What I’m writing* about this week, No 4: The Battle of the Boyne
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Blood’s Campaign. It is the third book in the series and concerns my semi-fictional hero Holcroft Blood’s participation in the Williamite Wars in Ireland. The centrepiece of the book is the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690. The book’s not out till November but I thought I would give you a little taste of the action to whet your appetites. You can pre-order it here.
One of the main characters, an Irish raparee (irregular light cavalryman) called Michael “Galloping” Hogan is watching the attack at Oldbridge of William of Orange’s famous Blue Guards.
Here you go . . .
“On the far side of the water, from a sunken road that led up to the ridge, stepping through a curtain of leafy fronds, the arms of weeping willows, came the forms of men. Marching men with blue coats with bright orange turn-backs and glorious orange stockings, each one gripping a gleaming musket. William’s famous Blue Guards. His finest men.
At this distance they looked like children’s dolls. Hogan took out his glass and trained it on the far bank of the river. Lined up eight men abreast and countless ranks deep – big men, he could see now, grenadiers, all over six foot tall – the guardsmen came out of the tunnel-like mouth of the road in a slow and steady tramp, like a huge blue caterpillar emerging from a gigantic burrow, and spilling out on to the flat, grassy water meadow before the slow, brown river.
There was something stately, even majestic, about the advance of the Blue Guard. They came straight ahead, with a measured tread, paying little attention to the bank of the river, the leading rank merely jumping straight in and beginning to wade across, water up to their thighs, muskets held shoulder high, the men behind following in their splashes, their legs whipping the water white.
On the south bank, Hogan could see red-coated Irishmen, poking heads up from where they had been taking cover, and their officers were now beginning to marshal them. A goodly number had survived the artillery barrage, thank God. Many hundreds. Even thousands. Whole companies, scores of men, erupted from half-crushed buildings, taking their places on their knees by mounds of steaming rubble, levelling their muskets. Other formations, company or even some battalion-sized, were forming up behind the shot-torn hedgerows and crumbled smoking remains of stone walls that had once been little cottages.
Hogan felt a little flame of hope burst into life in his heart.
The first Irish volleys crashed out, precise, deadly, and Hogan saw five grenadiers in the front rank of Blue Guards fall, splashing into the brown water. But their places were immediately filled from the wading ranks behind. More volleys. The musket balls whipped into the advancing column, lashing it from the front and both sides now. Lead balls thumping into human meat. Dutchmen fell, again and again, plunging sideways into the water, gouts of red splashing the dark coats of their fellows, the bodies drifting away eastwards with the current. The men of Clanrickarde’s Regiment of Foot, the foremost red-coated battalion tasked with guarding the ford, were on their feet now near the water’s edge, firing as fast as they could, reloading and firing again into the oncoming ranks. Sergeants were screaming, directing the onslaught, and the Irish muskets smashed into the column with fire and lead, and a desperate fear-driven fury.
Still the Dutch came on. Not one man of them had yet fired a shot.
The water of the Boyne was now thick with bodies but the slow blue caterpillar forged onwards, and yet more men were coming out of the sunken road, pushing the column directly into the withering fire of the enemy. Now, incredibly, tall Dutchmen were stepping out on the dry south bank, diverging left and right, splitting into smaller units, still under a murderous, unrelenting storm of Irish musketry. They were forming ranks by companies, wounded men falling with every beat of Hogan’s heart, toppling out of their formation. Others dropping to their knees, sprawling, coughing blood but trying to stand up again and rejoin the ranks. Somehow, in the face of the hurricane of fire, the Dutch ranks were properly formed. Officers and sergeants carefully ordered the lines, with halberd and sword, indifferent to the storm of musket balls that shredded the men all around them. On the right, an elderly officer with a pink sash was shot full in the face. He fell. A sergeant hauled him away and took his place, standing broad shouldered and proud as Lucifer, bawling out his commands.
Hogan was appalled – and awed. These men could not be fully human.
Twenty yards from a hedgerow, which was lined with thirty redcoats, all madly firing and reloading as quick as their fingers could work, the leading Dutch company formed up, calm and cool as if on the wind-swept parade ground outside The Hague. They levelled their pieces, the command came briskly from a sword-wielding gentleman in a silver wig, and the first Dutch volley smashed into the hedge, wiping out all but two of the redcoats pitted against them. The second Dutch rank stepped forward, threading though the first; they straightened the line and a second volley swept away this final pair.
