Byng, John (1704-1757) (DNB00)

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BYNG, JOHN (1704–1757), admiral, was the fourth son of George Byng, viscount Torrington [q. v.] He entered the navy in March 1718 on board the Superb, commanded by his maternal uncle, Streynsham Master, served in her for eighteen months in the Mediterranean, and was present at the defeat of the Spaniards off Cape Passaro, in which the Superb had a very prominent share [see Arnold, Thomas]. After serving in the Orford, the Newcastle, and the Nassau, he was moved into the Torbay. He passed his examination on 31 Dec. 1722, and continued in the Torbay, with the rating of able seaman, till 26 Feb., when he was removed, with the same rating, to the Dover, and on 20 June was promoted into the Solebay. On 11 April 1724 he was appointed to the Superb as second lieutenant; and when that ship was ordered to the West Indies, he was superseded from her at his own request on 29 March 1726. On 23 April he was appointed to the Burford as fourth lieutenant, continued in her on the home station as third and as second lieutenant, and at Cadiz, on 26 May 1727, was discharged to the Torbay for a passage to England. On 8 Aug. 1727 he was promoted to the command of the Gibraltar frigate in the Mediterranean; in the summer of 1728 he was moved into the Princess Louisa, also in the Mediterranean, and continued in her for three years, when she was paid off at Woolwich. He was immediately appointed to the Falmouth, and commanded her in the Mediterranean for the next five years. The details of this service present no interest: nothing could be more uneventful; but it is noteworthy on that very account. The son of Lord Torrington, admiral of the fleet and first lord of the admiralty, could pretty well choose his own employment, and he chose to spend his time for the most part as senior or sole officer at Port Mahon. This may have been very pleasant, but it was not exercising him in the duties of his rank, or training him for high command. In June 1738 he was appointed to the Augusta; in April 1739 was moved into the Portland; and in the following October was transferred to the Sunderland, in which he joined Vice-admiral Haddock off Cadiz. Early in 1742 he was appointed to the Sutherland, and went in her for a summer cruise to Newfoundland, coming home again in the autumn. In 1743 he was appointed to the St. George, and commanded her in the fleet under Sir John Norris in February 1743–4. He continued in her in the spring of 1744, when Sir Charles Hardy hoisted his flag on board for the voyage to Lisbon. On 8 Aug. 1745 he was promoted to be a rear-admiral, and was immediately appointed to command in the North Sea under Admiral Vernon, then commander-in-chief in the Downs, and after his resignation under Vice-admiral Martin. During the period of this service he was, in 1746, a member of the courts-martial on Vice-admiral Lestock and on Admiral Mathews. In 1747 he went out to the Mediterranean as second in command; on 15 July he was advanced to the rank of vice-admiral of the Blue; and by the death of Vice-admiral Medley, on 5 Aug., became commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, where he continued till after the conclusion of the peace. When war again broke out in 1755, Byng was appointed to command a squadron in the Channel; in the autumn he relieved Sir Edward Hawke in the Bay of Biscay; and in the following March was promoted to be admiral of the blue, and was ordered to proceed to the Mediterranean with a small squadron intended for the defence of Minorca, which, by the concurrent testimony of every agent in those parts, was then threatened by a French armament from Toulon. The government was very slow to believe this, and was rather of opinion that the armament was destined for North America, or for some operations in the west, perhaps against Ireland. The squadron sent out with Byng was therefore by no means so large as it might easily have been made; and the admiral's instructions laid most stress on the probability of the enemy passing the Straits. They were, however, perfectly explicit on the possibility of an attack on Minorca, in the event of which he was, in so many words, ordered ‘to use all possible means in his power for its relief.’

