farm buildings on the opposite side; having some cavalry drawn up behind the low hills close by to support them. But the Williamites had a way for emptying these breastworks and clearing the bank for their fording parties. Fifty pieces of cannon that had during the morning almost completely battered down the temporary defenses on the southern bank now opened simultaneously, shaking the hills with their thunders, and sweeping the whole of the Irish position with their iron storm; while the bombs from William's mortar batteries searched every part of the field. Under cover of this tremendous fire, to which the Irish had not even a single field-piece to reply,[1] the van of the splendidly appointed Williamite infantry issued from King William's Glen, and plunged into the stream.

"Count Solme's Dutch Blue Guards, two thousand strong, reputed the best infantry regiment in the world, led the way at the principal ford opposite Oldbridge, followed by the Brandenburghers. Close on their left were the Londonderries and Enniskillen foot; below whom entered a long column of French Huguenots, under the veteran Calimotte. A little below the Huguenots were the main body of the English, under Sir John Hanmer and Count Nassau; and still lower down, the Danes, under Colonel Cutts. In all about ten thousand of the flower of the infantry of Europe, struggling through a quarter of a mile of the river, and almost hidden beneath flashing arms and green boughs."[2] As they neared the southern bank, the roar of cannon ceased—a breathless pause of suspense ensued. Then a wild cheer rung from the Irish lines; and such of the troops as had guns opened fire. An utterly ineffective volley it was; so ill—directed that the Williamite accounts say it did not kill a man; and then the veterans of a hundred continental battlefields knew they had only raw Irish peasant levies on the bank before them. There being no artillery (as already frequently noted) to play on the fording parties while crossing, and there being so little water in the river, the passage of the fords was easily effected.

The Dutch guards were the first to the bank, where they instantly formed. Here they were charged by the Irish foot; but before the withering fire of the cool and skillful foreign veterans, these raw levies were cut up instantly, and driven flying behind the fences. The truth became plain after two or three endeavors to bring them to the charge that they were not fit for such work. Now, however, was the time for Hamilton, at the head of the only well-disciplined Irish force on the field—the horse—to show what his men could do. The hedges, which had not been leveled for the purpose, did not prevent their charge. The ground literally trembled beneath the onset of this splendid force. Irresistible as an avalanche, they struck the third battalion of Dutch Blues while yet in the stream, and hurled them back. The Brandenburghers turned and fled. The Huguenots, who were not so quick in escape, were broken through, and their commander Calimotte cut down.

Schomberg had remained on the northern bank with a chosen body of foot as a reserve. He saw with excitement the sudden crash of the Irish horse, and its effects; and was prepared to push forward the reserve, when word reached him that his old friend Calimotte had fallen! Without waiting for helmet or cuirass he dashed forward, his white hair floating in the wind. In the river he met and strove to rally the flying Huguenots. "Come on, come on, messieurs; behold your persecutors," cried the old warrior, alluding to the French infantry on the other side. They were the last words he ever spoke. Tyrconnell's Irish horse-guards, returning from one of their charges, again broke clear through and through the Huguenots, cleaving Schomberg's head with two fearful saber wounds, and lodging a bullet in his neck. When the wave of battle had passed, the lifeless body of the old general lay among the human debris that marked its track. He had quickly followed, not only across the Boyne but to another world, his brave companion in arms whose fall he had sought to avenge.

All this time William, at the head of some five thousand of the flower of his cavalry, lay behind the slopes of Tullyallen, close by the lowest ford on the extreme left of his army, waiting anxiously for news of Schomberg's passage at Oldbridge. But now learning that his center had been repulsed, he disengaged his wounded arm from its sling, and calling aloud to his troops to follow him, plunged boldly into the stream. The water was deepest at this ford, for it was nearest to the sea, and the tide, which was out at the hour fixed for crossing in the morning, was now beginning to rise. William and his five thousand cavalry reached the south bank with difficulty. Marshaling his force on the shore with marvelous celerity, he did not wait to be charged, but rushed furiously forward upon the Irish right flank. The Irish command at this point was held by the young Duke of Berwick with some squadrons of Irish horse, some French infantry, and Irish pikemen. The Irish were just starting to charge the Williamites at the back, when the latter, as already noted, dashed forward to anticipate such a movement by a charge upon them, so that both bodies of horse were simultaneously under way, filled with all the vehemence and fury which could be imparted by consciousness of the issues depending on the collision now at hand.

As they neared each other the excitement became choking, and above the thunder of the horses' feet on the sward could be heard bursting from a hundred hearts the vehement, passionate shouts of every troop-officer, "Close—close up; for God's sake, closer! closer!" On they came, careering like the whirlwind—and then!—What a crash! Like a thunderbolt the Irish horse broke clear through the Williamites. Those who watched from the hill above say that when both those furious billows met there was barely a second of time (a year of agonized suspense it seemed at the moment to some of the lookers-on) during which the wild surges rendered it uncertain which one was to bear down the other. But in one instant the gazers beheld the white plumed form of young Berwick at the head of the Irish cavalry far into the middle of the Williamite mass; and soon, with a shout—a roar that rose overall the din of battle—a frantic peal of exultation and vengeance—the Irish absolutely swept the Dutch and Enniskillen cavalry down the slopes upon the river, leaving in their track only a broken crowd of unhorsed or ridden-down foes, whom the Irish pikemen finished.

