|"Admiral Byng's fleet getting underway from Spithead"|
(John Cleveley the Elder circa 1712 - 1777)
The group of folks with whom I associate most closely are former military. They are my tribe, we swore an oath together. We served the same masters, under the same flag.
There has been much of late in military circles regarding officers being relieved of their positions and/or commands. There is truth to the old saw that it "is lonely at the top." One must needs be very judicious in what one says and what one does. People notice. People clamor that "something must be done!"
But as I mentioned above, this is nothing new. As the Teacher said,
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NIV)
Now I'm on something of an historical kick lately, particularly that period "between Agincourt and the Marne." Both of those places are in la belle France, physically some 162 miles apart, the significant historical events which took place in those locations being separated by nearly 500 years. We will get to both, eventually. Just not today.
Today I want to talk about an event which took place near the beginning of the Seven Years' War. That war, by the way, is known in my native land as the French and Indian War.
This particular war started out with the English attacking disputed French possessions in North America. Events which gave a certain colonial by the name of George Washington a great deal of military experience.
On the continent of Europe an English officer by the name of George Germain, Viscount Sackville was accused of refusing to obey orders at the battle of Minden. The same man, then known as Lord George Germain, became the Secretary of State for America in the cabinet of Lord North.
That particular ministry, during the reign of George III, was widely held responsible for the loss of the Thirteen American Colonies.
Sackville, by the way, was court-martialed for his behavior at Minden and was found guilty of the charges.
The court found him guilty, and imposed one of the strangest and strongest verdicts ever rendered against a general officer. The court's verdict not only upheld his discharge, but ruled that he was "...unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatsoever", then ordered that their verdict be read to and entered in the orderly book of every regiment in the Army. The king had his name struck from the Privy Council rolls. WI guess that being cashiered and declared unfit for military service was no obstacle to later government service. Nothing new under the sun, neh?
But that's not the man I wish to speak of today. No, this other fellow was an Admiral in the Royal Navy. He too was court-martialed and...
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The first sea battle of the Seven Years' War took place between the English and the French off the Mediterranean island of Minorca.
by Thomas Hudson (Public Domain)
French school 18th century (Public Domain)
The French had had their eye on Minorca and it's British garrison for some time. Probably since 1708 when perfide Albion had seized the island during the War of the Spanish Succession. (You might note that the kings of Europe would go to war at the drop of a hat, or the loss of an ear and you'd be right.) So the French commenced to threaten Minorca and it's garrison.
The British government belatedly put together a force to counter the French move on Minorca. (It's worth noting that at the time things were not going well for the Crown in North America.)
On the 19th of May, 1756 Admiral Byng's force arrived off Minorca to find the island overrun by the French, with only the garrison of Fort St Philip at Port Mahon still holding out...
Facing 12 French ships of the line, Byng formed his 12 largest ships into a single line of battle and approached the head of the French line on a parallel course while maintaining the weather gage. He then ordered his ships to go about and come alongside their opposite numbers in the French fleet. However, the poor signalling capability of the times caused confusion and delay in closing. The British van took a considerable pounding from their more heavily armed French adversaries, while the rear of the line, including Byng's flagship, failed to come within effective cannon range. During the battle Byng displayed considerable caution and an over-reliance on standard fighting procedures, and several of his ships were seriously damaged, while no ships were lost by the French. Following a Council of War, at which all the senior officers present concurred, it was agreed the fleet stood no chance of further damaging the French ships or of relieving the garrison. Byng therefore gave orders to return to Gibraltar. W(For those who might be interested, here is Admiral Byng's own account of the Battle of Minorca.)
Needless to say, London was most displeased by the outcome. Let us just say that they had "lost confidence" in Admiral Byng's ability to command. The admiral was brought back to England to be tried by court-martial for breach of the Articles of War, which had recently been revised to mandate capital punishment for officers who did not do their utmost against the enemy, either in battle or pursuit.
The revision to the Articles followed an event in 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession, when a young lieutenant named Baker Phillips was court-martialed and shot after his ship was captured by the French. His captain, who had done nothing to prepare the vessel for action, was killed almost immediately by a broadside. Taking command, the inexperienced junior officer was forced to surrender the ship when she could no longer be defended. Although the negligent behavior of Phillips's captain was noted by the subsequent court martial and a recommendation for mercy entered, Phillips' sentence was approved by the Lords Justices of Appeal. This sentence angered some of parliament, who felt that an officer of higher rank would likely have been spared or else given a light punishment, and that Phillips had been executed because he was a powerless junior officer and thus a useful scapegoat. The Articles of War were amended to become one law for all: the death penalty for any officer of any rank who did not do his utmost against the enemy in battle or pursuit.
The court martial sitting in judgement on Byng acquitted him of personal cowardice and disaffection, and convicted him only for not having done his utmost, since he chose not to pursue the superior French fleet, instead deciding to protect his own. Once the court determined that Byng had "failed to do his utmost", it had no discretion over punishment under the Articles of War, and therefore condemned Byng to death. However, its members recommended that the Lords of the Admiralty ask King George II to exercise his royal prerogative of mercy. WFollowing sentencing the Admiral was taken to HMS Monarch, anchored in the Solent*, and there on the 17th of March 1757, Admiral John Byng was shot by a firing party of Marines.
Twenty-two years after the Admiral's execution, the Articles of War were amended to provide "such other punishment as the nature and degree of the offence shall be found to deserve" as an alternative to capital punishment.
Many have decried the execution of Admiral Byng as a crime. His descendants still seek a pardon for him from Her Majesty's government which has already been denied once as recently as 2007.
There may have been one beneficial outcome from the Admiral's death -
Naval historian N. A. M. Rodger believes it may have influenced the behaviour of later naval officers by helping inculcate:Ever wonder where that phrase "Pour encourager les autres..." (to encourage the others) came from?
"a culture of aggressive determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries, and which in time gave them a steadily mounting psychological ascendancy. More and more in the course of the century, and for long afterwards, British officers encountered opponents who expected to be attacked, and more than half expected to be beaten, so that [the latter] went into action with an invisible disadvantage which no amount of personal courage or numerical strength could entirely make up for." W
Byng's execution is referred to in Voltaire's novel Candide with the line: Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres – "In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others." W
|The Execution of Admiral Byng (Source)|
Is that why we relieve commanders these days with the dreaded "loss of confidence"?
Does it encourage the others? Or does it simply discourage good men and women from seeking command?
I can't say. I wonder what Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson would say. I'm sure he, and all officers in the Royal Navy, knew of Admiral Byng. How could they not?
The only admiral of the Royal Navy to ever be executed.
* The Solent is the strait between the coast of England and the Isle of Mann, long an anchorage for the Royal Navy.