At Gibraltar he received intelligence that the enemy had landed on Minorca, had overrun the island, and was laying siege to Fort St. Philip. This was exactly the contingency which his instructions specially and positively provided for. But the governor of Gibraltar refused to part with the troops which he was ordered to send, alleging that they could not be spared from the garrison; and Byng, who from the first had shown himself very ill satisfied with the condition and force of his squadron, accepted his refusal without protest, and sailed from Gibraltar on 8 May. On the 19th he was off Port Mahon, and sent in the frigates to see what was the position of affairs, and to communicate with the acting-governor, General Blakeney. But before they could get near enough, the French squadron came in sight, and Byng, afraid that the frigates might be cut off, hastily recalled them. The wind, however, fell light, and the two fleets did not get near each other that day, nor till the afternoon of the next, 20 May, when, the enemy having yielded the weather-gage, about two o'clock Byng made the signal to bear down, and some twenty minutes after the signal to engage. In point of numbers the two fleets were equal; but the French ships were larger, carried heavier guns and more men. A comparison of the two shows that the English flagship Ramillies, of 90 guns, threw a broadside of 842 lbs., while the French flagship Foudroyant, of 80 guns, threw a broadside of 1,000 lbs. The difference throughout was in favour of the French, but by no means so much as was afterwards said; and in point of fact, the difference, whatever it was, in no way affected the result; for the French stood entirely on the defensive. This was their great advantage; for while the English were running down to the attack from the position to windward, Byng insisted on stopping to dress his line, which was thus unduly exposed. The van, under Rear-admiral West, did, indeed, bear down as ordered, and engage at very close quarters; but the rear, under the commander-in-chief, backed their topsails, got thrown into disorder, and never came within effective gunshot. The ships in the van, thus unsupported, sustained great loss, and the whole French line, which had been lying by with their main topsails square, filled, and passing slowly the disabled English ships, fired their broadsides into them, then wore in succession and reformed on the other tack. When Byng extricated his rear from the confusion into which he had himself thrown it, he found his van so shattered as to be incapable of forming line and renewing the action. The French, on their side, remained as before on the defensive, and as they were not attacked, there was no further fighting. During the night the fleets separated; and after waiting four days to refit, Byng summoned a council of war, the resolutions of which seemed to him to warrant his leaving Minorca to its fate, and he accordingly returned with the fleet to Gibraltar. When the news of the defeat reached England the wrath of the ministry and the fury of the populace were excessive. Hawke was at once sent out to supersede Byng, and send him home under arrest. He arrived at Spithead on 26 July. He was forthwith conveyed to Greenwich, and kept there, in a room in the hospital, under close and ignominious arrest. He was ordered to be tried by court-martial, and the court accordingly met at Portsmouth on 28 Dec. After continuous sitting till 27 Jan. 1757 this court pronounced that Admiral Byng had not done his utmost to relieve St. Philip's Castle, which it was his duty to relieve; had not done his utmost to take, seize, and destroy the enemy's ships which it was his duty to engage, or to assist those of his majesty's ships which it was his duty to assist. For this neglect of duty the court adjudged him to fall under part of the 12th article of war, and according to the stress of that article sentenced him to death. To this sentence they added an earnest recommendation to mercy, on the grounds that they did not believe the admiral's misconduct arose either from cowardice or disaffection, and that they had passed the sentence only because the law, in prescribing death, left no alternative to the court. The king refused to entertain this recommendation, and the sentence was carried out. Byng was shot on the quarter-deck of the Monarque, in Portsmouth Harbour, 14 March 1757. He was M.P. for Rochester from 1751 till death.

