14 March 1757 – Admiral John Byng

Admiral John ByngNaval man Admiral John Byng was put in front of a firing squad, charged with a lesser form of cowardice on this day in 1757.

Byng was court-martialled after he was accused of failing to ‘do his utmost’ during the battle of Minorca at the start of the Seven Years’ War.

Fall guy

In actual fact the 52-year-old had made a pragmatic decision based on the fact that his fleet of ships were under-manned and ill-prepared to fight against the slick, well-prepared French fleet.

Neglect

Unfortunately for Byng, George II was on the throne at the time and he was first and foremost a Hanoverian monarch, only interested in bolstering German coffers, even if that meant denting England’s stability. As a result, England’s armed forces were neglected, its politicians were weak and it showed.

France took advantage of the situation by trying to wrestle back control of Minorca, which the British had swiped from them in 1708. And while the French were kitted out with 12 ships and 16,000 navy men, the British had 10 under-manned warships and even these were falling apart.

Retreat

The two fleets locked horns and Byng soon realised he was being out manoeuvred and decided to beat a watery retreat so he could head off to protect Gibraltar. Poor little Minorca was left to fend for itself with just 2,800 men and eventually succumbed to the French.

This failure caused outrage back home and Byng was relieved of his command, taken into custody and shipped back home. There he was court martialled on board a ship at Portsmouth harbour on a charge that ultimately branded him a coward.

Although he was handed a sentence of death the King himself could have overturned it…but he declined and Byng was shot on board HMS Monarch.

French farce

Of course the French people were loving this and the whole sorry saga even led to Voltaire mentioning it in his play 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.’

Also on this day

14 March 1992 – Steven Brian Pennell
14 March 2000 – Ponchai Wilkerson
14 March 1984 – James David Autry
14 March 1887 – Elizabeth Berry

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