After William left Ireland, his agents, the Lords Justices, organised the civil administration, while the army patrolled the country hanging Rapparees, held the principal towns east of the Shannon, and prepared for the new campaign. Coningsby (who as paymaster general and head of the Commissariat, had given William great satisfaction) still had, as Lord Justice, the finances of the Army in his special care. The revenues these officials managed to get in were considerable. An official account, dated July 1691, and including the two years from August, 1689, to Midsummer, 1691, gives a total amount of £142,014 11s. 3 1/8 fd. – about a quarter of the average in times of peace. The war, however, according to Story’s estimates, cost some £10,000,000 for provisions, transport, and officers and men’s pay alone.
In December, 1691, the English army had been divided into four separate corps. Douglas was to act against Sligo; Kirke and Lanier to attack the fords of the Shannon at Lanesborough; Tettau to enter Kerry; Ginkel and Scravemore to operate around Limerick.
Ginkel and Tettau, worried by Rapparees, did nothing. In spite of the prosperous state of William’s finances, as compared with James’s, his army in Ireland was in a chronic state of discontent. Ginkel’s letters to Coningsby are full of complaints about the difficulties of his position. He is always asking for money. His mercenaries are always clamouring for arrears of pay, and ready to desert. They should have 1s. a day (the Irish standard was 1d.) Forage is scarce, destroyed by the Rapparees. The Irish have plenty of corn, but they have buried it, and it is hard to find. The men are sick and mutinous.
If the English were in difficulties, one may well wonder, with James, how the poor Irish “brought it as far as they did.”
Meanwhile, Sarsfield, always well-informed as to the enemy’s movements, always prompt in decision and action, had visited all the important posts along the Shannon, entrenching some, and strengthening the guard in all. He proved himself more than a match for Douglas, Kirke, and Lanier, though almost without artillery, either for defensive or offensive operations. He had fixed his head-quarters at Athlone. Those of the English, in the West, were at Mullingar, which he would doubtless have attacked, if he had had artillery. It was now too well-fortified and garrisoned to give him a chance of success without a regular siege. He was, however, always on the watch for an opportunity of assuming the offensive, and still held several small posts on the Leinster side of the Shannon. He had sent Clifford to defend the passage at Lanesborough, and Colonel O’Hara to defend Jamestown.
Hearing that Kirke was moving upon Lanesborough, having left Lanier sick at Mullingar, with half their force as garrison of that important place, Sarsfield determined to pass the Shannon and attack him in the rear, while Clifford received him in front. This well-planned piece of strategy was unfortunately frustrated; for, just as he was about to leave Athlone, he heard from O’Hara that Douglas was marching to attack Jamestown, and that the river being lower than usual, several fords were now open. Fearing that Douglas might force a passage and advance upon Sligo, which was but ill-defended, he went at once to support O’Hara; but found that Douglas had already made his attack, had been repulsed with heavy loss, and had retreated. Hurrying back to Athlone, to execute his first project, he heard that Kirke also, badly beaten, had retired in disorder to Mullingar, losing his camp and baggage.
These events are narrated by Sarsfield himself in his letter to Louvois, and his account is confirmed by Ginkel’s letters and by documents in the French archives.
In the same letter he complains of Clifford’s disaffection, which he attributes to his not having been made a major-general. Sarsfield had fortified Ballymore, which he regarded as the key to Athlone, and had ordered Clifford to throw 300 men into it. This he had not done. He had twice asked to be allowed to throw up his commission. Sarsfield fears he may abandon Ballymore, the centre of a country which supports 20,000 peasants with their cattle, besides several regiments, if he does not himself get there in time. Clifford has burnt a castle near Mullingar, taken by Sarsfield, and containing a quantity of provisions and property pillaged from the Catholics of those parts. He gave orders for its destruction without having seen it, although Sarsfield wished to hold it.
