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1637: No Peace Beyond the Line: Chapter Eleven

       Last updated: Sunday, October 25, 2020 09:39 EDT



East of Dominica

    Tromp was still watching black smoke rise, unabated, from the merchantman that Omlandia and Wappen van Rotterdam had battered into submission when drums and a coronet announced the approach of a small craft. The steam pinnace that had originally been detailed to assist Prins Hendrik was in the process of coming alongside. Her pilot called across that she was ready to ferry the Resolve‘s boarding-party “experts” to the various sites where they were needed. At a nod from Tromp, Kees passed the necessary orders and then informed the pilot of the pinnace to stand by.

    “So, Maarten,” Dirck Simonszoon smirked, “I told you this would all go perfectly.”

    Tromp stifled a guffaw; Dirck had been the extremely useful voice of gloom, doom, and dire predictions throughout the long planning stage for intercepting La Flota. “How could I ever have doubted you?” Tromp murmured.

    “I don’t know, but I do know this: we need to decide how to get the Spanish commander here to formally surrender his fleet to you.”

    Rik frowned. “We have been presuming that their captain-general was lost along with the largest of their war-galleons, have we not?”

    Kees nodded. “I didn’t see a command ensign, but that might have been intentional. Not as if we’d have guessed he was on any other ship.”

    Tromp frowned. “I agree, which means we are seeking their Admiral. They, too, are usually on a war-galleon, but they might also be on an unusually large merchantman, if she has more than thirty guns and is of great burthen. Rik, has Tower had anything to say on that matter?”

    “No, sir. Shall I ask?”

    Tromp frowned: balloon observers were picked for their eyes, their ability to relay information rapidly with a hand-held telegraph, and manipulate the balloon’s devices. Reading the subtle nuances of initial ship position and subsequent maneuver that might suggest which vessel was carrying La Flota’s second-in-command was not part of their skill set. And since the Spanish admiral was often chosen because of his birth rather than naval experience, his reaction to a crisis such as the one that had led to their undoing might not have been any more well-reasoned or even-handed than the most junior captain in the fleet. Still . . . “Have the observer ignore all the naos. Ignore any galleon with less than twenty guns. Consider the rest in terms of their maneuver up until now and seek this pattern: look for a number of ships that kept traveling together, possibly even picking up additional hulls as they went. Have the observer report such past or present activity to me.”

    “But can you not see this already by looking at the courses you have marked on the tactical plot?” asked Sehested. Muffled coronets blared beneath the deck as he finished.

    Tromp sighed. “We did not mark the time of each plotting, so I cannot be sure if what looks like group movement was merely ships that passed through the same grid coordinates at different times.” It annoyed him that he could not remember those details. Then again, he had been rather busy. “Besides, I am looking for a report that describes ships shaping their courses to match a leader. In the face of today’s chaos, if a captain is within sight of one of the fleet’s flagships, he will follow that in the absence of signals to the contrary. It was the only shred of organization they had left, once we finished off the balance of their warships.”

     The hatches to the amidship companionways were thrown back and troops started emerging. They wore buff coats, sabres and dirks on opposite hips, carried pepperbox revolvers and a few musketoons. Their faces were all obscured by helmets of the barbuta style. Resolve‘s full contingent of Wild Geese was turning out.

    Sehested frowned. “Surely, there are not enough of them to board all the Spanish ships.”

    “You are correct,” Tromp agreed. “They are advisors and assistants, one to each or our ships’ own boarding team.”

    Sehested’s frown deepened. But before he could ask the question Tromp expected — what benefit a single man could be to a boarding team — it was answered in practice by the arrival of yet another Dutchman on mostly German-crewed Resolve. Emerging from the port companionway beneath the pilothouse, he came up shouting in a language that still sounded wholly alien to Maarten. Sehested’s frown turned to surprised confusion.

    Dirck Simonszoon leaned over the removable railing of the flying bridge (itself removable, at need) and called down to the dark haired officer. “Michiel, what the devil are you telling those bog-hoppers?”

    The fellow turned, nodded to the officers gathered above him as if on a balcony. “That they are soon to board the Spanish ships and are not to put heavy hands to their weapons, nor light fingers to anything they might find aboard.”

