Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"Beat your drums, the enemy is come. For the Lord’s sake, beat your drums" - The Battle of Sedgemoor

Without a doubt the best online account I’ve found for the actual battle is the Battlefields Trust website - the battle is described in detail here.

In summary, however, and at the point where I left off with the stage set, during the night of the 5th/6th, Monmouth decided to launch a surprise night attack across the marshy wastes of Sedgemoor.

It's difficult to say why he decided to do this but at least one account believes it was because of precise intelligence from local supporters on the deployment of the Royalist army, along with offers to guide the Rebel army across the moor which lay between Chedzoy and Westonzoyland. Given his problems at Bristol however, it's also probably fair to say that the army was not in the best of morale, so he would have been aware of the need for positive action, as opposed to upping sticks and moving away... one way or the other he was going to have to fight a battle, and my guess is that the decision was made as a result of a bit of both arguments...

Anyway the Rebel advance would be long (approx. 5 miles), and also at night - Monmouth’s army was based at Bridgewater and the planned advance skirted north and then east of Chedzoy, approaching the Royal Army’s camp from what was hoped was it’s least protected side.











The plan was:
  • The rebel Cavalry would continue west of Westonzoyland so as to attack the Royal artillery train from the rear as this would remove a significant advantage the Royalists had.
  • The Rebel infantry would form up to the north of Westonzoyland and attack the Royal camp, wading across the Bussex Rhyne (a Rhyne - and I wonder if that’s the same derivative as the Rhine River - is “a drainage ditch or canal, used to turn areas of wetland at around sea level into useful pasture” according to Wikipedia!) to hopefully catch the enemy unawares.

The Royal cavalry was in quarters some distance away in the houses in the village, so this also removed the other main royal advantage, its experienced cavalry. (NB. It may well be that this distributed organization of the Royalist army was the main reason Monmouth decided to attack???)

The rebel force marched at about 10:00 or 11:00pm, and the march was expected to last about 3 hours…

The first part of the advance was successful, and they arrived undetected north east of Chedzoy, but unfortunately the guide they were using couldn’t find the crossing point over the Langmoor Rhyne in the map. Time was lost finding the crossing, but once over they were discovered by a royalist scout who let off his musket to alert the Royalist army and then legged it back to the camp (apparently with the repeated call of: "Beat your drums, the enemy is come. For the Lord’s sake, beat your drums"!) Within a short time each of the royal foot regiments were deployed and ready for action, although the fact they deployed so quickly, and at night, shows their level of professionalism and is an ominous pointer to the possible outcome of the battle…

At Westonzoyland the Royal Army consisted of six infantry regiments each in their own camp, along the moor edge north of Westonzoyland. The camp lay within the loop of the Bussex Rhyne but there was sufficient space for them to be able to draw up in battle formation.

The Royal artillery was west of Westonzoyland - also within the loop of the Bussex, but was deployed facing west (towards Bridgewater as that was the direction the attack was expected from)

First exchange
The Rebel cavalry (under Lord Grey) was sent ahead in order to take and hold one of the two main crossings over the Bussex - these were known as the upper & lower plongeon, and his target was the Upper Plongeon ie. the north east of the two. As per the delay at the Langmoor Rhyne, however, he seems to have rushed off without a local guide and in the darkness failed to find it. (NB. Terrain comment: At no point during the action did cavalry or infantry cross the Bussex other than at the plongeons - in fact Grey rode along the north side of the ditch right across the front of the royal infantry deployment looking for a crossing, so it was obviously deep/impassable to cavalry, but the later attack by the rebel foot was to be through it, so passable to foot?).

Once the royal infantry realised that this was the enemy they opened fire and Grey’s cavalry were soon put to flight.

By the time the second division of cavalry arrived, under a Captain Jones the ford was already defended by about 150 Royal cavalry (under Compton). Jones then tried either to take the ford, or to hold back the royal cavalry from advancing across it. (He sounds like a very brave man; a veteran of Cromwell’s Ironsides he was later spared from execution because of the great courage he had shown leading his men in the cavalry engagement) but the opportunity was now passed. This was disastrous as it meant the royal artillery were available for the battle.

