SAS Wargames Club

SAS Wargames Club
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Wednesday, 13 May 2015

The Battle of Vinegar Hill 21st June 1798 - Part One

When in 1998, whilst visiting relatives in Ireland, I set my eyes upon “The year of Liberty - The great Irish rebellion of 1798” I knew I was going to be hooked on the subject.  Over the years the members of our club have put up with this obsession of mine and together we’ve fought most of the major engagements on the wargames table, all except Vinegar Hill.  This is mainly because I’ve had to wait until my figure collection was big enough and also due to the fact that I wanted to construct a purpose built hill for the occasion.  Well not so much a hill but the entire area around Enniscorthy where the battle was fought so that it would fit on a 12ft x 6ft table.

The upshot of all of this has been a 3 week epic game that nearly but not quite turned the tables on history.  So here it is the full autopsy of the battle of vinegar hill.

Background to the battle
In the late 1790’s the movement known as the United Irishmen (UI) had flourished as a political movement but because of its sympathies towards the emancipation of Irish Catholics it was forced to become an armed underground movement.

In December 1796 the French attempted to land 15,000 troops at Bantry bay in an effort to support a planned rising by the United Irishmen but the landing failed due to a winter storm and the rising was aborted.

The Irish Government, now unnerved by the fact that they could have had an armed insurrection on their hands, went to extreme lengths to find out who the rebel leaders were and over the next 18 months also attempted to suppress the movement.  Through a combination of torturing suspects and the free quartering troops, which became known as the “Dragooning of Ulster”, it revealed large arsenals of Muskets and Pikes that the rebels had been stock piling and it looked like the movement was on the verge of collapse.  With most of the leadership in prison and in an act of desperation the remaining council members launched what was initially a limited and uncoordinated rising in the eastern counties of Ireland.

The initial outbreak started on 23rd May and was confined to a ring of counties surrounding Dublin.  Crown forces had largely suppressed these and secured the capital when news arrived on 29th May that County Wexford had risen.  1000 rebels had routed 100 men of the North Cork Militia in an open engagement at Oulart hill.  This small victory was enough to swell their ranks to some 15,000.  The outbreak was unexpected because the government had thought that Wexford was an inactive county and thus the garrison had only numbered a few hundred men.

Under the command of Father Murphy the rebel army stormed the town of Enniscorthy and then after destroying a relief column sent from Duncannon fort at the battle of Three rocks, captured the administrative centre of Wexford, Wexford town.  The fall of Wexford was the highpoint of the rebellion with the UI ranks estimated to have swollen to over 35,000.

Whilst the outbreak in Wexford had been going on the commander in Chief of Ireland General Lake had been contending with yet another outbreak, this time in the North of Ireland because in early June Ulster rose.  Culminating at the battle of Ballynahinch the rebels were defeated allowing General Lake to concentrate all his efforts on crushing the rebellion in Wexford.

During this period the rebel' campaign in Wexford had met with devastating defeats at New Ross, Arklow and Newtownbarry and these had the effect of corralling them within the county.  However, the rebels were still in a strong position holding their own against continued attempts by the Crown Forces to break into County Wexford such as at the battles of Tuberneering and Foulksmill.

In the absence of their commander in Chief, the Reverend Philip Roche who was fighting in the west of county Wexford, the rebel council in Wexford town determined that the only way to settle matters was to have a major confrontation with the crown forces that were mustering on the borders of Wexford and it was decided that a stand would be made on Vinegar Hill.  The decision to withdraw troops from the borders of Wexford was seen by many as the wrong thing to do but even after much opposition the decision made by the council prevailed and the army was ordered to fall back.  This manoeuvre effectively lost all the gains the rebels had made in Wexford and would allow the Crown Forces to advance unchallenged.

In the mean time General Lake had been formulating a plan in which six Brigades would “Beat the rebels before them as on a grouse shoot then surround and destroy them”.  Misinterpreting the rebel withdrawal to Vinegar Hill as an all out retreat General Lake must have thought that his plan had had an almost immediate effect without his men even firing a shot.

General Lake was confident that a well disciplined military force could easily beat an undisciplined “rabble” as had already been seen during previous engagements early on in the campaign at Antrim, Ballynahinch and Tara Hill where the Rebels had melted away once they came under organized Artillery and volley fire.

However, the United Irish in Wexford had had a month of continuous fighting in which to hone their military skills and they weren’t the undisciplined rabble that Lake perceived them to be.  For the United Irish the battle of Vinegar hill was not about holding onto the hill but about defeating the crown forces in one last great battle and from this point on I shall move away from the historical account and explain how the game unfolded.

