Admiral Byng

DESCRIPTION: Admiral Byng is ordered "the French to disperse from New Home" in the Mediterranean Sea. He sends Admiral West to attack the French but he held his own ship back. The ballad implies he was bribed. He is condemned by the King to be shot.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1881 (Christie)
KEYWORDS: battle navy execution trial
Mar 14, 1757 - Admiral John Byng executed for neglect of duty for his part in the loss of Minorca to the French (source: "Minorca" at the Blupete site).
FOUND IN: Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (4 citations):
Greig-FolkSongInBuchan-FolkSongOfTheNorthEast #151, p. 1, "Come All Ye British Tars" (1 text)
Greig/Duncan1 140, "Admiral Byng" (1 text)
Palmer-OxfordBookOfSeaSongs 46, "Admiral Byng" (1 text, 1 tune)
ADDITIONAL: W. Christie, editor, Traditional Ballad Airs (Edinburgh, 1881 (downloadable pdf by University of Edinburgh, 2007)), Vol II, pp. 260-261, "Admiral Byng and Brave West" (1 tune)

Roud #3791
NOTES [2042 words]: Greig: "The victim into whose mouth the ballad is put was Admiral Byng. He was sent with a squadron to relieve the island of Minorca, which was blockaded by a French fleet. Rear-Admiral West played his part well, but Byng handled his ships so unsuccessfully that he had to sail back to Gibraltar, leaving Minorca to its fate. For this failure he was recalled, tried, and condemned to be shot on board ship. This was in 1757."
The court never considered that bribery or gold played any part in the Admiral Byng's decision not to try to relieve General Lord Blakeney at St Philip's Castle on Minorca. (Burke, pp. 72-81).
Greig/Duncan1: "It is included by Bertrand Harris Bronson in his discussion of songs with this distinctive stanza pattern; see "Samuel Hall's Family Tree" in The Ballad as Song (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1969), pp. 18-36. Here is the last verse:
All traitors gets their doom, so maun I, so maun I,
All traitors gets their doom, so maun I;
All traitors gets their doom, wears the sackcloth in their bloom,
Because it is their doom, so maun I.
I assume "New Home" is either on or near Minorca, the site of the battle. - BS
I think "New Home" is probably an error for "Mahon," or Port Mahon, the chief harbor on Minorca. The Spanish name is accented on the second syllable, which makes this mis-hearing more likely.
If Admiral John Byng (1704-1757) is remembered today, it is usually for the quip Voltaire penned regarding his execution: The British executed an admiral from time to time "pour encourager les autres," "to encourage the others" (see, e.g., Borneman, p. 66; Brumwell/Speck, p. 67; Keegan, p. 45; Herman, p. 281; McLynn, p. 196.).
Byng had had a distinguished career until then -- although the son of an admiral, he had not joined the navy as a midshipman but rather as an able seaman in 1718 (Brumwell/Speck, p. 67). He probably wasn't a great admiral, but most of his misfortune was really the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He found himself in the middle of an undeclared war. What Europeans called the "Seven Years' War" officially ran from 1756 to 1763 -- but it had already gone on for more than a year in the America (for the early phases of the French and Indian War, as it was known in the colonies, see "Braddock's Defeat"). So it was quite clear that war was coming in Europe -- but diplomatic niceties had to be observed; no one wanted to be blamed for firing the first shot.
The French had the strategic initiative. They had forces on both the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts -- the former in position to sail to North America, where the French already had had success, the latter in position to capture Minorca. The British navy could potentially halt either move (Borneman, p. 62, estimates they had an advantage of about 100 ships of the line to 60 for the French) -- but only if it knew where to go!