This is confirmed by Ginkel, who says the occupation of this place by the Irish menaced the garrisons of Streamstown and Mearescourt.
Ginkel saw the importance of Ballymore, and resolved to make it his first point of attack. In February he writes that he is about to march against it with all the troops he can muster. The rendezvous was at Tycroghan, a house where Vanhomrigh (the father of Swift’s Vanessa) wished to establish a magazine.
The attack was postponed, as Ballymore was too strong to attack without opening trenches; and until St. Ruth landed in May little was done on either side, though the Rapparees remained active even in those parts of the country that were patrolled by the Williamites. It was not until June that the cautious Ginkel advanced to the Shannon with a real determination to take Athlone.
There is another interesting letter from Sarsfield in the French archives. It is written from Galway to Lord Mountcashel, and dated March 23rd, 1691.
In it he denounces Tyrconnell at great length, accusing him of having intercepted or pretended to intercept a letter from Mountcashel to himself, containing expressions very disrespectful to their master, James. Tyrconnell is very polite (“me fait milles caresses”), but Sarsfield knows him and does not trust him. He says that in Limerick the army would have seized Tyrconnell, and made Sarsfield Commander-in-Chief, but that he opposed their design from respect to the King’s Deputy. He says further that Mountcashel’s old friend Clifford is of Tyrconnell’s party. He is as mad as ever, and has misconducted himself in the face of the enemy. The Irish cavalry are well mounted at the expense of the enemy, from whom the Rapparees have taken 1,000 horses during the winter. He has got 37 horses from Lanier’s quarters, 22 of them from his own stable. They await St. Ruth’s arrival with impatience, but hope he may be independent of Tyrconnell; who, if he has the least authority, is capable of spoiling the designs of the best captain in Europe.
On June 1st, Ginkel came to Mullingar. His first idea was to make a feint attack on Athlone with one division, while another should attempt to pass the Shannon at Banagher and Mellick. It was, however, deemed imprudent to divide the army, lest Sarsfield might pass over from Athlone and get between the English and Dublin, or even march upon that city. Unfortunately, Sarsfield had not a sufficient force at his command to do more than guard the Shannon. Even when Ginkel advanced to attack Ballymore, though Sarsfield had concentrated his troops at Athlone he seems to have made absolutely no attempt to relieve that place, no doubt feeling himself too weak to do so without risking too much. It would have been a mistake to defend it at all, except that it delayed Ginkel, and allowed St. Ruth time to come up to Athlone.
The fort of Ballymore stood upon a promontory running out into a little lake, which surrounded it on three sides. It was well defended against troops without artillery, but incapable of standing a regular bombardment. There were two lines of fortification, both with bastions. The outer ran across the thick neck of the promontory; the inner surrounded “the Mount,” a rising ground, with a Danish Fort upon it, in which this peninsula terminated. There were also some breastworks to defend the place on the southeast, where the lake became very narrow. Some 1,100 men, under Colonel Ulick Burke, occupied the fort, in which a number of women and children had taken refuge. To feed the garrison, a stock of sheep and cattle had been driven on to the peninsula before the English came.
Ginkel arrived on Sunday, June 7th, and summoned the place in due form; the Governor refused his terms in due form, and the bombardment began. Four field pieces were at once brought up, “which played three or four hours upon the Island;” the Irish replying as best they might with their “two small Turkish pieces mounted on cartwheels,” which were all they had to reply with, except their matchlocks.
A sergeant and fifteen men, in a small castle at some distance, were cut off by a detachment sent for that purpose. They at first made some resistance, some of the enemy being killed by their fire; but, being forced to surrender, the sergeant was hanged by Ginkel on a little hill in full sight of the fort.
