Apologies for being away for a while there. Back in August last year, I had a whole rush on blogs; then I leave you all hanging until now. Was I waiting for another anniversary to punt a new Nine Years War article at you? Maybe. Though the 415 year anniversary of the Battle of Kinsale has come and gone with nary a peep out of me, perhaps I was waiting for a battle that doesn’t get much airtime; drowned out by Irish victories at Clontibret (1595), Yellow Ford (1598) and the Moyry Pass (1600). We may never know.
Nevertheless, I have an anniversary for you, but this time Hugh O’Neill is not involved. Neither were any of his brothers or any of his Ulster allies for that matter. So what are you bothering us for (the more polite of you are thinking and not saying)? Well, O’Neill may have raised the most modern, well-equipped and disciplined Irish armies of the sixteenth century, he also crafted an unprecedented alliance of Irish lords, the likes of which the English had never seen. This confederation enabled O’Neill to issue orders and coordinate forces in geographically distinct regions in Ireland. This was possibly as important as his modernisation of the Irish military. The English in Dublin took seven years and were on the brink of total overthrow before they finally realised that O’Neill’s confederation could achieve operational synchronisation across the country.
A key ally for O’Neill were the O’Byrnes. Feagh MacHugh O’Byrne was considered O’Neill’s right arm in Wicklow, but he was killed in 1597, yet his death did not pacify the region, as resistance was maintained by Feagh’s son, Felim MacFeagh O’Byrne. After O’Neill’s stunning victory at the Yellow Ford and the collapse of the Munster Plantation at the end of 1598, the authority of the crown in Ireland tottered on the brink. Queen Elizabeth turned to the hero of Cadiz, Robert Devereux, earl of Essex, to fix the intractable Irish problem once and for all. The English army was reinforced to 16,000 foot and 1,300 horse. Essex decided that the Irish in Leinster and Munster should be defeated before he moved on Ulster. Therefore Essex took the lion’s share of the field forces with him into Munster, leaving Harrington with just five companies of foot and a troop of horsemen to take on the O’Byrnes and O’Tooles. Worse still, most of Harrington’s soldiers were untried levies recently arrived from England. Only Captain Adam Loftus’s infantry (a predominantly Irish company) and Captain Charles Montague’s horsemen had significant experience of the Irish war.
Robert Devereux, earl of Essex: Queen Elizabeth was confident he would bring the Irish to heel (spoiler alert, he did not)
Harrington decided to get his men some on-the-job training in field craft by taking them on a reconnaissance in force of the Irish fortifications at Rathdrum ford on the Avonmore River. Harrington set out on 28 May and marched six miles where the army made camp at Ballysha, approximately one mile from the ford. Harrington took a troop of horse and 100 foot to observe the ford, but a failure to co-ordinate the movements of the horse and foot meant that he returned without viewing the Irish positions. During the night the Irish fired volleys of shot into the English camp, but apart from causing alarm, there were no casualties reported.
The following morning Harrington made another attempt to view the ford at Rathdrum, but this time he was forced to turn back owing to the poor weather. While Harrington was away, an odd occurrence happened when Loftus’ ensign drew out 40 of his company and moved off towards the river. They were eventually ordered to retreat to the camp, but Loftus’ Lieutenant Walsh remained and parlayed with some Irish troops who had appeared on a nearby hill. Loftus explained that he was attempting to negotiate the return of soldiers who had recently defected to the Irish. This caused some consternation among the other officers, but Captain Atherton was satisfied with Loftus’ explanation. Harrington received intelligence suggesting Felim MacFeagh O’Byrne was concentrating troops for an attack. Therefore he resolved to march the army back to the garrison at the abbey in Wicklow town.
Columns normally were split up into several sections. A small detachment took the lead. This was called the forlorn hope (from the Dutch verloren hoop or lost troop), then the van, the main battle (or just battle), and then the rear. This becomes more complicated when reports start referring to the van of the rear (the front of the rear section) or the rear of the van (the rear of the leading van section), but stay with me, I’ll try to avoid this.
Early skirmishing with the head of the English column
Captain Linley’s lieutenant led the forlorn hope with 50 shot, after which came the baggage. Captain Atherton, the sergeant –major of the army, had no doubt that the weight of the Irish attack would fall on the rear of the column. Captain Linley led the van, Captain Radcliffe the battle and Captain Loftus the rear of the battle. Captain Loftus’ second in command, Lieutenant Walsh, led the shot in the van of the rear. Captain Wardman and Mallory were behind them with Captain Atherton, Harrington and Captain Montague’s Horse. The rear was protected by sleeves of shot commanded by two of Loftus’ sergeants. The army had marched a mile before the Irish started skirmishing with the rear elements of the column. They came to a ford where the Irish tried to overtake the column, coming up along the left flank, but the far side was secured by the van and the battle. The shot of the rear maintained a good skirmish with the Irish shot, allowing the army to cross the first ford without major incident or loss.
