March 14, 1757. British Admiral John Byng is executed on board HMS Monarch for “failing to do his utmost” in battle.
It’s the afternoon of August 11th, 1718, in the middle of a naval battle off Cape Passaro, Sicily.
On the quarterdeck of a British ship, 13-year-old officer cadet John Byng stands near a cluster of senior officers. Among them is the fleet’s commander, John’s own father, George Byng. Next to his superiors, John tries to do his best to hide his fear, but inside, he is terrified of the scene unfolding before him.
A few days ago, war broke out in Europe between Spain and a British-led alliance. Now, a battle is raging in the Mediterranean. All day, John has watched from afar as the British fleet engaged their Spanish enemy from a distance.
But now, his ship is heading into the thick of the battle. As the British vessel moves alongside a Spanish flagship, John grows increasingly tense.
He struggles to calm his nerves as one of the British sailors next to him shouts for the Spanish to lower their colors, or face destruction.
When the enemy flagship fires a broadside in reply, John involuntarily ducks and covers his head cowering. When he looks up, he sees his father, glaring at him. Shame reddens John’s face. And even as his father shakes his head in disgust, John can’t keep from trembling, flinching at every cannon's firing, and wincing with every gunshot.
Despite showing his fear during the Battle of Cape Passaro, the young John Byng’s first experience of warfare is a success. The Spanish fleet is roundly defeated and Britain wins maritime superiority in the Mediterranean. John’s father is rewarded with a noble title when the king names him the first Viscount Torrington.
But British hegemony at sea will not last. The alliance that defeated Spain will falter, and 38 years later another maritime battle will take place in the Mediterranean. This time, a now-grown John Byng will be in command, but he will fail to replicate the success of his father.
His defeat will come with a heavy cost. Back in Britain, John will be rebuked by the British public, court-martialed, and found guilty of dereliction of duty. But his punishment will become notorious for its severity when John is sentenced to death, making him the first and only admiral executed by the Royal Navy on March 14th, 1757.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is March 14th, 1757: The Execution of a Scapegoated Admiral.
It’s the afternoon of May 20th, 1756 in the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Menorca, 38 years after the Battle of Cape Passaro.
A now 51-year-old Admiral John Byng lifts a telescope to his eye and carefully examines each of the British ships ahead of him. He nods in satisfaction. Although his ships are old and undermanned, his fleet is maintaining perfect formation.
In the years since he was first assigned to the Mediterranean as a young officer cadet, Byng has risen through the ranks to become an admiral, just like his father. Two years ago, the newly-promoted Byng was chosen to be the Commander in Chief of Britain’s Mediterranean Fleet. Amid fears of a French invasion, Byng was recently sent to the British-controlled island of Menorca with orders to reinforce the island’s garrison at St. Philip’s Castle. Now, he and his fleet have almost arrived but a French fleet is blocking their way.
Admiral Byng turns to the officers assembled on his quarter-deck and briefly updates them. The British and French fleets are equally matched in number. But the British are upwind, meaning they have the advantage. And Byng has a plan to capitalize on this: the British will turn in unison and use the wind to approach the French at speed, all attacking at the same time.
With his officers nodding their assent, Byng passes his orders to the signaler who immediately raises the required flags. After a moment’s pause to allow his captains to see them, Byng orders a single cannon to fire - the signal to begin the attack.
Within minutes, every British ship is a hive of activity. Sailors haul ropes to adjust their sails and alter course. Each warship begins to turn, but the fleet’s bulky ships are heavy and cumbersome. It takes some time to change course, and Byng knows that every passing minute gives the French time to respond.
But he breathes a sigh of relief as the British ship at the head of the line, the Defiance, begins to close the gap to the French. But instead of sailing straight at the French as ordered, the Defiance approaches at a shallow angle. The next British ship follows the Defiance’s wake, matching the angle of attack, and so does the next British ship, and the one after that. Byng curses. Rather than attacking all at once, his ships will now reach the French line one at a time.
He angrily asks the signalman to check that he posted the correct flags and the young officer assures that he had. So Byng calls for another cannon to fire. He wants to draw attention to his flagship and hopes the captains at the front of the line notice their error.
As Byng’s cannon fires, so too do the French. The Defiance has moved within range and French ships rain fire down upon it. Wood splinters from the hull and sails are ripped. The next ship to reach the French line, the Intrepid, suddenly slows as its main mast topples, dragging two other masts with it. The ships following Intrepid haul sail, unsure whether to go around the stricken vessel or maintain the line. But their indecision leaves them vulnerable. While the front of the British line takes a pounding, the rear never even gets close enough to fire a shot.
Admiral Byng needs to get his fleet’s attention, and quickly. He orders the signaler to fire the cannon again. And eventually, the commanders of the British ships spot the orders flying from their flagship and withdraw. As they retreat, Byng throws his telescope down in irritation. His plan to launch a synchronized attack is in tatters.
The Battle of Menorca ends with both fleets eying each other at a distance. And when dusk falls, they separate. Although no warships were sunk, the French are the undoubted victors. They received far less damage, while half of the British fleet requires repair. And, most importantly, Byng has been blocked from carrying out his mission to reinforce the last British garrison on Menorca. The British will be forced to surrender the island.
Byng’s defeat will have far-reaching consequences, and be far more than just an embarrassing blunder. Back in Britain, Admiral Byng will find himself entirely blamed for the loss, making the stakes of defeat greater than he ever anticipated.
It’s May 24th, 1756 in the Mediterranean Sea, four days after the Battle of Menorca.