By Monday morning, June 8th, four batteries, one of six, two of four guns each, some of them eighteen and twenty-four pounders, began to play on the Irish works; and after some time Ginkel sent a verbal message to the Governor, that if the fort were not surrendered within two hours he should be hanged as his sergeant was. Burke, to mark his sense of this insult, asked to have the message in writing, affecting to think the messenger must have delivered it wrongly. Ginkel, in a letter “Given at our Camp the 8th day of June, 1691, at 8 a clock in the morning,” repeated his threat, adding that the garrison should have no quarter if they did not surrender as prisoners of war. The women and children might leave the place, if they chose to do so, within two hours. Burke, however, gallantly demanded to be allowed to march out with the honours of war.
“Upon which,” says Story, “the General ordered all our guns and mortars to fall to work, the bombs tearing up the sandy banks, and the Irish running like conies from one hole to another; whilst the guns were battering the works and making a breach, the Irish in the meantime did what they could with their two guns and small shot; but Lieutenant-Colonel Burton, their Ingineer, had his hand shot off from one of our batteries, and their works went down apace, which made the Irish very uneasie. This siege, however, was very delightful to our whole party, who had a view of it from the adjoining hill. My Lord Justice Connings by also, who was now in the camp, and stay’d here for some time, having the satisfaction of being an eye-witness to the forwardness of our soldiers.”
From this description it is evident that the worthy cleric thoroughly enjoyed this “delightful” siege. If he had given a thought to the possible sufferings of the women and children, he might again have been led to “reflect upon our Profession of Soldiery, not to be overcharged with Good nature.”
At 12 o’clock, noon, the Irish, who had exhausted their small stock of powder, beat a parley and hung out a white flag, of which Ginkel took no notice, the batteries firing continually until both the inner and outer works were battered into rubbish. Four tin boats were then launched upon the lough, and filled with soldiers in preparation for storming the place when resistance was no longer possible. The Irish, seeing this, again beat a parley and asked for quarter, which Ginkel, “being in his own temper a very merciful man,” granted. The garrison surrendered at discretion, and the victorious General abstained from the threatened massacre. He did not even hang Ulick Burke: the soldier was stern, but the man relented. A letter from Ginkel, dated June 16th, says he has sent the garrison 55 or 56 officers, about 800 soldiers, and 200 Rapparees (“most of them armed,” says Story) to Dublin.
“There were also nigh 400 women and children all crouded up in this sad place, who were set at liberty.”
One wonders what became of them. Colonel Parker, who was with Ginkel at Athlone and Aughrim, gives a terrible picture of the sufferings of the peasantry, who were driven from side to side of the Shannon by the opposing armies.
“These wretches,” he says, “came flocking in great numbers about our camp (at Ballymore) devouring all the filth they could meet with. Our dead horses crawling with vermin, as the sun had parched them, were delicious food to them; while their infants sucked those carcases with as much eagerness as if they were their mother’s breasts.”
The garrison of Ballymore were sent from Dublin to Lambay Island, where most of them died of sickness and starvation, their friends not being allowed to send them provisions or clothing.
Ginkel, having repaired and garrisoned Ballymore, prepared to march upon Athlone. Major-General Mackay, the hero of Killiecrankie, just come from Scotland with his Scotch Puritans, now joined him.
It is evident, from a letter written by Mackay to William, in execrable French, that he considered Ginkel a weak general, anxious to avoid responsibility by conducting his operations according to the rules of war, but without initiative, and in practical difficulties leaning upon his subordinates, and wavering between opposing counsels.
He blames him for not having better information respecting the enemy’s movements, and for leaving his rear 80 ill-defended that his communications with Dublin might easily have been cut off. He was always in fear lest Sarsfield might send a detachment across the river and “raise the country behind him.” His commissariat was in the hands of a certain Pareira (probably a Jew) with whom he had made a foolish contract, which only bound the contractor to have supplies of provisions at certain places, Ginkel being obliged to provide for their transport to his camp. Pareira cheated him, fleeced him; and yet he implicitly trusted him, though often proved untrustworthy. Mackay ascribes it to “the Providence of God” that Sarsfield was prevented from attacking his rear.
