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Tragedy at Sea

Military tribunals, 18th-century style.

Aug 2, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 43 • By JOSEPH F. CALLO
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Admiral Byng

His Rise and Execution
by Chris Ware
Penn & Sword, 224 pp., $39.99

In 1757 Admiral John Byng of the Royal Navy was executed by firing squad on the quarterdeck of HMS Monarque. He wasn’t shot because he lost a battle, betrayed his country, or committed an act of cowardice under fire. He was shot because he failed to achieve a victory in a naval action against the French, and particularly because he was indecisive and passive in the battle’s aftermath. 

Following the execution, Voltaire remarked sardonically that the British “shoot an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” But there was much more to the event than that, and in Admiral Byng Chris Ware illuminates the complicated military and political circumstances of this story of an otherwise unremarkable officer whose career ended in a seemingly bizarre act.

Ware sets up some of the incongruities of the narrative at the end of his prologue: 

It was not treason that brought Byng to his execution. .  .  . it was both devastatingly simple and, at the same time, far more complex than that. What brought him down was the one thing which could destroy any British admiral: failure to defeat the enemy in battle.

It occurs to the reader, however, that even in the eighteenth century failure in battle might lead to being relieved of command and even cashiered from the service—but not to a ceremonial death by firing squad. Ware tells the story in detail—how the peculiar execution came to pass—and he tells it with the insights of a lecturer, author, and former curator of Britain’s National Maritime Museum.

John Byng was born in 1704, the son of Admiral Viscount George Byng, who became an admiral of the fleet and was first lord of the admiralty from 1727 to 1733. There was little doubt that John Byng was headed for a career in the Royal Navy, and he entered that service in 1718. After an undistinguished early career, he advanced to rear admiral in 1745, vice admiral in 1747, and admiral in 1756. He was not a brilliant naval leader, but neither were there serious blemishes on his record. He managed generally to avoid the least attractive assignments during his career, and he had no more than his expected share of brushes with higher authority, both political and naval. He was in many ways typical of the numerous well-connected officers who achieved the rank of post captain, and then advanced inexorably to flag rank in the Royal Navy of the day.

Byng’s career took an ominous turn in March 1756, however, when he was appointed to command a 10-ship squadron with troops embarked and ordered to the Mediterranean. It was clear, in Byng’s orders, that a crucial element of his deployment was the protection of Minorca, a linchpin of British naval power in the Mediterranean. A key phrase in his orders was this: “If you find any attack made upon that island [Minorca] by the French you are to use all possible means in your power for its relief.”

After considerable delay, including significant problems in manning his ships, Byng arrived in Gibraltar at the beginning of May. There he learned that the French had already invaded Minorca and were in control of the island, with the exception of Fort St. Philip at the port of Mahon. Byng was faced with a situation that he had not anticipated. Instead of reinforcing the British defense of Minorca against a potential attack, a mostly tactical challenge, he was faced with a question with broad strategic implications. Should he support the garrison at Mahon, even if that support was likely to fail, or should he write off Minorca and use his squadron in other ways against the French? It was a question of broad strategy, the likes of which he had not confronted previously.

Even beyond his shortage of experience, Byng had a personality that was no match for the challenge. Ware describes those inadequacies candidly: “Byng was fussy, which might come across as dithering, and he also wrote in an orotund style.” In addition, Ware quotes an evaluation by Julian Corbett, the British maritime strategist: “He was not a man for a doubtful enterprise where so much must turn on a capacity for prompt resolution and fearlessness of responsibility.”

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