    Simonszoon grinned darkly. “Thieves, are they?”

    Michiel’s smile was small. “Children of want, sir.” Behind him, some of the Wild Geese were muttering with exaggerated rolls of their eyes and barely suppressed chuckles. He rounded on them, and started an equally histrionic beration in a mix of Dutch and Gaelic. Several of the men laughed.

    Sehested looked from face to face on the flying bridge. “And that language is — ?”

    “Irish Gaelic,” answered Kees. “My chum down there, Adriaenszoon — no relation to the Banckerts — worked in their countary as a factor for a Dutch merchant house. Learned their speech.”

    Sehested shook his head as if the unfamiliar cadences and dipthongs were stuck in his ears and had to be dislodged. “I see. And why is it that they are the expert boarders?”

    Rik nodded respectfully at his countryman. “Because they were — and remain — in the service of the Lowlands. Specifically, the Spanish Lowlands.”

    Sehested smiled. “Why I did not recall that, I do not know. Early dotage, I fear.”

    Tromp smiled. “A long, tense day will have that effect, Lord Sehested. Trust me; I know.”

    Michiel, who the Irish were addressing as de Ruyter, was now speaking mostly in Dutch. “No, you will not board with weapons in hand.”

    “Makes it a lot harder to kill t’other fellas,” one drawled. Although Tromp could not see much of that one’s mouth through the barbuta’s limited facial opening, he could hear the grin.

    “Ye eedjit,” another yelled at the back of the first one’s armored head, “did yeh not hear the man? Yer not to be killin’ the Spanish at’all!”

    “In point o’ fact, Reilly,” the first one retorted without turning, “‘is precise words were, ‘not to kill indiscriminately.'”

    Michiel paced slowly toward the mercenary, smiling. “Yes, although that was qualified by: ‘even in the event some Spanish resist.’ Or did you forget that part?”

    “Well, now — I might’ve.”

    Michiel’s smile widened and he clapped a hand down hard on the Irishman’s shoulder. “Thomas Terrell, must you always question orders?”

    Terrell tilted his head as if considering. “Not always.” There was general laughter.

    De Ruyter shook his head, smiled stepped back. “Ah, well, I shouldn’t have asked. In my time with you Irish, I have learned that there is constant trait among you.”

    “That we’re great fighters?”

    “That we all have a bit o’ the silver-tongued bard in us?”

    “That we’ve always room for one more dram of poteen?”

    Michiel laughed at the last, shook his head. “No: that you are an excessively democratic gaggle of geese when you begin to gabble. Like now.” He folded his hands behind his back, and his voice became serious. “But I am no Irishman, and these are your orders. You will obey them, yes?”

    The responses — “aye”; “yes”; “of course!” — were offered in tones of almost offended surprise, as if the matter and their answer had never been in question.

    And indeed, Tromp reflected, perhaps it hadn’t been. But, as de Ruyter had implied, the gregarious nature of the Wild Geese could readily become disputatious. Not because they were inherently contrarian — that quirk was more frequently encountered on the continent, Maarten had discerned — but rather because they always wanted to know why they were being given the orders they received.

     However, those inquiries weren’t necessarily rooted in practical curiosity. Rather, they seemed to arise more as a means of reminding their leaders that they did not follow out of obligation, but choice. By asking for explanations, they were in fact underscoring that their opinions, and lives, were not beneath regard. A leader who they knew and respected could defer answering such questions until after the impending action. An officer who had not yet earned their trust often had to answer in advance, lest he march forward with a surly, even unreliable, lot at his back.

    As the forty-odd Wild Geese followed Michiel aft toward the steam pinnace, Tromp realized why they had adopted the Dutchman so easily, so readily. He not only understood their behavior, but what it both predicted and explained about their reputation: that their regard for faceless authority was as dismal as their respect for a proven leader was legendary.

    Tromp watched them line up to make their way over the sides using retired cargo nets, and reflected that their independent streak was a good trait for small groups of men in trying situations far away from help and home. But that same trait, and the temperament that went with it, would never build an empire. Then again, while the Irish were fiercely patriotic, they were largely indifferent — and often averse — to sweeping ambitions of national destiny and supremacy. Perhaps that was one of the reasons they had been unable to unite their own fractious island.