During this narrative you shall here me refer to the “English” as Crown forces.  I’ve done this because firstly Ireland was not part of the Union at this point in time and secondly there were very few English troops involved most of them being Scottish Fencible units, Irish Militia or Yeomanry.

by Steve Cast


The Wexford rising in 1798.  It’s causes and course
Charles Dickenson
ISBN 0-09-478390-X

Ireland 1798 the battles
Art Kavanagh
ISBN 0-9524785-4-4

The memoirs of Myles Byrne Vol 1
Myles Byrne
ISBN 978-1110971879

The Irish Militia 1793 – 1802.  Irelands forgotten army
Ivan F. nelson
ISBN 9-781846-82073

An Ascendancy Army.  The Irish Yeomanry 1796 - 1834
Allan Blackstock
ISBN 1-85182-329-8

The year of Liberty.  The great Irish rebellion of 1798
Thomas Pakenman
ISBN 1-85799-050-1

The year of Liberty.  The great Irish rebellion of 1798 illustrated edition
Thomas Pakenman
ISBN 0-297-82386-8

Royal Irish regiment of Artillery
Major J.J Crooks
ISBN 9-78184-5741-730

The Wexford insurgents of ’98 and their march into Meath
Eamon Doyle

The Battle of Vinegar Hill 21st June 1798 - Part Two

The Game
Before I continue I should explain that the game was not wholly historically accurate.  This was done on purpose firstly to stop players from using historical accounts to work out their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses and to give players a bit of self determination in their deployment and Order Of Battle (ORBAT).  One thing that did reflect history was the deployment areas of the Crown forces.

Army organisations

Crown Forces
Instead of the umpire allocating troops to their historical commanders the players, acting within General Lakes original plan of forming six Brigades, were allowed to allocate whatever troops they liked to whatever commander they liked within the following confines:

Each brigade had to have a minimum of:

2 battalions of Infantry
1 Squadron of cavalry
1 division of Field Artillery (2 guns)

Battalion guns could be allocated as players wished

The commanders for each Brigade are listed below but General Lake was not allowed to form his own Brigade and had to be part of Dundas’s Brigade.

General Gerard Lake
Major General David Dundas
Major General Francis Needham
Major General William Loftus
Major General James Duff
Major General John Moore
Major General Henry Johnson

Pre-game bombardment

At the start of the game the Crown players were given the choice of having an 8 turn (two hour) window in which to initiate a pre game bombardment on the rebel positions.  This was to represent Lakes bombardment of the hill and Enniscorthy before the battle commenced.  This option was declined by the players on the grounds that it would waste ammunition but in doing this it was to have a detrimental effect on their plans.

United Irish Forces

The same free format allocation of troops applied to the UI players.  They had to form their army into five Brigades of any size under the following commanders:

Anthony Perry
Father John Murphy
Myles Byrne
William Barker
Father Mogue Kearns

What they didn’t know was that Father Philip Roche’s forces (At Foulksmill) had already been allocated by the umpire and would turn up later on in the game.

Players were then asked to refer to the strategic map below so that they would understand their initial dispositions and then the tactical map for deployment on the table.

For those of you who know the battle of Vinegar Hill you may have seen a few historical “anomalies” reflected on the map.  Again this was done on purpose to throw any would be researchers off the trail.

Historical changes to the game

1. Historical scenario
After their victory over the rebel forces at the battle of New Ross Major Generals Moore and Johnston were ordered to march on Vinegar hill and attack the town of Enniscorthy.  However Moore was then ordered to join up with the garrison at Duncannon so Johnston continued his march to Enniscorthy alone.  After the garrison failed to rendezvous with Moore he decided to march on to Taghmon but upon reaching Foulksmill Moore encountered a large force of rebels under the command of the Reverend Philip Roche.  With the ensuing battle ending in a stalemate the rebels withdrew after which Moore heard that there were loyalist prisoners held in the gaol at Wexford so he diverted his force to relieve the town.

In this scenario the order for Moore to go to Duncannon is never sent so both Moore and Johnston march on Enniscorthy as originally planned.

2. Historical scenario
After his defeat at the battle of New Ross the Reverend Philip Roche initially fell back to a camp at Sliabh Coillte then later on fell back to the camp at Three Rocks near Wexford town.  On hearing that General Moore was heading toward Foulksmill Roche took 5,000 men and attacked him.  After a stalemate Roche fell back on Wexford thinking that he was being pursued by Moore.  After reaching Wexford he then marched to Vinegar Hill arriving just in time to stave off an attack by General Needham on the retreating rebels.

In this scenario because Moore doesn’t reach Folkesmill Roche heads towards Wexford on the 20th and by the 21st he’s ready to advance on Vinegar Hill with reinforcements from the Wexford garrison.

3. Historical scenario
Because of a major administrative blunder which meant that General Needham had to march all through the night he didn’t arrive at his station at Oulart Hill until late in the morning of the 21st having been inadvertently diverted many miles out of his way by General Lake.  On arrival at Oulart Hill Needham’s infantry were completely shattered so he advanced on Vinegar hill with only his cavalry, arriving just in time to bump into Roche.

