‘My cabal of one’

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2020), Volume 28

The marquis de Boisseleau and the ‘Battle of the Breach’ at the first siege of Limerick, 1690.

By Pádraig Lenihan

History recalls Patrick Sarsfield as the hero who saved Limerick from Williamite besiegers in August 1690. The Frenchman who actually commanded the troops holding the city is less well known, though Limerick’s 2013 ‘Sarsfield’s Day’ did give Alexandre de Rainier de Droué, marquis de Boisseleau, honourable mention.

Louis XIV’s third war

Boisseleau had enlisted as a cadet in the Guards Regiment in 1667 in time for the first of Louis XIV’s many wars, seeing service in sixteen sieges. In the third of Louis XIV’s wars, James II landed in Ireland in March 1689. He brought with him a cadre of French officers, Boisseleau amongst them, to lead and instruct the raw Irish. Boisseleau missed the Siege of Derry but spent the winter of 1689–90 guarding the frontier outpost of Ardee, Co. Louth, in a no man’s land already picked bare by two hungry armies. His troops were left unpaid and he seems to have spent much of his own money to feed and clothe them.

In the summer of 1690 the Franco-Irish field army (they had been reinforced by a 6,000-strong expeditionary force under the comte de Lauzun) pulled back from Ardee to the River Boyne. The main action in the battle that followed was a rearguard one in and around the ford of Oldbridge involving most of the Irish cavalry and just six Irish battalions, which included Boisseleau’s two-battalion regiment. Boisseleau complained of his troops that, after a half-hour fire fight and three charges, ‘I could not get them to charge or rally’ because ‘… the enemy was stronger and their firepower heavier …’.

On reaching Limerick after the battle, Lord Deputy Richard Talbot, earl of Tyrconnell, ordered stragglers to rendezvous at that city but otherwise did little to put Limerick in a state of defence. At a council of war Tyrconnell produced a declaration signed by him and by all the French officers, except Boisseleau, which recommended that the Irish ‘accept what terms’ William of Orange offered. For many officers, chief among them Major-General Patrick Sarsfield, this declaration confirmed that Tyrconnell was a defeatist who was unfit to rule.

Lauzun insisted on retreating to Galway, from where he could embark, and on 2 August he finally left Limerick. Tyrconnell also left, and for much of August he and the cavalry ‘observed’ the enemy from a prudent twelve Irish miles away. He tasked Boisseleau with defending the city with some 10,000 foot soldiers, many of them unarmed. Tyrconnell picked a Frenchman to lead Irish troops in defence of an Irish city because he was the person least offensive to both factions. Nevertheless, even though Boisseleau had voted against Tyrconnell, Sarsfield’s faction still distrusted him. He complained that he was ‘alone in my cabal of one’.

Limerick 1690

There were two Limericks—the Englishtown on the island and the Irishtown on the mainland. They could both be cut off only if an attacker had enough men to divide his army between both sides of the Shannon. William enjoyed no more than a 2:1 margin of numerical superiority over the Irish and so he would have to attack the somewhat more vulnerable Irishtown. Boisseleau might complain that the Irishtown had but a bare ‘dry stone wall’ but those walls were 25–30ft high and 4–5ft thick. By the time William’s army appeared, Boisseleau’s troops had dug a shallow ditch around the Irishtown and sculpted the excavated spoil into a breast-high rampart topped by a double palisade.

When William opened trenches on the night of 9 August (Old Style) it was already late in the campaigning season and ‘the season of heavy rain, high winds and long nights’ was looming. Nor did William have unlimited munitions because of Sarsfield’s raid on the siege train at Ballyneety. And yet shortages of time or munitions do not provide a sufficient explanation for the failure of the siege.

