As they were chatting thus together they arrived at Portsmouth. The shore on each side the harbor was lined with a multitude of people, whose eyes were steadfastly fixed on a lusty man who was kneeling down on the deck of one of the men-of-war, with something tied before his eyes. Opposite to this personage stood four soldiers, each of whom shot three bullets into his skull, with all the composure imaginable; and when it was done, the whole company went away perfectly well satisfied.
“What the devil is all this for?” said Candide, “and what demon, or foe of mankind, lords it thus tyrannically over the world?”
He then asked who was that lusty man who had been sent out of the world with so much ceremony. When he received for answer, that it was an admiral.
“And pray why do you put your admiral to death?”
“Because he did not put a sufficient number of his fellow creatures to death. You must know, he had an engagement with a French admiral, and it has been proved against him that he was not near enough to his antagonist.”
“But,” replied Candide, “the French admiral must have been as far from him.”
“There is no doubt of that; but in this country it is found requisite, now and then, to put an admiral to death, in order to encourage the others to fight.”
Voltaire, Candide, Chapter 23
One of the interesting phenomena of the Age of Sail was the success the Royal Navy had at achieving physical and moral dominance of its foes and total supremacy of the sea. They did this despite no great advantages in geography, population, skills of that population, raw materials, or technology. In fact, when facing France, Britain at best achieved parity in the relative skills of the population and was at a decided disadvantage in most of the others.
One has to conclude that iron discipline imposed upon men and officers alike via the Articles of War was greatly responsible for the century of sea dominance achieved by Great Britain.
For a case in point, let’s look to the unfortunate Admiral John Byng.
Byng was the fourth son of a nobleman and went to sea at age 14. Through ability and influence he attained rank of post captain at age 23. That influence let him keep steady employment and his early ascension to post rank ensure he became a rear admiral at the fairly early age of 41.
In 1756, Byng, then with the Channel Fleet, was given orders to lift the siege of Minorca. Granted, the expedition was not terribly well thought out or organized (though British military operations until World War II continually strike one as a hopeless muddle of overreaching objectives, inadequate forces and catch-as-catch-can logistics compounded by exquisitely Byzantine command arrangements)
He arrived just as the French were landing some 15,000 troops.
On May 20, Byng engaged the French fleet in the inconclusive Battle of Minorca. Inconclusive because neither side lost ships. It was a defeat for the British because in light of the mauling his fleet took, Byng decided to make no further attempts to relieve the garrison and returned to Gibraltar. Byng’s stunningly self-serving report of the battle can be read here. Perhaps this type of puffery doesn’t deserve a firing squad but it should merit some type of corporal punishment.
The British public was somewhat less than pleased with the loss of Minorca and the Admiralty, it seems, began an active search for a scapegoat. Byng was the winner of the talent search.
His court martial was held aboard HMS St George, in Portsmouth harbor, beginning 28 December 1756. The court returned its verdict on 27 January 1757.
At a court-martial assembled on board his majesty’s ship St. George, in Portsmouth harbour, upon the 27th of January, 1757, present, vice-admiral Smith, president, rear-admiral Holbourne, rear-admiral Norris, rear-admiral Broderick, captain Holmes, captain Geary, captain Boys, captain Moore, captain Simcoe, captain Douglas, captain Bentley, captain Keppel,and captain Dennis : The court, pursuant to an order from the lords commissioners of the admiralty, having heard the evidence, and the prisoner’s defence, and very maturely and thoroughly considered the same, they are unanimously of opinion that he did not do his utmost to relieve St. Philip’s castle, and also that during the engagement between his majesty’s fleet under his command, and the fleet of the French king, on the 20th of May last, he did not do his utmost to take, seize, and destroy the ships of the French king, which it was his duty to have engaged, and to assist such of his majesty’s ships as were engaged in fight with the French ships, which it was his duty to have assisted; and do therefore unanimously agree that he falls under part of the twelfth article of ал act of parliament, of the twenty-second year of his present majesty, for amending, explaining, and reducing into one act of parliament the laws relating to the government of his majesty’s ships, vessels, and forces by sea ; and as that article positively prescribes death, without any alternative left to the discretion of the court, under any variation of circumstance, the court do, therefore, hereby unanimously adjudge the said admiral John Byng to be shot to death, at such time, and on board such ship, as the lords commissioners of the admiralty shall direct.
What is notable here is that Byng was not convicted of failing in his duty but merely failing to do his utmost during the battle. His rather slavish adherence to the Fighting Instructions of the time did him no good.
The execution of Byng for failing to press home an attack must have thundered through the officer corps of the Royal Navy. It is one thing to shoot a hapless lieutenant, it is quite another to shoot an influential admiral and member of the nobility.
The justness of his verdict is still debated and his descendants continue to ask for a Royal Pardon. But when Admiral Byng was shot on the foredeck of HMS Monarque and thereby possibly had a greater influence on future generations of naval officers than had he won a stunning victory at Minorca.