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  #1  
Old 13-03-2009, 20:40
herakles
 
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Default Admiral John Byng

On this day Admiral John Byng was executed by firing squad - the 14 March 1757 in the Solent on the forecastle of HMS Monarch. Did he deserve this fate?

He was shot as he did not do his "utmost against the enemy, either in battle or pursuit." These are the words of the Articles of War. Byng was the last of his rank to be executed in this fashion.

John Byng was a fourth son and was born on 29 October 1704. His father, also an admiral had gained importance for his support of William III gaining the crown. Being a fourth son, he could not rely on an easy life. He joined the RN at the age of 14 and enjoyed a successful career. At age 23 he became Captain of HMS Gibraltar. He became Commodore-Governor of the British Empire colony of Newfoundland in 1742. He was promoted to rear-admiral in 1745, and to vice-admiral in 1747. He served on the most comfortable stations, and avoided the more arduous work of the navy. Most likely, he enjoyed the patronage of his father.

His problems arose when he was ordered to Minorca to relieve the beseiged garrison of Fort St Philip (Port Mahon). Minorca was at this time a British possession and in 1756 it was attacked by the French. This matter is referred to as The Battle of Minorca.

It is argued today that the British government knew well in advance that Minorca would be attacked but failed to understand its importance. The garrison was woefully inadequate. The garrison commander, General William Blakeney, was in his eighty-second year and so infirm that when Port Mahon was besieged by the Duc de Richelieu, he was obliged to spend great part of his time in bed. There were at the moment twenty-seven ships of the line cruising in the Channel and Bay of Biscay, twenty-eight ships of the line in commission at home, and many small craft, which might have been detailed for the service. But Byng was not permitted to utilise any of these, or to draw crews from them; and his mission was evidently regarded as a wholly subsidiary one.

Byn's account of the battle, sent to the Admiralty, can be read here: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Admira...in orca_(1756)

Publication of this report was held over and some parts deliberately deleted before it was published.

Byng had raised his flag on HMS Ramillies. His mission was singularly unsuccessful. The French had landed 15,000 troops on the island and sent a squadron there. Byng attacked the French on the 20th May 1756. Ship numbers were equal. He had the weather gauge but his leading ships were badly mauled and the French then withdrew without being damaged. In Byng's fleet Captain Andrews of the Defiance was killed, and Captain Noel of the Princess Louisa was mortally wounded. The British ships also suffered much more than the French in their masts, yards and rigging; so much so in fact, that Byng, unable to communicate with the fort and unable to find the French, withdrew to Gibraltar. There on June 4, 1756, Byng was promoted to Admiral of the Blue. He intended to return after exacting repairs but whilst there, he was ordered to England relieved of his command and taken into custody.

The garrison held out for some time but was eventually defeated and the French gained control of Minorca.

Byng was court martialed under The Articles of War in that he did not do his utmost against the enemy, either in battle or pursuit. The punishment was death. He was found not guilty of personal cowardice and disaffection, but he was convicted only for not having done his utmost. The court martial recommended leniency. William Pitt the Elder, then PM, also asked the king (George II) to use his prerogative of clemency. The king elected not to so Byng was shot.

The severity of the punishment caused Vice-Admiral the Hon. John Forbes, one of the Lords of the Admiralty, to refuse to sign the sentence and it also induced Rear-Admiral West, who had been offered a command, to decline it, on the plea that although he could answer for his loyalty and good intentions, he could not undertake to be held capitally responsible on all occasions for the correctness of his judgement.

The report of the court martial said (in part):

* That when the British fleet, on the starboard tack, was stretched abreast, or was about abeam, of the enemy's line, Admiral Byng should have caused his ships to tack together, and should have immediately borne right down on the enemy; his van steering for the enemy's van, his rear for its rear, each ship making for the one opposite to her in the enemy's line, under such sail as would have enabled the worst sailer to preserve her station in the line of battle.

* That the Admiral retarded the rear division of the British fleet from closing with and engaging the enemy, by shortening sail, in order that the Trident and Princess Louisa might regain their stations ahead of the Ramalies; whereas he should have made signals to those ships to make more sail, and should have made so much sail himself as would enable the Culloden, the worst sailing ship in the Admiral's division, to keep her station with all her plain sails set, in order to get down to the enemy with as much expedition as possible, and thereby properly support the division of Rear-Admiral West.