The strife of parties was at the time exceedingly bitter, and it suited the opponents of the ministry, past and present, to urge that Byng was being executed as a cloak to ministerial neglect. They thus made common cause with the personal friends of Byng, and a furious outcry was raised, not so much against the sentence as against the execution, which was roundly denounced as ‘a judicial murder.’ And this phrase, having caught the popular fancy, has been repeated over and over again with parrot-like accuracy. Another statement, less sweeping but wholly incorrect, has also been often repeated, and has been accepted by even serious historians: it is said that Admiral Byng was shot for ‘an error in judgment,’ a fault which, as Lord Macaulay has properly shown, may be a very good reason for not employing a man again, but does not amount to a crime. It is right, therefore, to point out that neither in the charge against Admiral Byng, nor in the article of war under which he was found guilty, nor in the sentence pronounced on him, is there a single word about ‘error in judgment.’ The language of the article is perfectly clear and explicit, limiting its scope to those persons who shall commit the offences detailed ‘through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection.’ When, therefore, the court found Byng guilty under this article, and at the same time acquitted him of cowardice and disaffection, it did really, and with all the plainness of which the English language is capable, find him guilty of negligence—of negligence so gross as to be in the highest degree criminal. This being the decision of the court, the only question is, Should the sentence have been carried out? But the fact is that the court did not and could not give any reason for its recommendation except the severity of the law; and to this point the most rational of Byng's friends applied themselves. Admiral West, urging it on his cousin, Lord Temple, the first lord of the admiralty, wrote: ‘The court have convicted him, not for cowardice nor for treachery, but for misconduct, an offence never till now thought capital, and now, it seems, only made so because no alternative of punishment was found in that article they bring him under.’ On this it may be remarked that West, and all Byng's supporters, insisting on the novelty, the unheard-of nature of the sentence, and the severity of the law which permitted no alternative, or the absurdity of the law which took all discretionary power from the court, lost sight of the fact that it was the gross abuse of this discretionary power in a score of instances during the last war which had forced the parliament to abolish it; that absolute necessity had led to the passing of this stringent act only eight years before, and that, as these had been years of peace, it was still in effect new. It was unfortunate for Byng that he should be the first to feel its severity and its stringency: it was unfortunate for the country that it should have been goaded to an act so severe and stringent: but having passed that act, to have shrunk from the first occasion of giving it effect would have been imbecile. When parliament refused to interfere, and the king finally rejected the recommendation to mercy, the admiral was left for execution, and in face of the inevitable walked to his death with a calm and noble bearing. His misconduct might be due to a want of resolution, to an unnerving sense of responsibility, or possibly, even probably, to a feeling of disgust at the government which had sent him out with a command so limited when it might have given him a force that would have swept the Mediterranean. But this want of temper, of confidence, of resolution, though leading to criminal misconduct, was not cowardice, certainly not that type of cowardice of which the court acquitted him, that cowardice which regards death or personal danger as the most terrible of evils. Of this, in his last moments, Admiral Byng showed himself entirely free. His demeanour on the Monarque's quarter-deck has been the theme of many a panegyrist; and though panegyric on Admiral Byng seems strangely misplaced, it may be most truly said of him

Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.

Admiral Byng was never married. His remains were buried in the family vault at Southill, with a monumental inscription in which even the usual license is somewhat exceeded.

[Official Documents in the Public Record Office; Brit. Mus. Addl. MS. 31959, a statement of the case against Byng, prepared, apparently, for Lord Chancellor Hardwicke; Minutes of the Court-martial (published by order, fol. 1757). The copy of this in the British Museum (5805, g 1 (2)) is bound up with many other papers of great interest, including a series of plans of the engagement, a picture of the execution, and a portrait; Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs, vol. i.; Walpole's Mem. of George II, vol. ii. The literature on the subject of Byng's execution is most voluminous. The list under Byng's name occupies four pages in the British Museum printed Catalogue, and this is a very small portion of the whole. The number of contemporary pamphlets on each side of the question, for the most part equally scurrilous, is very great; but they have no historical value, and the same may be said of most modern criticisms. Sir John Barrow, in his Life of Anson, discusses the subject at some length, but with so little care that he bases a grave objection to the court-martial on the junior rank of the president, Vice-admiral Smith, and names as the three from whom the selection ought to have been made Admiral Steuart, who was at the time on his deathbed, and died on 30 March 1757, Admiral Martin, who died 17 Sept. 1756, two months before the convening of the court, and the Hon. George Clinton, who had retired from active service for more than sixteen years.]

J. K. L.