A Brief History
March 14, 1757 was a sad, black day in the annals of the Royal Navy for on that day, Admiral Sir John Byng was executed by firing squad on the deck of HMS Monarch. Byng had been convicted of non-compliance with The Articles of War, a British naval regulation that had been recently revised.
In particular, the articles governing the conduct of British naval officers had been modified to read that all British naval officers were subject to the penalty of death by execution (with no lesser sentence possible) for failing to do their utmost in prosecuting war against the enemy, including mandatory pursuit of the foe.
The Byng trial and execution had its roots in a 1745 incident in which a Royal Navy lieutenant was thrust into command after the captain had been killed when their ship was broadsided by a French ship. Even though the dead captain had failed to prepare his ship for action, and despite the fact that the ship was heavily damaged and that continued resistance was basically suicide for the crew, the lieutenant was court martialed for failing to prevent the capture of his ship and subsequently executed. Outcry that a junior officer could suffer such a fate while a senior officer would not led to the rules being changed to make it applicable to any officer.
In Byng’s case, his “crimes” were losing the island of Minorca and failing to pursue the enemy, even though his force was outclassed by the French because of the British task force being in dire need of repairs. The loss was not the fault of Byng but of the Admiralty that had ignored pleas to arrange for repairs and refitting. After some of his ships were shot up by the French, Byng at first kept his fleet in the area for a few days after the French had left but had to sail for Gibraltar to leave his wounded for care and repair his ships. His intent was to get reinforcements for Minorca as well, but before he could sail, an emissary from Britain arrived to relieve Byng of command and to take him to England for trial.
In a political tug of war between factions of Parliament and the throne, Byng was convicted at court martial and given the only sentence allowed. Numerous pleas to the King for clemency (including by members of the court martial) were to no avail as politics had intervened, and the King refused to commute the sentence (especially since clemency had been urged by the House of Commons, the political foes of the King), resulting in Byng’s execution by firing squad.
The Articles of War were changed 22 years later to allow for other punishments, and Byng was the last British admiral executed. The epitaph on Byng’s gravestone refers to him as a martyr and having lived a life of honour. His relatives have fought for a pardon over the years, even as recently as 2007, but the Ministry of Defence has refused so far. The “murder” of Byng is seen by many as a gross miscarriage of justice, but it is also pointed to as inspiration for the British officer corps of the Navy to fight as aggressively as possible, which perhaps resulted in some of the Royal Navy’s greatest victories.
Admiral Sir John Byng lies buried, a courageous, loyal and patriotic officer who believed in service to his country but was taken down by political infighting by people more concerned with their own lot than that of the nation. Once again, politicians had won, and the nation had lost. Apparently, little if anything has been learned, for it seems the same sort of thing continues today all over the world.
Question for students (and subscribers): Is the author correct in decrying the political influence on war and warriors, or is it well and good that politics should play such an intrusive role? Let us know what you think in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Lacey, Jim and Williamson Murray. Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World. Bantam, 2013.
The featured image in this article, The Shooting of Admiral Byng (1757), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This UK artistic work, of which the author is unknown and cannot be ascertained by reasonable enquiry, is in the public domain because it is one of the following:
- A photograph, which has never previously been made available to the public (e.g. by publication or display at an exhibition) and which was taken more than 70 years ago (before 1 January 1949); or
- A photograph, which was made available to the public (e.g. by publication or display at an exhibition) more than 70 years ago (before 1 January 1949); or
- An artistic work other than a photograph (e.g. a painting), which was made available to the public (e.g. by publication or display at an exhibition) more than 70 years ago (before 1 January 1949).
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