He did not know how weak Sarsfield was in artillery and even in small arms.
St. Ruth, meanwhile, had arrived in Limerick, on May 8th, with some money, arms, and provisions, but no men. He probably brought with him the grenades used by the Irish for the first time during the siege of Athlone. Tyrconnell now again became active in making preparations for war. He summoned the Rapparees to come to Limerick, and from them he raised an army of some 20,000 men to serve under St. Ruth, with whatever small train of artillery he could scrape together. To mount his cavalry he was forced to seize the horses of the gentry of the surrounding county. “By paying tradesmen and workmen,” says James, “part money, part little necessarys of apparel, part fair words and part promises, of which they were liberal enough” he “got to gather” 170 caissons, 400 “small cartes,” with carriages for 10 field pieces.”
A miserable supply as compared with Ginkel’s formidable batteries! Finding that, borrow and requisition as he might, there was “no remedy against this consumption of the purse,” as Falstaff had discovered before, Tyrconnell now wrote to James, asking for money, and in the letter “he took the freedom to tell him he ought to sell his shirt from his back rather than fail.” This James himself mentions, but explains that willing as he was to make every possible sacrifice, he had nothing left to sacrifice. When St. Ruth came over, he took care to let Tyrconnell feel that he would brook no interference in things military. The Lord Deputy “had not power to make even a Collonel.” St. Ruth had come over in the company of the Luttrells, and was glad to make use of their party as a check upon Tyrconnell, whose presence in the camp at Athlone was looked upon with extreme jealousy by Sarsfield and his followers. According to the author of Light to the Blind, a message was sent him, with the connivance of St. Ruth, threatening that, if he refused to return to Limerick, the cords of his tent would be cut. Upon this, “making a noble conquest of himself,” he returned.
This is confirmed by a letter dated July 4th, written by Tyrconnell, apparently to Louis, or for his eye. In exchange for the services of St. Ruth, Louvois had demanded 1,200 more men to serve in the Irish Brigade.
Tyrconnell in this letter complains that the “seditious party of my Lord Lucan, Purcell and Luttrell” accused him of having sold these men, for money paid to himself. He says he is about to leave for Limerick to raise this contingent, which he must do by force or stratagem, “such is the repugnance they have to quitting this miserable country.” A document requesting him to retire from the camp has been sent round for signature by Lucan and his friends. St. Ruth being supreme in military matters, he has spoken to him about it; St. Ruth professed ignorance; but he is the hands of this party. The loss of Athlone has made the King’s cause hopeless, and on account of his health he must ask for his recall.
The new recruits for the Irish Brigade were sent from Limerick after the Battle of Aughrim, when the ships which had brought over St. Ruth returned without him. On June 18th, Ginkel, who had heard that St. Ruth, with a great drove of cattle, collected by Maxwell for the support of his army, was marching upon Athlone, advanced from Ballymore to Ballyburn Pass, where his entire force was to assemble. It amounted, all told, to some 25,000 men. From Ballyburn he reconnoitred Athlone, and saw some of the Irish Horse on the hills near the town, the camp being about two miles beyond the river, on a narrow neck of land between two bogs. The camp which Story here speaks of must have been that occupied by the cavalry of the garrison, St. Ruth not coming up until the third day of the siege, when he occupied much the same ground. From his camp to the town “the only avenue” is described as “a causeway made in a morass.” Where the causeway entered the town, a wall, or “curtain,” faced the camp; and it is said that Tyrconnell was the first to propose that this should be levelled, to admit of easy access from the camp.
Athlone, like Limerick, was compounded of two separate towns, divided by the Shannon and connected by a stone bridge – the English town on the Leinster, and the Irish town on the Connaught bank. Both were, for Irish places of the period, fairly well fortified, and in the Irish town there was, almost opposite the bridge, a small castle or citadel.
