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The execution of Admiral Byng and English naval supremacy


John Byng: a name totally unknown in France. And yet, many French people have heard of it without realizing it. Voltaire mentions it at the beginning of one of his most studied books in high school, Candid. In it he depicts the execution of an admiral guilty of losing a battle, with this quote: " In this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage others. ". No invention on the part of the philosopher of the Enlightenment: this admiral is John byng, fired on March 14, 1757.

An improvised expedition

The fourth son of one of the best British admirals of his time, Sir George Byng, 1st Viscount Torrington, was born in 1704. It was only natural that he chose a career as an officer in the Royal Navy, where he quickly climbed the ranks: hired at the age of 14, he received his first command in 1727, in this case the HMS corvette Gibraltar. He later became rear admiral in 1745, then vice-admiral, two years later. In 1756, the Seven Years' War began.

The French begin hostilities by sending an expeditionary force to seize Menorca, a Balearic island under British control since 1708. Landing in April, they force the small English garrison to take refuge in Fort St-Philippe, which commands access at the port of Mahon. Not having sufficient forces in the Mediterranean to lift the siege, the Admiralty decides to send a relief expedition from England, which she entrusted to Admiral Byng.

The latter has orders to sail as soon as possible. The study of his correspondence will show later the lack of preparation and the lack of means that the admiral had to face: nineteen ships in poor condition, with incomplete crews, transformed into transports for troops absolutely not trained for naval combat (to make room, we were going to have to leave the Royal Marines at the quay), repeated refusals by Byng's superiors when he asked for money and reinforcements ... Byng ordered to set sail from May 3, but his fleet did not set sail until the 8.

The battle of Menorca

The English squadron arrives in view of Minorca May 19; even before being able to land any reinforcement for the garrison of Fort St-Philippe, it was intercepted by a French fleet of seventeen sails, under the orders of the Marquis de la Galissonière. Byng, who knew that his fleet lacked firepower, was very careful, and engaged in line combat, in accordance with the naval doctrines of his time, before gradually approaching the French fleet. The English attack lacks coordination: the vanguard was severely crushed by the French while the rest of the fleet was slow to support it. The captain of Byng's flagship, HMS Ramilies, suggests breaking the line to come to his aid more quickly, but the admiral refuses, citing in support of his decision the example of Admiral Mathews, dismissed in 1744 for having carried out such a maneuver - then non-compliant the regulations in force in the Royal Navy.

Finding himself unable to inflict further damage on the French squadron without seriously exposing his fleet, Byng decided to stop there. If the loss of life balances out (around 200 dead and wounded on each side), the material damage is significant for the British, half of whose ships suffered serious damage. Approved by all of his senior officers, Byng considered it more prudent not to insist and had the heading for Gibraltar. Tactically indecisive, the Battle of Menorca turned out to be a strategic failure for the British: the garrison of Fort St-Philippe surrendered on June 25.

This failure arouses the indignation of English public opinion, which demands that those responsible be punished. As he struggles to have his fleet repaired and reinforced for a new attempt, Byng is relieved of his command, arrested, and brought back to Britain. He was court martialed to answer for his defeat.

Trial, conviction and execution

Since 1653 the Royal Navy had been governed by a set of very strict regulations, the "articles of war" (Articles of War), which provided for a whole host of sanctions for indiscipline or failure in the face of the enemy, ranging from dismissal for admirals and captains, to the death penalty for junior officers. These rules had been amended in 1749, following an incident in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48): a young lieutenant had been shot for having seen his ship captured, although he had only inherited 'an indefensible ship after its captain, who neglected to keep it ready for battle, was killed in the enemy's first salvo. This iniquitous punishment had outraged public opinion, and the Admiralty then decreed that all officers, from lieutenants to admirals, would now face the same penalty: death.

Tried at Portsmouth, Byng was acquitted on the first count of cowardice: Concerned about the fate of his ships and his wounded, the Admiral had been cautious, but not timid. On the other hand, he was found guilty of the second count provided for by the Articles of War, "The inability to do all in one's power" (in English " failure to do his utmost ”) To relieve the garrison of Menorca and cause further damage to the French fleet. For this it was sentenced to death, although the court martial recommended that the Admiralty ask King George II for Admiral Byng's pardon.

However, the Admiralty, anxious to escape the hazardous haste in which it had improvised the expedition, did nothing, which angered the British. After having vilified Byng at first, public opinion now saw him as a martyr, scapegoat opportune for an Admiralty who bore much more responsibility for the disaster. Even the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Pitt the Elder, appealed for royal clemency. But George II remained inflexible, and John Byng was executed on March 14, 1757, on the deck of the ship of the line HMS Monarch.

Consequences: a more powerful Royal Navy

This incident, beyond the certain injustice - some authors even speak of " judicial murder To qualify him - which he represents, might sound anecdotal. However, it is not. Some historians, notably Nicholas Rodger, argue that it has been instrumental both in the history of the Royal Navy in general, and in establishing its superiority over other navies.

Admiral Byng's execution left its mark on a whole generation of officers. In the minds of captains and admirals present and to come, it was now certain that they were risking their heads not if they were defeated, but if they "failed to do their utmost" to achieve victory. At a time when being brought to court martial was systematic (it was the normal procedure for the loss of a ship, whatever the responsibility of its captain a priori), it was becoming less risky to go resolutely on the attack than to stay cautiously away from an enemy, even if he was much outnumbered.

This situation saw the emergence of officers aggressive behavior, determined to attack the enemy as often as possible to annihilate him. This attitude would bring to England a whole series of naval victories which, until that of Trafalgar, would establish its hegemony over the seas. It also led to tactical innovations, because there was less risk of attempting a daring maneuver, illegal but likely to bring a decisive advantage over the enemy, than of following the regulations to the letter while running the risk of even opponent escape. In a way, the English admirals of the next half century, of which Horatio Nelson would of course be the quintessential, arose from the bullet-riddled body of John Byng.

Sources: We cannot recommend enough the English Wikipedia article on Admiral Byng, remarkably well sourced, both in reference books and period documents.


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