Admiral of the Blue
Born 1704 Died 1757
Admiral John Byng, as he is best known, is notable for being the only British admiral ever to be court-martialled and executed, and was the inspiration behind Voltaire's famous remark in Candide, "Dans ce pays-ci il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un admiral pour encourager les autres."1 - "In this country it is found necessary now and then to put an admiral to death in order to encourage the others.
Born in 1704, John was the fourth son of George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington, and entered the navy in 1718. As it happens his father was a naval man as well, and a fairly succesful and important one at that, being appointed Rear-admiral of Great Britain in 1721 and serving as Lord of the Admiralty in 1727. Naturally enough, John Byng therefore experienced rapid promotion within the senior service; appointed lieutenant in 1723, he became captain in 1727 and thereafter rose to the heights of Rear-Admiral in 1745, Vice-Admiral in 1747 and Admiral in command of the channel fleet in 1756. Although he did once capture an enemy ship, he was generally kept out of the firing line; as one account has it, "He served on the most comfortable stations, and avoided the more arduous work of the navy"2. However the ability of John Byng to avoid some serious work soon evaporated, as in 1756 the Seven Years War broke out and the French began to threaten the island of Menorca which was at that time in British hands.
The British government of the time was in the hands of Thomas Pelam Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, who was not perhaps the ablest of political leaders and the British were therefore somewhat unprepared for war and particularly failed to appreciate the seriousness of the French threat in the Mediterranean. What was worse, the military command of Menorca was in the hands of one General William Blakeney, who was eighty-two years old and obliged to spend most of his time in bed, half the officers stationed on the island were home on leave, and so the British garisson was not in much of a shape to resist any French assault on the island.
John Byng was therefore ordered to sail to the Mediterranean and relieve the garrison on Menorca. Unfortunately due to the lack of foresight by the government, Byng had too few ships (many of which were in poor condition) to realistically achieve this objective, let alone his additional objective of also defending Gibraltar from any French attack3. Neverthless on the Byng set sail from Britain, arriving at Gibraltar on the 2nd May 1756 enroute to Menorca. Of course in order to reach Menorca John would first have to fight his way past the the French Mediterranean fleet based at Toulon under the command of the Marquis de la Galissonière who naturally enough had every intention of preventing Byng from relieving Menorca. It wasn't long before the two fleets came in contact with one another just off Menorca on the 20th May.
The engagement at Menorca
At the time naval tactics were pretty straightforward; the standard practice was to form all your ships in a line, sail straight at the enemy, turn at the last minute to bring your broadsides to bear, and then blow them out of the water. To this end it was generally regarded as advantageous for an admiral to position his fleet so that the wind was blowing his ships towards the enemy as opposed to vice versa. Known as possessing the weather gauge, this afforded a greater degree of manoueverability as thus made it more likely that its possessor would be hammering the enemy as opposed to getting hammered himself.
In all honesty it should have been a straightforward business for the French to take the weather gauge as the French fleet was in a better condition and thus faster than their British opponents. However the French decided to yield the weather gauge as Galissonière simply planned to lie-to with his broadsides bearing, shoot at the enemy as they approached and then use his superior speed to run away before they reached close quarters and turned to bring his broadsides to bear on his ships. Following which he intended to repeat the tactic ad infinitum until the British got bored and went home; his objective being simply to hold off the British navy long enough for the French land forces to force the surrender of Fort St Philip.4
It was to Byng's credit that he became suspicious of the ease with which he gained the weather gauge and therefore divined the French tactics. To counteract them he decided to execute a somewhat unorthdox manoeuvre known as lasking, that is, sail his fleet at an angle to the French line, thereby allowing their guns to bear on the enemy as they approached.
There was only one problem with this novel tactic; the Royal Navy had no signal in its code book for lasking, and since at the time Byng's own flagship the Ramilles, was at the rear of the line he couldn't hope to lead by example. Byng therefore issued the command to 'bear a point to starboard' hoping that his captains would be sufficiently intelligent to see what he was getting at. They weren't, and a dreadful mess ensued. The British line became all tangled up in itself, the French succeeded in damaging a number of ships and the whole the engagement proved to be entirely inconclusive, which is precisely what the French wanted.
Following this rather unsatisfactory engagement Byng held a council of war aboard the Ramilles which concluded that there was no hope of relieving Menorca and therefore the decision was made to return to Gibraltar. So Byng duly sailed back to Gibraltar, arriving on the 19th June. There he found reenforcements under the command of Commodore Thomas Broderick, and so began preparations to return to Menorca.
John Byng never managed to have a second attempt at Menorca. For one thing the British garrison at Fort St Philip surrendered on the 29th June and for another thing on the 3rd July the Antelope arrived from Britain with Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hawke on board, complete with the order that Hawke was to replace Byng in command.
The trial of Admiral Byng
News of the surrender of Menorca soon reached the government in London who were naturally dismayed at the loss. Public opinion was also naturally outraged at the French success in taking Menorca and, as is always the case, the government decided to find themselves a scapegoat rather than shoulder the blame themselves and thus ordered the arrest of John Byng on his return to Britain to face a court-martial. The London mob took up the idea with enthusiasm and burnt the Admiral's effigy to the accompaniment of chants of "Swing, swing, Admiral Byng!". King George II, having been told that Byng was a coward, was resolved that he should be made an example.