The French goal seems to have been to nibble away at the British. Minorca was an obvious spot. British only since 1708, it had become a major British naval base (Borneman, p. 63), but it was much more accessible to the French than the British. And the British forces in the area were clearly inadequate: Four ships of the line, three frigates, and one sloop. The need to reinforce was obvious. Hence Byng was sent with reinforcements. The son of a famous though not always successful admiral (Keegan/Wheatcroft, pp. 55, 304), Byng had served at sea from an early age (Borneman, p. 63), but he had limited experience in combat. He was regarded as a good administrator (Anderson, p. 170), was known for strict discipline (Borneman, p. 63), and apparently was highly regarded prior to the Minorca fiasco (Herman, p. 280).
The French had anticipated the declaration of war. Their attacking force, commanded by Admiral la Galissoniere and supported by twelve ships of the line, had left Toulon on April 10, 1756, with 150 transports and 15,000 soldiers (Mahan, p. 285). The force had arrived at Minorca on April 19. This was overwhelming force against a defending army of only about three thousand men.
By the time Byng reached Minorca on May 2, the French were already attacking the tiny garrison at Fort Saint Philip (Borneman, p. 64), even though France had not yet formally declared war. The forces on Minorca could not hold out long; they were too heavily outnumbered. Their only hope was for Byng to defeat the French fleet in the area and cut off the attackers.
Byng was in many ways at a disadvantage. His nearest base was Gibraltar, whereas the French were based in Toulon. Not only was Toulon closer, it was the main base of the French navy. And he was afraid to take troops from Gibraltar lest it too be invaded (Borneman, p. 64). Plus Byng's fleet was far from modern. He flew his flag in the 90-gun Ramillies, which had begun life as the Royal Katherine in 1664. The ship was "rebuilt" in 1702 (at a time when "rebuilding" meant something close to building a ship from scratch), but that still made the vessel more than half a century old at the time Byng took command of the squadron. She had been renamed Ramillies some fifty years before (for details on this, see Paine, p. 419).
"[T]he ships in his task force had only recently returned from raiding French commerce in the Atlantic. It was, therefore, with depleted crews, unmade repairs (two ships were taking on water fast enough to require frequent pumping), and fouled hulls that Byng's ships sailed from Portsmouth on April 7" (Anderson, p. 170).
The battle was completely one-sided. There seems to be disagreement about what Byng intended. Mahan, p. 285, seems to say that Byng's intention was to fight in line ahead (that is, with all of his ships in a single line, with each English ship fighting what amounted to a single combat with a French ship), following the official British Fighting Instructions. Borneman, p. 65, argues that he wanted to "cross the T" on the enemy line and attack the rear of the French line, but that there was a signalling failure which caused the lead ships to go off in the wrong direction.
Whatever Byng's intention, the two fleets approached at a rather large angle -- estimated to have been about 30 to 40 degrees (Mahan, p. 286). This meant, since Byng was attacking the French fleet outside Port Mahon, that the lead British ships were much closer to the French line than the ships in the rear. When Byng gave the order to start the engagement, the ships at the front of the line did so, spending some four hours in combat (Anderson, p. 171) but the ships at the back were, in effect, left behind. The ships at the front of the line, in consequence, suffered rather severely (none were sunk but all had damage which affected their ability to sail); those at the back split off and accomplished nothing (Mahan, p. 287).
After the battle, Byng held a council of war with his captains. They concluded that they could not save Minorca; better to make sure that Gibraltar at least was safe (Mahan, p. 290; Borneman, p. 65). Byng headed back to Gibraltar, and the French captured Port Mahon on June 29 (Herman, p. 278).
Herman, p. 280, notes that "To this day historians debate the pros and cons of the case."
"[H]is failure at Minorca was as much a matter of following the official orders for line ahead battles too literally as it was a failure of nerve. Anson... had ordered Byng brought back to England for court-martial. The court of twelve naval officers had to find him guilty for avoiding battle: under Anson's own revisions to the Articles of War, they had no choice but to sentence Byng to death" (Herman, p. 280).
"At Gibraltar, Byng was relieved by Hawke and sent home to be tried. The court-martial, while expressly clearing him of cowardice or disaffection, found him guilty of not doing his utmost either to defeat the French fleet or relieve the garrison of Mahon; and, as the article of war prescribed death with no alternative punishment for this offence, it felt compelled to sentence him to death. The king refused to pardon, and Byng was accordingly shot" (Mahan, pp. 290-291).
"In retrospect, Byng's concern for Gibraltar and his decision not to risk his entire fleet when other corners of the British Empire were far more dependent on it than Minorca, may well prove his competence. And, of course, if his orders had been carried out competently in the first place, the result may have been far different. Instead, his execution became one of the most egregious affairs in the annals of the Royal Navy" (Borneman, p. 65).
"Byng... was executed not because he had lost the battle of Minorca (1756) but because he had done so in breach of the permanent fighting instructions and so confronted his court-martial with no choice but to condemn him to the firing-squad" (Keegan, p. 45).
Ironically, Keegan seems to think highly of Byng, at least in broad terms. At this time, few naval battles produces a clear winner, so "[s]everal British admirals of the eighteenth century, of whom Byng was one, experimented at the risk of professional -- even personal -- extinction with tactics more likely to yield a decisive outcome" (Keegan, p. 49). Byng's problem was that he did not come up with the idea of breaking the line, which would wait for Rodney and Nelson.
What the court could do, it did: They recommended that the King pardon him. Pleas for mercy came from all quarters. But the government, its survival on the line, ignored all the calls. Byng was executed by firing squad on board the Monarque (a captured French ship) "on March 14, 1757 -- the first and only British admiral ever executed for cowardice" (Herman, p. 281).
"Everywhere rose the cry for the punishment of Admiral Byng.... Members of parliament received petitions to call the ministers to account for sending him out too late. The naval court-martial, deliberating under the pressure of rising public resentment, condemned the unhappy Byng to death....
"As a matter of fact, Byng had done nothing to justify the verdict. Of the crime of which he was declared guilty -- neglect of duty in battle -- he was entirely innocent. For the offenses of which he was guilty -- the desertion of Minorca and disobedience to admiralty instructions -- there was no legal penalty. The court somehow felt that the death penalty was excessive and recommended him to His Majesty's clemency. But that was denied him, for all around there stood the fallen ministers with their bribes and their boroughs, ready to crush anyone who suggested that Byng was not the sole author of the loss of Minorca. There is, perhaps, no more conclusive example of the extent and diversity of Whig patronage than the tale of the gates of mercy being shut against Byng" (Dorn, p. 345).
The whole business proved so controversial that being pro- or anti-Byng actually came to be a basis for official promotion or censure (McLynn, p. 108). His fate also caused admirals to become somewhat afraid of having prudence mistaken for cowardice, which occasionally caused them to become rather rash (McLynn, p. 173)
In a greater sense, Byng's defeat was a help to the British cause. The Newcastle government fell, and William Pitt the Elder took over (Herman, p. 279; Dorn, p. 291, though Dorn, p. 345, notes that this was a temporary government; Pitt would not really gain control until later, in a sort of coalition in which he ran things and Newcastle handled patronage duties; cf. Borneman, p. 73). Pitt swept a lot of chaff out of the war departments, and went on to win the war. But it was too late for Byng, who probably would have been out of a job even if he had still been alive -- it was Pitt who really put his trust in better admirals such as Anson and Hawke (for whom see "Bold Hawke") as well as generals such as Amherst (for whom see especially "Brave Wolfe" [Laws A1]).
Keegan/Wheatcroft, p. 55, sum up the situation this way: "Byng was a victim of public hysteria and government cowardice. Walpole commented, "The persecution of his enemies, who sacrifice him for their own guilt and the rage of a blind nation, have called forth all my pity for him" (Herman, p. 281).
There was one positive effect: The Laws of War were revised to make them a little more flexible and reasonable (Manwaring/Dobree, p. 246). - RBW
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