William III and James II – two English kings
The Irish Brigade left in early March 1690 on the same vessels that brought the long-anticipated French reinforcements to Cork, and were accompanied not only by Macarty, but also by von Rosen and d’Avaux, who could barely contain their relief at their return to the Continent. James, too, was happy to see them go. He had had nothing but contempt for von Rosen since his brutality at Derry, and subsequent defeatism when confronted by von Schomberg, and he had sought to hold d’Avaux personally responsible for the recall of Melfort, which had effectively soured their working relationship and rendered it increasingly untenable since the close of the previous summer. With his original appointees to James’s general staff now either dead, like Maumont and Pusignan, or thoroughly discredited, like von Rosen, Louvois was forced to give his grudging approval to the King’s original choice for the commander of the French forces: the comte de Lauzun, who had been promoted to field rank and had arrived in the troop convoy with almost 7,000 men, including officers, artillery men and surgeons. Unfortunately, James’s joy at seeing his friend was soon eclipsed by his dismay at the quality of the troops that he had been sent. He had expected veterans, but had been delivered instead the tired and dispirited soldiers of the regiment Tournaisis, who had been transferred directly from the front in Savoy, and a mixture of expatriate troops in French service, many of whom were Walloons or German Protestants who had originally been prisoners of war but who had enlisted as a means of securing their freedom from Louis XIV’s jails and prison camps. Like James, Louvois had no intention of gifting away his best officers and men with no real hope of return and, by April 1690, he was informing his master that ‘unless God works a miracle to the King of England, the Prince of Orange will accomplish the conquest of Ireland with far greater ease than he imagines’.
Such fears appeared to be fully vindicated, as Berwick’s regiments had been surprised in a dawn raid on their quarters at Cavan in February 1690. They had been scattered by the Enniskillen men, leaving both the town and their magazine to be fired, and their shaken general to limp back to Dublin with the survivors, and make as good an account of the affair as he could before his father’s war council. Equally debilitating were von Schomberg’s repeated attacks on Charlemont Fort, the last significant Jacobite stronghold in Ulster, after the town of Cavan had fallen. Though the settlement underneath its walls had been laid waste by the Williamites, the fort at Charlemont had held out all winter, becoming a safe haven for Roman Catholic refugees driven in from the surrounding countryside. However, with women and children accounting for one fifth of all those sheltering within its ramparts, food supplies soon ran critically low and famine threatened the garrison. A small relief force was despatched in May 1690, but it had been ambushed in the surrounding swamps and routed, while James appears to have done little to keep the route into Armagh open or to re-supply the garrison, once famine took hold. Without any word of hope from Dublin, Governor Tadhg O’Regan concluded that he had done all that honour required of him and negotiated favourable terms with von Schomberg. Though he was forced to leave behind a considerable artillery train, which would have been of great assistance to the Jacobite army, O’Regan and his men were allowed to keep their arms and rejoin James’s army. They were received as though they had won a victory rather than suffered an entirely avoidable defeat. Impressed by O’Regan’s tenacity and fighting spirit, the King bestowed a knighthood upon him, although it might have been of far more account had he mobilised his forces earlier and attempted to send well-protected supply convoys deep into the heart of the enemy’s territory, before the fortress that had made the new knight’s reputation had actually fallen in the first place. Once again, Melfort’s failure to provide the army with adequate logistical support was blamed, but he had been gone for over six months by this time and neither James nor Neagle had done anything to remedy the situation. Moreover, if one anonymous Jacobite could praise von Schomberg for drawing out of winter quarters early in the new year and taking the war to his enemy before Charlemont ‘like a vigilant general’, then James was painstakingly slow in gathering his army about him again at Dundalk. Even then, he failed to concentrate his forces effectively, worrying unduly about controlling the castles and towns to his rear and bottling up valuable troops in garrisons, when their numbers and experience would have counted far more decisively in the field. This said, he had taken a commanding position overlooking the Moyry pass, key to any advance upon Dublin, and had taken steps to fortify ground that was already naturally extremely formidable. It was argued that had the King pushed on just 4 miles further along the road to Newry, where the causeway narrowed and was hemmed in by bog, he could have threatened to completely sever William’s communications and to have virtually guaranteed the necessity of fighting a battle upon his advantage. Even if his foes pushed themselves through the ‘Gap of Ulster’, by merely holding on to his entrenchments at Dundalk, James was dictating the terms of the campaign and would still compel William to fight every step of the way if he wished to break out of the north and begin the advance on Dublin.
The Jacobite army had the advantage of the terrain and of pre-prepared positions, but Lauzun advised against the King giving battle, fearing that an outflanking movement through Armagh might cut their supplies and plant a Williamite army to their rear, capable of beating their own in a rush back to the Irish capital. Certainly the Governor of Dublin, Colonel Luttrell, was fearful of a rising within the city limits, imposing a curfew on all Protestants between 10 pm and 5 am, and banning more than five of them from meeting together at any one time, threatening: ‘Death, or such other Punishment, as a Court Martial shall think fit’. However, with William breaking up the five thinnest battalions of von Schomberg’s army, which had been weakened over the winter by disease and desertion, and asserting his considerable authority over his multi-national forces of Danes, Dutch, French Huguenots, Brandenburgers, Swiss, Irish Protestants and Englishmen – who would probably have been unmanageable in the hands of a lesser commander – it was obvious to all that he would seek to press a decisive engagement upon James at the first available opportunity. All that was in doubt was exactly when, and where, the battle would be fought. James had already committed himself to preserving Dublin at all costs, and had discounted the possibility of slipping away to the west, living off the land, and fighting a protracted rearguard action. In order to fulfil his stated objectives, he would be forced to fight either at Dundalk or on the river line of the Boyne, the only other defensible barrier between Belfast and the capital. Unfortunately, James appeared to be curiously reticent about fighting; during the previous autumn, at almost the same spot, he had rejected von Rosen’s urgings to sanction an attack, and now his resolve broke down once again before Lauzun’s largely unfounded fears, and he gave the order to abandon his heavily defended position and fall back towards Dublin.
No one was more surprised by this decision than the first party of Williamite dragoons who edged through the Moyry pass, expecting all the time to be hit by an ambush or to encounter the main body of the Jacobite army, drawn up for battle. As anxious minutes passed by, and they met with no more than token resistance from a handful of skirmishers, who quickly beat a retreat when it became apparent that they were outgunned, scouts were sent tearing back along the advancing Williamite columns bearing news that made their commanders scarcely believe their luck: the Jacobites had abandoned the ‘Gap of Ulster’ and the empty camp at Dundalk was theirs for the taking, for the price of only boot leather, sore feet, and a brisk march under a sweltering Irish sun. In the meantime, James was in good spirits, thoroughly enjoying the long hours spent in the saddle and the easy camaraderie of soldiers, and now reconciled to the impending reality of battle and confident of victory. He had hoped that his army would quickly strip the surrounding countryside of food and forage, holding up William’s advance and drawing him further from the coast, forcing the English and Dutch dragoons to scour the land for fodder and the commissariat to send fresh pleas to the Westminster Parliament for an urgent re-supply. Unfortunately, William’s conduct of war did not mirror that of von Schomberg; there were to be no grand manoeuvres or protracted set-piece sieges, aimed at the maximum preservation of military strength and the conquest of territory. Instead, there was merely to be the grim and determined pursuit of his quarry, as the allied army occupied the deserted depots first at Dundalk and then Ardee, following all the while – at one day’s remove – the clouds of dust that indicated James’s line of retreat, and reaching, on the morning of 30 June 1690, the wooded heights that overlooked the Boyne.