It took place, as James Kirkup reminds us, on this day in 1757. As James puts it:
To this day, his family argue – with considerable justification — that he was wrongly treated and should be pardoned. Every year on the anniversary of his death, bells sound in Southill, Bedfordshire, where his descendents still live.
Voltaire immortalised Byng’s death in Candide with a scathing summary of the British attitude to its military commanders: il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.
Sadly, those days are gone.
For the avoidance of doubt, I’m not arguing that it was right to kill Byng, or that such brutal injustices should be visited on others. But I wonder if since Byng’s day, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. Simply put, we’re too soft on our military chiefs these days.
Perhaps so. Perhaps under-performing generals and admirals and so on should be cashiered more readly. But back to Byng: James is not quite right. The admiral was not condemend for losing Minorca, but for "failing to do his utmost to take or destroy the enemy’s ships" which in turn is not quite the same thing as cowardice – the failing more popularly associated with the doomed admiral. He was guilty of a capital offence; the question was whether he would have his sentence commuted to something less grisly.
So Voltaire’s remark was meant to be sardonic as well as expressing the revulsion some felt at Byng’s execution. Mind you, Voltaire helped seal Byng’s fate, sending him a letter from Richelieu in which the Frenchman* expressed his admiration for Byng’s actions. When this was intercepted it only encouraged the thought that perhaps a measure of treason could be added to Byng’s list of crimes and failures.
Over to N.A.M Rodger, perhaps the pre-eminent naval scholar of our times:
Finally, when the new First Lord of the Admiralty, Pitt’s tactless and arrogant brother-in-law, Earl Temple, presented the Board’s request for clemency to George II, he implied that the king, as a coward himself, ought to have compassion on the admiral. That sealed Byng’s fate and he was shot on his own quarterdeck on 14 March 1757. Since a surprising number of historians, seemingly unaware of the fall of the Newcastle ministry, have attributed Byng’s death to political persecution, it is worth repeating that he died while his political friends were in office, and in spite of their efforts to save him from the anger of the King, the fury of the public, and the disgust of his naval colleagues.
These unpopular efforts were partly responsible for the dismissal of Pitt’s ministry in April 1757.
Nevertheless, Rodger claims, Byng’s execution had a profound effect on the Navy and, in the end, lent some credence to Voltaire’s quip:
There was more truth in the epigram than perhaps [Voltaire] knew, for the execution of Byng had a profound effect on the moral climate of the Navy, and sharply reversed the effects of the battle of Toulon. The fates of Matthews and Lestock had taught officers that misconduct with support in high places had nothing to fear; the fate of Byng taught them that even the most powerful political friends might not save an officer who failed to fight. Many things might go wrong with an attack on the enemy, but the only fatal error was not to risk it. Byng’s death revived and reinforced 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 they went into battle with an invisible disadvantage which no amount of personal courage or numerical strength could entirely make up for.
If Rodger is right then Byng’s death was the product of his own actions, his friends’ foolishness and, not to put too fine a point on it, a tremendous cock-up. And though it may have been grotesque it may also have strengthened the Navy.
These days, of course, we don’t have enough ships for all our admirals and so we doubtless would not miss one or two were they to be summarily removed from the naval list…
*Brain-freeze:the Duc not the Cardinal, as orginally written. Silly me. Thanks to commenters for pointing this out.