Main battle
The royal infantry had all by now deployed between the two plongeons, a distance of probably about half a mile (800 metres)? When the rebel infantry arrived they mounted their attack on the right flank of the royal army at Dumbarton’s regiment, apparently because these were the only royal troops using the old matchlock muskets, and could be seen in the darkness by the glow of their lighted match!

The intent was for the first rebel regiment to cross and attack, supported by successive regiments, but when the rebel infantry arrived, rather than crossing into the attack they got caught up in a fire fight and couldn't be persuaded to move forward. This was undoubtedly a catastrophic error for the rebels; given their level of training, and their comparative lack of firearms, Monmouth's best chance lay with getting his troops at close hand to hand with the Royal army.

The one up side for the rebels lay in the fact that at least early in the engagement they still had the advantage of three artillery pieces, which they deployed about 100 yards back from the Rhyne on their left flank. The fired case shot causing significant casualties in Dumbarton’s regiment, but with their ammunition wagon more than 2 miles away, and with the limited numbers of muskets, the rebel force would never win a fire-fight against the far better equipped, supplied and trained royal infantry.

Last exchange
Churchill commanded the Royal infantry for the most of the battle, transferring regiments from the left to the right flank to support Dumbarton’s. Finally also six of the heavier royal artillery pieces were brought up, three on the right and three in the centre. First they destroyed the rebel artillery and then the royal artillery began to cut through the rebel troops.

When the royal cavalry arrived, with no rebel cavalry to worry about, six squadrons (under Lord Oxford) were sent north (ie. to the royal right) and the King’s four troops of horse to west (the left) across the plongoens to attack the rebel infantry.

When daylight arrived and Feversham (the Royal C-inC) could fully assess the situation he ordered the cavalry to attack (supported by an infantry advance across the rhyne but these were largely not required).

The rebel regiments deployed and met the cavalry attack with pike and musket, and the first cavalry attacks were driven off, but the infantry was in the open, unsupported by cavalry or artillery, and in the end the inevitable occurred and the rebel soldiers began to break and run. As the royal infantry attacked, the troops broke in increasing numbers, seeking the relative protection of the hedged fields. The rebels units were driven back in chaos, and it was now that the majority of casualties were caused..

Aftermath

  • The battle lasted about three hours, by 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning the rebels had all fled or been killed or captured - the rebel army was totally destroyed. Monmouth lost approx. 1500 (1000 killed/ 500 captured) from a total force of approx. 4000 men, the Royal army lost 300 from a total force of approx. 3000.
  • Monmouth attempted to reach the coast to take ship to the continent, but both he and Lord Grey were captured on the 9th. While Grey was able eventually to pay for his freedom, Monmouth was taken to London and executed on the 15th July on Tower Hill. Apparently it took “several” attempts to behead him. According to this website the Duke had paid the axe man - Jack Ketch - to do a swift and clean job, but the axe man lost his nerve and took five strikes to relieve the Duke of his life, much to the outrage of the massed crowd. Even after those five strikes the Duke's head was still attached to his twitching body, finally separated from his shoulders with a knife, on the order of the Sheriff.
  • James II was overthrown in a coup d'état three years later.. if Monmouth had waited just a little longer......

So - an interesting battle for a number of reasons… first major success for a certain royal commander of infantry - John Churchill - later to distinguish himself at Blenheim/Ramillies and Oudenarde where he was better known as the Duke of Marlborough. Sedgemoor was also the last pitched battle fought on English soil, although there were some later skirmishes (the Battle of Preston in Lancashire was fought on 14 November 1715, during the First Jacobite Rebellion, and the Second Jacobite Rebellion saw a minor engagement at Clifton Moor near Penrith in Cumbria on 18 December 1745). Culloden was fought in Scotland..

Looking forward to my visit to the battlefield now...!

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