March 14, 1757. An Admiral of the British Royal Navy faces execution on board the HMS Monarch. His crime? “Failing to do his utmost” – that is, showing a lack of aggression in the face of the enemy. Who was John Byng, and why is his death so important it gave rise to its own turn of phrase?
Great Britain and France were at war, again. This is the 1700s, what else is new? A series of border clashes off in the Pennsylvania wilderness, various maritime disputes, and the unvarying aggressiveness of Britain’s ally, Prussia’s Frederick the Great, all contributed to a new outbreak of war. Also, it had been about six or seven years, and the swords and muskets were getting a little rusty. Exercise would do them some good.
Even though fighting in the Americas had already been going on since 1754 – with the involvement of Virginian militiaman George Washington – Britain and France had danced around the issue of open war. Since they believed that war was going to come eventually, the French decided to strike first in order to gain the element of surprise. Any first strike, though, would need to gain some important objective in order to take advantage of that element. France particularly wanted to secure a flank that had been a trouble spot in previous wars with Britain – the Mediterranean.
In the 1701-1714 War of the Spanish Succession, Britain had seized the port of Gibraltar on the Spanish coast as well as the island of Minorca, until then part of the Spanish Balearic Islands in the western Mediterranean. (The other two islands are Majorca and Ibiza.) From these two outposts, they could send their fleet ranging into the Mediterranean whenever they wished, disrupting France’s trade and menacing her ports and cities in the south. On multiple occasions, they had carried out pinprick raids that caused little damage but kept French armies distracted and strangled commerce throughout the coast.
France, then, decided to seize Minorca by a surprise attack. The British would be unprepared; the French knew that the Royal Navy did not have enough force nearby to react quickly, and would need to send troops and ships from England. In April 1756, France dispatched a force of 17 ships and 15,000 men under the Duke of Richelieu to land on Minorca and quickly capture the fortress. Facing only 2,000 British troops holed up in Fort St. Philip and Port Mahon, the French laid siege, betting they could take the town and fort before British reinforcements arrived.
The Royal Navy was not ready. It had been neglected in previous years due to the parsimony of Parliament, and many of its ships were in a poor state of repair and undermanned. The urgency of the mission caused the British government to ignore these concerns, and they decided to dispatch a squadron of 10 heavy warships. To command this improvised unit, they appointed Admiral John Byng.
John Byng was 52, and had a solid reputation as an able naval officer; his father had been a great admiral under William and Mary. Byng had nevertheless seen little combat, but there was no reason to think that he was unusually unqualified or unfit for command. He raised alarms as soon as he took command about his lack of trained crews and the generally poor condition of his ships, but was told that there was no money or time to prepare. Byng nevertheless delayed his squadron in Portsmouth, south of England, for several days until enough crew could be found to put to sea. On April 6, his squadron sailed south for the Spanish coast and Gibraltar.
Byng put in at Gibraltar on May 2, and attached the few ships that had escaped the French encirclement of Minorca to his small fleet. Byng’s letters reveal that he believed the expedition was doomed. He did not have enough ships, what ships he had were in bad shape, and he had to offload his Royal Marines to make room for reinforcements for the garrison – leaving him badly shorthanded if battle occurred. Nevertheless, he sailed on May 8, headed to break the siege of Minorca, drive off he French, and reinforce the garrison. If Byng succeeded, the British would remain the dominant force in the Mediterranean and the French surprise stroke would come to nothing.
On May 20, Byng arrived off the coast of Minorca and immediately confronted the French fleet, slightly larger than his own. Byng headed into battle once he had “gained the weather gage” – that is, positioned himself upwind of the French vessels to gain the decisive advantage. At this Battle of Minorca, though, Byng maintained a cautious distance, only allowing a few of his ships into gunnery range of the French fleet. The French badly damaged these ships, then moved off to break contact and resume their blockade of Minorca.
