“Byng’s death had a profound impact on the navy, as it did encourage others to fight and greatly contributed to Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War.”
By George Yagi Jr.
As the 52-year-old officer waited on the quarterdeck in the company of nine marine guards, instructions were passed to all the men-of-war at anchor nearby in Spithead to dispatch their officers to the 74-gun ship of the line to witness the spectacle that had been planned.
As the clock struck twelve, a captain by the name of John Montagu stepped forward from the small crowd that had assembled on the Monarch to inform Byng that it was time — the admiral’s execution was at hand.
Byng took his place beside a green velvet cushion, which was set in the middle of an open canvas. With his own two hands, he arranged a blindfold over his eyes then knelt as six marines levelled their muskets at him. Byng clutched a red and white handkerchief, which after a moment’s pause he dropped to the ground. It was the pre-arranged signal to open fire. The marines immediately discharged their muskets at their kneeling commander. As smoke filled the quarterdeck, Byng fell to the deck dead. He would be the last admiral to be executed in the history of the Royal Navy.
The “Byng Principle”
Sentenced to death for failing to “do his utmost” at the disastrous Battle of Minorca, many historians have since held Byng up as a scapegoat for the Admiralty’s and British government’s own failures at prosecuting the Seven Years’ War. Despite widespread sympathy for the disgraced Byng, including voices from the new government formed under Secretary of State William Pitt, the king refused to heed the call for clemency.
On learning of the execution, the French writer, philosopher and playwright Voltaire satirically wrote that the British needed to occasionally execute an admiral from time to time, “in order to encourage the others.”
Although his comments were written as a form of mockery, surprisingly, the observation was entirely accurate. Byng’s role in the Minorca fiasco led to what was darkly termed in the Royal Navy the “Byng Principle,” which meant that “nothing is to be undertaken where there is risk or danger.”
This sardonic term served as a cautionary reminder to naval officers of the sort of conduct that should be avoided in battle. And just or not, Byng’s death was to instill in them an aggressive fighting spirit that would succeed in turning the war in favour of Britain.
Failure at Minorca
Unlike his successors, Byng was not an aggressive commander. From the outset of his mission to assist the besieged garrison at Minorca, Byng was highly pessimistic about the success of the operation. His orders of March 30 stated, “[I]f you find any attack made upon that island by the French, you are to use all possible means in your power for its relief.”
Before even arriving off Minorca, Byng was already making preparations for the defence of Gibraltar. On reaching the Rock, Byng refused to transport 700 soldiers from the garrison to reinforce Fort St. Philip, arguing that they would be a lost when the island fell. He also claimed that the besieging enemy’s cannon would make it impossible to conduct a landing.
When the squadron arrived off Minorca, Byng completely failed to carry out his mission. Three ships were dispatched to communicate with the garrison. However, before an answer could even be sent by the fort’s commander, Major General William Blakeney, Byng recalled his ships.
The French, under the command of Roland-Michel Barrin, comte de la Galissonière, had appeared on the horizon. The next day, Byng engaged the French in an inconclusive battle. However, despite the disappearance of la Galissonière’s forces, the vice admiral made no attempt to communicate with the besieged garrison or the land reinforcements, nor did he attempt to intercept the merchantmen delivering supplies to the French army. Instead, he convened a council of war where he decided that Gibraltar was under greater threat, and abandoned Minorca to its fate. His conduct was so appalling that even la Galissonière remarked it had appeared Byng did not want to fight.
Upon his return to Britain, Byng was court-martialed and condemned to death according to the twelfth Article of War. He had failed “to do his utmost to take or destroy the enemy’s ships.”
Following the execution of Byng, a new fighting spirit appeared among the navy. No officer wanted to be accused of following the “Byng Principle” and instead chose to take aggressive action whenever facing the enemy.
In 1758, Vice Admiral Edward Boscawen took part in joint operations off Louisbourg in conditions that were so bad that it was said, “the Devil himself would not have attempted [a landing].” Yet, Boscawen did land the troops under extremely adverse circumstances, facing both the enemy and the forces of nature. On the outcome of the attack, Major General James Wolfe commented, “our landing was next to miraculous.”
During the Siege of Québec in 1759, the navy conducted itself even more aggressively. Vice Admiral Charles Saunders not only became the first to navigate a battle fleet safely up the St. Lawrence River, but also succeeded in successfully making a pass above Québec while under fire from the French batteries lining the shore. This action threatened Québec’s communication and allowed Wolfe to force the French into battle on the Plains of Abraham.
The most dramatic naval feats, however, were those fought in 1759 at Lagos and Quiberon Bay. Despite extremely rough seas, Vice Admiral Edward Hawke engaged the French in the midst of a storm, with winds blowing as much as 40 knots and accompanied by heavy rains. Conditions were so volatile that several French ships even sank as a result of the foul weather. The Thésée was lost as water rushed in through her lower gun ports, and the Superb simply rolled over in the thrashing waves. Among the crews of both ships, only twenty-two sailors survived. Reflecting on the battle, Hawke remarked, “When I consider the season of the year, the hard gales on the day of action, a flying enemy, the shortness of the day, and the coast we are on, I can boldly affirm that all that could possibly be done has been done.” Such words were an understatement to this achievement, as Hawke secured a decisive victory that ensured the threat of a French invasion of the British Isles was over.
Byng’s death had a profound impact on the navy, as it did encourage others to fight and greatly contributed to Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War. Faced with disappointing failures during the initial stages of the conflict, daring acts were needed to reverse the misfortunes of defeat. Byng’s performance at Minorca brought British naval prestige to an all-time low. However, succeeding commanders restored it, as their efforts ensured Britain’s vast empire stretched further across the globe.
Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His upcoming book explores Britain’s years of defeat during the Seven Years’ War, along with the death of Vice Admiral John Byng. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr.