Court-Martial of English Admiral John Byng

About the court-martial of English admiral John Byng, history and biography as he fled the Battle of Minorca and took the fall for politicians.

ADM. JOHN BYNG (1704-1757)

Britain in the early 1700s was under the political thumb of George II, the Hanoverian monarch whose principal interest was in bolstering the finances of Hanover, Germany, at the expense of England's stability. Under this regime, the Duke of Newcastle, Thomas Pelham, pampered the whims of George II and neglected the military forces of Britain.

France, out to recapture the island of Minorca previously snatched from her by the British in 1708, was occupied with outfitting 12 ships and 16,000 men under the command of Admiral la Galissoniere. Though spies had informed Pelham of France's plans, no counter-measures were considered until almost too late.

Totally unprepared, a panicked English regime committed its fleet to Minorca. Under the command of Adm. John Byng, 10 under-manned warships in decaying condition sailed from Spithead on April 7, 1756. On May 20, the 2 fleets engaged in battle. Admiral Byng, outgunned and outnumbered in both ships and men, made his command decision. He abandoned the island of Minorca with its defenses of 2,800 men, under its deputy governor General Blakeney, to the French fleet, feeling that his own fleet could best be used in the protection of Gibraltar.

The Court-Martial. When word of this reached England, political forces were enraged. To save face, Pelham needed a scapegoat; Admiral Byng was tagged. Public opinion, angered by the Hanover millstone, cried out for Byng's death. He was arrested and a court-martial was held aboard H.M.S. St. George in Portsmouth harbor. The charge: cowardice in the face of the enemy. In the trial this charge was replaced with a substitute: "That in the battle, Byng had not done his utmost to defeat the French fleet." The sentence: Death. On March 14, 1757, Adm. John Byng was executed by a firing squad.

Significance. After Byng's execution, it became common knowledge that he had served as the scapegoat for corrupt and incompetent politicians. The only defense of the judges was they were obliged to conform to the 18th-century revisions of the Articles of War.

French dramatist Voltaire gave the best summation in his Candide. "Why kill the Admiral? It is because he has not killed enough other people. In England it is useful to kill an Admiral now and then--pour encourager les autres."

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