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   Chapter 15 -Of the Famous Sea Fight of Four Days

A Lad of Grit: A Story of Adventure on Land and Sea in Restoration Times By Percy F. Westerman Characters: 14894

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


During the whole of the month of May the English fleet remained cruising betwixt Gravelines and Dover, till Albemarle began to revile the Dutch for their cowardice in fearing to leave their harbours, while of de Beaufort we had neither signs nor tidings.

At length, on the last day of May, news was brought that the French fleet was actually in the Channel once more, and that de Ruyter and Van Tromp, with eighty sail, were already on the way to effect a union with de Beaufort.

A hurried council of war was held on board the flagship, and here Albemarle made the first great mistake of his life; for it is reported he held the Dutch so cheaply that he ordered Prince Rupert to take twenty vessels of our fleet and make to the westward to find and engage the French, while he relied on his remaining fifty-four ships to meet the formidable array of Dutchmen.

This counsel our captain, Sir George Ascue, ventured to oppose, but honest George in his wrath bade him hold his tongue, and Prince Rupert hastened on board his ship to detach the squadron of twenty ships in order to seek de Beaufort. Before nightfall we saw them hull down, and we set sail so as to arrive off the coast of Holland and destroy de Ruyter's craven fleet.

Craven we dubbed them; but when, on the morning of the 1st of June, we found the Dutch fleet lying at anchor, to our surprise they immediately slipped their cables and stood out to meet us, with a courage and determination that made Albemarle bitterly regret his lack of caution.

On board the Prince Royal all was bustle and excitement, yet our preparations were made without untoward confusion. Sir George made a stirring speech, the drums beat to quarters, and then came that irksome interval before opening fire that tells so acutely on the nerves of even the most hardened veteran.

The action began in a strong wind that, blowing athwart the tide, raised such a steep sea that most of our ships were unable to open their lee'ard lower-deck ports, a misfortune that more than outbalanced our advantage in having the weather gauge.

When within a mile of the enemy a signal was made to shorten sail, but the hot-headed vice-admiral, Sir William Berkeley, kept on till, half a mile ahead of the rest of us, he encountered the fire of over twenty of the Dutchmen.

We watched the gallant though unequal conflict. Unflinchingly his ship received the tremendous broadsides of the enemy, and, undaunted, Sir William returned the fire, till at length the combatants were lost in a heavy pall of smoke. Gradually the noise of the struggle ceased and the smoke cleared away. Then, to our dismay, we saw the gallant vessel a helpless, dismasted wreck in the possession of the Dutch.

Now came our turn, and before we were within a comfortable distance our spars and rigging began to fall on the deck in a manner that none of us had previously experienced. The solution of the mystery was afforded shortly afterwards by three seamen being cut in two apparently by one shot, which finished up its career of death by splintering the base of the mainmast.

The bos'n, who was standing close to me, hastened to where the missile lay, and lifting it up he exclaimed: "That's where they have us! 'Tis a chain shot--a new invention of that stubborn fiend de Wit!"

We were soon hotly engaged. Dead and wounded encumbered our decks, while the new and stately appearance of the Prince Royal altered till our ship resembled a butcher's shambles. Nevertheless, against tremendous odds, we kept up a hot fire, and had the satisfaction of seeing more than one of the towering sides of the Dutchmen crumbled into a shapeless mass of charred and splintered timbers.

With the approach of night both fleets withdrew; but for us there was little rest, as all hands were employed reeving fresh rigging, splicing spars, and plugging shot holes, while our dead were committed to the deep, and the wounded transhipped to one of the smaller vessels.

As the sun rose we descried the enemy lying a mile from us. Without hesitation both sides made ready to renew the sanguinary combat. The wind was now much lighter, and in consequence our ships triced up our lower-deck ports and ran out their formidable array of guns--a sight that gave us additional courage,--and the result was not lost upon the Dutch.

In spite of their number we stuck closely to them, the flagship of Van Tromp, who fought in a manner worthy of our former foeman, his redoubtable sire, being singled out as a prize worth taking. Three vessels engaged his ship, and were within an ace of making him haul down his flag, when de Ruyter threw seven of his largest vessels between Van Tromp and our shattered ships. Then through the smoke we perceived that sixteen ships had reinforced the already superior number of the Dutchmen, and, to save ourselves from total destruction, Albemarle hoisted a signal for the English to retreat slowly towards the mouth of the Thames.