When Colonel Grace was besieged in the previous year by Douglas, he had abandoned and burnt the English town, confining his defence to the Roscommon side of the river. Colonel Fitzgerald, who had succeeded him as Governor, now determined to defend both towns, the fortifications of the English town having been as far as possible repaired by Sarsfield’s orders. Within these repaired fortifications a garrison of some 400 or 500 men had been placed, and on the approach of the enemy, Fitzgerald sent out a party of dragoons, to occupy the passes leading to the town, and as much as possible check the advance of the enemy. This they did so effectually that, while gradually retiring from cover to cover, they managed considerably to retard the progress of Ginkel’s advanced guard, and by taking advantage of every defile “cost the enemy many men.”
Once arrived before the place, Ginkel lost no time in getting to work. It was about three o’clock, on that fine summer morning of June 19th, when he began his march. It was about nine when he came before the town, having advanced at the rate of about a mile an hour, against the resistance of Fitzgerald’s Dragoons.
By eight next morning, he had some of his heavy guns in position, in two batteries; one of eight twenty-four pounders being directed against the wall of the English town, near the Dublin Gate. Here a breach was made by twelve o’clock, and at five o’clock a storming party of 4,000 men – Dutch, Danes, and English – made the assault under Mackay, who himself describes it.
Two hundred grenadiers, picked from all the regiments engaged, led the van; Stuart with his Scots supported them; and the Danes and Dutch brought up the rear. Mackay ordered the grenadiers to advance along a road running diagonally across an open space 300 yards wide, between the English battery and the town wall, to the Dublin Gate, which lay at some distance to the right of the breach. They were to avail themselves of whatever cover the road afforded until they came opposite the breach, and then to dash across the open.
Mackay, watching the attack from the battery, soon saw that the first company had kept the road too far, and had gone past the breach. He saw them scramble out in to the open, waver, get into confusion, and remain exposed to the Irish fire from the walls. The Huguenot Lieutenant who led them was killed as they left the cover; the Colonel who commanded the detachment badly wounded. The following companies had got blocked upon the road, and for a moment it looked as if the attack must fail. Mackay then ran along the road and gave the right direction to the last company, who got to the breach first. Then Stuart coming up, led his men to the attack, entering the breach pell-mell with the grenadiers.
The Irish, outnumbered by ten to one, fought gallantly, disputing every inch of ground, but at last broke and fled to the bridge, where many were killed, and some drowned in the struggle to get across. They, however, managed to destroy two arches of the bridge, probably by blasts already laid, which they exploded before crossing the drawbridge. This they were no doubt enabled to do in the face of a victorious enemy, owing to the check given to the English by the loss of their commander, Stuart, who was so seriously wounded, as he led his men to the bridge, that he was unfit for service during the rest of the campaign.
That same evening, shortly after the taking of the English town, St. Ruth arrived with his army, and encamped within a couple of miles of the town, on the Connaught side. His first care was to occupy the higher ground near the Irish town, and to finish an entrenchment already begun along the banks of the river, to prevent the enemy passing by means of pontoons. This was a good piece of generalship, as Mackay says it commanded the only part of the river in the neighbourhood where such an attempt could safely be made. Ginkel, on his side, now occupied the English town, which he made a magazine for his artillery train and stores, as well as a point of vantage from which he could conduct his attack upon the Irish town.
Strong entrenchments were made along the river in the English town both above and below the bridge.
“In order to carry out their design,” says Parker, “they caused these entrenchments on the river side to be raised very high, and made very strong with embrasures for fifty battering cannon, and platforms for eight mortars.”
On the 22nd, the batteries being all in position, a tremendous fire of shot and shell was opened upon the Castle, of which Brigadier Wauchope was Governor. It was a very important point, as it was the key to the Irish town, its walls being very strong and surrounded by fifteen feet of earth, its guns defending the bridge. With the continuous fire from the English batteries, Parker says: –
“We soon battered down that face of the Castle which lay next us, and from which they had annoyed us with small arms and a couple of drakes.”
