On 14th March 1757 a British admiral, John Byng, was executed on board his flagship in Portsmouth Harbour “to encourage the others”. His crime had been not fighting the French until he was properly equipped to do so.
The failed mission of Admiral Byng
Admiral John Byng was court-martialled on a charge of failing to be sufficiently aggressive in a naval action against the French. It is now widely believed that Admiral Byng was the victim of a miscarriage of justice and was the scapegoat for the failings of others.
The action in question took place during the Seven Years War (1754-63) that brought Britain and France into conflict. The Mediterranean island of Minorca, which had been a British possession, was invaded by the French in 1756 and the garrison at Fort St Philip was besieged. Admiral Byng was ordered to sail to Minorca, relieve the siege and recapture the island.
Admiral Byng knew from the outset that this would not be easy, especially given the conditions under which he was required to act. There were administrative delays, and he was not given enough time to prepare his expedition properly. His ten ships were in poor condition and he was ordered to replace his marines, who were skilled in fighting at sea, for soldiers who would reinforce the garrison once it was recaptured.
When Byng arrived at Minorca he realised that the task was all but impossible. In an initial action with a French fleet the British ships came off worse and the French slipped away. Byng did not pursue the French fleet but waited off Minorca for four days, after which he decided that he would not be able to do anything more effective unless his ships were repaired and his men were fully fit (he had a number of wounded men on board who needed treatment). He therefore sailed for Gibraltar with every intention of returning later to resume the battle.
Byng’s trial and execution
However, before he could do so he received a summons from London to return and face a court-martial for his initial failure. He was accused of “failing to do his utmost” to relieve the garrison at Fort St Philip, which subsequently fell to the French.
The Articles of War had recently been revised to include the death sentence for anyone who was found guilty of Byng’s offence, and, after his conviction, this was the sentence he received. The Prime Minister, William Pitt, petitioned King George II to have the sentence commuted, but the king would not agree. For one thing, Pitt and the king were not on the best of terms, which made the king unlikely to do anything that Pitt asked of him, and, for another, the king was reflecting the mood of the country, which was outraged that a British fleet had been defeated by a French one.
Admiral Byng therefore faced the firing squad on the deck of his flagship in Portsmouth Harbour. His death conveniently protected the government and admiralty from the blame for their own failings, and it also bemused the French. As Voltaire wrote two years later in his novel Candide: “In England it’s good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others”.
© John Welford