* That the Admiral did wrong in ordering the fire of the Ramillies to be continued before he had placed her at proper distance from the enemy, inasmuch as he thereby not only threw away his shot, but also occasioned a smoke, which prevented his seeing the motions of the enemy and the positions of the ships immediately ahead of the Ramillies.

* That after the ships which had received damage in the action had been refitted as circumstances would permit, the Admiral ought to have returned with his squadron off Port Mahon, and endeavoured to open communication with the castle, and to have used every means in his power for its relief, before returning to Gibraltar.

Byng claimed that the 10 ships provided for him were unseaworthy and undermanned.

Byng's execution was satirized by Voltaire in his novel Candide. 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") Later the Articles of War were watered down. Byng's family tried unsuccessfully to have him granted a pardon. (as recently as 2007)

Warren Tute in his 1983 book "The True Glory, The Story of the Royal Navy over a thousand years" called the execution "the worst legalistic crime in the nation's annals". The execution certainly instilled greater effort in others. It brutally demonstrated that more was expected of naval officers than just courage and loyalty.

Byng's epitaph at the family vault in All Saints Church, in Southill, Bedfordshire says:

To the perpetual Disgrace
of PUBLICK JUSTICE
The Honble. JOHN BYNG Esqr
Admiral of the Blue
Fell a MARTYR to
POLITICAL PERSECUTION
March 14th in the year 1757 when
BRAVERY and LOYALTY
were Insufficient Securities
For the
Life and Honour
of a
NAVAL OFFICER

(with help from Wiki and other sources)
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File Type: jpg John_Byng.jpg (12.1 KB, 24 views)
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  #2  
Old 13-03-2009, 22:21
nigelweysom's Avatar
nigelweysom nigelweysom is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

it does seem a bit hard even for the situation
Nigel
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  #3  
Old 14-03-2009, 00:23
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

My own view, for what it's worth, was that the penalty was excessive, even unfair. There had been an earlier example of this and the British public were in a mood of wanting revenge.

It should be understood that the Court martial had no option with their verdict. The central issue was whether Byng "did his utmost". I believe that he did.

As well, the king was having a spat with his PM so was unlikely to heed his appeal for clemency.

On the other hand, the fear caused by the execution certainly encouraged other RN officers to try harder and may well be one of the factors in the ensuing rise to glory of navy.
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  #4  
Old 14-03-2009, 00:28
Joseph Joseph is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

They certainly thought so at the time.

Regards Charles
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  #5  
Old 14-03-2009, 00:45
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Joseph View Post
They certainly thought so at the time.

Regards Charles
Hmmm. Who's "they" Joseph? There was a considerable objection to Byng being executed at the time
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  #6  
Old 14-03-2009, 06:16
ivorthediver's Avatar
ivorthediver ivorthediver is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Where the hell do you find these ?

It matters not what continent you look at or which Navy you find it and bring it to our attention !

It is not a criticism I am in awe of the way you find them !

Back to your question, I think you have identified the most popular areas of dispute and a fair summation of those schools of thought.
Without wishing to state the obvious the effect of the execution on moral at higher levels was a good thing and a good argument can be made for this action

However the subject matter Admiral Byng appears to have been the fodder for the cannon .and I feel that a demotion would have been enough if there were any doubt about his resolve or valour.

The situation was finished and the only solid answer would have been if a rerun were possible and a better result achieved ...but life never is that easy.
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  #7  
Old 14-03-2009, 06:48
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Well, at least I have one fan!

I enjoy finding things like this out Ivor. And sharing them. It's what I think a forum is all about - chatting and sharing with on-line friends.
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  #8  
Old 14-03-2009, 07:01
ivorthediver's Avatar
ivorthediver ivorthediver is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

My outlook is very simple...like me.

I admire and respect others ....who like you... treat and expect to be treated as they would like to be treated.

I am a loyal friend and would always uphold a friends side, which on occasions can be costly to me ...but I try to be selective of my friends

You nicely side stepped the question however where do you find them ?
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  #9  
Old 14-03-2009, 08:23
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

I note your words about friends. I offer this: Loyalty isn't standing by someone when he's right... that's good judgement. Loyalty is standing by someone when he's wrong. i.e. loyalty to friends. This quote to me defines a friend. One of my problems right now is that the people I called friend turned out not to be after all.

I didn't side-step the question. It didn't register with me.

