March 14 , 1757
“pour encourager les autres” :
Admiral John Byng’s Trial and Execution
250 Years ago
sent Shock Waves throughout Europe
(Reliable Biography of the British Admiral of the White Flag, John Byng, who has been shot March 14th, 1757, after judgement and law aboard the man-of-war The Monarch, along with a short preliminary report on the current state of the British Naval Power.) In German. Frankfort and Leipsic, no printer, 1757. 10 ll. preliminary report and contents, 156 pp. Dark brown contemp. leather on 5 ribs with back-plate.
Neither in Holzmann-Bohatta, Oettinger 224 nor in the Cat. Nat. Maritime Museum. – For 1757 Weller just mentions Byng’s written defense as being translated from English though without being able to resolve the faked place of printing London. – Contemporarily published, to the market overview here
hot off the press German publication
of still the same year ,
for its highly political explosiveness
published anonymously & without printer
with moreover most likely even faked place of printing .
Cf. William Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: a History from the Earliest Times to the Present (1897-1903), Mahan, Influence of Sea Power upon History, and Encyclopedia Britannica. Also see Hudson’s portraits (BHC2590 + BHC2591) and the representation of the execution (BHC0380) in Greenwich. – Especially pp. 79-107 with tidemark coming from top and tapering off to the binding. Fly-leaves with partly effaced traces of writing, on the title blurred ink spot. The boards negligibly warped. Totally only a little time-stained.
Placed in front of an overview of Byng’s family tree reaching back to the age of Henry VII, his parents and his siblings, a preliminary report on the structure of the British fleet and its three squadrons – from the red over the white to the blue flag – including the naval administration and the shipyard system, classification, arming, and crew of the ships and their ranking and salute obligations corresponding to the division of the squadrons. Further mentioning the two main battle orders, privateer system, and the Naval Hospital at Greenwich. Placed after the rendering of his written defense together with several letters.
John Byng, fourth son of admiral George Byng, Lord Vicomte of Torrington, first commissioner of the admiralty, and born the same year – 1704 – when during the Spanish War of Succession on the order of admiral George Rooke his father silenced the batteries of Gibraltar by a half-day bombardment and so contributed as successfully as decisively to the capture of the Rock, joined the navy at the age of 14 and in 1733/34 he got the command of a ship of 50 guns. After several duties and promotions Byng finally retired in 1748 as vice admiral of now the red flag as the most distinguished squadron.
Remarkable for the later events only his taking part as vice president in the court martial against the admirals Lestock and Mathews accused of having neglectfully allowed the battle line to diverge too much in a fight before Toulon in 1744. The first was acquitted, the latter dismissed for lack of unequivocal clarification.
With rising new tensions between England and France about the American colonies
admiral Byng was re-activated in 1755
and sent into the Mediterranean with “an inadequate force” (Britannica) in September where England was worried about its predominance acquired during the Spanish War of Succession and especially its possessions Minorca and Gibraltar.
From the beginning the whole operation was ill-starred, however, starting with the departure delayed until April 1756, then adverse winds, so that Byng and the 10 ships of his fleet “arrived luckily at Gibraltar after a long and awkward voyage on May 2nd where the Chef d’Escadre Edgcumbe with 3 men-of-war and some frigates joined him” and reported of the already occurred landing of the French and the siege of Port Mahon. Referring to the weakness of his own garrison and unclear orders the governor of Gibraltar then, however, also refused to provide further troops as ordered for what he was dismissed still before Byng, without even all this having any positive influence in the later proceedings against the latter.
May 18th Byng arrived with his now 13 ships of the line before Port Mahon. Before an attempt to land though the French fleet – 12 ships of the line and 5 frigates – came in sight. Endeavoring to keep or – on the French side – to get the better starting position resp. the two fleets tacked in light winds till the afternoon of May 20th when both lines finally stood opposite to each other – though not parallel, but in an angle of about 30° – and the encounter first reported from the view of French admiral Count de La Galissionnière, then more extensively by Byng himself began.
The losses were about equal with 43 dead and 168 wounded on the English, and 38 and 175 resp. on the French side, but Byng lost two of his captains while the French had no higher officers among their casualties. Equally the English ships took significantly higher damages at their rigging in this encounter Mahan describes – quoted by Clowes – as being difficult.