    “Have you decided, Maarten?”

    Tromp turned.

    Dirck was staring at him, bemused. “Maybe there is something to what you were saying about dotage, ja? So, now: assuming we find the Spanish admiral and bring him here for — “

    Tromp shook his head. “We are not taking his surrender on Resolve, Captain.”

    Bjelke started, then straightened. “Yes, Admiral. I understand.”

    “Then perhaps you will explain it to me,” Dirck sighed. “Maarten, if you want to put the fear of God — theirs, ours, anyone’s — into the Spanish, then compel them to surrender on the machine which single-handedly defeated them. They’ll be so terrified that they won’t be able to think straight.”

    Tromp folded his hands. “Let us say you are correct, Dirck. Let us say that all but one of the Spanish who come aboard are too terrified to even observe their surroundings. But what of that one who can? What would you, or I, make of this?” He gestured to the various — and well-labeled–comms gear, the chart, the overlay. “A naval officer with a clear mind will see these as pieces of a puzzle that he won’t be long in solving. And he will realize, and explain to his superiors, that this is how we beat them. Not our guns or engines. Yes, they made the job easier, less costly, more decisive. But knowing where your opponents are, in what force, and travelling on what heading, allows you to manage the battle, not discover it as it unfolds before you. The key weapons in this engagement were the balloon and our radios. And those are easier and less expensive to build than Resolve‘s engine and guns.”

    “And you think they won’t figure that out soon enough, Maarten?”

    Sehested cleared his throat. “If I may interject,” he said, ignoring the looks that clearly indicated that the others very much wished he would not, “a matter of statecraft illustrates the admiral’s point. Specifically, spycraft. Let us say that we have one confidential agent who is able to collect a dozen accounts of how an enemy state is preparing for war: their troop movements, their border probes, their supply readiness, their procurement of mounts and ostlers, and a thousand other details. Through those, we might come up with a hypothesis of what that enemy is planning. We might even be correct.

    “But instead, our spy vouchsafes a map of their plans. At that point, all those other details become unnecessary. We no longer need to hope to use disparate pieces of information to build what might be an accurate picture of their intents. A map not only gives us a precise picture, but also a trustworthy basis for extrapolating our foe’s further intents.”

    Sehested pointed not just at the much-marked overlay but all the equipment surrounding it. “However, this plot is a map to something much larger and more complicated than the stretch of sea and islands it depicts. The data upon it is clearly derived from all the devices which are clustered at hand. Take a step back and the entire design of this flying bridge is akin to a light, illuminating the path to how all these technologies not only create a precise picture of the battlefield, but allow us to respond almost instantly to any move our adversary might make.”

    He shrugged. “Before today, I was familiar with all of these machines. I have even had some of you, and Commodore Cantrell, explain their operation. But what I could not appreciate, could not truly understand until witnessing the events of the past three hours, was how they would all work together. As I said earlier but without full cognizance, the integration of these machines is a whole that is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. This is the future of war. And the later our adversaries come that realization, the longer we shall dominate them and the battlefields upon which our fates are decided.”

    He leaned toward Simonszoon. “So, as the only representative of the nations that built and operate this vessel, I implore you: do not give our enemy the map to understand how we blend these systems and achieve seemingly impossible outcomes. Such as today’s.”

    Simonszoon’s eyes were no longer hooded and cautious, but attentive, maybe even admiring. “Lord Sehested, I will be frank: when this day started, I could not for the life of me foresee what purpose it might serve to have you along.” He straightened up from the tactical plot. “Now I know. Thank you for pulling me back to see a picture that I have been examining in such close detail that I could no longer see the whole of it.” He turned to Tromp. “What hull should we use to receive these Spanish dogs?”

    Before Tromp could speak, Kees was mumbling. “It would be poetic justice for them to surrender aboard the very flagship of the fleet — and the nation–they thought they had destroyed. The one on which a Dutch admiral decided that his remaining ships had to flee, that they might live to fight another day.” He looked at Tromp. “This day.”

    Maarten smiled at Evertsen. “It is decided.”

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