Smarting under the disgrace, we obeyed, firing as we went. Scarce thirty English ships remained out of the fifty-four that commenced the fight. Keeping close together, and yawing from time to time in order to deliver a broadside at our pursuers, we held doggedly on our course, till at length a flat calm set in, and both fleets lay inactive at a mile apart, in which situation darkness again overtook us.

Through sheer exhaustion our men were unable to execute even the smallest, necessary repairs, and throughout the short summer's night they slept heavily at their posts.

As daylight dawned upon the third day of the fight we continued our retreat, and as a faint southerly wind sprang up the enemy drew near with the intention of renewing the fight, concentrating their efforts on Albemarle's ship, which, covering the retreat, presented an undaunted spectacle to our relentless foes.

The Prince Royal was next in line ahead, and so close were we that one of Albemarle's officers hailed us to the effect that the admiral had expressed his intention of firing the magazines should things come to the worst.

Shortly after midday a loud shout rose from the Dutch ships, and their rigging was alive with men gazing southward and frantically waving their arms.

"Send a man aloft there," ordered Sir George Ascue, his face crimson with excitement, "and see what those beggars are clamouring over."

The command was obeyed with alacrity, and several of our vessels also sent a seaman to the masthead on a similar errand.

"Sail, ho!" sang out the lookout. "There's a fleet hull down to the south'ard."

"Heaven grant 'tis Rupert's squadron!" ejaculated our captain; "though methinks by their noise those scurvy Dutchmen are sure 'tis de Beaufort."

A few hours would decide whether the English ships would be hopelessly trapped betwixt the two fleets, or whether Prince Rupert's vessels would arrive to turn a retreat into a decisive victory.

The suspense was far more trying than the heat of the engagement had been, but about six o'clock Albemarle hoisted a signal that decided the matter. It was: "Fleet turn four points to the south'ard to effect junction with Prince Rupert."

Eagerly was the manoeuvre executed, and our shattered fleet bore up to meet our welcome reinforcements; but at this juncture an accident occurred that, as far as we were concerned, threw us into the direst misfortune.

The Prince Royal, on the new course, was th

e leemost vessel, and to bring her more into line the master sailed her more off the wind than the rest.

Suddenly a heavy thud shook us from stem to stern, and our damaged mizzen mast went by the board. Shouts and execrations arose, and all was confusion; we were hard and fast aground on the Galloper Sands, while we had the mortification of seeing the rest of the fleet stand off and leave us to our fate.

With the falling tide the Prince Royal listed heavily to starboard, so that her guns were for the most part unworkable, and her great sides were exposed an easy target for the enemy.

Above the din we heard Sir George's voice ordering the men to fall into their stations quietly and orderly. "We're safe enough for the present, my lads," he exclaimed, "for the rascally Dutchmen cannot approach us save in their pinnaces. These we can easily drive off. At this range, too, their fire will be ineffective. They themselves will be too busy with our ships, and with the next tide we'll float easily enough."

His example animated the men, who immediately began to load their muskets and serve out boarding pikes and broadswords, while the master took steps to lay out a couple of anchors in readiness to warp the ship into deep water directly the floodtide should release her.

Meanwhile our consorts were miles away, though probably the desired junction had been made, and we expected to see their topsails fill as they turned to renew the combat. But our attention was drawn by the near approach of the Hollanders. Four large vessels hove to at a quarter of a mile to windward of us and opened a furious fire. Their shots punished us terribly, though, as if hoping to take possession of us, they spared us betwixt wind and water, and directed their fire on our upper works and spars. An hour we lay thus, receiving their combined storm of shot, yet unable to reply. Splinters flew, ropes, blocks, and spars came tumbling down from aloft, men fell dead or wounded, and shrieks and groans rent the air, while all we could do was to shake our fists in useless rage at our unapproachable foes.