In this scenario Needham is still late but he turns up with all of his men albeit pretty exhausted and with lots of disadvantageous tactical factors to impede him.  It also meant that any troops allocated to Needham’s command would also be delayed a lot longer than anticipated.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill 21st June 1798 - Part Three

ORBATS after player allocation

Now, the total number of men shown probably isn’t 100% accurate but as with most historical research of this period it depends upon what you read and a lot of it is subjective so if you like we can agree to disagree.

There isn’t that much solid information concerning what units were present at vinegar Hill so I’ve worked things back and looked at the forces involved in previous battles such as New Ross, Arklow, Tubberneering, Foulksmill etc and then hypothesised on what reinforcements could have been sent after these battles.  For example we know that Needham’s force was reinforced from Dublin after the battle of Arklow and that reinforcements were sent during the battle of New Ross from Waterford, albeit they retreated back to Waterford as soon as they saw that Johnson had been booted out of the town but they turn up again after the battle.

As for the UI forces, again we know that on the eve of New Ross politics interfered and half of Bangel Harveys force decided to quit the field due to the fact that they didn’t like his plan.  Even though we’re not sure where these men went they could easily have gone back to either Wexford or Enniscorthy.

So on that basis I went for the higher numbers I’ve read of if nothing more than to give more of a spectacle on the table.

Crown Forces

General Gerard Lake and Major General David Dundas (5,500 men)
10 units of Line Infantry
4 troops of Yeomanry
6 pieces of Field Artillery
4 battalion Guns

Major General William Loftus (1,200 men)
2 units of Line Infantry
2 troops of Heavy Dragoons
2 Pieces of Field Artillery
1 battalion Gun

Major General James Duff (1,300 men)
2 units of Line Infantry
4 troops of Light Dragoons
2 Pieces of Field Artillery
1 battalion Gun

Major General John Moore (1,900 men)
4 units of line infantry
2 troops of yeomanry
2 Pieces of Field Artillery

Major General Henry Johnson (2,150)
4 units of line infantry
3 troops of Yeomanry
2 Pieces of Field Artillery
1 battalion Gun
(Off table)

Major General Francis Needham (4,450 men)
8 units of line infantry
7 troops of Heavy Dragoons
8 troops of Fencible cavalry

Total = 16,500 men

United Irish Forces

Note: Captured field artillery is that captured at the battle of Three Rocks on 30th May.

Anthony Perry - 2nd in Command (5,200 men)
6 units of pikemen
2 units of guns men
1 Piece of captured Field Artillery
1 Curricle or improvised gun

Father John Murphy (5,400 men)
6 units of pikemen
1 unit of guns men
1 Piece of captured Field Artillery
1 Curricle gun

Myles Byrne (5,200 men)
6 units of pikemen
1 unit of guns men
2 Pieces of captured Field Artillery
1 Curricle or improvised gun

William Barker (5,300 men)
6 units of pikemen
2 units of guns men
2 Piece of captured Field Artillery
1 Curricle or improvised gun

Father Mogue Kearns (4,300 men)
5 units of pikemen
1 unit of guns men
3 Curricle or improvised guns

Off Table (Umpire Allocated force)

Father Philip Roche - Army Commander (7,100 men)
7 units of pikemen
5 units of guns men

Total 32,500 men


Victory conditions were in the hands of the United Irish players and I gave them two options to choose from to try to simulate the historical point at which the United Irish leaders were making their decision to either leave the battlefield or carry on fighting.

Mandatory Objective

Stay on the table until a minimum of 6 of your Pike units are beyond the point of rallying then commit yourselves to ONE of the options below:

Option 1
Stay on the table and continue fighting.  However to ensure complete victory you will need a kill ratio of approximately 3:1.

Option 2
Start to withdraw units off of the table through any favourable exit to the south.  Every unit of Foot or Artillery that is under control and gets off of the table will help offset your losses and therefore increase your chance of victory.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill 21st June 1798 - Part Four

The Rules
The rules that I used were home grown because none of the Commercial of The Shelf Sets gave the right feel to the period and there were many specifics that weren’t even considered.  They’re an amalgamation of ideas taken from Shako, Principles of War, WRG 1685 – 1845, and some period specifics thrown in by myself.

I’ve called them “She’s stopt boys….” after a famous incident during the battle of New Ross when an Irish rebel supposedly put his hat over a cannon that had been impeding the Irish advance shouting “She’s stopt boys….”, upon which the gunner put lintstock to touch hole and blew him away!

They work pretty well, give the right feel to the game and they flow well.  Vinegar Hill took around 11 hours to play out and had 127 units (435 elements) and 2034 figures, so not bad for a game of that size.

