Michael McNally - Over the intervening centuries commentators have spilt an effusion of ink in discussing both St. Ruth’s conduct during the siege of Athlone and setting forth a number of theories that would presuppose that his subsequent desire to fight a pitched battle was based upon a fit of pique rather than any strategic consideration.
Athlone, like many Irish towns was effectively two settlements, in this case divided by the waters of the River Shannon. To the east, and built on the higher right bank lay the ‘English Town’, an area of relatively modern construction bounded by a trace of stone walls which St. Ruth’s engineers has spent several months strengthening and reinforcing against the inevitable bombardment by enemy. These defences, however, were a paper tiger as, had St. Ruth even have wanted to deploy there in strength, they could only accommodate a small number of troops and once the town was invested by enemy forces the Shannon would make further reinforcement of this eastern bastion both difficult and dangerous.
On the left or eastern bank lay the original settlement – ‘Irish Town’ – which, with the exception of King John’s castle, a mediaeval stone built structure, relied primarily upon a combination of the river and an earthen embankment for her defence. It was here that St. Ruth planned to mount his main defence, drawing the enemy on to blood himself against the defence works, to waste time, manpower and, above all, ammunition in a fruitless struggle to force the passage of the river. Similar to the situation in ‘English Town’, the left bank settlement could only hold a certain number of troops before these numbers would have a detrimental effect on a credible defence, and so St. Ruth elected to encamp a short distance from Athlone with the main body of his troops, whilst the garrison units would be slowly rotated throughout the army, theoretically allowing the men to gain experience by a measured exposure to enemy fire without compromising the defence of the town itself.
As anticipated, the siege of Athlone followed established procedures with the Williamite troops storming ‘English Town’ after a sustained bombardment and then drawing up short as the Jacobite defenders destroyed the main bridge and prevented any further exploitation. With his attack stalled, Ginkel redeployed his forces and began to establish a number of artillery positions from which he could fire upon ‘Irish Town’ and thus weaken the defences whilst he and his subordinate generals began to plan an assault to carry the town. Eventually, and after several days’ artillery bombardment during which much of the defences had been reduced to rubble, all was ready and soon a column of picked troops was fording the Shannon whilst below Athlone, Williamite engineers also swung a pontoon bridge across the river in order to facilitate the passage of cavalry.
In the interim, St. Ruth had not remained idle, relieving and reinforcing the town’s garrison as and when possible but his ability to do so was severely compromised when the Williamites constructed a battery of heavy artillery whose sole purpose was to interdict the movement of troops between the Jacobite camp and the town. At this stage the fate of Athlone lay in the lap of the gods and whilst they initially held off the enemy assault, one of the inherent faults in the Jacobite army came to the fore when a number of senior regimental officers were either killed or incapacitated during the fierce combat.
Given Ireland’s unique cultural make-up, many of the regiments that had been raised in the predominantly Gaelic west had effectively been formed on feudal lines with the magnates becoming regimental colonels and parcelling out the various commissions to family and relatives whilst their dependants and retainers formed the regimental rank and file. Thus it was that when Colonel Art McMahon fell at the head of his men, they had not only lost their commanding officer but also their clan chief and such a loss could not be filled quickly, especially not in the vagaries of hand to hand combat.
Aware of the deteriorating position within the town and braving the Williamite artillery fire, St. Ruth ordered the main body of the army forward to reinforce the garrison and throw back the enemy assault columns, but within Athlone the defenders were slowly but surely giving ground in the face of increasing enemy pressure and eventually broke. After a half hearted attempt to assault the town from the west, St. Ruth soon accepted that an ill-prepared attack would only result in failure and an unacceptable loss of men marshalled his forces together and, turning west, marched them toward Ballinasloe on the River Suck.
It was inevitable that, following his death at Aughrim, St. Ruth’s conduct throughout the campaign would be the subject of great scrutiny. For modern historians, it is an attempt to piece together the manoeuvres of that fateful summer, but for many of his contemporaries it was an ideal opportunity to ‘kick the dead lion’ and somehow excuse their own actions. One case in point is a report from one of the French engineers attached to the army who suggested that a large section of the westward facing defences could be dismantled in order to facilitate that transfer of troops from the army camp into Athlone, and vice-versa. That St. Ruth failed to act upon this suggestion and the fact that when the garrison broke, these selfsame defences effectively prevented any relief or counterattack by the main army is one of the charges laid against him. But what is invariably never taken into account is the fact that the Jacobite commander was acutely aware of the enemy’s superior mobility and ability to cross the Shannon both north and south of the town, and thus had he have razed a significant section of the earthen ramparts, it would most likely have compromised the garrison’s own ability to defend the town.
Although the defence of Athlone could be seen as a vindication of St. Ruth’s tactic of inviting the enemy to waste men and resources in attacking prepared positions, it soon became clear to many of his peers that the price of such success was a loss of space in which to manoeuvre. Just as it was clear that Ballinasloe was indefensible, it was also clear that, if the Jacobite forces were not to completely surrender the initiative to the enemy, a suitable position would have to be found which would negate the Williamite advantages of numbers and superior equipment, and as the army continued westwards it seemed that such a position had indeed been found – the ridgeline of Kilcommodan Hill to the south of the small village of Aughrim.
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.