Having left Gibraltar aboard the Antelope on the 9th July, John Byng duly arrived at Spithead on the 26th July and now found himself placed under arrest pending a court-martial.
The court was convened aboard the St. George in Portsmouth Harbour on the 27th December 1756 and lasted a whole month, finally reaching its decision on the 27th January 1757. Naturally enough the court-martial came to the verdict that was required and decided that John Byng had fallen foul of the 12th Article of War which at the time stated that "Every person in the fleet, who ... shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage; ... every such person, so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court-martial, shall suffer death." Thus convicted of failing "to do his utmost" John Byng faced execution; although his judges added the rider that "the court do not believe that his misconduct arose either from cowardice or disaffection; and do therefore unanimously think it their duty most earnestly to recommend him as a proper object of mercy."
Since it was generally agreed that John Byng was, at most, guilty of only an error of judgment a number of distinguished persons spoke out in his favour. William Pitt attempted to intercede with the king; Samuel Johnson came to his defense as did Voltaire; even Galissonière and the Duc de Richelieu felt moved to communicate their support for the Admiral; but all to no avail. The powers that be were determined that the sentence of the court-martial be carried out. There was merely a brief pause whilst the government consulted a panel of civilian judges to confirm that the sentence of the court martial was legal, but once that confirmation was received on the 14th February 1757, it was only a question of carrying out the prescribed punishment.
The death of Admiral Byng
His execution was carried on board the Monarque in Portsmouth Harbour on the 14th March 1757. Shortly before his execution John Byng handed a letter to the Marshal of the Admiralty presiding over the firing squad in which he expressed no bitterness regarding his treatment, asserted his innocence and claimed that he should "be considered (as I now perceive myself) a victim designed to divert the indignation and resentment of an injured and deluded people from the proper objects". His main concern at the time was that no one thought him a coward and he therefore insisted on being allowed to give the order to shoot to his own firing squad.
Horace Walpole was to provide the following account of John Byng's last moments;5
He desired to be shot on the quarter-deck, not where common malefactors were; came out at twelve, sat down in a chair, for he would not kneel, and refused to have his face covered, that his countenance might shew whether he feared death; but being told that it might frighten his executioners, he submitted, gave the signal at once, received one shot through the head, another through the heart, and fell.
Another account of his execution insists that "Six of the Marines fired. One bullet missed; one passed through the heart; and four others struck different parts of the body." Not that it matters a great deal as the Admiral was dead either way, his remains being returned to land that evening and later buried at Solihull in Befordshire. There he was interred under a gravestone that bore the following inscription;
To the perpetual disgrace of Public Justice
The Honble. John Byng, Esqre
Admiral of the Fleet
Fell a martyr to political persecution
March 14th in the year 1757, when
Bravery and Loyalty
Where insufficient securities for the
Life and Honour
of a Naval Officer
The execution of Admiral John Byng was perfectly legal and quite in accordance with the Articles of War - "That Byng had not done all he could is undeniable, and he therefore fell under the law"6. Neither was he the only British naval officer to fall foul of regulations in this fashion, simply the most senior and well-known figure to do so7. Neverthless his execution appears to be a rather callous act, and certainly to foreign eyes it seemed as if Byng had been executed, pour encourager les autres, for reasons other than those of justice.
The generations born since the execution of John Byng have tended to view the career of the unforunate admiral more favourably and reflected that if execution were to be the penalty for failing to do your utmost, most likely all of us would be facing a firing squad. Byng may therefore be credited with some degree of foresight, having prophesised in his final letter that "justice will be done to my reputation thereafter".
1 Francois Marie Arouet aka Voltaire from Candide (Chapter XXIII)
2 The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
3 WL Clowes had the following to say on the matter "But this fleet, which should have been a large and powerful one, was by no means of formidable proportions. It consisted only of ten sail of the line; and even those few ships were not fitted out without the greatest difficulty and friction. At that late date the Ministry seems to have been still blind to the importance of Minorca. There were at the moment twenty-seven ships of the line cruising in the Channel and Bay of Biscay, twenty-eight ships of the line in commission at home, and many small craft, which might have been detailed for the service. But Byng was not permitted to utilise any of these, or to draw crews from them; and his mission was evidently regarded as a wholly subsidiary one."
4 Fort St Philip being the main fortress on the island and the last obstacle to the French conquest following the disembarkation of ground forces under the command of the Duc De Richelieu.
5 From a letter by Horace Walpole to Horace Mann quoted by TH White
6 The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
7 The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica notes that "in the previous war in 1745 an unhappy young lieutenant, Baker Phillips by name, whose captain had brought his ship into action unprepared, and who, when his superior was killed, surrendered the ship when she could no longer be defended, was shot by sentence of a courtmartial."
- T.H. White The Age of Scandal (Folio, 1993)
- William Laird Clowes The Royal Navy: a History from the earliest times to the present reproduced at http://home.wxs.nl/~pdavis/Byng.htm under the title 'Trial and execution of Admiral John Byng, 1757'
- The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for BYNG, JOHN