In answer: I am an avid reader and very good at tracking down information. I use the web a lot.
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  #10  
Old 14-03-2009, 08:28
Joseph Joseph is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

"Hmmm. Who's "they" Joseph? There was a considerable objection to Byng being executed at the time"

The persons in authority that proved him guilty of the charge and sentenced him to death. Of course there would be objections. Mainly from his friends and family, I would suspect many other Admirals (not that thier objections would be heard in public), the do gooders would jump on the bandwagon and some parts of the media would be on his side. So nothing different to nowadays really.

If Byng's execution made his peers try harder to achieve the politicians aims and made the Royal Navy better, then justice as on many occasions throughout history has been used for greater things.

Regards Charles
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  #11  
Old 14-03-2009, 09:30
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

May I suggest that in 1757 there was no media and no do-gooders. The majority of people were the downtrodden working class who wouldn't have even heard about the case.

His peers - like the officers of the Court martial clearly didn't approve of the matter.

And note that the Articles of War were regarded as excessive and were modified.

I find the idea that someone senior needs to be executed to get others to better perform their duties a most distasteful one. Perhaps with some modern day politicians I could make an exception!
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  #12  
Old 14-03-2009, 11:46
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splashg32 splashg32 is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

That's a scathing epitaph and rightly so going by your account. I'm not surprised our government has declined a pardon, after all we British just love a scapegoat. Seems he did his best with what he had and that's all one can ask.
Great piece.
Kev.
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  #13  
Old 14-03-2009, 12:39
Joseph Joseph is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

"I find the idea that someone senior needs to be executed to get others to better perform their duties a most distasteful one. Perhaps with some modern day politicians I could make an exception!"

Im aware of the social state of Great Britain during the mid 18th century, as for the media there was lots, even my own daily 'The Yorkshire Post" (1754). He was charged, tried and found guilty by his peers, the law at the time must have been correct or he would have got off with a technicallity and been retired with a large pension.

The law does change to meet the need of Government, and always will. Maybe in 200 years someone will be saying how badly we have dealt with the Bankers for the latest global monetary crisis.

As for distastful, each to his own, maybe if you had been on the bench at the time you may have had the bottle to say not guilty.

Regards Charles
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  #14  
Old 14-03-2009, 19:15
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Jan Steer Jan Steer is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Just catching up after returning from a "foreign". Haven't we done this Byng thing before somewhere else? I remember contributing to the thread and mentioning that Hervey was distraught over the undeserved death of his patron ---- or am I losing it?!

Jan
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  #15  
Old 14-03-2009, 20:07
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Amen to that Herakles.

Baz.
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  #16  
Old 14-03-2009, 20:22
John Brown John Brown is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Quote:
Originally Posted by ivorthediver View Post
Where the hell do you find these ?
A great piece Herakles and I hope you don't mind me making a sales pitch on the back of it!

A good way to find stories and accounts like this is to research and make entries in the 'On this Day Thread'. All members are more than welcome to contribute and you will be surprised at some of the things you will turn up.

Regards....John
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  #17  
Old 14-03-2009, 20:26
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ivorthediver ivorthediver is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

You stick to your guns Herakles , I agree mate.

As for the issue in the background.... been there [three times] and managed to cobble a life back together.......... so keep your faith and trust in Buddha.

It often makes me smile when the advisory walks away with a" cheshire cat grin" and shortly afterwards or in the fullness of time some one dumps on them from a great hight and all the friends that you knew come limping back due to the smell prevailing in a distant part of your previous life

Have Faith my friend.....at least you do have some good friends still don't you

Remember the Quote we had...Stercus accidit
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  #18  
Old 15-03-2009, 03:09
stewart mcloughlin stewart mcloughlin is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Another good posting Herakles.
With regards to your 'loyalty' bit. I recall a particular nasty senior officer who was after me when something was apparently going pear-shaped and my immediate supervisor came to me saying, "I'll back you up if you're right." And my reply was in line with your comment, "I don't need you when I'm right, I need you when I'm wrong." Turned out I was right all the time and I didn't need the support from my fair weather 'friend'. When you're in it, it can be a very lonely place.
Stewart
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  #19  
Old 15-03-2009, 03:15
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Thanks Stewart. It can indeed be a lonely place.

