History Thread: To Kill an Admiral

During a recent visit to Fort Ligonier, I was impressed anew with their remarkably thorough, well-curated exhibit on the Seven Years War. This visit, I found myself particularly struck by a mural-sized reproduction of the famous painting, The Execution of Admiral Byng, 14 March 1757. I was dimly familiar with the Admiral’s story but didn’t know many details. And since I didn’t have a History Thread prepared, I decided to prepare a header about the Admiral’s fate, a particularly galling example of old-fashioned military “justice.”

In 1756, the Seven Years War (a global conflict between Great Britain, Prussia and Hanover on one side and France, Spain, Austria, Russia and Sweden on the other) was in full-swing. British contributions to the war, at this point, largely consisted of colonial expeditions to North America and token forces supporting King George II’s relatives in Hanover.1 But France and Spain both coveted Britain’s military bases in the Mediterranean, particularly Gibraltar and the island of Minorca. Spanish troops had already landed on Sicily and threatened further advances. Word that the French were assembling a massive fleet at Toulon raised alarms that Minorca, located off the southern coast of France, was in danger.

Admiral Byng

John Byng was the son of Admiral George Byng, and himself a long-serving officer. Most of Byng’s service was relatively mundane; he commanded a squadron sent to blockade the Scottish coast during Bonnie Prince Charlie’s uprising of 1745, defended Newfoundland during the War of the Austrian Succession and sailed to the Mediterranean in that conflict’s waning days. Contemporaries (and historians after them) were split in assessing his character. Byng was considered an able captain but also a martinet who imposed strict discipline on his men; he was a social climber given to ostentatious dress who struggled to socialize or make friends; a considerable ego balanced with insecurity that he didn’t live up to his father’s reputation.

In March 1756, Lord George Anson of the Admiralty ordered him to assemble a fleet at Portsmouth and sail for Gibraltar. From the start, Byng’s expedition was hampered by mismanagement from above. Initially allotted ten warships, Byng found five taken from him to protect the English Channel from a French invasion that never manifested. Byng was further mortified to discovered his ships in disrepair (HMS Defiance, a 66 gun ship-of-the-line, was missing its fore and topmast when it arrived in Portsmouth!) and his crews undermanned; he was forced to enlist soldiers of the 7th Regiment of Foot to compensate for absent Royal Marines.

Byng was further hampered because Lord Anson and his aides, at the last moment, had second thoughts. First, they continued to fear a cross-Channel invasion, which never materialized; then the Admiralty indicated that Byng might instead sail for North America, a long voyage which his ships might not withstand (one wonders, whether the handful of soldiers onboard would contribute anything of value). Ultimately, Byng was finally ordered to Gibraltar, denied the full complement of ships promised him, with repairs only partially completed and still short an entire battalion (700 men) of infantry, which he was assured would be provided at Gibraltar. In April he finally sailed with this ramshackle squadron, assuring Anson that “I shall use every endeavour and means in my power to frustrate the designs of the enemy.”

Gibraltar

Byng’s luck, however, did not improve. He arrived in Gibraltar with orders to assume command of the small Mediterranean Squadron (three ships of the line)2 and draw reinforcements from the garrison. Gibraltar’s military governor, Lieutenant General Thomas Fowke, greeted him with news that the French fleet at Toulon was sailing for Minorca, with 13,000 men and at least thirteen ships. When Byng encouraged action, Fowke sternly informed the Admiral that he would not loan him the promised battalion of infantry, nor indeed any troops from the garrison lest the French attack Gibraltar as well. The one bright side is that Byng’s remaining five warships finally joined him at Gibraltar, though they were in little better shape.

On May 4th, two days before leaving port, Byng poured out his frustration in a letter to the Admiralty. He noted the poor state of the Mediterranean Squadron and Gibraltar’s defenses due to neglect, the urgent messages from the heavily outnumbered (2,500 men to 13,000 French) Minorca garrison and Fowke’s intransigence in denying him reinforcements. Fowke grudgingly parted with 260 of his men, less than a third of what Byng had been promised. Yet again, Byng was forced to make do with inadequate resources. “I am determined to sail to Minorca with the squadron,” he wrote, “and will give General Blakeney [Minorca’s commander] all the assistance he may require.” Despite this note of forced optimism, Byng’s report belied his expectations of failure.

By May 15th, after a 600 mile voyage, Byng’s fleet sailed within sight of Minorca and conveyed a hopeful message to General Blakeney. Unfortunately, the French had landed much of their infantry on the island and invested the main British lines at Ft. St. Phillip; adverse winds prevented Byng either from landing his own infantry, sailing close enough to shell the French or to sail into the island’s harbor. The French fleet approached, threatening battle, and Byng decided to hang back and consolidate his forces.

Anticlimax: the fleets off Minorca

On May 20th, the Battle of Minorca (such as it was) commenced. The French commander, the Marquis de La Galissonière, maneuvered his vessels between Byng and Minorca, and a disorganized, indecisive engagement occurred. Individual ships exchanged cannon shots at long range; a few vessels ventured close enough to each other to exchange musket fire. Despite these skirmishes, no general engagement erupted. Byng, who realized all too well his opponent’s strength, was reluctant to press the issue; La Galissonière, for his part, recognized that a French victory didn’t require an actual engagement. He withdrew his vessels during the evening, content that he’d foiled Byng’s attempts to reinforce the garrison.