From 9 August the Williamite sappers made fast progress. Nine nights later the Williamites were close enough to storm a redoubt within musket-shot of the city walls. Under heavy fire the English storm troops recoiled, were set on by Irish from the town and fled. Next day, Williamite guns damaged the redoubt, which was captured after five hours of attacks and counter-attacks that afternoon. Boisseleau consoled himself that William had ‘paid a very high price’ but he was whistling in the dark. William was perfectly willing to spend lives in order to save time. With no slackening of pace, his sappers wormed their way in and around the redoubt and his gunners deployed a breaching battery beside it.

The map (below) is based on a contemporary sketch-map—Plan des Villes de Limrick (Bodleian Library)—and shows trenches driving towards the Irish palisade and covered way. By the morning of 27 August the Williamites had smashed the palisades and knocked a breach twelve yards wide in the wall behind, just to the north of the Black Battery. That same morning Boisseleau scribbled a terse note to Lauzun promising that a retirade would ‘be ready to welcome them’. Knowing where the breach would be opened, Boisseleau had enclosed a funnel-shaped space behind with a parapet. He sited guns loaded with case- and chain-shot at the mouth of the funnel, or to one side according to the Descriptio Obsidionis Urbis Limericensis [Description of the Siege of Limerick] by Revd John White of Limerick (translated by Prof. Keith Sidwell, University of Calgary): ‘On the flanking wall / Opposite, by the plan and the command / Of Hero Boisseleau, are cannon three’. The citadel situated between the Black Battery and St John’s Gate contained two inward-pointing bastions. Perhaps Boisseleau mounted his guns on the citadel bastion nearest the breach?

An admirer of Sarsfield’s accused Boisseleau of losing his nerve and urging everyone to ‘abandon’ the Irishtown and escape over Baal’s Bridge to the Englishtown: ‘We did not choose to obey and our sturdy defence proved us right’. There is, however, no corroborating evidence that Boisseleau planned to retreat over Baal’s Bridge. A more cogent criticism comes from the Tyrconnellite author of Light to the Blind: ‘Garrisons usually capitulate when their walls are down’ and Boisseleau’s continued ‘obstinate’ defence was an irresponsible gamble, even if it did pay off, because it exposed a town to the horrors of a storm in which the soldiery might very well run amok.

Storming the breach

Sometime between three o’clock and half past in the afternoon, a vanguard of storm troops, mostly grenadiers, scurried across the twenty yards of open ground and hurled their grenades over what was left of the palisades. The defenders retreated along the covered way to St John’s Gate. Swelling the column behind the storm troops was a first wave of two Dutch battalions, one Danish, one Huguenot, two Anglo-Irish and one Scottish, all commanded by a Scot, Lt. Gen. James Douglas. The breach lay open before them and they clambered across. The Descriptio gloats over the carnage that followed:

Above: Details from two French propaganda prints depicting the Williamites pulling back from Limerick, and the accidental burning of their camp and hospital (with the patients still inside). The breach is marked ‘A’ in the left-hand print and is clearly visible (in the top right-hand corner) in the other. In both prints the city is endowed with stronger bastioned fortifications, including a wet ditch, than was actually the case. (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

Scarcely in their joy

And ululation have they placed their feet,

When in an eye’s blink Mars’ war machines

Explode their horrid furies and then soon

Belch forth the innards of their paunches deep.

The enemy fell at once with savage wounds,

As fall at harvest time the ears of corn …

The Descriptio goes on to deplore the ‘Kings troops running in a scattered fashion everywhere throughout the city’; Boisseleau ignores any such inconvenient break in the modestly triumphant narrative arc of his account, but the troops in the retirade do seem to have fled. The day was saved by a composite regiment of about a thousand men which just happened to be drawn up near Mungret Gate, waiting to go on duty. Boisseleau rushed up to them, ordered them to light the matches of their muskets and led them to the breach. A ‘great number’ of the enemy had ‘come down’ into the retirade by now and about twenty grenadiers had even climbed over the works into the streets. This Mungret Gate regiment killed the grenadiers and held the retirade alone for an hour before they were reinforced, blazing away at ‘fresh men succeeding those that were killed or wounded’. In fact, the only ‘fresh men’ came from the Danish regiment. An all-out and timely storm would probably have carried the retirade but Douglas followed his orders to the letter. He ignored the breach and tried to build a ‘lodgement’ or little fort of fascines (tightly bound bundles of twigs) in the ditch and on the Black Battery.

