CHAPTER III. WAR OF ENGLAND AND FRANCE IN ALLIANCE AGAINST THE PROVINCES, 1672-1674. - FINALLY, OF FRANCE AGAINST COMBINED EUROPE, 1674-1678. - SEA BATTLES OF SOLEBAY, THE TEXEL, AND STROMBOLI.
The English and French put to sea about the 1st of June, under the command of Prince Rupert, first cousin to the king, the Duke of York having been obliged to resign his office on account of the passage of the Test Act, directed against persons of the Roman Catholic faith holding any public employment. The French were under Vice-Admiral D'Estrees, the same who had commanded them at Solebay. A force of six thousand English troops at Yarmouth was ready to embark if De Ruyter was worsted. On the 7th of June the Dutch were made out, riding within the sands at Schoneveldt. A detached squadron was sent to draw them out, but Ruyter needed no invitation; the wind served, and he followed the detached squadron with such impetuosity as to attack before the allied line was fairly formed. On this occasion the French occupied the centre. The affair was indecisive, if a battle can be called so in which an inferior force attacks a superior, inflicts an equal loss, and frustrates the main object of the enemy. A week later Ruyter again attacked, with results which, though indecisive as before as to the particular action, forced the allied fleet to return to the English coast to refit, and for supplies. The Dutch in these encounters had fifty-five ships-of-the-line; their enemies eighty-one, fifty- four of which were English.
The allied fleets did not go to sea again until the latter part of July, and this time they carried with them a body of troops meant for a landing. On the 20th of August the Dutch fleet was seen under way between the Texel and the Meuse. Rupert at once got ready to fight; but as the wind was from the northward and westward, giving the allies the weather-gage, and with it the choice of the method of attack, Ruyter availed himself of his local knowledge, keeping so close to the beach that the enemy dared not approach, - the more so as it was late in the day. During the night the wind shifted to east-southeast off the land, and at daybreak, to use the words of a French official narrative, the Dutch "made all sail and stood down boldly into action."
The allied fleet was to leeward on the port tack, heading about south, - the French in the van, Rupert in the centre, and Sir Edward Spragge commanding the rear. De Ruyter divided his fleet into three squadrons, the leading one of which, of ten or twelve ships only, he sent against the French; while with the rest of his force he attacked the English in the centre and rear. If we accept the English estimate of the forces, which gives the English sixty ships, the French thirty, and the Dutch seventy. Ruyter's plan of attack, by simply holding the French in check as at Solebay, allowed him to engage the English on equal terms. The battle took on several distinct phases, which it is instructive to follow. M. de Martel, commanding the van of the French, and consequently the leading subdivision of the allied fleet, was ordered to stretch ahead, go about and gain to windward of the Dutch van, so as to place it between two fires. This he did; but as soon as Bankert - the same who had manoeuvred so judiciously at Solebay the year before - saw the danger, he put his helm up and ran through the remaining twenty ships of D'Estrees' squadron with his own twelve, - a feat as creditable to him as it was discreditable to the French; and then wearing round stood down to De Ruyter, who was hotly engaged with Rupert. He was not followed by D'Estrees, who suffered him to carry this important reinforcement to the Dutch main attack undisturbed. This practically ended the French share in the fight.
Rupert, during his action with De Ruyter, kept off continually, with the object of drawing the Dutch farther away from their coast, so that if the wind shifted they might not be able to regain its shelter. De Ruyter followed him, and the consequent separation of the centre from the van was one of the reasons alleged by D'Estrees for his delay. It does not, however, seem to have prevented Bankert from joining his chief.
In the rear an extraordinary action on the part of Sir Edward Spragge increased the confusion in the allied fleet. For some reason this officer considered Tromp, who commanded the Dutch rear, as his personal antagonist, and in order to facilitate the latter's getting into action, he hove-to (stopped) the whole English rear to wait for him. This ill-timed point of honor on Spragge's part seems to have sprung from a promise he had made to the king that he would bring back Tromp alive or dead, or else lose his own life. The stoppage, which recalls the irresponsible and insubordinate action of the junior Dutch flag-officers in the former war, of course separated the rear, which also drifted rapidly to leeward, Spragge and Tromp carrying on a hot private action on their own account. These two junior admirals sought each other personally, and the battle between their flags was so severe that Spragge twice had to shift his own to another ship; on the second occasion the boat in which he was embarked was sunk by a shot, and he himself drowned.
Rupert, thus forsaken by his van and rear, found himself alone with Ruyter; who, reinforced by his van, had the address further to cut off the rear subdivision of the allied centre, and to surround the remaining twenty ships with probably thirty or forty of his own. It is not creditable to the gunnery of the day that more substantial results did not follow; but it is to be remembered that all Ruyter's skill could secure, except for probably a very short time, was an action on equal terms with the English; his total inferiority in numbers could not be quite overcome. The damage to the English and Dutch may therefore have been great, and was probably nearly equal.