By seven that evening a large breach appeared in the north-east wall, and all that night the cannonade continued, with such effect that at five next morning “the whole side of the Castle was beaten down,” and the garrison had to make a new entrance at the back, by which to pass in and out.
On the afternoon of the 23rd, Ginkel’s pontoons came up; but many of them were so old and unserviceable that a strong body of men had to be told off for repairs. This prevented any immediate attempt to throw them across the river in the face of St. Ruth’s entrenchment. A mill upon the bridge, held by a party of sixty-four men of the Irish, was set fire to by grenades, and the men burnt, except a few who escaped by leaping into the river.
In spite of the tremendous cannonade, the Irish resistance was so obstinate that Ginkel despaired of taking the city by storm, and held a council to consider whether it might be possible to pass the river at some other point, After much discussion it was decided to attempt the passage at Lanesborough “whilst our Cannon amused the Enemy at the Town.” A lieutenant was therefore sent to survey the ford. He succeeded in passing the river, Story says, but disobeyed orders in not returning at once, being attracted by “the powerful charms of Black cattle,” and “scampering after them, by which means our design was discovered.” O’Callaghan says, however, that Wauchope heard of the proposed attack, and gave notice to Edmund Bui O’Reilly, Governor of Lanes borough, who immediately threw up entrenchments on the Connaught side, and thus spoilt Ginkel’s game.
That night the Irish raised two batteries above the Castle, one of three six-pounders close to the river, and another, also of three six-pounders, further off on an eminence; and next day these batteries did good service in annoying the enemy in the English town, driving one regiment from the entrenchments near the river.
Ginkel, foiled in his attempt upon Lanesborough, now resolved to force a passage by the bridge. By the 26th the fire from his seven batteries working day and night, had driven the Irish from their trenches by the river, and “also ruined most of the houses that were as yet left standing.” He had just received thirty waggon-loads of powder and 100 cart loads of cannon-balls from Dublin, and was not sparing of either powder or shot. But, as an old Irish bard would have put it, good as was the attack, better was the defence.” The Irish worked splendidly to repair damages; resolved at all costs to recover and maintain their position on the riverbank.
“We dismounted all the enemy’s cannon, and can now stand almost at the water’s edge and look over,” writes Daniel McNeal, who was in the ranks of the besiegers, “yet the enemy work like horses in carrying fascines to fill the trenches.”
This was done under a fire so furious that to quote another eye-witness from the opposite side of the river, “A cat could scarce appear without being knocked on the head by great or small shot.” So writes Colonel Felix O’Neill, who served under St. Ruth in the French army; adding that the French generals were surprised and delighted at the valour of the Irish, whose only fault was that they exposed themselves too recklessly.
All the 26th and 27th a fierce fight for the bridge was maintained, the English endeavouring to repair the broken arches, the Irish obstinately striving to prevent this. After two days, little advantage had been gained by the English: –
“What we got here,” Story admits, “was inch by inch as it were, the enemy sticking very close to it, though great numbers of them were slain by our guns.”
One arch on their own side they had succeeded in repairing; but they were unable to lay beams across that on the Connaught side, until the Irish were forced to quit their breastwork, which was fired by a grenade, and being constructed of fascines, extremely dry by reason of the hot weather, burnt furiously.
On Sunday morning, June 28th, the besieged were in a perilous case. Beams had been laid across the last broken arch, planks were being laid across the beams; and the Irish, driven from their last shelter, could do little to prevent this. The town was on the point of being entered.