Presently we saw boatloads of armed men leaving the Dutch ships, and we realized that an attempt was to be made to carry us by boarding. This spurred us to action, and directly the boats came within musket range a hot fire was opened on them, though in this act many of our men, exposing themselves recklessly, were shot down by the fire from the guns of the ships.

Several of the boats were sunk by a well-directed fire from our swivel guns, but eight or nine gained the side of the Prince Royal, and, passing under the comparative shelter afforded by our lofty stern, boarded us on the starboard side, where, owing to the list, our bulwarks were much lower than on the other side.

They clambered up our sides with the greatest intrepidity, but were met with equal resolution and courage. More boats were sunk alongside by dropping heavy shot into them, those of their crew who wore breastplates perishing miserably in the sea. Evidently the Dutchmen thought our losses under fire had been greater than they actually were; but they soon realized their mistake, and with thrust of pike, swordthrusts, musket and pistol shots, they were swept aside as fast as their heads appeared above the bulwarks.

"THEY CLAMBERED UP OUR SIDES WITH THE GREATEST INTREPIDITY"

Only one of the enemy reached our deck, and he was dragged on board by the clever cast of a running bowline thrown by a seaman, who, seizing his captive in his powerful grasp, demanded and obtained his surrender at the point of a gleaming knife, while his comrades roared with laughter at the hapless Dutchman's discomfiture.

The attempt to board us failed dismally, only four boats, filled with more or less wounded men, getting clear from our sides, their retreat being hailed with shouts of derision from our exultant seamen.

But our joy was turned to feelings of dismay when we perceived that two small ships had joined the Dutch men-of-war, and that they were brought to with reduced canvas immediately to windward of us, and were held by stern moorings only, so that their bows were pointed straight at our luckless vessel. Most of us knew too much of the art of war to need to have these new tactics explained: we were to be attacked by fire ships!

In our helpless position we were doomed. Not a boat did we carry that was in a condition to float, otherwise volunteers would not have been lacking who would have risked their lives in an attempt to tow these furnaces clear of us. The officers held a consultation--Sir George Ascue was not one of them; whether he was killed or wounded I did not at that time know--and the opinion of the council was that if we were grappled by the fire ships our fate would no doubt be a glorious one, but of little use to His Majesty the King. On the other hand, if we surrendered, there was a possibility of being recaptured by our consorts, and thus our services would be still at His Majesty's command.

The latter alternative was accepted, and, amidst the furious and indignant shouts of the seamen, the Cross of St. George was struck, and a white flag fluttered from our mainmast truck.

The Dutchmen immediately sent boats to take possession of the unfortunate Prince Royal, but ere the first boat came alongside, most of the crew had secured their personal belongings. I, for my part, went below and placed all the money I had in a leather pouch, which I strapped to my waist with a belt underneath my clothing--though it is reported the Hollanders always respect personal property. Then I came on deck and joined my comrades, who stood in a disconsolate group awaiting the arrival of our captors.

We were curtly ordered over the side, and hurriedly the whole of the crew were transferred to the various Dutch ships. The officers were taken on board the admiral's, where de Ruyter himself accepted our surrender, complimenting us on our gallant defence, and permitting the senior officers to retain their swords.

This done, we were sent on board a frigate and placed in a dark, stuffy hole below the waterline. Faintly we could hear the dull booming of the guns, which told us that the fleets were re-engaged, but gradually the sound died away.

Greville Drake had a pocket compass, which showed us that the vessel was heading eastward. Our captors had taken good care that we should not fall into the hands of our friends: we were on our way to Holland and captivity.

How the engagement would end we knew not, but our spirits were greatly depressed with our misfortunes, and one and all, having seen that the courage and fortitude of our enemies had been unduly depreciated by our leaders, were far from sanguine as to the prospects of a victory of our hitherto redoubtable fleet.

Our reveries were cut short by the appearance of a stolid Dutchman, who brought us a liberal supply of food that, compared with our hard fare of the last month, was a bounteous feast. We plied him with eager questions, but his only reply was an expressionless shake of his massive head, and for the time being vague surmises had to suffice.

At length, worn out with bodily fatigue, we threw ourselves down on our rough and hard pallets, and slept soundly till we were awakened by the unmistakable sounds that accompany the action of a ship taking in sail.

We had arrived in the land of our captivity.

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