The day after the encounter Byng hold a council of war to which he also called in the leaders of the embarked land forces and “in which (so Byng in his own report) not the least dispute or doubt arose”. Unanimously it was realized that Port Mahon could not be relieved neither by a new attack on the French fleet nor by the English task force at all, on the other hand though any loss, especially by an attack in the current state, would endanger Gibraltar and therefore the fleet should retreat there.
It is remarkable that this part as Byng’s observations before Port Mahon and the report about four further French ships of the line which laid ready to sail in Toulon as also the considerations on the options of the enemy to both enforce himself by troops from Menorca as to hand over the wounded
was not published
and therefore is also missing in the translation here. See on this Byng’s complete report quoted by Clowes under rendering prominently the omissions (a print is included). Besides
two weeks after the battle
and thus even before his return to Gibraltar
Byng was appointed admiral of the blue flag !
(The report here speaks both in the title as in the text of the white flag, Clowes and Meyers Konversationslexikon, 4th ed., unanimously, however, of the blue, as the epigraph, too.)
At his arrival in Gibraltar on June 19th Byng found a reinforcement of five ships and immediately began with the preparations for setting sails once more and a landing attempt. The taking over of fresh water was especially protracting as Gibraltar’s wells gave little water only. As a matter of fact Minorca surrendered already June 29th.
Meanwhile on July 3rd the Antelope with the admirals Hawke and Saunders as relief for Byng and rear admiral West arrived. At the same time the governor of Gibraltar was exchanged. With the relieved and numerous further officers who should be called into the witness-box on board the Antelope returned to Spithead where she arrived July 25th and
Byng was arrested immediately after putting in .
Even before speculations had been spread
“ that the friends of admiral Byng, who had concluded from the general shout and discontent of the mob on an impending investigation of his behavior, had warned him to return not to his fatherland under any circumstances, alone either this warning not got into his hands or he was, counting on the righteousness of his cause,
not afraid of the judge , but face him confidently ”
That public discontent culminating in numerous demonstrations – “that big that one finds few similar examples of this in history” – was, so it must be assumed, staged or furthered by the government taking advantage of the general rage about the bad news from the different war theatres to distract from the numerous neglects both in regard of opportune and determined measures:
“ By initiating legal proceedings against Byng, the administration of Prime Minister Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, hoped to divert public attention from its own failings; nevertheless, Newcastle resigned in November 1756 … (Byng’s) failure (to relieve Minorca) aroused a storm of indignation in England, motivating Newcastle to promise that
‘he shall be tried immediately; he shall be hanged directly’ ”
Nevertheless the trial against Byng beginning December 27th, thus only after Newcastle’s resignation, lasting till January 27, 1757, with 37 charges that in total accused him not to have done his best to relieve Port Mahon, seemed to take a good turn. So
“ … all English news then reported
that the admiral would come out of the case with honor
and would be acquitted by the judges … as suddenly the scene changed and showed a pitiful tragedy, namely
the forthcoming execution of the first admiral of Great Britain . ”
For contrary to the apparent impression after the ending of the examination January 22nd five of the judges voted for the death penalty peremptorily prescribed by chapter 12 of martial law for cowardice at the enemy and negligence of duties, four voted for dismissal because of incompetence, the remaining four judges pleaded for a verdict of not guilty. This stalemate lasted till the 27th when the four judges voting for dismissal turned to the side of the five.
This change of mind was triggered by a letter Voltaire conveyed to William Pitt, the new prime minister, together with a cover note in which Duke Richelieu, conqueror of Minorca, admired his defeated opponent and at the same time took the view that a continuation of the encounter would have resulted in the loss of the whole English fleet.
In a typical compromise Byng was recommended for pardon at the end of the sentence and especially in an appended letter. Of course this was of no obligation and predominantly served as comfort for the conscience of the judges. So the recommendation received no consideration during the review of the sentence by the Privy Council and the 12 judges. Quite on the contrary the latter even argued that by the then
stiffening of chapter 12 with mandatory death penalty
Byng, as a member of the parliament, had “judged himself by that”.
Meanwhile Byng’s friends, with the new prime minister William Pitt at the head, effected a suspension of the execution to investigate the conduct of Byng’s superiors. At the same time
“ The commander, August Keppel, … who is not just a parliamentary member of the House of Commons, but also took part in the council of war … proceeded to the prime minister Pitt and declared for himself and in the name of some other members of the mentioned council of war
that the sentence against the admiral Byng
were inequitable ,
and that a special cause had moved them to speak so … and a secret that, if they would allow
that an innocent man would be executed ,
would become a horrible crime, they could discover. ”
Purpose of this call was the suspension of the oath banning the judges from both talking about the single votes and the reasons or the accomplishment of the sentence by a corresponding act that surprisingly enough was approved by the House of Commons by a great majority.