For three hours ‘continued fire’ thundered, and the 4,000 or so men in the first wave huddled together in the ditch between the palisades and the walls. A Danish officer recalled a ‘great massacre’:

‘… since some of the enemy fired off a hail of shot of all sorts, and many guns, too, fired from the city’s walls and towers. Others crushed the heads of the soldiers with many large stones rolled down from the ramparts. They even cast stones against many, who had already been pierced by sword or pike.’

The duke of Württemberg, in charge of the second wave, had presciently warned against digging in because the ditch and covered way would be ‘too close to the wall and they could give a lot of trouble to our men with stones’. Boisseleau must take credit here. He had made good use of some 400 of the soldiers who had no weapons by posting them on the walls with, presumably, piles of rocks to hand. As they and the musketeers on the walkway were cut down by artillery and musket-shot (some 200 Irish were killed on the walls that day), Boisseleau found no shortage of willing volunteers to step up and fill the gaps.

Above: An extract from Revd John White’s Descriptio Obsidionis Urbis Limericensis [Description of the Siege of Limerick]—‘A brave woman [audax femina] rushes to the enemy and so shames the King’s troops [phalanges Caesari] who have run every which way and scattered into the town’.

Württemberg’s second wave made for St John’s, but the two lead English regiments were driven off by a hail of musket-shot. Next, a barrel or barrels of gunpowder exploded on the Black Battery, ‘… men, faggots, stones and whatnot flying into the air with a most terrible noise’. Boisseleau now led his men in chasing the attackers ‘with pike and sword’ from their latest lodgement right back to their trenches.

After

The Williamites had taken heavy losses—over 500 killed on the spot and three times that many wounded, many mortally so. William suffered the permanent loss of at least 1,000 men that day, a loss double that of the Boyne and maybe exceeding that at Aughrim. Such a body count was not shockingly high given the Anglo-Dutch preference for the massed charge across a fire-swept glacis to waiting patiently as sappers burrowed closer to the covered way. In itself, the death-toll was not heavy enough to deter William from a second storm. What really put him off was that he had not much gunpowder left (thanks to Sarsfield’s raid at Ballyneety) and no more cannon-balls to widen the breach. William had to decamp and he did so quickly before autumn rains mired the heavy guns.

Boisseleau fell sick soon after the siege was raised and pleaded to be sent home from Ireland, complaining that ‘I would prefer to be a musketeer in France than to be a general in that country’. On his return, he was praised for ‘acquitting himself with great honour’; he was promoted to brigadier and later to maréchal de camp. He died in 1698.

In the final analysis, Boisseleau’s most important qualification to be governor of Limerick was that he was an outsider who was equally trusted, or mistrusted, by both Jacobite factions. There are a few reasons why the defenders held out, but Boisseleau must take some of the credit. He built up the defences as strongly as time permitted. His retirade was cleverly sited and covered by guns whose existence he had masked until needed. He had piles of rocks laid on the ramparts for his many unarmed soldiers. In short, he had taken all the sensible precautions one would expect. And he was lucky.

Pádraig Lenihan lectures in history at NUI Galway.

FURTHER READING

P. Lenihan, ‘Ballaí Luimní: the sieges of Limerick’, in L. Irwin et al. (eds), Limerick history and society (Dublin, 2009).

M. Lloyd & E. O’Flaherty, ‘A descriptive poem of Limerick in 1690’, Old Limerick Journal 28 (Winter 1990).

S. Mulloy (ed.), Franco-Irish correspondence (3 vols) (Dublin, 1983).

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