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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

Cover Art: The Four Days'
        Battle of 1666
The Four Days’ Battle of 1666: The Greatest Sea Fight of the Age of Sail
By Frank L. Fox
Seaforth, 2018, ISBN 978-1-5267-3727-4, US $22.15 / £16.99


This book takes the reader back to the seventeenth century, a time when England’s foe was often the Dutch rather than the French of the Nelson Era. And a time much less familiar to most students and fans of naval history.

Knowing this, the author begins his narrative by pointing out all the differences between the two periods. To drive home this lesson, the first chapter is entitled “The Generals.” The differences in command structure and ranks of the commanding officers starts with them being called “Generals-at-Sea.” These men, who had led armies on land, were considered tacticians who could do the same at sea.

The basis for officer appointments was primarily a measure of their family connection or loyalty to Charles II, the King of Great Britain. His brother, James, Duke of York, was the Lord High Admiral. He chaired a council of senior officers who decided how and when the fleet should engage the enemy.

The council issued daily orders to the ship captains, who followed their division’s general into battle. But neither the generals nor most of the captains knew anything about sailing a yacht, let alone the largest, most complex ships-of-the-line in existence.

Captains were referred to as “Gentlemen-Captains.” These were lesser members of the nobility, who were also appointed for their loyalty and better breeding. Most had little interest in their ship’s crews or learning how the vessels functioned.

It was the ship’s Master who was responsible for raising and lowering the sails, guiding the vessel’s maneuvering, and all the other aspects of running the ship. The captains took charge of the ship’s cannons and decided when and at whom to shoot.

True, there were some “tarpaulin-captains” who had started as sailors on the lower deck and learned their profession on the way to being promoted to the quarterdeck. These individuals had served the king in the past and were trusted to conduct themselves properly in a conflict.

The Royal Navy was in its infancy and officers were only appointed for a campaign or sailing season. Each winter the ships returned to port and the entire crew was released. Manning the ships began anew in time for the spring thaw. As a result, officers “could and sometimes did serve as captains one year and lieutenants the next, or admirals one year and captains the next.” (17)

Problems manning the fleet annually were identical to those in the succeeding centuries, with the same social issues and poor qualities of crews they entailed. Conditions for the sailors were also similar, including a diet of salt-beef and hardtack (biscuits) and harsh discipline.

Additional chapters discuss differences in the ships, their armament, the use of flags and pendants to denote divisions and their commanders, and the rudimentary signals then in use.

Having skillfully guided the reader to an understanding of naval science in the seventeenth century, the narrative shifts to describing the origins of the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

The Dutch resented the encroachment of the English into the East Indies. Many disputes and fights arose between the traders of both countries. English merchants complained to Parliament of the losses and indignities suffered at the hands of the Dutch, and Parliament demanded the king act to prevent these losses, yet the Dutch became the first aggressors, giving the English the war they wanted. The true feeling in England, as told to diarist Samuel Pepys by Captain George Cocke, a director of the Royal African Company, was “the trade of the world is too little for us two, therefore one must [go] down.” (68)

Both sides faced financial difficulties that encouraged them to confine the conflict to one summer with enough ships to hopefully be victorious. The English didn’t have the funds for a long war and the Dutch needed to make sure their merchant ships were able to sail past England to keep their own finances flowing.

What follows in the narrative is a very detailed examination of the Second Anglo-Dutch war, beginning with all the necessary preparations for a naval war. The first battle was off Lowestoft, England in 1665 and each fleet had about 100 ships and over 21,000 men. Although the Dutch had more guns, the English had the advantage in firepower with larger cannons firing heavier shot.

Each fleet move during the battle is carefully described, including the fighting between individual ships and the carnage that resulted. In the end, the English were the victors, but the cost among the officers and nobility was great. The king’s companion, the Earl of Falmouth, was among the deceased. The fact that he was standing next to the king’s brother at the time he was killed was too much for Charles, and he required that James give up his position as Lord High Admiral of the fleet.

Later a squadron of ships was sent to Bergen, Norway to attack merchant ships taking shelter there. But the well-armed Dutch ships drove off the English warships without losing a vessel.

Luckily, the remaining English fleet spotted and was able to capture a group of unprotected merchantmen and later a few East Indiamen loaded with valuable cargoes. With prizes to protect and stores running low, the fleet headed home, ending the actions of 1665.

The in-depth look at the Four Days’ Battle begins with examining why a sizeable portion of the English fleet was sent to face a French fleet that never materialized, leaving the remaining ships to fight the Dutch fleet alone during the first two days. Six chapters are devoted to the actual battle. From first sighting to the end of the chase, each maneuver of the fleets is described along with which ships traded shots as the conflict progressed.

A chapter titled “Aftermath” details the combatants’ return to port, the conditions of the ships, and losses suffered. There was praise and celebrations for the Dutch, mourning and recriminations for the English.

“Sequel” deals with the Dutch raid on the Medway and the St. James Day battle after the English fleet chased the Dutch out to sea.

Finally, the epilogue concludes the narrative by describing the tribunals that investigated how the English had lost the war, the subsequent fortunes and eventual deaths of the flag officers and captains, and the endings of many of the ships.

There are thirteen detailed appendices including several that list each ship that made up each fleet, notes, sources and a comprehensive index. A two-page map of the waters between England and the Dutch provinces appears at the beginning and end of the book. The areas where each battle occurred are clearly outlined on the maps. There are also two inserts with black & white pictures of the main players and ships in the engagements.

There is a wealth of knowledge presented in this work. The research that went into it is very meticulous. This edition includes years of updated research done since the hardback was originally published in 1996 as A Distant Storm. Happily, the text is always interesting and entertaining. If you want to learn the facts about this period of naval warfare there is no better way to do so than by reading this book. I’m certainly glad I did.

Review Copyrighted ©2018 Irwin Bryan

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