"Pour encourager les autres" - The Execution of Admiral Byng in 1757


14 March 1757, Admiral John Byng was executed aboard HMS “Monarch” for not doing the utmost against the enemy during the Battle of Minorca at the beginning of the Seven Years' War.

“Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres ("in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others", Voltaire, “Candide”)



A contemporary print showing Byng’s execution*


It was probably all Thomas Matthews fault. Admiral Matthews was obviously a bit on the mentally-challenged side with coordinating his battle fleet off Toulon in 1744, got court martialled for not forming a battle line and a contemporary remarked: “'Tis wonderful how void Admiral Mathews is of common sense, good manners, or knowledge of the world. He understands nothing but Yes or No, and knows no medium." When Admiral Byng’s squadron engaged an equally strong French fleet of 12 ships-of-the-line at the Battle of Minorca in 1756, he strictly played by the rules of the “Fighting Instructions”, kept his battle line intact, the van of his squadron got a pounding from the French, Byng didn’t order the rest of his ships to leave the line or even just split it to close with the enemy, Sir Edward Hawke, who won the Battle of Quiberon Bay 3 years later, would have cried with shame, the engagement ended in a draw but Byng failed to relieve the island of Minorca, the place fell to the French and everyone was embarrassed.


Nicolas Ozanne’s (1728 – 1811) idea of “The departure of the French squadron on 10 April 1756 for the attack against Port Mahon“

In fact, with sticking to the traditional approach of keeping his squadron in the line of battle instead of ordering something like "engage the enemy more closely" as Nelson did half a century later and throwing conservative procedures to the wind, Byng was responsible for a French major strategic victory. The contemporary discussion gave strong hints to a cover-up of the Admiralty's failure to equip Byng with a squadron that would have been able to beat the French to start with. However, it is not without a certain sense of humour that Byng was sentenced to death for choosing a conservative course of action – a court martial followed and Byng was sentenced to death for not doing the utmost against the enemy.



"The English Lion dismembered". Contemporary cartoon after the loss of Minorca tot he French


Brought aboard HMS “Monarch” (74), Captain Montagu, a French prize taken by Hawke in the Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747, just three months after her completion, Byng got a cushion to kneel upon on the port side of her quarterdeck, a blindfold and a handkerchief he was supposed to drop when he was ready, he did and was shot by a platoon of “Monarch’s” marines. Montagu recorded in his log: “These 24 hours very squally, with showers of wind and rain; Admiral Byng's Co. as before; at 7 A.M. his Coffin came on board; at 10 A.M. all the Ships' Boats, manned and armed, came to attend his Execution; hard gales, lowered down the lower yards: at noon all hands were called up to attend his execution; he was shot on the larboard side of the Quarter Deck by six Marines, attended by Lieut. Clark, the Marshal, and Mr. Muckings; these gentlemen went ashore after the execution was over.” Byng’s verdict is discussed to this day, especially by his descendants, a sixth generation granddaughter of the admiral appealed to the British Ministry of Defense in 2013 for a pardon – which was not granted. However, his case did encourage les autres and was, along with the prize money system, very probably the fountainhead for the development of a highly aggressive and very successful caste of navy officers that did their utmost against the enemy for the next three generations and, with 
their ships and crews, enabled Britannia to rule the waves far into the 20th century.


* image was found on http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/10136826/Family-hope-pardon-for-shamed-Admiral-Byng-will-finally-arrive.html along with the story of Byng’s descendants struggling for his rehabilitation.