When history looks back on the career of Oliver Cromwell we see a man who is famed for being a genius as a statesman, general and administrator.
However is this an accurate reflection or a rose colored Victorian view of a man who they transformed from villain to hero.
If we explore Cromwell’s military record, when face with an experienced and competent adversary his lack of tactical ability are glaringly exposed.
Cromwells reputation as a master of military tactics was earned as one of the main commanders of the New Model Army in the English Civil War, where he played a key role in the defeat of the forces of Charles I. However when we compare it to his record especially his disastrous tactics at the siege of Clonmel, during his time in Ireland, we need to reassess this belief.
The wars in Ireland began with the rebellion of the native dispossessed Irish living in Ulster in October 1641, during which thousands of Scots and English Protestant settlers were killed. This extreme outbreak of violence and unrest was triggered by the sense of injustice by the native population who had their land confiscated and resettled by these settlers in the early 1600s.
The rebellion spread throughout the country and at Kilkenny in 1642 the association of The Confederate Catholics of Ireland was formed to organise the Irish Catholic war effort. The Confederation was essentially an independent de-facto state incorporating a coalition of all shades of Irish Catholic society, both Gaelic and the Anglo Irish. The Irish Confederates decided to side with the English Royalists during the ensuing civil wars, but their main aim was the perseveration of the catholic religion and the land rights of the native Irish and Anglo Irish landowners.
The Irish Confederate Wars (1641-53), or in Irish, Cogadh na hAon-déag mBliana, (which translates as the 11 year war), as the rebellion ended up been called was a pivotal moment in Irish history. This conflict became a key part of the English Civil War and developed into a bitter ethnic and religious conflict which still echoes today in Ireland. The war initially went in the favor of the Irish forces and by 1646 80% of Ireland was under the control of the Confederation. However the end of the English Civil war in 1646 brought a sea change in the fortunes of war and the flood of English parliamentary troops into Ireland changed the tide of the conflict. In 1649 Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland with 12,000 men of the New Model Army and took personal control of the war which was said to be a crusade against a catholic conspiracy and revenge for the killing of protestant settlers in Ulster
The Confederation was under the command of Duke of Ormonde James Butler who proved to be a totally inept military commander and was no match for Cromwell. However the native Irish forces in Ulster had appointed Hugh Dubh O’Neill as their commander who proved to be a totally different proposition.
Hugh Dubh O’Neill, The 5th Earl of Tyrone was a member of the O’Neill dynasty, the leaders of which fled Ireland in the flight of the Earls in 1607.. Hugh Dubh was, born in Brussels in 1611 and grew up in the Irish military community. He becoming a professional soldier like other members of the exiled Irish communities and served in the Irish regiment of the Spanish army in Flanders during the Eighty Years’ War against the United Provinces of the Netherlands.
In 1642, his uncle, Owen Roe O’Neill, organised the return of 300 Irish officers in the Spanish service to Ireland to support the Irish Rebellion. O’Neill’s men became the nucleus of the Ulster army of Confederation.
Hugh Dubh was captured early in the war but was exchanged back to his own side after the major Confederate victory at the Battle of Benburb in 1646.
In 1649, after the onset of the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland and the death of Owen Roe O’Neil, Hugh Dubh was sent south with 2000 of the best Ulster troops to defend southern Ireland. It was here that O’Neill and Cromwell crossed swords in a battle that was to shake Cromwells self belief to his core.
Hugh O’Neill was handed the responsibility of the defense of the town Of Clonmel one of the key strongholds of the Irish rebels. He arrived to take command of the garrison in December 1649 and by April 1650 he had around 2000 experienced troops. However due to a blockade of the town by Parliamentary forces food and munitions were in short supply and. This combines with the slaughter of the civilian populations of Drogheda and Wexford the civilian population wanted to consider surrendering the town to Cromwell to prevent them suffering the same fate.
The town of Clonmel is positioned on the north bank of the River Suir, in the county of Tipperary. The town was strongly fortified and had very effective defenses. It was protected on its western, northern and eastern sides by a circuit of walls over six meters high and two meters thick. The south of the town was protected by the river and additional earthworks erected by O’ Neill. In addition to these defensives structures there was additional earthwork reinforcing the walls making them difficult to breach with artillery. O Neill also ordered the construction of a deep ditch ran around the town walls as a defensive against mining of the walls.
The experience that O’Neill had in siege warfare during his service with the Spanish in Flanders was invaluable and he used his skills to prepare for the coming onslaught. He knew that Cromwell could only target the North wall due to the proximity of soft ground to the other part of the walls. He also knew that the soft ground would not bear the weight of the heavy siege guns that would be required to breach the town walls.
Additional he stock piled large timber stakes along with large amounts of earth and stones to be used to create internal defenses if breaches were made in the perimeter wall. This was to become a vital element in the coming fight.
He also understood that the support and confidence of the towns people was vital to a successful defense. Hugh O’Neill ensured that he maintained firm discipline over his troops and ensured that there was no conflict with the local population. This ensured the co-operation and support of the mayor and townsmen of Clonmel. O’Neill had been informed that The Duke of Ormond was raising an army in Ulster to challenge Cromwell. He also knew that if Cromwell could be delayed and even defeated it would destroy Cromwells invincibility and redress the fear created from the massacres of Drogheda and Wexford. It was for these reasons the O’Neill was determined to defend Clonmel for as long as possible.
On the 27 April 1650 Cromwell and his army of 8,000 infantry, 600 cavalry and twelve field guns arrived in front of the walls of Clonmel. Facing him O’Neil had 1400 men 200 of which had no weapons apart from farm tools.
He was determined to conclude the siege as quickly as possible and planned to take the town by storm rather than relying upon the lengthier and riskier process of starving the garrison into submission. He then was going to subjugate the rest of Munster and then return to the England where the exiled Charles II was plotting a return to the throne.
The 5th of May, signaled the start of hostiles and Cromwell’s gunners began bombarding Clonmel’s northern wall, but the field guns he had brought with him were not powerful enough to make a breach large enough to allow a massed assault. Cromwell had to call up heavy siege artillery which had to be hauled overland to Clonmel. This caused further delays which were causing major concern to Cromwell and his officers who were finding resupplying the army a major logistic problem.
To compound the problems O’Neill was not content to hide behind the safety of the town walls. Again using his experience from abroad he launched aggressive and frequent raids on the English lines to disrupt work parties constructing the siege works, forging parties and spreading fear and confusion within the attacker’s ranks.
By the 13th of May, |Cromwell’s heavy siege artillery had arrived at the town and gun positions were established high ground of Gallows Hill to the north of the town and just 200 meters from the north gate.
Cromwell was severely restricted in his tactics due to the soft and boggy ground of the ground around the town to attacking the northern wall. This was as mentioned previously the soft ground was unable to support the weight of the heavy guns. The three heavy siege guns firing 42lb balls, opened fire on the morning of the 16 May and by 1500, unlike the successful assaults on Drogheda, Wexford and Kilkenny, the guns had only succeeded in making a single breach in the walls. Cromwell’s failure to make multiple breaches in the walls allowed O’Neill to concentrate his soldiers at the single breach in the town defenses and became the defining element of the siege.
This failure created a major tactical challenge for Cromwell one for which he and his troops had no experience. Cromwell’s plan was a simple one, he decided to take the brute approach and send his infantry into the breach with the objective to fight their way into the town and capture the North Gate. Once the gate was secured the infantry would open the gate where Cromwell and his cavalry would be waiting to charge in. Once this was achieved the town defenders would have been outflanked and the town would fall. As in the sieges of Wexford and Drogheda Cromwell had given the order that no quarter was to be given and the town’s population was to be put to the sword.