A good term "fair weather friend". Who needs them?
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Old 15-03-2009, 03:43
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Macadian Macadian is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

A very interesting thread...and enlightening too. Can't help thinking that at the time, it must have made a unique change from some poor AB (able seaman...as in common sailor) being being hung from the yard arm...as seemed to be the norm of the time....
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  #21  
Old 15-03-2009, 04:41
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Here's a quote from EB on-line:

The severity of the penalty, aided by a not unjust suspicion that the ministry sought to cover themselves by throwing all the blame on the admiral, led in after time to a reaction in favour of Byng.

Food for thought I feel.
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  #22  
Old 15-03-2009, 07:02
kookaburra kookaburra is offline
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Very powerful thread. I knew nothing of Byng's case, and it has prompted an interesting discussion on human nature these centuries later. EDIT : Meant to say, Byng's fate seems to me to be a throwback to Roman times.
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Last edited by kookaburra : 15-03-2009 at 07:52.
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  #23  
Old 15-03-2009, 08:29
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

There were plenty of good things in Roman times K! Like aqueducts, viticulture ... ...
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  #24  
Old 15-03-2009, 11:52
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

This is a wonderful case that is as much about human nature as it is about Admiral Byng. I don't have a personal naval reference, but offer Patrick O'Brian's magnificant saga wherein such a cast of characters from that time are on display for 22 books. Having read every one, which ought to be a requirement for all naval men, it is a fine reference for the circumstances of this case.

First, (human nature) there will always be scallywags that rise to positions of authority based upon patronage. It's not a condemnation of the practice at all, but rather to note that any system that does not promote solely by merit can have people in high places who are unaccustomed to taking responsibility for their actions and look to place blame upon others. That said, many of the greatest heros of the British nation were sons of peers of the realm.

Second, (command performance) the English Navy at that time was accustomed to winning battles with inferior numbers. The numbers were in fact equal. It is also possible that a 'soft' commander who did not keep his ships at sea, constantly training and perfecting their gunnery and tactics, might find himself in a position where courage was inadequate to the requirements of the day. Admiral Byng was not a coward. He simply was an inadequate commander and the results were not satisfactory. The judgement of the day was harsh, but so were the conditions to maintain the responsibilities of the Royal Navy from every corner of the globe: North, South, East, and West.

Third, (moralty) can be a tough call. The Captain was responsible for the disipline and training of his crew. Some became corrupt and insensitive to the needs of their people, ruling by decree and the lash. Others became great leaders who led sailors to become an extraordinary team amoung each other and their ship: watch by watch. Admiral Byng does not seem to fit either profile from the limited information provided, however, the results were not positive and from what is said, he was more comfortable on land. The great commanders of the day went years at a time without ever setting foot on land.

Lastly, it is most interesting that his family is still trying to clear his name and that the responsible authority has not done so. Where does the responsibility lie today? Do they possess facts that are not public? It would be interesting if the complete file were made available including the transcript of the testimony of those present at the court marshall. This would be an interesting exercise for a moot court conducted by one of the naval military academies?

Herakles, thank you for submitting such an interesting case for our consideration.

Respectfully,
Fred
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  #25  
Old 15-03-2009, 19:07
herakles
 
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Default Re: Did Admiral John Byng deserve to be executed?

Thanks for your comment Fred.

Firstly, I completely agree with your comments re O'Bryan. I've read these books several times. His canny ability to recreate the times is laudatory. His use of the language of the day is impressive. One does have to be reasonably comfortable with the ships of the day however. That he takes real events gives the books authenticity. Only Bernard Cornwall manages this as well IMHO. My only regret was that the last book is incomplete.

Almost all of Britain's armed forces officers were from the privilaged class. Even in WW1. None of them had training except what was gained by experience and most, especially in the Army, bought their commission and promotion. And patronage was vital.

Byng did have considerable "on the job" experience with the navy. He was no armchair general. If he did enjoy an easy passage, he was one of many. I wouldn't call him an inadeqate commander at all. The cards were stacked against him at Minorca. He knew what he needed and he was denied it. And it was a task doomed to failure even before it started. He was refused troops, especially Marines so there never was any chance that he could put anyone ashore to counter attack the large French force.

How to be a successful captain? I guess by being lucky and spending your youth under a good one. Consider the effect that parents have on their children. Crime and misbehaviour runs in families by and large. They are taght by example. The same can be said about educational aspirations. Doctors usually have a father who is a doctor. Etc.

I believe the transcript of the court martial is available. I quoted some of it. That aside, there may well be material that is not available. Governments are slow to respond to matters from the past. As an example, consider how long it took to recognise the mistake of shooting so many troops in WW1.
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