Left Holding the Bag – Some of History’s Best Known Scapegoats

The execution of Admiral Byng in 1757.

“The pages of history are full of examples of military commanders who were unfairly accused, tried and sometimes even put to death for the incompetence, ignorance or failure of others.”

“WE LOST. Someone’s gotta pay!” That sentiment has been responsible for some of the greatest miscarriages of justice in military history. Either to appease the mob following a humiliating defeat, to shift blame away from the privileged who were really at fault, or simply to spare an entire army embarrassment following a bitter upset, the pages of history are full of examples of military commanders who were unfairly accused, tried and sometimes even put to death for the incompetence, ignorance or failure of others. Here are a few of them.

Dreyfus being publicly stripped of rank.

The Dreyfus Affair

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish artillery officer in the French army, was used to discrimination in the service. Although he’d eventually rise to a spot on the French General Staff, he was once academically penalized at his country’s war college because his professor frowned on the officer’s Hebrew heritage. But when Captain Dreyfus was 35, he would suffer far worse at the hands of the army’s anti-Semites.

When in 1894, French counter intelligence discovered that top secret information about the army’s artillery capability was being passed to German spies, the lead investigator concluded the leak must be coming from within army headquarters itself. As the only Jew on the general staff, blame immediately shifted to Dreyfus.

Despite the flimsy evidence, the officer was charged with treason and convicted by a secret tribunal. While he was spared a death sentence, the married father of two was shipped off to the notorious prison at Devil’s Island in French Guiana for a life sentence.

Almost two years later, Lt. Col. Georges Picquart, the new head of the French army’s intelligence unit, unearthed fresh evidence that identified a major by the name of Esterhazy as the real German spy. After reporting the discovery to superiors, Picquart was hastily transferred to a remote outpost in North Africa by French army brass. Nevertheless, outrage ensued in late 1896 when details of Dreyfus’ wrongful imprisonment and the subsequent attempts to cover it up leaked to the press. Prominent intellectual Emile Zola penned an open letter to France’s president Felix Faure highlighting the miscarriage of justice and implicating the government in the fiasco.

To appease public sentiment, a withered Dreyfus was recalled to France to face a second trial in 1900. Keen to save face, the military once again found the railroaded officer guilty, despite considerable evidence to the contrary. However, to lessen the sting of the verdict, the sentence was suspended and a pardon was granted.

“The government of the Republic has given me back my freedom,” remarked an angry Dreyfus. “It is nothing for me without my honor.”

The controversy persisted as a legion of supporters pressed for justice to be served. By 1906, Dreyfus was fully exonerated and by way of an apology, he was awarded the Legion of Honor.

Dreyfus went on to serve France in the First World War. He died in 1935. But what of the real traitor Esterhazy? Rather than admit their error in the Dreyfus Affair, French generals forced Esterhazy into early retirement. He quietly relocated to England and wrote a number of anti-Semitic essays until he died in 1923. Some historians have suggested that Esterhazy might have been a double agent who fed bogus secrets to the Germans while still being loyal to France, but many others view the entire fiasco as a clear-cut case of bigotry.

Admiral Byng's fleet leaves Portsmouth. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Admiral Byng’s fleet leaves Portsmouth. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Admiral John Byng.

Byng Takes the Blame

In 1756, Vice Admiral John Byng of the Royal Navy was given an impossible mission. With the French poised to capture the British-held Mediterranean island of Minorca, the 52-year-old veteran commander was ordered to gather a paltry fleet of 10 ships from the Channel Fleet and speed south with all haste to relieve the garrison at Port Mahon.

Not only were his supposedly ‘urgent’ orders inexplicably delayed for five days, Byng’s assigned vessels were barely seaworthy as well as under-provisioned. Worse, he was forced to sail without a detachment of Royal Marines. They’d been put ashore to make room for a column of ordinary red coats. While the army troops might have been up to the job of reinforcing the troops on Minorca, they were entirely unfit for sea duty. Upon his departure, Byng privately admitted that the entire enterprise was doomed from the start – there was likely no chance that this English ships would make it to Minorca before the French invaded.