Having reached an impasse, Byng held a council of war the following morning. Presumably Byng intended the council to reassess the situation and suggest a fresh course of action. Instead it evolved into a shouting match; Byng’s naval officers blamed each other for the day’s events, while the Army commanders insisted they lacked the strength to fight the French on land. Presented with such discord, and mindful of his own relative weakness, Byng decided to withdraw the squadron to Gibraltar. He later explained his actions as averting a suicide mission; however unfortunate the loss of Minorca, he could not justify sacrificing the men and ships under his command.

The Admiralty, and the British public, did not see it that way. Minorca held out for another month, its garrison surrendering to La Galissonière on June 27th.3 The Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, resigned in disgrace. Byng’s nemesis in Gibraltar, General Fowke, was court-martialed for his role in the fiasco and suspended from military duties. The British public viewed Minorca as a calamity, and needed scapegoats. Newcastle, before his own fall, had little doubt who to blame. He decided “to lay to Loss expressly upon Byng…there it will, & must be laid, & there only.”

Newcastle

Byng was arrested on July 26th by his own brother-in-law, Admiral Henry Osborne, and instantly clapped into prison. Newcastle’s remaining allies in government inflamed public sentiment by printing a heavily (and maliciously) edited version of his dispatches, removing the Admiral’s careful self-defenses to stress his guilt. Patriotic mobs hanged Byng in effigy and chanted for his death, while the press debated his guilt or innocence. Meanwhile, Byng was arraigned before a drumhead court martial, denied defense council and prevented from calling key witnesses in his defense.

On December 28th, Byng’s trial before an Admiralty board commenced. Against an array of prosecution witnesses, including General Blakeney (who insisted Byng could easily have raised the siege) and several of his own subordinates, Byng could only summon two officers willing to testify on his behalf. He submitted a detailed written defense of his actions which stressed the inadequacy of his own force, placing the blame on the Admiralty for not sending him sufficient men and material to fulfill his mission. Rather than bolstering his case, Byng’s attacks on his superiors only reinforced the case against him.

Byng was sentenced to death on January 27th, on the grounds he had “failed to do his utmost” in Minorca’s defense. Almost immediately, a campaign mobilized in his defense; his sister Sarah, wife of Admiral Osborne, petitioned her husband’s friends in the Admiralty for assistance. The Admiral, Sarah wrote, had been “ignominiously suspended, most ignominiously aspersed, and inhumanely  traduced [throughout] the world.” She found many sympathetic listeners, including the new Prime Minister, William Pitt. Pitt urged King George to commute his death sentence; “the House of Commons, Sir, is inclined to mercy.” The King retorted that “you have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons.”

Voltaire

The campaign on Byng’s behalf took on a life of its own. The French author Voltaire felt that Admiral Byng’s “reputation ought not to be attacked for being worsted, after having done everything that could be expected,” joining with allies in the French government to clear the Admiral’s name. Predictably, Voltaire’s crusade experienced little success; though Pitt was reportedly moved by Voltaire’s missives, letters from a wartime enemy couldn’t vouchsafe Byng’s reputation. Nor did the efforts of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote several pamphlets and public letters on the Admiral’s behalf that were more widely ridiculed than read.

Perhaps Byng’s most eloquent defender was Admiral John Forbes. Forbes, a Commissioner of the Admiralty, refused an order to sign Byng’s death warrant. Instead, he wrote an extraordinary missive doubting “whether [Byng’s] life can be taken away by the sentence pronounced upon him.” He argued that “the negligence implied cannot be willful negligence” and that the Admiral, whatever his faults, was hardly a coward. “Besides these crimes which are implied only, and not named, may indeed justify suspicion, and private opinion; but cannot satisfy the conscience in case of blood.”

These pleas, whether from relatives, military officers or literary giants, fell on deaf ears. Most of Britain’s government had decided to close ranks around Byng’s death; better to sacrifice an admiral than to admit to failures in military administrator. When Pitt entered into a coalition with Newcastle, he too became complicit in the conspiracy; the Admiral’s most powerful ally changed his mind. The King had the final word, pronouncing with disgust that “this man will not fight.”

King George II

On March 14th, 1757 Byng arrived onboard the HMS Monarch. He was calm, composed and dressed in his Sunday best as a platoon of Royal Marines formed a firing squad. Byng knelt on a cushion, tied the blindfold around his head and dropped a white handkerchief, signaling the Marines to open fire. His death, however unjustified, salvaged the reputations of Newcastle, the King and the Admiral’s enemies; the public’s need to punish a coward was sated. “In this country,” Voltaire wrote in Candide, “it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others.”

In recent years, Byng’s descendants have tried to clear his reputation, only to be rebuffed by a disinterested British government. Certainly it’s evident, with 260 years’ distance, that the Admiral suffered a gross miscarriage of justice; that a combination of political connivance and public pressure hastened an honorable man to his grave. Still, it achieved its goals; Newcastle later became Prime Minister again, while no future British Admiral suffered capital punishment, however incompetent or bullheaded they were. From a cynic’s point of view, it might almost seem a happy ending.

Sources and Further Reading

This article draws upon Michael Scott’s chapter on Byng in Scapegoats: Thirteen Victims of Military Injustice (2013) and Chris Ware’s Admiral Byng: His Rise and Execution (2009).