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On this day in history in 1757, died John Byng.
Byng was an admiral of the Royal Navy who was executed by firing squad for neglect of duty.
Byng was born on 29th October 1704, in Southill, Bedfordshire, the son of a prominent Royal Navy admiral. He entered the Royal Navy in 1718, and by 1745 had reached the rank of rear admiral. His rapid rise through the ranks was due more to his father’s influence that any natural ability.
In 1755, when war was about to break out with France, Byng was ordered to sail to the Mediterranean island of Minorca, then a British possession, in order to defend it from attack. By the time he arrived, the war had started and the island was already under attack by the French fleet. Although Byng’s fleet was totally inadequate for the task, he fought a minor skirmish with the French, suffered considerable damage against an overwhelming force, and then decided that he could do nothing and retreated to Gibraltar, leaving Minorca to the enemy.
The British public were outraged at what they perceived to be cowardice. The Prime Minister, Newcastle, ordered Byng to be put on trial for neglect of duty. He was court-martialed in Portsmouth and found guilty, despite his plea that he had been inadequately supplied for his mission. Byng was executed by firing squad on board his own flagship.
After Byng’s death, public anger focused on Newcastle, who was obliged to resign. The episode prompted the French writer, Voltaire, to write in Candide ‘Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres’. [In this country, it is customary, from time to time, to shoot an admiral, to encourage the others.] Byng is buried at All Saints Church, Southhill. [All Saints Church. Southill, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, SG18 9LL] His memorial states:
'To the perpetual Disgrace
of PUBLICK JUSTICE
The Honble. JOHN BYNG Esqr
Admiral of the Blue
Fell a MARTYR to
March 14th in the year 1757 when
BRAVERY and LOYALTY
were Insufficient Securities
Life and Honour
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