However the experience of O’Neill of siege warfare in the Spanish Netherlands was to provide a surprise for Cromwell and his New Model Army. The night before the assault began; O’Neill had created a fortified redoubt immediately behind the point where the heavy artillery had breached the wall. O’Neill knew that Cromwell’s tactics would be to rush the breach and force his way into the town. To counter this he built his redoubt into a V-shaped inner fortification of earth and timber. Its walls were two meters in height and lined with musketeers loops. The walls converged at the point of it V about 75 meters from the breach where two cannon position were placed facing down towards the opening in the breach. An English officer Capt Warr, who witness the attack described it as such.
” Hugh Duff did set all men and maids to work, townsmen and soldiers, only those on duty attending the breach and the walls — to draw dung hills, mortar, stones and timber and made a long lane a man’s height and about eighty yards length on both sides from the breach with a foot bank at the back of it and caused to be placed engines on both sides of the same and two guns at the end of it invisible opposite to the breach and so ordered all things against a storm”
O’ Neill had created the classic killing zone and this was where he hoped to break Cromwell’s best troops and give them an experience they would never forget.
When the English soldiers stormed through the breach, they found themselves in a deadly killing ground. They were enclosed by O’Neill’s fortification with no shelter from the hundreds of Irish musketeer men firing from protected position into the mass of the attackers. In addition the two Irish cannon where causing havoc firing point blank into the surging mass of soldiers cutting them down with chain shot.
Chain shot when fired, after leaving the muzzle the chain expands up to 2 meters in length, it would then sweep through the target. At this range is cut mass swades in the ranks in Cromwell’s soldiers and taking the sting out of the assault
Unable to advance further due the withering weight of fire from all sides and trapped by the mass numbers of the English troops still pouring through the breach, the Parliamentarians were cut down in their hundreds by intensive musket fire and chain shot fired at ranges of a few meters.
Within 30mins over 1,000 infantrymen of Cromwell’s crack troops lay died. The shocked and demoralized survivors retreated in disorder from the killing ground and ran back to the English camp.
Cromwell watching the frenzied battle from a few hundred meters away, with mounting dismay. Never before had his New Model Army been so utterly routed. He tried to rally his troops for another assault, but the infantry refused to enter the breach a second time knowing they had no hope of success.
This approach laid bare Cromwell’s limited tactical awareness and ability. When plan A failed he did not have a plan B and when for the same brute approach that served him so well in the various battles on the mainland. Cromwell who was a cavalry commander at heart decided to send in his beloved Ironsides, his heavy to send cavalry, who were protected by iron helmets and body armour.
Cromwell inspired so much loyalty in his Regimental cavalry commanders that they immediately volunteered to lead the assault on a enemy that was waiting for them on a battleground not suited to a mass assault.
At around 1500hrs., the commanders of the Ironsides, Colonels Culme and Sankey personaly led their column of dismounted cavalrymen in a massed attack on O’Neills position inside the breach. The pressure of assault was so heavy and concerted that the Irish defenders were quickly driven from the main breach and back to the inner fortification that O’Neil had constructed as his second line of defence. Fierce and bloody hand-to hand fighting continued for three hours with no quarter given by either side. Capt Warr again describes the battle in the following account:
“Hugh DufiTs men within fell on those in the pound with shotts, pikes, scythes, stones and casting of great long pieces of timber with the engines amongst them and then two guns firing at them from the end of the pound, slaughtering them by the middle or knees with chained bullets, that in less than an hour’s time about a thousand men were killed in that pound, being a top one another”
Finally the Ironsides, exhausted, with horrendous causalities amounting to nearly another 1000 men along with nearly all of their officers and with no hope of penetrating the Irish defences, finally retreated in ragged order.
English records are very vague about the number lost at the siege of Clonmel however the numbers must be between 1,500 and 2,500 men. It was the first major defeat inflicted on the New Model Army and was by far the greatest loss of life it had sustained in a single action.
