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  • James Houser

Short Round #3, "To Encourage the Others," Sources and Commentary

I don’t have a whole lot to say about today’s episode; anything that needed to be said was pretty much covered in the Short Round itself. The death of Admiral John Byng is one of those things that was very well-known and famous in its time but not so famous these days. Of course, when history is forgotten, we should wonder “why” and not “what.”

Portrait of John Byng by Thomas Hudson, 1749

I think John Byng’s trial falls into the memory hole at least for Americans because it happened in Britain during a very active time in American history, the French and Indian War. I mean, young George Washington is running around on his ill-fated adventures as this drama was playing out, so there are reasons why American history would focus on events closer to home rather than on this one. I think Britain’s overall story of the Seven Years’ War should get more airtime in America since it helps explain why the American Revolution happened, but that’s a story for another time.

"The Shooting of Admiral Byng," Artist Unknown

I do want to emphasize right off the bat that John Byng is not the only senior military commander to be executed in world history. There are two famous examples at hand. The French Revolution killed many a general that experienced defeat or even incomplete victory, especially during the dark days of 1793. And Soviet Russia under Stalin killed many of its military leaders in the Great Purge of 1937-1939, and several generals who failed to stop the Germans in 1941. There are other examples in modern history as well.

The key differences between them and John Byng was that the British 1.) were supposed to be a civilized and law-abiding people not in the throes of a revolutionary era, which caused Byng’s death to be shocking and appalling to other European powers, and 2.) Byng was killed particularly for failing to do his utmost, not for “treason” or “cowardice” or the other trumped-up charges thrown at the French or Soviet generals.

Locations of Gibraltar and Menorca (far to the right), both held by Britain in 1757

Basically…it wasn’t that Byng lost, or chickened out, or sold out that formed the basis of his charges. It was that he just hadn’t done enough. This was such a vague and bizarre charge that there’s no wonder that it was later removed from the Code…but it’s also unsurprising that Royal Navy officers would be looking over their shoulders for years afterwards. I plan to discuss another such incident in March…when we travel to the South Pacific for one of World War I’s naval epics.

Political cartoon depicting the English lion "dismembered" by the loss of Minorca, targeting John Byng for his alleged cowardice

Anyway, that’s most of what I have to say today. I will see you all next week!


Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Clowes, William Laird. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present, Vol. 3. London: Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, 1898.

Herman, Arthur. To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Scott, Michael. Scapegoats: Thirteen Victims of Military Injustice. London: Elliott and Thompson, 2013.

Note: I had not read Joseph J. Krulder’s The Execution of Admiral John Byng as a Microhistory of Eighteenth-Century Britain before I recorded this short round, but I wish I had!

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