But out of this peril came the most heroic action of the siege; not sung, indeed, nor even mentioned, by the omniscient author of Lays of Ancient Rome; though it may be held to have rivalled in heroism the noble deed of that Horatius “who kept the bridge so well,” before the days of powder and lead. A certain sergeant of Maxwell’s Dragoons, whose name as given in James’s Memoirs was Custume, getting together a party of ten other stout fellows, volunteered to pull up the planks laid down by the enemy. Donning their breast and back pieces, that they might as long as possible keep their lives, they rushed boldly out upon the bridge, drove back the carpenters, “and with a courage and strength beyond what men were thought capable of,” say the Memoirs, “began to pull up the planks, break down the beams, and fling them into the water.” A tremendous fire from the whole English line was opened on them, and man after man fell; but plank after plank was torn up and hurled into the stream. Then the beams were attacked with saw and axe; but the eleven were all killed before their task was finished. Then eleven more sprang out, and again the beams began to yield, though the men dropped one by one, as before. Two got back alive to the town; the other nine were left dead on the bridge. But the last beam was floating down the uncrossable Shannon.
The English then began to construct a covered way on the bridge, from which they might lay new beams across the broken arches; while a heavy fire was maintained against the Irish works, especially the Connaught Tower, the strongest part of the Citadel; the town being battered “as I believe never town was,” says McNeal. The walls in front of the Irish town were now demolished, the houses burnt or battered down; the Citadel itself almost a ruin. But the Irish still worked desperately, repairing their old trenches and making new ones, though most of their guns had been dismounted, Ginkel had constructed a battery to enfilade the narrow passage through the bog from the Irish camp to the town. The Irish now made trenches and a breast work opposite this on the Connaught side, working under cover of a herd of cows which they drove down to the riverbank. As the cows fell under the fire to which they were exposed, a breastwork was made of their bodies, over which earth was thrown.
On the 28th, Ginkel held a Council of War, at which it was decided to attempt the storming of the town next morning. Three Danes, under sentence of death, were offered a pardon if they would try to ford the river below the bridge. They put on armour and entered it at three places, being ostensibly fired at as if they were deserters, to deceive the Irish. They got across easily, the water being much lower than usual even in summer, and only up to their waists.
The attack, which is said to have been planned by Talmash, was to be made simultaneously by the bridge, the ford, and a bridge of pontoons which was to be thrown across still lower down the river. The men who were to pass by the ford were to carry fifteen rounds each, and to wear green boughs in their hats. Mackay was to command.
All was ready by six o’clock next morning, the 29th, except the pontoons; but by 10 o’clock, before these were fairly on their way to the river, St. Ruth had heard of the intended assault, had thrown reinforcements into the town, and come down to the river with his army. Only at the bridge was any attack made; and here it was made by the Irish, who burnt the enemy’s covered way, and thus again stopped their advance.
By this time it was 12 o’clock, and Ginkel being discouraged, the attack was postponed. St. Ruth returned to his camp, and gave an entertainment to the gentry of the neighbourhood that evening, in honour of the occasion.
Next day, June 30th, another Council of War was held. Ginkel was still in low spirits. By all the rules of war Athlone should have been taken long ago; but the Irish are a stupid people and never know when they are beaten. He would have retired, if his generals, Mackay, Talmash, Ruvigny and Tettau, had not persuaded him that this would be the most dangerous thing he could do, and that pass the river he must, at all hazards. While the matter was in debate, there came a couple of deserters, who told him that now was his time to do so, as St. Ruth, thinking the siege was over, had left the defence of the town to his rawest levies. This decided him. A new attack, on the old lines, was planned for six o’clock that afternoon.
Unfortunately the deserters told the truth. St. Ruth proved himself an excellent tactician at Aughrim; but his conduct at Athlone showed him to be also an egregious fool – dull with the worst form of dullness, the supercillious arrogance of the vain man. He boasted that it was impossible to take Athlone while he was there with an army, that Ginkel deserved to be hanged for making the attempt, and that he would himself deserve hanging if he succeeded. On his own showing no man better deserved hanging than he.
