The Dutch, though far inferior in number, having only seventy-five vessels, convinced that this struggle was to be the most desperate and the last, prepared themselves for it as men who had everything at stake.
Continuing The Dutch Crisis 1672,
our selection from History of Holland and the Dutch, 900 – 1799 by C.M. Davies. The selection is presented in eight easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Dutch Crisis 1672.
Time: 1672 – 78
The Dutch were considerably inferior in strength to the allies, the number of their vessels being no more than fifty-two men-of-war and twelve frigates, of which, moreover, the equipages were, owing to the scarcity of seamen, by no means complete. But this deficiency was more than compensated by the spirit and conduct of their great commander. “The weaker our fleet is,” observed De Ruyter, in answer to some remark made to him on the subject, “the more confidently I expect a victory, not from our own strength, but from the arm of the Almighty.” Under a favorable breeze, the French and English ships bore down upon their unequal antagonists, in the full expectation that they would avoid the encounter, by retiring behind the sand-banks of Flushing. The Dutch, however, firmly awaited the shock, commenced by the squadron of French ships, which on this occasion had been placed in the van to avoid the imputation cast upon them in the last battle. They engaged with that of Tromp, whose impetuous firing compelled the French admiral to retire for a time; but quickly rallying, he returned to the charge with such vigor that Tromp was obliged to remove his flag on four different vessels successively.
De Ruyter, meanwhile, had engaged the red squadron, commanded by Prince Rupert, which after a sharp contest he threw into some disorder, and succeeded in cutting off a considerable number of ships from the remainder. Instead, however, of pursuing his advantage, De Ruyter, becoming aware of the danger of his rival, who was now entirely surrounded by the enemy, hastened to his rescue. On seeing him approach, Tromp exclaimed: “Comrades, here is our grandsire [a pet name given to De Ruyter among the sailors] coming to help us; so long as I live I will never forsake him!” The generous aid was no less effectual than well timed, since the enemy, astonished at his unexpected appearance, fell back. “I am pleased to see,” he said, “that our enemies still fear the Seven Provinces,” the name of the vessel which carried his flag. The fight was continued with unremitting obstinacy till darkness separated the combatants, when the Dutch found that they had gained about three miles upon their antagonists.
That the issue of such a contest should be doubtful was in itself equivalent to a victory on the side of the Dutch; a victory of which they reaped all the advantages, as well as the glory, since, besides delivering their coasts from the intended invasion, their loss was so inconsiderable that within a week the fleet was able to put to sea in its original numbers and strength. Another engagement, fought with less of energy and resolution on the side of the English than usually distinguished them, terminated in their retreat toward the Thames, which, De Ruyter conceiving to be a feint to draw the Dutch fleet off their coasts, he declined the pursuit. The movement, however, had its origin in a far different cause. The English sailors fully participated in the feelings entertained by the great body of the nation, who viewed the aggrandizement of their ally with jealousy, and the undeserved misfortunes of their enemy with pity, and considered every advantage gained over the Dutch as a step toward the completion of the sinister designs they suspected their own sovereign of harboring against their religion and liberties. They accordingly made no concealment of their reluctance to fight longer in such a quarrel.
It was now become evident to the Government that the only mode of reconciling the people in any degree to the present state of things was the execution of some brilliant achievement which should flatter their national vanity and kindle their ambition or lead to the acquisition of spoil sufficiently considerable to afford some sensible assistance in supporting the war. A descent on Holland was therefore resolved on, or, if that were found impracticable, it was proposed to intercept the Indian fleet, whose arrival was hourly expected. With this view a formidable fleet of one hundred fifty sail made its appearance in the Texel, and was met by De Ruyter about five miles from the village of the Helder. The Dutch, though far inferior in number, having only seventy-five vessels, convinced that this struggle was to be the most desperate and the last, prepared themselves for it as men who had everything at stake. After a short but inspiring harangue, De Ruyter gave the signal for attack. As if with a presentiment that long years would elapse before they should again try the strength of each other’s arm, the English and Dutch seemed mutually determined to leave upon the minds of their foes an ineffaceable impression of their skill and prowess.
All the resources which ability could suggest or valor execute were now employed. Each admiral engaged with the antagonist against whom it had before been his fortune to contend. De Ruyter attached himself to the squadron of Prince Rupert; Tromp attacked Sprague, who commanded the blue flag; while Bankert was opposed to the French; the latter, however, after a short skirmish on the part of Rear Admiral Martel, who was unacquainted with the secret orders given to the commander, D’Estrées, dropped off to a distance; nor could all the signals made by Prince Rupert induce them to take any further share in the fight. Bankert, therefore, joined De Ruyter, who was engaged in a terrific contest with the squadron of Prince Rupert. The firing was kept up for several hours without cessation; the discharges from the cannon of the Dutch vessels being, it was said, as rapid as those of musketry, and in proportion of three to one to those of the enemy. Tromp, whose actions always reflected more honor on his courage than conduct, separated himself, as was his custom, from the remainder of the fleet, and pressed forward into the midst of the enemy.
He had sustained a continued cannonading from the vessel of Sprague for upward of three hours, without a single one of his crew being wounded, when De Ruyter, who had forced Prince Rupert to retire, came to his assistance. The Prince, on the other side, joined Admiral Sprague, and the fight was renewed with increased ardor. The vessel of Tromp was so damaged that he was obliged to remove his flag on board of another; Sprague was reduced to a similar necessity of quitting his ship, the Royal Prince, for the St. George, which, ere long, was so much disabled that he was obliged to proceed to a third; but the boat in which he was passing being struck by a cannon-ball, sank, and himself and several others were drowned. Toward the close of evening one English man-of-war was on fire, and two foundered. Not a single ship-of-war was lost on the side of the Dutch, but both fleets were so much damaged as to be unable to renew the engagement on the next morning. Each side, as usual, returned thanks for the victory, to which, however, the English failed to establish their claim, neither by accomplishing the projected invasion or intercepting the East India fleet, the whole of which, except one vessel, reached the ports in safety.
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