Admiral John Byng sits at the head of a table in a cabin of his flagship, surrounded by the captains of his fleet.
The recent battle ended with several damaged British ships; Admiral Byng was unable to reach and reinforce the British garrison on Menorca. So, he has called his senior officers together to decide whether to make another attempt to break the French blockade.
Byng listens carefully as his captains take turns offering ideas. Each shares devastating news. The Intrepid requires urgent repairs to its masts. The Defiance suffered 14 fatalities and 45 injuries. Its captain reminds Byng that his ship already lacked manpower because they sailed from Britain without enough sailors. Now the problem is much worse. Other captains nod. One calls out that every ship in the fleet is undermanned, and many of the crew they do have are land-based soldiers who have never been to sea.
Byng sighs. He doesn’t want to abandon the garrison on Menorca, but another face-off with the French seems out of the question. He concludes that it’s best if the fleet returns to the British base at Gibraltar for repairs. But before he finalizes the orders, he asks his captains whether they approve. They all agree — the British fleet is unable to reinforce Menorca in its current state. But although the decision is unanimous, Admiral Byng will soon be singled out and blamed for the failure of his Mediterranean mission.
While the fleet is under repair in Gibraltar, another ship arrives from Britain with new instructions. They inform Byng that he is relieved of his command and ordered to return home to Britain. Upon his arrival there, he is arrested and charged with failing to do his utmost to reinforce the garrison on Menorca.
All across the country, Byng’s arrest is celebrated. Many see it as a proper repercussion for his defeat in the Mediterranean. And in the coming months, the admiral becomes so unpopular that protestors even burn his effigy in the streets.
The response baffles Byng. It seems impossible that he could be the only one to blame for the loss in battle. If anything, the defeat was the fault of the British government who he believed set him up for failure. The fleet he was given command of wasn’t prepared or able to complete the mission. To Byng, it seems like the government is simply using him as a scapegoat to cover their own failings.
Nonetheless, the hate and criticism is hard for Byng to bear. The notion that he failed to do his duty is a deep insult. But he knows he has far more to worry about than his battered reputation.
Eleven years ago, British military regulations were amended and applied equally to all ranks. Previously, senior officers were exempt from the death penalty for failing to do their utmost against the enemy, and no admiral had ever been executed by the Royal Navy. But now, even the highest officers can face the ultimate penalty if a court martial decides they failed in battle.
Seven months after his defeat in the Mediterranean, Admiral Byng is forced to confront this reality when his trial begins. During proceedings, Byng defends himself vigorously. He explains that the Mediterranean fleet he was given command of was composed of ships in a poor state and each was undermanned. He complains that he was given army soldiers as crew rather than experienced sailors. And then points out that the captain of the Defiance did not follow orders, which ruined Byng’s plans and lost in the battle.
The prosecutor responds by citing a report of the battle printed in the London Gazette, a government-run newspaper. The report suggests that Byng deliberately held back the rear of the line to protect his own life. Byng argues that the newspaper’s account is incomplete and slanted. He points to several passages from his original report that were removed from the article. He also identifies sections in the newspaper that were reworded to make him appear reluctant to fight. To Byng, it’s clear that this article is nothing more than a crude attempt to rewrite history and mark him as a scapegoat.
Byng’s defense will be enough to win over public opinion, but not the court-martial. After four weeks of testimony, Admiral Byng will be found guilty of failing to do his utmost to engage the enemy and for this dereliction of duty, he will be sentenced to death.
It’s noon on March 14th, 1757 in Portsmouth Harbor, two months after Admiral John Byng was sentenced to death.
Wind howls through the rigging of the HMS Monarch, rattling ropes and causing the ship’s deck to rock. Captain John Montagu leads Admiral Byng onto the quarterdeck. Although Byng outranks Captain Montagu, it is Montagu who delivers the orders—because today, he is in charge of his senior officer’s execution.
After Byng’s trial, the public grew sympathetic to the admiral. Many began to believe that he was a scapegoat for the government’s inadequacies. His sentencing sparked public outcry and calls for clemency. Many senior figures campaigned for his sentence to be commuted, including the presiding officer at his trial, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and even Prime Minister William Pitt. But King George II refused all entreaties to spare Byng’s life. He believed the government line that Byng was far too cautious in battle, and he was adamant that Byng be made an example of what happens to officers unwilling to fight. Now, the controversial sentence is about to be carried out.
On the deck of the Monarch, Byng kneels onto a cushion. Then, he picks up a white handkerchief. Captain Montagu has already briefed the marines in the firing squad—they must only fire when Byng drops the handkerchief. But the Admiral has no desire to delay the inevitable. So he lifts his arm and allows the handkerchief to fall. Six marines fire their muskets, and Byng drops to the deck.
But the execution of Admiral John Byng does not end the debate over his punishment. His death will loom large on the British public’s mind. Many will remember him as an innocent victim of a government determined to escape blame. Some others will agree with the court-martial, suggesting that the notorious punishment will at least encourage other commanders to be aggressive in battle. Even the French writer and philosopher Voltaire will offer his view with a satirical quip in his novel Candide, writing that “it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others.”
But fortunately for future officers, the Royal Navy will not actually execute admirals from time to time. Twenty-two years after Byng’s execution, naval regulations will be written again allowing alternative punishments to execution. No other senior officers will suffer the same fate, making John Byng the first and the last British admiral ever executed when he was shot by a firing squad on March 14th, 1757.
Next on History Daily. March 15th, 44 BCE. A plot to assassinate Julius Caesar is carried out by dozens of Roman senators on the Ides of March.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mischa Stanton.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.