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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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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.

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