On this day in history : 14th March 1757 – The execution by firing squad of Admiral John Byng on HMS Monarch at Portsmouth – for ‘failing to do his utmost’….
“In this country it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others”…. as written by the philosopher Voltaire in his controversial novella of the time ‘Candide’…. He was referring to a revision of a British law to make ‘failing to do his utmost against the enemy, either in battle of pursuit’ an offence punishable by death – among the officers of the British Navy….
John Byng was born in 1704 in Bedfordshire and joined the Navy at the age of 13…. By the time he was 23 he was a captain and a rear-admiral at 40…. By 1756, at the start of the Seven Years’ War, he was a well-respected Admiral….
Byng was given orders to prevent the French from capturing the garrison at Fort St. Philip on the island of Menorca – a British stronghold…. He set sail with a fleet of 10 ships to Gibraltar to collect a detachment of 700 soldiers…. From the onset Byng made it clear his resources were inadequate; he had 10 leaking ships and not enough men to sail them….
Having collected the Gibraltar garrison the fleet continued on its way….and on the 20th of May a battle with the French left some damage to the British ships whilst the French retreated unscathed…. Having learned the French already had a strong foothold on Menorca Byng decided to return to Gibraltar…. He sent a letter to the Admiralty explaining his reasons; the fort was already as good as lost – it would be a pointless exercise and an unnecessary risk to life….
When the letter arrived in London the government and King George II were furious…. The King’s words being…. “This man will not fight”….
In late June Fort St. Philip surrendered to the French and Byng was summoned home…. On his arrival he was arrested on breach of the 12th Article of War…. The court martial was held at the end of December with Byng being charged with ‘failing to do his utmost’…. Crowds chanted ‘swing, swing Admiral Byng’….
Although he defended himself the Admiral was found guilty – but was cleared of cowardice and disaffection…. It was with extreme reluctance that the death sentence was passed….Prime Minister William Pitt the elder appealed to King George for clemency for Byng – but this was refused – the King’s response being “You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons”….
At 7am on the day of the execution, during a howling gale, a coffin was brought onboard the Monarch, Admiral Byng’s flagship…. The inscription upon it read…. ‘The Hon. John Byng Esqr. Died March 14th 1757’….
Next the Admiral was brought on board…. The ship was soon full with officers from all of the other warships at anchor in the harbour at the time…. Other vessels crammed with spectators filled the waters….
At noon Admiral Byng, wearing a light grey coat, white breeches and a large white wig, was taken to the quarter-deck…. Waiting for him on a pile of sodden sawdust was a cushion, on which he knelt…. He tied the blindfold which he had reluctantly agreed to wear on account of the firing squad – six marines in their scarlet tunics – not to see his face…. The Admiral raised a neatly folded handkerchief in his right hand and after a pause of a few moments it dropped…. The six marines fired and he fell to the side – Admiral Byng was dead….
The King and his government had underestimated the French….rather than lose face they found a scapegoat….