The Royal Navy ex­e­cutes one of its own

Ad­mi­ral Byng is shot for “fail­ing to do his ut­most”

BBC History Magazine - - Anniversaries -

Just af­ter dawn on 14 March 1757, amid a howl­ing gale, the sailors on board HMS Monarch took de­liv­ery of an ex­tra­or­di­nary pack­age. It was an empty cof­fin, al­ready in­scribed with its oc­cu­pant’s name: ‘The Hon. John Byng, Esqr. Died March 14 1757.’

The un­lucky man fol­lowed his cof­fin on board later that morn­ing. Smartly dressed be­neath his white wig, Ad­mi­ral Byng took his place on the quar­ter­deck “with a stately pace and a com­posed coun­te­nance”. Kneel­ing on a cush­ion, which was now drenched by the rain, he tied on a blind­fold. Six marines, re­splen­dent in their red coats, lined up and aimed their weapons. Byng raised his right arm, hold­ing a white hand­ker­chief.

How Byng had come to be there that day is one of the most ex­tra­or­di­nary sto­ries in Bri­tish naval his­tory. A year ear­lier, on the eve of the Seven Years’ War, the ex­pe­ri­enced ad­mi­ral had been sent to the Mediter­ranean with or­ders to re­lieve the be­lea­guered Bri­tish gar­ri­son on Mi­norca. But when he got there, he judged that the is­land was al­ready lost to the French and there was no point wast­ing more lives. This did not go down well at home. On his re­turn, he was charged with fail­ing to do “his ut­most”, as re­quired by the Ar­ti­cles of War. The sen­tence was death.

Byng dropped the hand­ker­chief. The marines fired, and it was all over. On the ad­mi­ral’s tomb in his na­tive Southill, Bed­ford­shire, an in­scrip­tion records that he fell a “mar­tyr to po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion”. The writer Voltaire saw things dif­fer­ently. “In this coun­try,” says a char­ac­ter in his novel Can­dide, pub­lished two years later, “it is good to kill an ad­mi­ral from time to time, to en­cour­age the oth­ers.”

A Royal Navy fir­ing squad ex­e­cutes Ad­mi­ral John Byng on the quar­ter­deck of the HMS Monarch. An empty cof­fin in­scribed with his name was ready and wait­ing

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