The Controversy of Defeat - The Collapse of the Jacobite Left Wing at the Battle of Aughrim, July 12th, 1691 - Part Five

Michael McNally - The question which remains to be answered is quite simply was the Battle of Aughrim lost as a result of the ‘fortunes of war’, of one commander being luckier than his opponent? Or is there a darker element that needs to be considered – was the battle lost through the supposed treachery of one or more Jacobite officers?

Firstly we need to look in greater detail at the composition of the Jacobite left flank itself, its’ commanders and the troops involved. 

Another shot from the LoA game featured at Claymore 2013...
In Sir John Gilbert’s edition of “A Light to the Blind”, the formation is described as follows:

On the left the Marquis of St. Ruth placed the earl of Lucan’s regiment of horse, and those of colonel Henry Luttrell, of colonel John Parker, and colonel Nicholas Purcell, with a body of dragoons’ and shortly afterward continues ‘The conduct of this left wing was given to major general Sheldon, the first line of which brigadier Henry Luttrell commanded. Their business was to defend the pass of the causeway, near to which, for added security, there were set two regiments of foot’. 

At first reading, the above extract seems quite simple – Sheldon’s forces consisted of four (named) regiments of horse, a force of dragoons (also most probably four in number), with two battalions of foot in Aughrim village – one of which we may reasonably assume to have been that of colonel Walter Bourke, a detachment of which regiment was also sent to occupy the ruins of Aughrim Castle. But even so, it does raise a number of questions:

The first query lies in the role of colonel Nicholas Purcell. It is a matter of record that, after the expedition to Scotland in 1689, his regiment of dragoons was converted into a regiment of horse, or heavy cavalry. And so, one must ask as to whether this officer was actually in command of a brigade of dragoons or, as is quite feasible, was there a grammatical error in the editing of the original manuscript and that – at Aughrim – he was actually the commander of a fourth named regiment of horse. This latter assumption would make more sense as otherwise colonel Henry Luttrell’s station would have been with the first line of the Jacobite heavy cavalry positioned some distance from the front line, and would therefore not have been in a position to influence the activities of the dragoon screen thrown forward to cover the causeway; he could only have done this if he had have actually been in command of the dragoons.

As has been previously discussed, by the time that Mackay launched his attack across the Causeway, the two battalions that had been deployed in Aughrim village had already been withdrawn and re-committed to the main battle line. This, perhaps one of the most critical actions during the battle, immediately compromised the security of the Jacobite Left for, at a stroke, the three mutually supporting lines of troops – the dragoon screen, the Aughrim garrison and the cavalry brigade, became two lines of troop, the second of which was not close enough to offer immediate support to their comrades in the event of a Williamite attack. In effect, this meant that when the enemy troops were reforming after traversing the narrow passage, and were thus at their most vulnerable, Sheldon’s horse would be too far away to decisively intervene. The only other option would have been to have brought them forward into a position where they could support the dragoon screen, but this would have left them stationary within range of the Williamite guns, a perfect target for van Ginkel’s artillery. 

For the dragoons, many of their number undoubtedly deployed forward in dismounted skirmish order, the situation would have been unenviable. Having seen the troops march out of Aughrim, they would have been more than aware of the fact that no friendly troops were close enough that could come to their assistance if they were to come under enemy attack, whilst to their front this self-same enemy was clearly reforming his troops for offensive action. For any troops, and many of these troopers were undoubtedly veterans of Derry, the Boyne, Athlone and many other engagements this would have been a daunting prospect indeed, and when the Earl of Oxford’s “Blues”, arguably the most experienced and ably led unit on the battlefield, began their thunderous advance, the dragoons recoiled. 

Whether this retrograde movement was under as a result of a direct order from their commanding officer, whom we presume to have been Henry Luttrell, or simply a natural reaction by lightly armed troops on foot when faced by advancing enemy horse is unclear, but what should be noted is that when the army had reunited at Limerick following the wake of the battle, there was no appeal against the conduct of either Henry Luttrell or indeed that of his superior officer, Dominic Sheldon, who led the left wing cavalry from the field in the wake of Luttrell’s retreating dragoons. Instead Luttrell was damned by posterity for entering into ‘treasonable’ correspondence with the enemy, a correspondence solely evidenced by a letter addressed to him by a Williamite officer of his acquaintance who had written to enquire as to the fate of a number of his compatriots presumed to have been captured by the Jacobites at Aughrim. In fact the point must be stressed that at the end of his court-martial, majority of the tribunal voted for an acquittal, and it solely Tyrconnel, as president of the court, who insisted that he be confined and his commission revoked.