Cromwell knew that in a hostile countryside with dwindling supplies and with the loss of over 25% of his fighting force he could not afford to risk another assault. His only option was to settle down for a long siege to starve O’Neill into submission. This was an option he could not consider with the threat of Charless II invading England and the rebel Irish undefeated in Munster
However he knew he could not leave Clommel untaken as it would destroy his image of an unbeatable general, providing renewed hope to his enemies both in Ireland England and abroad. He decided to do the unthinkable and negotiate with O’Neill to avoid the dishonour of returning under the cloud of defeat.
What Cromwell was not aware of was O’Neill and his forces were not in a much better state. While they had repulsed the English attack, nearly 300 hundred of his men had been killed and his ammunition was totally exhausted. The blockade of the town by English troops had proved to be very effective and food supplies for the town had been totally exhausted. He also had heard that the force sent to relieve the town had been routed and there was no prospect of help arriving. Ormond had no more troops to send and seemed to have lost heart in the conflict.
Because of this he decided to evacuate his troops and live to fight another day. The night after the assault, the Irish garrison slipped away under cover of darkness, crossing the River Suir to the south of the town which had been left unguarded..
Next day, John White, the Mayor of Clonmel, sent a message to Cromwell asking for terms for the surrender of the town. This was not expected by and Cromwell jumped at the chance to bring the costly and embarrassing siege to an end. At this stage he had not realised that O’Neill and his soldiers had left the town the night before.
O’Neil had instructed White to drag out the negotiations out as long as possible to enable him to put as much distance between him and the English forces. Cromwell granted generous terms, guaranteeing the lives and property of the townspeople. After the surrender was complete Cromwell asked Whyte if Hugh O’Neill knew of his surrender. Whyte answered he did not, as he was left the night before with all his men,
When Cromwell heard this, the records report that he stared and frowned at the Mayor and said:
“You knave have you served me so, and did not tell me so before.” To which the Mayor replied that if his Excellency had demanded the question he would tell him. Then he asked him what that Duff O’Neill was, to which the Mayor answered that he was an over sea soldier born in Spain, on which Cromwell said ” God damn you and your over sea” By God above I will follow that Hugh Duff O’Neill where soever he goes.
Although he was furious when he learned that White had outwitted him, Cromwell nevertheless kept to the terms were we as follows:
Articles made between the Lord Leifetenant and the Inhabitants thereof touching the rendition thereof, May the 1 8th, 1650.
It is graunted and agreed by and betwixt the Lord Lieut. Genii. Cromwell on the one part and Mr Michael White and Mr Nicholas Betts Comrs. entrusted in the behalfe of the towne and guarrison of Clonmel on the other parte as follows.
1st The said towne and guarrison of Clonmel with the arms ammunicon and other furniture of warr that are now theirin shall be rendered and delivered up into the hands of his Excellency the Lord Left, by eight of the clock this morninge.
2nd That in consideracon thereof the inhabitants of the said towne shall be protected their lives and estates from all plunder and violence of the souldiery and shall have the same rights libertye and proteccon as other subjects under the authoritie of the Parliament of England have or ought to have and injoy within the dominion of Ireland.
However Hugh Dubh and Cromwell we never to cross swords again personally and there paths never crossed. Immediately after the siege Cromwell departed and returned to deal with the threat from Charles II and to lead the army that was going to invade Scotland. However I suspect another reason that Cromwell’s left was his self belief in his mission to act as god vengeance on the savage and papist Irish had been shaken to the core by his experience at Clonmel. Never before had both he and his New Model Army, been defeated and suffered such horrendous casualties.
He handed control of the army and the Irish campaign to his son in law Henry Ireton who he mandated to destroy the catholic armies and to bring Hugh Dubh to account. Ireton was left in no doubt by his father in law that this need to be done as quickly as possible