For 20 minutes on 16 April, 1746, it was the “worst place on earth”.
A corner of Culloden Moor, perhaps 30 metres square, was the scene of “vicious” hand-to-hand fighting between the prized right flank of the Jacobite troops and the left column of the British Army. Musket balls rained down and explosive mortar shells were fired from close range as the Jacobites, many armed with pistols, fought in close contact.
“It was incredibly vicious and very visceral,” said Professor Tony Pollard, battlefield archaeologist and expert in conflict history at Glasgow University.
At this spot, to the south of Culloden Moor, close to where the clan cemetery now sits, evidence was left which suggests that the battle was closer fought than had earlier been believed. The discovery of mortar shells suggests the British Army was reverting to heavy weaponry as the Jacobites held firm.
Pollard added: “The mortar round is a sign of desperation on their part. It was probably fired over the heads of the left flank into the Jacobites. These are big steel shells filled with gunpowder and they are more associated with the kind of warfare you see in World War One rather than Culloden. The British were throwing everything they could to break the Jacobites, who at this stage, I think, were on the verge of success.”
Pollard said multiple finds of Jacobite musket shot were made at this site. “One of the things that became very clear was that the Jacobites were using a lot of pistols. We have this image of the Highlander charging with swords and shields. But there were as many Jacobite musket balls found in this area, which are French and slightly smaller, as there were from the British Army.”
A piece of French bayonet was also found.
Pollard added: “For around 20 minutes, this area, which was perhaps 30 metres by 30 metres, was really the worst place on earth. And one of the things we were able to conclude was that it was a very close-run thing.”
READ MORE: Culloden: The myths debunked
Today marks the 271st anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, the last pitched battle on British soil, which brought an end to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s doomed bid to return the House of Stuart to the British throne.
The Jacobites had faced a reinvigorated British Army on the field who were well rested, well fed and equipped with new fighting techniques developed after two significant defeats during the campaign.
“The Jacobites had two victories by then, one at Prestonpans and the other at Falkirk, and Cumberland had basically learned from previous mistakes and retrained his men,” said Pollard. “The one key thing he learned was you have to stand and face the Jacobites and fight them. Otherwise, they cut you to pieces.”
By contrast, on the morning of 16 April, the Jacobites were hungry and exhausted with very few having eaten a “particle of food” for two days, according to historian James Brown, writing in 1852, with a suggestion that many of the fighters were fed only a biscuit before battle.
A march had taken place the night before battle to try to surprise the Duke of Cumberland and his men. The planned assault was an unmitigated disaster, a trailing column of 3,000 men struggling across rough moor and thick woodland. The manoeuvre was eventually abandoned with the Jacobites turning back to Culloden at dawn, having marched 20 miles in the cold and wet.
Pollard, who earlier recreated the night march with colleagues, said: “We retraced the exact same route and it was atrocious, with a couple of sprained ankles on the way. The Jacobites arrived back around 5am, exhausted and hungry, to face a British Army full of stamina and determination.
Within three hours of their return, British troops were on the move. On the field, the Jacobites were outnumbered 5,250 to 7,800 according to estimates.
Despite their disadvantage, Pollard described the Jacobites as “incredibly capable” fighters who “almost turned the government line”.
“What they did was astounding to say the least – charging over 600 metres over open ground under canon fire, and they still managed to engage in some very intense hand to hand fighting.”
However, with the Jacobites outnumbered and outfought, the entire battle lasted only around 60 minutes with the victor clear. Around 1,250 Jacobites were dead, a similar number were wounded, and 558 prisoners were taken. Cumberland lost only 52 men with around 260 wounded.
However, despite the clear defeat, Pollard added: “It is a miracle really that the Jacobites did what they did.”