The Sad Story of Admiral Byng

29 Oct, 1704 – 14 March 1757

Today marks the 251st anniversary of the execution of Admiral John Byng – a loyal man sent to battle with inadequate supplies (sound familiar at all?) and still an embarrassment to the MoD.

It all started out well enough. Byng went to sea at the age of 14. His father was the Viscount of Torrington who had carefully nailed his colours to the right mast in supporting William III’s bid for the throne and had made it to the top as an admiral himself. Young John was determined to follow his father’s example and was soon a rising young seadog. He quickly became a lieutenant and then a captain at 23. He was clearly able – even if carrying the Byng name probably did him no harm at all at meetings of the promotions board…

He led a pretty comfortable career until the Seven Years War – a series of cushy jobs and straightforward ships hadn’t brought him into any real problems.

Byng was in the English Channel when he was told he needed to hotfoot it to Minorca where the dastardly French had just invaded what was at the time a British territory. He took one look at the ships he was supposed to sail, and realised that they were total wrecks. He complained repeatedly as the money, ships – and, crucially, time were just not forthcoming from the government. What was worse, they faffed around unnecessarily while he and his men kicked their heels waiting for their orders, cutting down on preparation time. He kept asking for proper equipment and a sensible amount of troops, but ended up setting out with 10 leaking ships completely undermanned.

When he actually got to Minorca, it got worse. He was relieved of what troops he had to relieve someone else’s garrison. It was quite cleared his ass would get whooped if he met the French and he wrote home to that effect. Still the governor of Gibraltar refused to send any more troops.

After a skirmish with the French, Byng’s ships were indeed in shrebbons and the losses were huge. The nearest port was Gibraltar so he set off there to get his ships repaired. It was at this point it all went horribly wrong. His limping fleet was intercepted by another ship from Britain, which assumed Byng was running away, took over the job – and poor old Byng into custody.

Minorca fell anyway and the Navy was outraged. English law had just been changed, which made failing to do one’s utmost against an enemy, either in battle or pursuit, a capital offence. At the court martial, it was pointed out that Byng had not done his utmost – he had failed to chase, with his tiny broken fleet, the enormous undamaged French flotilla.

The court martial was forced to sentence to him death, acquitted of personal cowardice and disaffection, but still guilty of failing to do his utmost. They told him they were powerless against the new Article of Law but suggested he go to the House of Commons to ask George II for clemency. The House agreed, but George II (whose statue, by the way, stands in the centre of the Old Royal Naval College) was unmoved. On hearing the House of Commons had recommended mercy he said “You have taught me to look for the sense of my people elsewhere than in the House of Commons.” Byng was to be shot.

He was kept in Queen Anne’s Court, manacled to a wall overlooking the Thames, whilst awaiting his death. Malcolm Godfrey reckons that his is the most prolific ghost in Greenwich – repeated sightings in various areas around his final lodgings have been reported for years. Amazingly, he’s not malevolent – he’s always a very polite and helpful spectre, holding doors open for people and handing workmen their tools.

Admiral John Byng was shot on board his own ship a hundred and fifty one years ago today. His death prompted Voltaire to write in Candide that the British liked to shoot admirals on an occasional basis “pour encourager les autres…”

I’m glad to say that Byng is not forgotten even today. Shaun sent me a link to a BBC article which mentions that a petition has been launched to gain him a posthumous pardon. So far there’s been no dice from the Navy. Presumably it would encourager les autres…


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