Alex Massie

Pour encourager les autres? Oui, monsieur...

Text settings

Of course I agree with Megan that dog-fighting is a bad, even wicked thing. Still, I was struck by her (cutting) question: did Michael Vick and his pals think that by - allegedly! - executing and torturing dogs that had lost fights this would be a case of pour encourager les autres?

Voltaire's famous quip is one of my favourites. "In this country" he remarked, speaking of Britain, "it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time, to give courage to the others". When it's trotted out these days it's generally accompanied by an arched eyebrow as though the very idea of this was absurd. But Voltaire was more right than he knew...

It is April 1756 and Vice-Admiral John Byng is charged with sailing to the Mediterranean to defend the island of Minorca which is threatened by the prospect of a French invasion launched from the great naval base at Toulon. By the time Byng reaches the island, the French have landed. But their troops have run into stiffer than expected resistance and their position is precarious. Or rather it would be if Byng were only determined to seize the initiative and strike. But he is reluctant to do so, believing his situation hopeless. His dispatches to London perplex the admiralty and on June 16th Sir Edward Hawke sails from England to relieve Byng of his command.

By then however Byng had met the French in an indecisive engagement that still left the British with the strategic advantage. As NAM Rodger puts it in his masterpiece The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815:

The French position was so precarious that Byng needed only to cruise in the vicinity or let loose his frigates against the unescorted merchantmen bringing Richeliue's supplies. The only hope for the French was for Byng to withdraw all British ships from the Western Mediterranean, and this he obligingly did...

Byng was astonished to be relieved by Hawke when he reached Gibralter, 'having no suspicion that his conduct was not highly praiseworthy'. He returned home in a mood of righteous indignation, to find the Navy and the public furious against him. For the British public any admiral who failed had betrayed the national trust. Sea officers were more informed critics, but even they all condemned him. 'no doubt but Mr Byng's behaviour on the late occasion off Mahon much anger and surprise you and every thinking man in the kingdom,' wrote Captain Samuel Faulkner... 'What a scandal to the Navy, that they should be premeditated cowards that have been so long bred to arms' was [Vice-Admiral] Boscawen's comment, and even those who did not accuse Byng of physical cowardice spoke of gross misconduct."

The loss of Minorca in such shambolic circumstances caused the government to fall and William Pitt came to power. Pitt was a friend of Byng's and might have been expected to find ways to exculpate the disgraced Sea officer. But despite a "friendly President" at his court martial Byng was convicted of "failing to do his utmost to take or destroy the enemy's ships" - a crime which, as laid down in the Articles of War, carried an automatic death sentence.

A series of blunders on the part of Byng's unfortunate friends, however, ensured that the prospect of clemency receded the further up the political chain the request travelled. Voltaire himself played a part in sealing Byng's fate by sending him a letter from Richelieu in which the Frenchman expressed his admiration for Byng's conduct. This was intercepted and seemed to raise the suspicion of treason. Despite his political connections, Byng was shot on his own quarterdeck in March 1757.

The consequences of his death were significant. As Rodger, the undisputed master of this material, relates:

"The execution of Byng had a profound effect on the moral climate of the Navy and sharply reversed the effects of the battle of Toulon. The fates of Mathews and Lestock [previously disgraced captains] had taught officers that misconduct with support in high places [meant the guilty] had nothing to fear'; the fate of Byng taught them that even the most powerful political friends might not save an officer who failed to fight. Many things might go wrong with an attack on the enemy, but the only fatal error was not to risk it. Byng's death revived and reinforced a culture of aggressive determination which set British officers apart from their foreign contemporaries, and which in time gave them a steadily mounting psychological ascendancy. More and more in the course of the century, and for long afterwards, British officers encountered opponents who expected to be attacked, and more than half expected to be beaten, so that they went into action with an invisible disadvantage which no amount of persona courage or numerical strength could entirely make up for."

In this respect, then, Admiral Byng could be said to have helped pave the way for eventual victory in the Napoleonic wars at the end of the century. If so then he did his country some service after all.

Byng was the last admiral to be shot after a court martial and his punishment remains a matter of controversy to this day. As recently as March of this year the Ministry of Defence was petitioned by Byng's descendants to issue a pardon. It refused.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyfrancehistory