When we look back on the career of Oliver Cromwell, we see a man who is famed for being a genius as a statesman, general and administrator.
If we explore Cromwell’s military record when faced with an experienced and competent adversary, his lack of tactical ability is glaringly exposed.
Cromwell’s 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 his record at the siege of Clonmel, 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 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 the 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) 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 that still echoes in Ireland today.
The war initially went in the favor of the Irish forces and by 1646, 80% of Ireland was under the control of the Confederation. The end of the English Civil war in 1646 brought a flood of English parliamentary troops into Ireland that 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 in 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 whose actions showed him to be a totally inept military commander. 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, 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 became a professional soldier 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 returned in a prisoner exchange 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 elite 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 thousands of experienced troops.
Due to a blockade of the town by Parliamentary forces, food and munitions were in short supply. This, combined with the memory of the slaughter of the civilian populations of Drogheda and Wexford, the civilian population wanted to consider surrendering the town to Cromwell to prevent them from suffering the same fate.
The town of Clonmel is positioned on the north bank of the River Suir, in the county of Tipperary. 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 made them difficult to breach with artillery. O Neill ordered the construction of a deep ditch that ran around the town walls to prevent them from being breached by mining underneath. He also stockpiled large timber stakes and quantities of earth and stone to create internal defenses should the perimeter wall be breached.
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. O’Neill understood that the support and confidence of the townspeople were vital to a successful defense.
O’Neill had been informed that The Duke of Ormond was raising an army in Ulster to challenge Cromwell. He 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 that O’Neill was determined to defend Clonmel for as long as possible.
On the 27th April 1650, Cromwell and his army of 8,000 infantry, 600 cavalry, and twelve field guns arrived at the walls of Clonmel. Facing him O’Neil had 1400 men, 200 of which had no weapons apart from farm tools to defend themselves.
Cromwell 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.
The 5th of May signaled the start of hostilities and Cromwell’s gunners began bombarding Clonmel’s northern wall but the field guns were not powerful enough to make a breach large enough to allow a massed assault. Cromwell had to call up heavy siege artillery overland to Clonmel which caused considerable delays to O’Neills advantage.
O’Neill was not content to hide behind the safety of the town walls, 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 and gun positions were established on the high ground of Gallows Hill to the north just 200 meters from the north gate.
The heavy siege guns opened fire on the morning of the 16th of May but their bombardment had only succeeded in making a single passable breach in the walls. Cromwell’s failure to make multiple breaches allowed O’Neill to concentrate his soldiers at the single entry that became the defining element of the siege.
Cromwell’s response was a simple one, he decided to take the brute approach and send his infantry into the breach with the objective of fighting their way into the town and capturing the North Gate, thus allowing the remainder of the army to enter.
The night before the assault began; O’Neill had created a fortified redoubt immediately behind the point where the heavy artillery had breached. 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.
An English officer, Capt Warr, who witnessed the attack described:
“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 elite troops. When the English soldiers stormed the breach, they found themselves under fire from hundreds of Irish musketeers. In addition, two Irish cannon was firing on the surging mass of soldiers cutting them down with chain shot.
Unable to advance further due to 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.
Within 30 minutes, over 1,000 infantrymen of Cromwell’s crack troops lay died and many more wounded. 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 had never before seen his New Model Army 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.
Cromwell inspired so much loyalty in his Ironside Regimental cavalry commanders that they immediately volunteered to lead a second 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.
The assault was so heavy and concerted that the Irish defenders were quickly driven from the main breach and back to an inner fortification that O’Neil had constructed. 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”
The Ironsides had causalities amounting to nearly another 1000 men and retreated in defeat. English records are very vague about the number lost at the siege of Clonmel but historians believe 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 country, 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 couldn’t consider as the threat of Charles II invading England and the rebel Irish undefeated in Munster loomed.
Cromwell knew that leaving Clommel untaken 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 wasn’t aware of, was that O’Neill and his forces had suffered many casualties themselves and their position was frail. Whilst 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 proven to be very effective and food supplies for the town had been totally exhausted. A force sent to relieve the town had been routed and there was no prospect of help arriving.
That night after the assault, the Irish garrison slipped away under the cover of darkness crossing the River Suir to the south of the town which had been left unguarded. The next day, John White, the Mayor of Clonmel, sent a message to Cromwell asking for terms for the surrender of the town.
O’Neil had instructed White to drag out the negotiations for 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.
When Cromwell heard of O’Neil escape, 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.”
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.
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. It is suspected that Cromwell’s 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.
Written by Diarmaid Walshe
Header Image Credit : Pubic Domain