The next point to consider is the relative conduct of the picked detachment of colonel Walter Bourke’s regiment that occupied the ruins of Aughrim Castle with the aim of enfilading any Williamite troops attempting to force a passage across the Causeway. Traditionally their relative ineffectiveness has been excused by the assertion that the troops were equipped with French muskets but supplied with English musket balls, which were of a larger calibre and thus were incompatible with the firearms. On the face of it, this is an unassailable argument, but there are three flaws. Firstly, and after establishing their lodgement at the base of Kilcommodan Hill, Rowe’s ad-hoc brigade are recorded as having entered into a fire-fight with the Jacobite left wing, by implication both the dragoons and the troops in Aughrim Castle. Thus the castle garrison did, at some stage during the battle, open fire upon the enemy. 

Secondly, it was the practice – during the period –to transport the lead from which musket balls were made either in the form of sheets or ingots which would then be distributed to the units as required. The reason for this being simply a matter of space as a tonne of lead in sheets or ingots is by far easier to store or transport than a similar weight of lead balls which must themselves be stored in some form of container. Prior to battle the troops would then take the lead and cast their own ammunition, the immediate advantage to this being that if they were to follow a routine, the physical act of being kept busy would leave them less time to worry about the combat ahead. A second advantage would also be to ensure that the troops had the right calibre ammunition for their firearms. 

Thirdly, since Tyrconnel had issued his original commissions on behalf of King James, the Jacobites had been increasingly dependent upon military supplies from France, and this leads to two final questions – firstly with what ammunition wad the remainder of Walter Bourke’s regiment equipped and secondly if the garrison of Aughrim Castle was in fact equipped with the wrong calibre ammunition, then where did it come from as by the summer of 1691 the Jacobites had no access to any of the magazines and arsenals that were under Crown control at the beginning of the war.

This leads us to a number of conclusions:

Firstly, that the collapse of the Jacobite left wing at Aughrim was simply the result of the fortunes of war, and that with the death of St. Ruth, the army was literally ‘headless’ during possibly the most crucial phase of the battle and that whilst both de Tessé and Sarsfield attempted to regain the momentum that had been lost, they were unable to do so, with tragic results. Had the Jacobite commander not have stopped to redeploy the artillery battery it is virtually certain that he would not have met his end at that stage in the battle, but whether he would have survived any later combat can only be a matter of speculation; his character and record have shown that he would have led from the front. 

Secondly the withdrawal of the Jacobite left wing dragoons and horse came about as a result of the breakdown in the chain of command that was caused by St. Ruth’s death. Had he not have fallen when he did, the chances are that he would he would have been able to halt the retrograde movement and reinforce his orders before sufficient Williamite troops would have been able to pass across the Causeway, and even without the dragoons – who would have been of negligible value in a cavalry mêlée – he would still have enjoyed a significant local advantage over the leading enemy formations.

Thirdly, given his effective acquittal following his trial by court martial, it is clear that no opprobrium whatsoever had been attached to colonel Henry Luttrell and his subsequent treatment was merely the result of ill-feeling between him and Tyrconnel. Accordingly and irrespective of his undoubted character deficiencies, whatever the grounds were for his murder in 1717, none of his peers – in other words those most affected by the defeat at Aughrim – would seem to have blamed him for his conduct on the day of the battle, and neither should we. 

We would like to thank Michael McNally for contributing to the League of Augsburg blog as a guest author. Most of our readers will recognize Mike as the author of Osprey's The Battle of the Boyne 1690: The Irish Campaign for the English Crown and The Battle of Aughrim 1691. Mike has other Osprey titles in other periods as well, but will have another title in the League of Augsburg period next year in October 2014... Ramilies 1706: Marlborough's Tactical Masterpiece from Osprey Publishing. All text in The Controversy of Defeat series is Copyright 2013 Michael McNally and used with kind permission.