Wargaming Benburb: How It Played Out

When Lord Leven left Sir Robert Monro in command of the Scots Ulster army, he told him quite candidly that should he meet Owen Roe O’Neill in the field Monro would likely be beaten. This was less an indictment of Monro – an experienced and successful general – than Leven’s regard for O’Neill’s considerable abilities. History proved Leven correct. Of course History did not have me to play the part of Owen Roe!

The Orders of Battle and Scenario Notes for this wargame can be found at the Benburb 1646 page.

A series of posts concerning Benburb (starting with the earliest) is collected here.

Finally here are the simple symbols that I use to indicate important actions in the pictures provided.

Benburb – June 5, 1646 – County Tyrone, Ireland

Turn One

Miles “The Slasher” O’Reily’s small command of Irish lancers activated first and, contrary to my original careful planning about securing the right flank, saw an opportunity to easily seize an objective, threw off all caution, and stormed across the small stream dividing the two armies:

Of course seizing is one thing, holding that which is seized is another matter entirely.

The centers of both armies activated and began advancing toward each other, pike points glittering in the late afternoon sun. Owen Roe ordered his left wing horse (commanded by his son Henry) to advance toward the road crossing of the stream (one of the Protestant objectives) to be in position to react should the Protestants attempt to take it. They were met by concentrated fire from Lord Blaney’s light gun batteries and the battle was formally under way:

Although disorganized, to their credit O’Neill’s Horse stood fast.

There was further maneuvering and positioning by the main bodies but it was the Protestant horse on both wings (greatly outnumbering their Irish counterparts) that struck hard and decisively:
On the Irish left, Lord Montgomery’s Horse attempted to take the crossing and were met by O’Neill’s Horse reacting with an opportunity charge. The ensuing melee’ ended badly for the Irish forcing them to retreat with casualties. They were hotly pursued by the Anglo/Irish horse, who caught them and gave them another mauling. The Irish again retreated (nearly off the board) but this time the Mongomery’s Horse failed to catch them with a second pursuit.

The stream crossing now cleared, Sir Robert Adair, following behind Montgomery’s, easily captured the prize for the Protestants. Behind him the Anglo/Irish foot began to come up.

At the end of the first turn the Irish were already having a bad day. As poorly as things had gone on the Irish left, the situation on the right was not much better. Monro’s heavy horse charged O’Reily’s impetuous lancers who failed their countercharge reaction. First the Scots fired an effective pistol volley then hit the Irish with swords swinging:

The lancers were driven back with heavy losses and the Scots showed remarkable restraint in not pursuing into the teeth of the Irish foot.

In the first turn the Protestants had already gained a third of the points they needed for victory! The Irish are now faced with having both of their flanks threatened with no effective cavalry force left on the table. The Irish reserve under Rory Maguire pivoted his foot to deal with the dire threat on the left. Owen Roe, however, is left with the choice of trying to withdraw his foot (who are now well advanced) or attempting to break through the Protestant center. The next activation sequence will undoubtly help him with his decision.

Turn Two

Maquire’s reserve activated first and moved to bring the encroaching enemy horse under fire, a fire which proved effective in producing a few casualties. Lord Montgomery’s wing was next to activate. His horse rallied, and although receiving further casualties from Maquire’s well-aimed opportunity fire, charged into the remnant of O’Neill’s Horse (now covering the Benburb road exit objective).

In the confused melee’ that ensued, the now exhausted O’Neill’s managed to hold their position. Seeing that his very successful advance might be cut off, Lord Montgomery sent Adair’s horse directly into the Tyrconnell  Foot to prevent them moving to cut the road. Although there was a great deal of shooting and stabbing (and probably no small amount of cursing) no significant casualties resulted. but Adair had, however, successfully stalled any movement the Tyrconnell Regiment.

Owen Roe finally activated and began his assault across the Wet Hollow (apparently now intent on saving the day by first taking the Protestant guns – which were still producing a  galling fire – and then crushing the enemy center). Meanwhile his horse (barely in command range far to the left) was forced to keep fighting and was finally destroyed (the green star) by Montgomery’s splendid horse.