But now the heavy firing from Oldbridge announced that the Williamite center was crossing once more, and soon it became clear that even though the Irish repulsed man for man, there still were enough of their foes to make a lodgment on the bank too powerful to be resisted. Bodies of his troops streaming down to him from the center gladly proclaimed to William that they were across again there. Rallying his left wing with these aids he advanced once more. He now had infantry to check the ever-dreaded charges of the Irish horse, and so pressing steadily onward, he drove the Irish back along the lane leading from the river to Sheephouse, a small hamlet halfway between Donore and the Boyne. Here the Irish were evidently prepared to make a stand. William, who throughout this battle exhibited a bravery—a cool, courageous recklessness of personal peril—which no general ever surpassed, now led in person a charge by all his left wing forces. But he found himself flanked by the Irish foot posted in the hedges and cabins, and confronted by the invincible cavalry. He turned a moment from the head of the Enniskillens, and rode to the rear to hurry up the Dutch.

The Enniskillens, seeing Berwick in front about to charge, allege that they thought the king's movement was to be followed by them, so they turned, and William coming up with the Dutch, met them flying pellmell. He now handed over the Dutch to Ginckel, and took himself the unsteady Ulstermen in charge. He appealed entreatingly to them to rally and stand by him, and not to ruin all by their weakness at such a critical moment. By this time the Huguenot horse also came up, and the whole combining, William a third time advanced. The Williamite accounts describe to us the conflict that now ensued at this point as one of the most desperate cavalry combats of the whole war. According to the same authorities the Dutch recoiled, and Ginckel had to throw himself in their rear to prevent a disordered flight.[3] William, dauntless and daring, was in the thickest of the fight, cheering, exhorting, leading his men. The gallant Berwick and Sheldon, on the other hand, now assisted by some additional Irish, hurried up from the center, pressed their foes with resistless energy. Brave and highly disciplined those foes were undoubtedly; nevertheless, once more down the lane went the Williamite horse and foot, with the Irish cavalry in full pursuit.

This time, "like Rupert at the battle of Edge Hill," the Irish "pursued too far." While all that has been described so far was occurring on the Jacobite right, at the center (Oldbridge), overwhelming masses of William's cavalry and infantry had, notwithstanding the best efforts of the French and Irish foot, forced all the fords and mastered everything at that point. In detached masses they were now penetrating all the approaches to Donore, in the direction of Sheephouse, driving the Jacobites before them. While the Irish cavalry on the right, as above described, were in pursuit of the Williamites, the lane leading to Sheephouse was left unoccupied. This being observed by two regiments of Williamite dragoons, they quickly dismounted and lined the hedges of the lane, at the same time sending word to Ginckel to take advantage of what they were about to do. The Irish cavalry after their charge now returned slowly through the lane to resume their position. Suddenly and to their utter consternation they found themselves assailed by a close and deadly fusillade from the ambuscade around them, so close, so deadly, the guns almost touched each horseman; and there was no room for evolution in the narrow place. While they were thus disordered whole masses of troops were flung upon them; Ginckel in their rear, their lately routed but now rallied foes on the right, and all combining, pressed the overborne but not outbraved heroes up the lane upon Donore.

Here the Irish turned doggedly for a resolute stand; and William saw that though forced indeed from the river, they considered themselves far from being beaten yet. After a few ineffectual charges, he suspended the attack, in order to re-form his ranks for a grand assault in full force.

It was at this moment—while his devoted little army, still all undaunted, were nerving themselves for the crisis of their fate—that James, yielding readily to the advice of Tyrconnell and Lauzun (which quite accorded with his own anxiety), fled precipitately for Dublin; taking with him as a guard for his person the indignant and exasperated Sarsfield and his splendid cavalry regiment, at that moment so sorely needed on the field!

Some Irish writers, embittered against James for this flight, go so far as to contend that had he remained and handled his troops skillfully it was still within possibility to turn the fortunes of the day, and drive William beyond the river. The point is untenable. The Jacobite left, right, and center had been driven in, and the Williamite forces were all now in full conjunction in front. It was possible to hold William in check; to dispute with him each mile of ground to Dublin; but Napoleon himself could not (with only six fieldpieces) have beaten William at the Boyne.

It is certain, however, that the Irish troops themselves were not of this mind; for when they heard that Donore was to be relinquished and that they must fall back on Duleek they murmured and groaned aloud, and passionately declared it was snatching from them a certain victory![4] Nevertheless, to fall back was now essential to their safety; for already bodies of Williamite troops were streaming away on the Jacobite left toward Duleek, designing to get in the Irish rear. To meet this movement, the Irish left was swung round accordingly, and pushed on also, mile for mile, with the flanking Williamites; until eventually the struggle in front was virtually abandoned by both parties, and the competition was all as to the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers on the Duleek road; the Irish falling back, yet facing the enemy, and making their retreat the retiring movement of an overpowered army, by no means the flight of one routed. At Duleek they turned to bay, taking up a strong position on the south of the little stream which passes the town. The Williamites came on, and having looked at the ground and the disposition of the Jacobite forces, deemed it well to offer battle no further, but to rest content, as well they might, with the substantial victory of having forced the Boyne and vanquished the Stuart king.


[1] The six retained by James had been forwarded to Lauzun on the extreme left.

[2] "Battle of the Boyne," by M. J. M'Cann. No one desiring to trace closely, and fully understand the events of this memorable battle, should omit to read (Sir William) Wilde's beautiful and valuable work the " Boyne and Blackwater." I follow as closely as possible the briefer accounts of the battle by Mr. M'Cann in the Harp, and by Dr. Cane in his "Williamite Wars," with occasional corrections from "Macariae Excidium," from Sir William Wilde's work, and other authorities.

[3] Story.

[4] "Macariae Excidium," page 51.