All along the south bank the Dutch were advancing in step, stopping to dress their ranks and firing with a chilling precision. Slaughtering their foes. Some of the blue guardsmen, detached from the main bodies, were throwing grenades, lighting the match fuses on the fist-sized iron balls and bowling them, underarm, towards the enemy-lined hedgerows, where they exploded and did terrible damage, shredding hawthorn and beech to the roots, ripping the flesh off the cowering redcoats behind. The Irish were being slowly pushed back. And yet more of these blue automatons were streaming across the Boyne. There were several hundred Dutchmen now on the south bank in a bridgehead seventy yards wide, thirty deep. The blood-puddled ground, churned to a mire in places, was scattered with dying guardsmen, dropped arms and equipment everywhere.
Now Clanrickarde’s battered men were clearly outnumbered on the south bank and were beginning to make an orderly retreat. This was no rout. No panic. The redcoats would pull back thirty yards, to a fresh hedge or the remains of a wall, reload their muskets, form a ragged line, level their pieces, wait for the command and smash a devastating volley into the advancing Dutch.
Hogan heard the faint rattle of drums and a tinny blast of trumpet over the thump of musket blasts and the screaming of wounded men. He saw that a full battalion of redcoats – six hundred men, King James’s own Foot Guards, some of the finest soldiers in the whole Irish Army – was advancing on this bubbling, smoking cauldron of carnage on the south bank. These bold Irishmen, half pikemen, half matchlock musketeers would push the Dutch back in the water.
Hogan was sure of it.
And then he scanned the bridgehead with his telescope and suddenly he wasn’t so sure. The flow of Dutchmen across the River Boyne had in no way slackened. And many of the blue guardsmen were now snug behind the rubble defences that Irish had so recently abandoned. And what was this? Further east from Oldbridge, near the little spit of land called Grove Island, Hogan could see more Williamite units advancing down to the far side of the river. Musketeers in grey with leather baldricks. Huguenots, he believed, from the split crosses on the flags. Protestant Frenchmen who’d been ejected from France by Louis XIV.
Whose idiot idea was it to send away the bulk of the army?
The Irish Foot Guards were now hand-to-hand with the Dutch Blue Guards in the battered ruins of Oldbridge. The musket smoke, thick as soup, almost entirely obscuring the field, but the regular crash of the volleys and the howls and moans of wounded men were still clearly to be heard. Hogan saw the two companies of Irish pikemen, in a single red block a hundred men strong, lower their sixteen-foot weapons and begin their advance. Nothing could stand in the way of their phalanx; no body of men could hold without being skewered on the sharp pike points. Then out of the smoke on their left flank, a platoon of twenty Blue Guards appeared as if by magic, straightened their lines and began to maul them with disciplined volley fire as they marched past.
The pikemen could do nothing. Volley after volley crashed into the slowly pacing redcoats. And now the Dutchmen directly to their front, fifty men formed up in the ruins of an orchard, added their fire to the general carnage. Shooting for their lives, rank after blue rank poured their lead missiles into the slowly advancing redcoats. A pair of grenadiers ran forward from the right and tossed smoking spheres into the centre of the pike formation. A boom and spray of lethal red-hot metal shards erupted in the forest of pikes. Ten men fell. Then moments later another bang, another dozen men dead or mortally wounded.
More grenadiers darted forward. More bombs were hurled. More men died. The galling platoon fire ripped again and again into the flanks of the marching pikemen. And savaged from front and flank, and from the heart of the formation too, the pikemen stumbled and fell, legs lacerated, groins punctured by red-hot iron, tripping on the corpses of their friends in the smoke, blundering out of formation. Blinded by smoke. Battered by musketry from all sides. In just a few short moments, the vaunted King’s Foot Guards disintegrated into a disorderly terrified mob, the soldiers hurling their unwieldy pikes aside and taking to their heels, haring away back south as fast as their pumping legs would carry them.
And a little further east several hundred grey-clad Huguenots were already halfway across the river, muskets high, wading through the brown water, and there were many more units coming down the hillside behind them – Williamite redcoats this time – streaming down to the river on their left to join the attack.
We cannot hold them, Hogan thought. This fight is surely lost.”
*I know the title of this blog is “What I’m Writing about this Week” but actually I’m editing it this week, I wrote it just before Christmas last year. Hope you don’t mind. I wanted to keep this extract in the series of What I’m Writing. Cheers, Angus
PS You can pre-order a copy of Blood’s Campaign here.