Each unit is broken down into elements and apart from Artillery each element is the same width and depth, 1 ½”x ½” the ground scale being 1” to 20 yards.  The depth is over scale but is necessary to accommodate the figures.

The number of figures on each element is purely aesthetic as these rules don’t work to a figure scale.  Much like POW, casualties are recorded on a casualty sheet which in this case each box representing 25 men.

UI Pike elements represent 200 men in four close order ranks
UI guns men elements represent 50 men in skirmish order

Crown infantry elements represent 100 men in two close order ranks 
Crown Cavalry elements represent a troop of 50 men in two close order ranks

Field Artillery which is 1” width x 3” depth, represent one 6lb cannon or one 
5½” Howitzer, the accompanying limber, ammunition wagon and the 36 servers and crew.  In the case of captured Artillery used by the UI the crew are untrained and a lot less in number.

Battalion guns are 1” x 1” and represent 1 gun with four trained infantry crew.

UI Curricle or improvised artillery such as the many swivel guns that appear to have been used are as above but with untrained crew.

The Battle of Vinegar Hill 21st June 1798 - Part Five

The Battle
Instead of me writing reams more I shall instead show the battle in map form at various stages of the game because as they say “a picture paints a thousand words”.  As you look at the maps it may appear that the Crown had the better of it but after looking at the casualty returns Lakes wing was on the verge of collapse.  The game lasted 32 moves with each move representing 15 minutes of real time.

Photo’s of the game will soon be available <here>.

Overview of the battlefield.

For the topography I’d scanned in the area of the battlefield from an Irish Ordnance survey map of county Wexford.  I have many such maps covering the main theatres of operation during the conflict.  The size of Enniscorthy was deduced from looking at the Irish Ordnance survey – Historical mapping section on their web site.  They have maps going back as far as 1830.  I’d encourage anyone interested in wargaming Irelands turbulent past to use both of these forms of media to get a good idea of the terrain that these battles were fought over.

Initial deployment

3am to 4am The UI come off of the hill to engage Lake realising to late that Duff and Loftus are approaching from the North.  Johnson and Moore attack Enniscorthy where murderous street fighting ensues.

4am to 5am After severe hand to hand fighting Lakes left flank collapses with his centre and right coming under intense pressure from Byrnes and Murphy with reoccurring melees all along the line.  He loses two pieces of artillery from accurate and sustained fire from UI Guns men.  Duff and Loftus keep Perry at bay by deploying their cavalry to threaten his rear allowing their Artillery and muskets to tear into his stolid ranks.  Sustaining heavy casualties Johnston and Moore slowly push Kearns out of Enniscorthy.

5am to 6am After nearly breaking Lakes centre Murphy’s now spent troops collapse allowing Lake to bring his remaining artillery back into action.  These along with withering musket fire tear into Murphy’s remaining troops stopping them from closing.  Barkers troops remain on the other side of the river unable to deploy due to a lack of room.  Much to the annoyance of Lake Bynes manages to overrun his Brandy cabinet ensuring that after dinner cigars will not be part of this evening’s entertainment.  Perry continues to take a terrible pounding from Loftus and Duff but refuses to budge.  Having taken the western part of the Town Johnston and Moore try to dislodge Kearns remaining men by bombarding the east side of Enniscorthy.

6am to 7am  Infuriated by the loss of his Brandy Cabinet Lake brings up his other two pieces of Artillery.  Along with the remaining troops on his right flank he begins to tear holes in Byrnes command.  What’s left of his centre continues to hold Murphy off with sustained volley fire.  Having expended nearly their entire stock of canister, but much to the relief of Loftus and Duff, Perry’s command eventually collapses.  Cacking their pants the UI artillery realise that Needham’s cavalry has turned up in their rear.  However, to thwart Needhams plans Roche also makes an appearance.

7am to 8am After a hard fought fight what remains of Murphy’s command breaks giving Barker the opportunity to get to grips with Lake.  Needham’s Cavalry chop half of the UI artillery to dog meat with every intent of finishing the job as soon as they can.  Needham’s infantry turn up forcing Roche to split his command in two and negating any further advance.  Byrne continues to poke the eye of Lake by drinking yet more of his Brandy whilst his men frustrate Lakes attempts to force them off the hill.  Johnston and Moore continue to pound Enniscorthy.  Loftus and Duff start their advance into the rear of the UI forces

8am to 9am having had enough of Lakes Brandy and his fill of “grape” quits the field.  Having finished off the UI Artillery Needham’s cavalry inhibits Roche’s advance any further.  Taking sustained artillery fire Roches men hold their ground allowing what remains of the Wexford army to retreat in good order.

9am to 10am It’s all over for the UI who head back to Wexford to plan the next phase of their campaign against the Crown whilst Lake licks his wounds and drowns his sorrows in what’s left of his Brandy.