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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.”

On May 20, Byng’s moment in history arrived. After sighting a French squadron off the coast of Minorca, a battle was joined. The opposing forces were equal, and once engaged, neither side was able to gain a clear advantage. During the action Byng demonstrated neither exceptional tactical skill nor aggressiveness, and it was clear that his captains had not been briefed about their commander’s intentions prior to the action. Confounding the issue were the navy’s “Sailing and Fighting Instructions,” which provided little help in the basic command-and-control challenges of combat at sea during the Age of Sail. The instructions were not conducive to aggressive tactics, and confusion and tentativeness marked the British squadron’s performance. As darkness approached, the French force bore away. There was some damage inflicted by both sides, but there was no decisive result: Byng did not pursue the French squadron—and for that he would pay, not with censure or ignominy, but with his life.

Confronted with a challenging tactical situation and serious strategic implications, which Byng appeared to be overlooking, he called for a council of war among his captains and a number of the senior army officers involved. It was a common reaction for the time; but nearly 50 years later Admiral Nelson would be instructive on the subject of war councils when he wrote to his prime minister: “For if a man consults whether he is to fight, when he has the power in his own hands, it is certain that his opinion is against fighting.” 

As it turned out, Byng’s war council voted unanimously that there was no prospect of relieving the garrison at Fort St. Philip, and that Gibraltar would be endangered if Byng’s squadron was to suffer further damage. Byng returned to Gibraltar. When word of the eventual surrender of the British force holding the last British bastion on Minorca, and Byng’s return to Gibraltar, reached Britain, a political and press firestorm was ignited. As Ware explains, “Gibraltar was important, but Minorca was vital. .  .  . Lose Minorca and the law of unintended consequences came into play.” It was a circumstance that threatened the government, as well as the Royal Navy’s leaders at the Admiralty—and for good reason. It was their planning and policies, more than Byng’s lack of aggressiveness, that had led to strategic disaster, and it is on this aspect of the story that Ware’s knowledge of British political history is particularly important.

A squadron was quickly formed and sent out to reinforce the Navy in the Mediterranean. Byng and many of the officers in his squadron were relieved and returned to England, where Byng was immediately placed under arrest, and preparations for his court martial began.

Byng’s position was extremely dangerous. While imprisoned initially in the Tower of London, and subsequently at the Seamen’s Hospital at Greenwich, it was difficult for him to mount a legal defense, and no one in the government or the Admiralty facilitated matters for him. He was, after all, the lightning rod for blame that could easily have fallen upon them. The forces arrayed against Byng were overwhelming, ranging from George II to the king’s ministers to the Admiralty to the press. And unfortunately for him, he had no anchor to windward in any of those places.

What resulted was a trial conducted in strict accordance with Britain’s Articles of War of 1749 but moved inexorably towards a conviction. Ware describes the proceedings bluntly: “Whatever the circumstances it was obvious that this was a show trial .  .  .  and a show trial in the sense that the ministry of whatever composition had to be seen to be doing something.” When the court martial ended, Byng stood convicted of violating a critical article: “Every person who through cowardice or negligence or disaffection shall in 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 be his duty to engage .  .  . shall suffer death.” 

It was the requirement to “do his utmost” that led to his doom. 

Byng’s legal defense failed, as his action against the French fleet at Minorca had failed; but he pursued it with resolution and a sense that his impending sacrifice was inevitable. He clearly believed that he was innocent of misconduct, and notwithstanding the odds stacked against him, he never wavered from that position. Nor did he question the prerogatives of his civilian masters to sit in judgment of his actions or, in his case, his thought processes.

When the smoke from the Royal Marines’ muskets drifted off Monarque’s quarterdeck, and the corpse of John Byng was removed, there were doubtless sighs of relief from George II and in Whitehall and at the Admiralty. But there was something else as well, something more permanent: the realization that Admiral John Byng was clearly more than a mediocre flag officer. He was someone who, by the quality of his response to his accusers, endorsed a concept that is a given in those societies based on representative governments: civilian control of the military.

Joseph F. Callo is the author of John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior. 

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