Sarsfield, who had commanded the army in Connaught before St. Ruth’s arrival, must have felt some soreness at being subordinated to him, especially as the French commander soon showed that his hatred of Tyrconnell did not prevent his disliking Sarsfield. But Sarsfield kept his promise to the Abbé Gravel, and loyally accepted the situation. In fact there is not a shade of evidence that he did anything to excite the suspicious jealousy with which St. Ruth regarded him.
Shortly before the attack, Maxwell, a Tyrconnellite, who was on duty that day, suspecting that something was on foot, sent an express to St. Ruth to ask for reinforcements. St. Ruth returned the insulting message that “if Brigadier Maxwell were afraid, another general should be sent there.” There had been a difference of opinion between St. Ruth, who wanted to throw down the wall or “curtain” on the side of the town which faced the camp, and D’Usson, who said that “his business was to defend, not to destroy fortifications.” St. Ruth’s object was to render the entrance of his army into the city easy, in case of an attack, as he wished to season his new recruits by making them serve in the trenches. D’Usson, though like St. Ruth, “confident that the English would never attempt so bold an action,” thought it most prudent to keep veterans in the post of danger. Finally the raw troops were sent in, and the curtain was not thrown down, contrary, it is said, to St. Ruth’s express orders.
Two newly enlisted regiments were sent in, without more than a round or two of ammunition, and no bayonets. After three applications they were sent some powder, but no ball. Their Colonel, Cormac O’Neill then sent to Maxwell, requesting that some might be sent at once; Maxwell jestingly asked: “whether they wanted to shoot laverocks?” He took no further trouble about the matter. The last defence of Athlone was entrusted to raw recruits, without bullets in their pouches.
The principal attack was made by the ford, where some 1,500 grenadiers, led by Mackay himself, were to cross first. The signal was given by the tolling of a church bell. Mackay had formed his grenadiers in column twenty abreast; he and his officers taking the stream above them, that they might not get mixed up with their men, in any disorder produced by the current. The signal was given. Prince George of Hesse was the first to take the water. The Duke of Wurtemberg who with other officers of high rank had volunteered for this dangerous service, was then lifted upon the shoulders of a couple of stout grenadiers, and the column plunged with loud cheers into the stream. The Irish, taken by surprise, as so often happened by the mismanagement of their officers, and left without sufficient ammunition, fired a volley or two, and retreated into the town. By the time Mackay got over, his men were swarming over the slippery earthworks in pursuit, and as he entered the breach he met Maxwell, a prisoner.
The rout was soon complete; for the English, laying planks across the undefended bridge, and crossing also by the pontoons, soon drove the Irish from their last entrenchments in the town. Athlone, so stoutly defended for some ten days, was taken in half-an-hour.
On the first alarm an urgent message was sent to St. Ruth to say that the attack was being made. He was “signing articles against Tyrconnell” and about to go on a shooting expedition, and made light of the message.
“Such a thing,” he said, “was impossible.” Sarsfield, who was present at the time, insisted on the necessity of at once succouring the garrison; but St. Ruth treated him with such scorn that he lost his temper, and a violent quarrel occurred. At last Major-General John Hamilton was sent with two brigades of infantry “to drive out the enemy.” It was too late, the “impossible” was accomplished. D’Usson, who had been dining outside the town, had come in only in time to be trampled nearly to death by the fugitives. He was carried into the camp half unconscious, and had to be “blooded.”
That night St. Ruth decamped, and retreated to Ballinasloe, “in which,” says Berwick, “he again committed a great fault,” the enemy now being caged up in Athlone, and surrounded by bogs.
The Castle was soon taken, Wauchope surrendering at discretion with 500 men.
The Irish are said by O’Callaghan to have had but 6 brass six-pounders, and 2 mortars, against Ginkel’s 29 guns, including 11 twenty-four pounders, 9 eighteen pounders, and 6 mortars.
As to killed and wounded on each side, the accounts are as usual untrustworthy.