John Byng was born in Bedfordshire on 29 October 1704. He was the Son of Rear-Admiral Sir George Byng so a Naval Career was a certainty. He joined the Navy aged 13 in 1718 and rose to the rank of captain when he was 23. His Naval career was uneventful, he found himself in comfortable posting which owed to his Fathers status in the Admiralty. However all this changed in 1756, when the Duke of Richelieu, Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, godson to Louis XIV and around 15,000 men landed on the Island of Minorca, laying siege to the local garrison there.
Byng was dispatched to the area but delays, and a disagreement with the governor of Gibraltar meant that when he finally got to the islands on May 19 the French had overrun the island leaving only Fort St. Phillip holding out. Byng found a fleet of 12 Ships of the line and 5 Frigates which were equal to his 12 ships of the line and 7 frigates. The battle lines were drawn the following morning.
Things were looking promising for Byng he had the weather gage and formed his line of battle ordering his ships to go about and come alongside their opposite numbers in the French fleet. However, resulted in a delay closing the line and bringing the cannon to bear on the French. The lead ships encountering the French were badly damaged and Byngs own ship, The Ramillies, didn’t get within firing range. During the battle Byng displayed considerable caution and an over-reliance on standard fighting procedures, Byng had previously been a member of the court martial of Thomas Matthews who had led a disorganised fleet into battle with an inferior force which resulted in him “fleeing” and being dismissed from the service. Indeed it could be said that Byng’s experience of that trial and the lessons were to be his undoing.
A council of war convened and decided to break off and leave the island, instead deciding to return to defend Gibraltar against possible invasion. News of this spread like wildfire through France and then -with the help of smuggled newspapers- across England, before Byng’s dispatch had been received.
The response was one of anger, Byng was accused as a coward and cartoons began to emerge such as one showing a Lion (Britain) with a paw removed while a cockerel pecks at the white ensign. Byng returned to a court martial and while they couldn’t make a case for cowardice they used the 12th article of war
“Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence or Disaffection, shall in time of Action withdraw or keep back, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty’s Ships or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a Court Martial, shall suffer Death.”
Byng was charged with not doing his utmost to remove the French fleet and sentenced to death, attempts at clemency from the King resulted in angry exchanges and political manoeuvring in Parliament. William Pitt could not contest the sentence as much as he would have liked since Lord Newcastle, the man partly to blame for Britain’s poor start to the 7 years war, was now in an unstable coalition with Pitt.
Clemency denied, on the on 14 March 1757 Byng was executed on board HMS Monarch which is recorded in the ships log:
“[A]t 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.”
Byng’s last act was to lower a handkerchief at which point the marines fired. While the execution was described as the “the worst legalistic crime in the nation’s annals” it served as a lesson to Officers in the navy and instilled an aggressive determination to succeed for the consequences of not engaging were now clear. A lesson that helped the Royal Navy become the dominant force in the world for 200 years.
As Voltaire observed in his novel Candide “”in this country, it is good to kill, from time to time, an admiral to encourage the others”