258 years ago, a Royal Navy admiral was executed for ‘failing to do his utmost’.
Can you imagine if ‘failing to do your utmost’ were grounds to carry out executions in the Royal Navy today?
Of course it’s absurd to even think of but it does make you question whether the military and government has now become too ‘soft’ on the actions of military chiefs and whether it’s gone too far the other way?
Back in the 18th century, the admiral to be made an example of in the highest fashion was John Byng.
He was shot dead for losing Minorca to the French.
He joined the Navy and went to sea at 13. By 23 he was a captain and rose to rear admiral at 40. In 1756, at 70 years old, he was a full admiral. This is when the Seven Years’ War broke out and Byng was sent with a fleet to stop a British garrison falling to the French.
Despite his protests that he was not given enough money or time to prepare the expedition properly, it went ahead. He set out with 10 unseaworthy ships that leaked and were inadequately manned.
His correspondence shows that he left prepared for failure, that he did not believe that the garrison could hold out against the French force, and that he had already resolved to come back from Minorca if he found that the task presented any great difficulty.
Byng sailed on 8 May 1756. Before he arrived, the French landed 15,000 troops on the western shore of Minorca, spreading out to occupy the island.
He and his council of war decided against landing more troops and he wrote to the Admiralty to explain that carrying out his orders would not stop the French and would be a needless waste of manpower.
The letter, which arrived at the end of May, aroused consternation and fury in London. George II said flatly: ‘This man will not fight!’
Then came news of an inconclusive encounter in June between the British fleet under Byng and the French, from which the French had sailed away scot free, and late in June Fort St Philip surrendered. Byng was summoned home and put under arrest on arrival.
He was court marshalled and although he defended himself, the court found him guilty and he was executed. The government ignored the court’s unanimous recommendation to mercy and George II declined to use his prerogative to spare Byng.
On the 14th March 1757, in Portsmouth Harbour, on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch, John Byng was executed. In the presence of all the sailors from other boats in the Solent, the Admiral knelt on a cushion and signified his readiness by dropping his handkerchief, whereupon a platoon of Royal Marines shot him dead.
'The Shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque'
The French writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire used the death in his satirical novel, Candide, when the hero witnesses the execution and is told: “In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others” (pour encourager les autres). Although a rather scathing summary of the British attitude to its military commanders, it possibly hit the nail on the head.
And Admiral John Byng’s family have the same opinion. They’ve launched several campaigns to restore his reputation. They’ve lobbied to the Ministry of Defence for an official pardon for Byng, based on new evidence which they hope will exonerate him and prove he was a scapegoat framed by the authorities.
But the MoD said that, unlike in the case of 306 soldiers shot for cowardice, desertion or other offences during the First World War - and who were pardoned in 2006 - Byng’s surviving relatives had no “close family relationship” with him and therefore suffered no stigma as a result of his death.
Byng's descendent Sarah Saunders-Davies said:
"Admiral Byng did not deserve to be shot. He may not have been a brilliant sailor but he had an unblemished career and he had never lost a ship or drowned a sailor. The Byngs won't take the refusal of a pardon lying down. We're going to take this further."
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