He was right. Eleven days before reaching the island, 15,000 French troops landed and besieged the British fort there. On May 19, the Byng’s task force arrived and prepared to disembark its troops when a dozen French ships-of-the-line were spotted. The admiral called off the landing and prepared to meet the threat. The following day, his fleet engaged the superior French forces in textbook fashion. Despite taking heavy damage, Byng drove off the enemy squadron. In no shape to mount a pursuit or even attempt the landing, he withdrew his outnumbered force to Gibraltar to repair, refit, draw fresh reinforcements and return to Minorca to relieve the defenders in force.

Meanwhile, word of the encounter off Minorca had reached London through spies in France. To deflect blame for sending such a weak force into battle, an embarrassed Admiralty concocted their own version of the affair that painted Byng as a slipshod commander who squandered an opportunity for an easy victory. Meanwhile, with his fleet nearly ready to return to action, Byng was relieved from command and ordered to return to England to face court martial. With the expedition now completely scuttled, Britain ended up losing Minorca. The Admiralty charged Byng with cowardice and “failing to do his utmost” in the face of the enemy.

The court found the defendant not guilty of cowardice but according to the ‘evidence’ presented Byng was technically guilty of failing to pursue the French fleet as it withdrew and not landing the outnumbered troops on Minorca. According to the Articles of War of the time, both offenses carried a mandatory death sentence, although none of the presiding officers believed such a punishment was just.

The officers of the court sought permission to speak on Byng’s behalf in front of Parliament in hopes of convincing the legislators to spare his life. The Admiralty refused to allow them permission fearing that the Royal Navy’s top brass might suffer criticism for ordering Byng into action so haphazardly. Despite the public’s interest in seeing the admiral spared, Prime Minister Pitt did not intervene. Doing so would undermined his wobbly coalition government that was supported in part by politicians friendly to the Admiralty. Even the King could have granted a pardon, but chose to let Pitt, his political enemy, wear the fiasco.

On March 14, John Byng was forced to kneel before a crowd of sailors and officers from the fleet assembled on the deck of HMS Monarch and was shot by a firing squad. He was the last admiral to be executed in the Royal Navy. The Articles of War were subsequently revised to prevent similar situations in the future. The entire affair was called “the worst legalistic crime in the nation’s annals” yet a petition by Byng’s descendants to have the disgraced admiral exonerated was refused by the U.K. defence ministry as recently as 2007.

Henry Wirz hangs for his role in the death of Union POWs in the Civil War.

The Butcher of Andersonville

Henry Wirz was a Swiss-born Louisiana doctor who joined the Confederate army as a private at the beginning of the American Civil War. After distinguishing himself in battle, he was promoted to major.

In the spring of 1864, Wirz was appointed commander of the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia known as Camp Sumter. Overcrowded, under-supplied and short on adequate shelter, the camp held 45,000 captured Union soldiers at a time when even the Confederate army was largely without rations, medicine and supplies for its own needs. Over the course of the war’s final 12 months, more than a quarter of the camp’s inmates died of disease, starvation and exposure there.

After the fall of Richmond, Wirz was captured and tried for war crimes; one of only two Confederate officers to face such charges. During the hearings, the defendant argued that although he was despised by the men in the camp, the disastrous shortages faced by inmates were not a result of Southern cruelty but rather an effect of the Union’s blockade of the Confederacy. The most damning testimony against Wirz came from an inmate named Felix de la Baume, who horrified the court with his descriptions of life at Andersonville. It was revealed later that the witness was actually an imposter who was never a prisoner at the camp. However de la Baume was rewarded for his testimony with a job in the civil service.

Found guilty of 11 counts of murder, Wirz was sentenced to hang on November 10, 1865 in Washington, D.C.

Before climbing the scaffold, Wirz was offered a reprieve if he would testify against Jefferson Davis, naming the Confederate president the author of the Andersonville atrocities. Wirz claimed the Southern chief executive had no direct connection with the prison and refused to implicate the deposed leader in order to save his own life. The next morning Wirz was hanged in a botched execution that saw the condemned slowly strangled before an audience of 250.

Some have suggested that Wirz, although a harsh disciplinarian who presided over the deaths of 13,000 at Sumter, was condemned in order to feed the public’s need to see someone brought to justice following the amnesty granted to nearly everyone in the Confederacy. Others have argued that the Wirz’s “I-was-only-following-orders” defence comes up short considering the scope of such atrocities. After all, it didn’t work at Nuremberg; why should it work for Wirz? Despite this, many residents of Andersonville, Georgia still gather every year at the Wirz memorial to commemorate the man push for a Congressional pardon for him.

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