This was Byng’s moment. One of his officers pointed out that if he broke his line and chased the enemy, he might start a general melee, where superior British seamanship and discipline could prevail over the French. It was a risk, but it stood a strong chance of paying off handsomely. It was a risk that generations of British naval officers before and after, from Sir Francis Drake to Horatio Nelson to Andrew Cunningham in World War II, would use to rousing success in multiple combats. But Byng was not Drake, Nelson, or Cunningham. Even though neither side had lost a ship, Byng broke off the attack and lingered off the coast of Minorca for four days before setting sail back to Gibraltar.
Byng landed at Gibraltar on June 19, where he received reinforcements and began planning a second try at Minorca. Before he could set off, however, two messages arrived one after the other. First, a message from England in response to reports of the Battle of Minorca relieved Byng of his command and ordered him home. The second reported that Minorca had surrendered on June 29. To the British government, John Byng’s cowardice had cost them their best foothold in the Mediterranean and started the Seven Years’ War on the wrong foot.
Byng, back in Britain, was put on court-martial for breaching the Articles of War, which contained a passage mandating the death penalty for officers “who did not do their utmost against the enemy.” This was a recent revision to the Articles of War, after a scandalous incident in 1745 during the last war with France. What would have been a normal inquiry into a lost battle had suddenly turned into the trial of the century in England – would the King’s government really execute an Admiral of the Royal Navy for not being sufficiently aggressive and making a calculated decision in the heat of battle?
Byng’s court-martial was convened on December 28, 1756 before a panel of Admirals and Captains. The four-week trial concluded in January and found Byng innocent of cowardice but guilty of failing to keep his fleet together, failing to open fire at a distance that could kill the enemy, and failing to pursue and do everything in his power to relieve Minorca. Finding that Byng had “not done his utmost,” the court found Byng guilty and condemned him to death – but unanimously recommended that King George II exercise his royal right of pardon.
George II refused. Even after being approached by the First Lord of the Admiralty Richard Grenville, and even after a personal appeal by Prime Minister William Pitt, George II denied any sort of petition for Byng’s pardon. George II knew that the poor state of the fleet and its underfunding was the real reason for Byng’s defeat, but this would be a political disaster if it came to light; it was easier to find a scapegoat. Byng’s death sentence raised an outcry in both the Royal Navy and the country, but George remained firm. There had to be consequences for defeat.
On March 14, then, the sentence was carried out. Byng was led out onto the deck of HMS Monarch in the presence of every crewmember from every ship in the Navy shipyards at Portsmouth. He knelt on a cushion, and dropped his handkerchief on the timbers to signal that he was ready to die. The squad of Royal Marines fired, and Byng was no more.
Byng was the only Admiral ever executed in this fashion – indeed, the only high-ranking officer in modern history executed for something resembling poor tactical judgment rather than cowardice, corruption or treason. It has been called the “worst legal crime in the annals of Britain,” although this is definitely an exaggeration since Britain has been guilty of far worse things than executing one old man.
Still, though, Byng’s career, trial, and death were soon famous throughout the Western world. American patriots held it up as an example of British royal tyranny, and other nations pointed to it as an example to say “see, we’re not *that* bad.” If you’re waiting to hear how the Crown realized their mistake, well, keep waiting. In 2007, Byng’s descendants applied for a posthumous pardon for their 250-year dead ancestor, but the Ministry of Defence shot the petition down. The Byngs still seek a pardon for their disgraced forbear, who lies in All Saints Church in Bedfordshire.
The most famous statement to come out of the Byng affair comes from that king of wit and cynicism, Voltaire, who observed events from afar. In his landmark novel *Candide*, the title character goes to Portsmouth and witnesses the execution of an officer by a firing squad. When he asks the purpose of the death, he is told that “In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”
Or, as the saying has passed into modern times, “pour encourager les autres” – to encourage the others. In short, to make an example of someone.
Gives you some ideas for government, perhaps. I kid, I kid.
Book Recommendation: The John Byng story hasn't had many histories written directly about it until LITERALLY this year. See Joseph J. Krulder, The Execution of Admiral John Byng as a Microhistory of Eighteenth-Century Britain (London: Routledge, 2021).