The march continued for a further two miles, all the time the rear and loose wings of shot, supported by Montague’s cavalry held the Irish skirmishers back. On reaching a second ford Atherton had the loose shot reinforced and resupplied, and requested that Harrington secure the opposite bank of the river with troops from the vanguard. Harrington placed 40-50 musketeers behind a bank on the far side of the ford to cover the crossing of the battle and rear. Atherton had the horse cross over before the battle to avoid confusion or disorder. The infantry crossed next, albeit too quickly for Atherton’s liking; it was Harrington who ordered them to make haste. The Irish battle continued to follow along the bog on the left, but the fire from the Irish shot slackened, enabling the English rear and loose shot to make good the ford.
O'Byrne's men maneuver along the left flank of the English force
To this point, Harrington’s force had taken little if any casualties. The Irish were limited to attacking along the English left, as thick gorse bushes protected the right. Atherton detached a force of loose shot and pikes under one of Loftus’ sergeants to deter any move on the ford by the Irish. He moved with 60-80 men to some advantageous ground beyond the bank (still defended by 40-50 shot of the van). He intended to counter-attack the Irish now that their shot had exhausted their ammunition, no doubt with the intention of dispersing the Irish and discouraging any further attacks on the column. The musketeers at the bank were to hold their fire until Atherton charged, but instead prematurely fired off in a single volley and ran off in the direction of the main stand of English infantry. Some accounts say they dropped their weapons and ran. Regardless, their flight sapped the will of Atherton’s infantry; when he ordered his men to charge the Irish they refused, and then fled themselves. Returning to the road, Atherton found that all the shot from the battle and van had decided for themselves to withdraw independent of the supporting pike. This is a nice way of saying they legged it, leaving the slower pikemen to their fate.
Panic set in. The pikemen pressed the ranks in front to get away through the narrow strait beyond the ford but were held in place by the officers. While attempting to return some discipline, Captain Wardman was shot in the face and killed. Perceiving disorder in the English ranks, the Irish assaulted the rear of the column, killing many of the English pikemen without resistance. The English horse charged to cover the retreat. The Irish formation opened allowing the English cavalry to pass through the head of their formation, receiving pike thrusts as they went. Many of the horsemen were injured, including Montague who was speared in the side and Captain Loftus received a leg wound, which later proved fatal. Despite the efforts of their officers and the cavalry, the dispirited foot could not be rallied, and the Irish continued the slaughter to within one and a half miles of Wicklow. All the foot companies, save that of Loftus, abandoned their colours. Harrington’s army had 250 men killed, missing or deserted after the battle. Captain Wardman was killed, and Captain Loftus was wounded and later died from his injuries. Irish losses were estimated to be around 20.
The Irish shattered Harrington's force as defeat became a rout
The initial reports of the battle indicated that the defeat was caused by a failure of the new companies. In his first response, Harrington placed the blame squarely on the ‘armed men’ or pikemen who refused to fight. Walsh blamed the inexperienced foot companies, but by the time of the court-martial in July, Harrington and Captains’ Linley and Mallory were accusing Loftus and Walsh of abandoning their positions, causing the disorder and resulting rout. This was convenient as Loftus had died of his wounds and was in no position to contradict them. Their version of events was corroborated by the illustration of the battle which may have been drawn by Montague (Harrington’s nephew). This was not the first time Montague fabricated a story to explain a disaster. He was the first officer to return to Dublin after O’Neill’s victory at the Yellow Ford in 1598. Montague quickly painted a picture of which aggrandised the horsemen (in part commanded by Montague) while condemning the failures of the infantry. Atherton, who appeared to be one of the few English officers to retain any control during the engagement, placed no blame against Loftus or his men. Nevertheless, someone had to pay for the collapse of Harrington’s command, but it wasn’t going to be Harrington.
Loftus and Walsh were found responsible by a court martial; Loftus had already died, and Walsh was sentenced to death by firing squad. Mallory and Linley were found not guilty, but they were removed from the commands (cashiered in contemporary parlance). Montague was cleared of any misconduct. Harrington rejected any allegations of his personal failure during the engagement, and he was never accused due to his position as councillor, but questions were still raised over his conduct. Harrington was never given command of anything larger than a troop of horse or foot company for the rest of the war. Captain Montague continued his service until the abolition of his position as quartermaster-general of the camp in April 1600 caused him to return to England. Despite the findings of the majority of the colonels on the court-martial, Lord Chancellor Loftus was adamant that his son Adam had acquitted himself well, ‘sticking to it, when others fled’. However, dead scapegoats are the easiest to pin the blame on, so no defense would be forthcoming from Loftus’ grave. Moreover, it was Loftus’ Irish company and not the untrained levies which paid the price. Essex ordered them all executed, but the viceroy showed ‘mercy’ by commuting the sentence to decimation. Drawing lots, one in every ten men were put to death on the orders of Essex.