As a result, the Protestants had now gained a more valuable second objective! The Tyrconnell Foot also continued fighting but were unable to drive off Adair’s very persistent horse:

Phelim O’Neill then joined the attack across the stream with his foot  (although he was obliged to send two of his regiments to the right to deal with the large force of enemy horse threatening to turn that flank). Phelim’s foot added their fire to Owen Roe’s and severely damaged Lord Blaney’s Foot.

Farther to the right, The Longford Regiment all but destroyed Monro’s heavy horse and for the moment stabilized the Irish right flank.

Monro now advanced his Scottish foot to musket range and fired devastating vollies against the advancing Irish. The results were disastrous! Owen Roe’s foot regiment was halved in strength and the powerful MacDonald’s Foot was destroyed!

The Protestants had now gained 31 victory points and won the game! The Irish had managed only six points. I sat stunned!  It was over before it was well begun.

The last picture shows the situation when the game ended. Of note, George Monro’s cavalry wing had not even gotten to move. The Protestants, seeing how well things had been going, had already begun withdrawing the two fatigued units that were being held in a third reserve line. Likewise the Irish were withdrawing thier final, heavily damage horse unit (O’Reily’s) to deny the possibility of more points to the enemy:

Two moves! It only took two moves and the second move didn’t even complete. Who would have thought it possible. It could be argued that forty points might have given a longer game but it hardly matters. The three very capable foot regiments that Owen Roe was depending on to carry the day (and they might have done if they could have come to grips with the Protestant Foot) were no longer so capable. Owen Roe’s was shot to pieces, MacDonald’s destroyed and Maquire’s detached and distracted far to the left.

All-in-all it is a sensible end. The Irish army is still intact and may, with care, be able to successfully retreat to their stronghold at Claremont. It is a wargame scenario I may revisit at some point.

It goes without saying that I mismanaged the Irish from the first activation. I think I’ll spend the next post on why this went as badly (for the Irish) as it did and how very well the Baroque rules worked.

4 thoughts on “Wargaming Benburb: How It Played Out

  1. Wow! It’s all in the playing to see how it might work. This reminds me of a war game the gifted teacher used to have the fifth grade students play. The American colonists were trounced by the British very easily, as you might have expected them to be. The kids weren’t told the identities of the two armies until after the colonists had lost. It made the kids appreciate more what the colonial leaders had risked in declaring liberty and fighting to make themselves free.


    • Thanks, Bonnie. Interesting observation. Gaming is a powerful learning tool. The results of this game point out that Owen Roe’s victory was hardly a given. Although one of the greatest tactical victories in Irish history it did translate to a strategic victory.

      Washington hardly won a battle but managed to keep the American military effort alive through sheer force of will. We also forget that the British were partially distracted elsewhere, tried to manage too much from afar, and lost public support at home for the war in American.

      Our armies in New England and particularly in the South began bleeding the British dry – and the French came to our assistance (no insignificant thing!)

      The American War of Independence is absolutely fascinating (and could likely be called our “First” Civil War).


  2. An interesting battle and one that I am in the process of ‘re-fighting’ myself. So far….I have not come across any indication of irregular Irish Clan warriors taking part in the fight, I would have thought that some would have been there and would have done a ‘bloody business’ in the pursuit! Any ideas?

    Great report!


  3. Hi Kenneth, thanks for the comment.

    When I started this project of wargaming the Celtic Fringe I was fully expecting to find the usual warriors of the native Irish Clan system (“The Rising Out”, etc.) still in place (in fact wanted to find it!). Like you, however, I have not found evidence for it. While there was some resistance after 1603 to the plantations, it was quickly suppressed and the native Catholic population pretty much disarmed.

    In some ways, it seems, they had to start over in 1641, and the goal became to build armies that would use conventional weapons and tactics on a conventional battlefield.

    That said, most of the fighting in the Eleven Years War was skirmish and ambush, probably looking more like what we expect. 1641/2 also has many possiblities for the presence of irregular warriors.

    I did a recent post on how I’m currently organizing the irregulars:


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