In the following very passionate debate in the House of Lords finally the 13 judges of the council of war were questioned by four members of the House of Lords – two supporters, among these the First Commissioner of the Admiralty, and two opponents of the proposal – by which it became clear that all in all five of the judges including the president, vice admiral Smith,
“ had not been completely convinced of the legality of the sentence, but insisted expressly ‘that they had great reason to recommend the captive to the King’s mercy which they nevertheless could not reveal before they were dismissed from the oath of discretion.’”
After this strange questioning revolving in a circle the House of Lords quashed the proposal to free the judges of their oath with a great majority and
the legal scandal stirring Europe
culminated in a top class political murder :
March 14, 1757, – thus now 250 years ago – the sentence was executed on board of The Monarch after admiral Byng was even refused to face the firing squad not blindfolded:
Already the anonymous author of
the publication here published still the very same year
despite all emphasized neutrality finally left no doubt about the political motivation of the whole proceeding:
“ … and it seems (the House of Lords) wanted to make itself popular with the people, though others have the opinion that the many adherents the previous prime minister, Duke Thomas of Newcastle, has in the House of Lords contributed much to this, and that by rejecting the bill one cancelled the intention of the new prime minister to uncover the mistakes and negligences committed by the former prime ministers by saving the admiral. ”
This critical attitude should also be the reason for the anonymous publication and the printing place being faked with great probability. As obviously just the publication of Byng’s written defense was not without danger and also effected anonymously and faked (see above, Weller). Anyhow one of the Lords of the Admiralty refused to sign the sentence, and rear admiral West who as commander of the vanguard had borne the principal burden in the encounter refused a command with the argument, he could certainly guarantee for his loyalty and good intentions, but not warrant the correctness of all his decisions with his head.
Byng’s hope that later times will acknowledge the injustice has proven right. So Meyers Konversations-Lexikon writes in 1888 (4th ed.):
“ Later it became clear that even with greater vigor he could not have saved Menorca. ”
And Clowes judges:
“ Byng, both during his trial and after his sentence, behaved like a brave man … The tragedy, viewed from nearly every aspect, is to be most heartily regretted. Byng was neither traitor nor coward; but he was not an original genius, and, having seen Mathews punished for doing a certain thing, he believed that under no circumstances was it his duty to do anything even remotely of the same kind. His chief fault was that he was not independent enough, where a great object was to be gained, to shake himself loose from formulae and precedents, and to dash in when occasion allowed him. Yet, in one way, the sentence may have been productive of good. It may have taught the admirals who followed the unfortunate Byng, that they must pay more attention to victory than to red tape, and that not even the most honest devotion to conventional methods is so great a merit in a naval officer as success against the enemies of his country. ”
More recently this view has also been adopted by the Maritime Museum in Greenwich. While the previous accompanying texts on its website to the mentioned and further pictures unalteredly questioned the sentence in no way, the extensive description to the Execution already referred to assesses the circumstances more appropriately:
“ Byng’s subsequent engagement with Richelieu was inconclusive, as many such events of the time were for various unexceptional reasons. However, he compounded initial failure by accepting the subsequent opinion of a council of war of his commanders, that nothing further could be attempted given the state of the fleet …
in effect , he was made a scapegoat for government failure
to send out a force adequate to the task, and under a more experienced fighting commander ”
(National Maritime Museum, The Execution of Admiral Byng, 2007).
And the biographic abridgment to Hudson’s portrait of 1749 here now like the Britannica, already quoted above with an unequivocal conviction of the government of the Duke of Newcastle, closing with
Voltaire’s remark in “Candide” (1759)
who arrives in Portsmouth just the moment Byng is shot and learns on inquiry:
“ … in this country it is thought good to shoot an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others. ”
Candide was that shocked and appalled by this, that he not entered England and immediately travelled on to Venice, while the French phrase pour encourager les autres became common English use ever since.
Byng’s tomb in Southill, Bedfordshire, finally bears the epigraph:
“ To the Perpetual Disgrace of Public Justice, the Hon. John Byng, Esq., Admiral of the Blue, fell
a Martyr to Political Persecution ,
March 14th, in the year MDCCLVII;
when Bravery and Loyalty were insufficient Securities
for the Life and Honour of a Naval Officer. ”
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