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Monday, March 20, 2017

Battle of Minorca ~ failure to prevent capture by French led to him being shot down !!

History has many interesting stories; often only victors are represented !!

Minorca is one of the Balearic Islands located in the Mediterranean Sea belonging to Spain. Its name derives from its size, contrasting it with nearby Majorca. This small place has seen some wars and some fallen heroes too. 

Away, the memorial in a Bedfordshire church bristles with outrage: "To the perpetual Disgrace of Public Justice," it claims of the man it commemorates, an Admiral executed on the quarterdeck of his ship 250 years ago on 14th March,  for failing to engage the French in battle with sufficient enthusiasm. He was, it adds, "a Martyr to Political Persecution...when Bravery and Loyalty were Insufficient Securities for the Life and Honour of a Naval Officer." Or, as Voltaire put it more coolly and cynically in his contemporary novel Candide: "In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others."  Guardian reports that this year, people gathered at the church in Southill, Beds,  at noon, the time of that admiral’s execution, to lay a wreath and say prayers, with the bell tolling 52 times in commemoration of his age, descendants of the unfortunate admiral who have petitioned the government for a posthumous pardon were aware that their request was unlikely to be granted.

Media reports suggested quoting a spokesman for the Ministry of Defence that the admiral could not receive the sort of pardon that ministers granted last year to men shot at dawn during the first world war - basically because there is no one alive who remembers him. The MoD said there had been specific reasons for the first world war victims to be pardoned: "There are people alive who knew them. There was a feeling that a wrong had been done. It was a personal matter rather than something lost in the mist of time." The naval admiral  episode, however was to be accepted past history and a pardon would set a precedent.  But descendant called it a shameful end for an admiral with an unblemished career. "His court martial was a sham, with false testimonies, witness intimidation and intrigue - all to cover up the failure of the government."

The man - Byng, a career naval officer, certainly appears to have been stitched up. He was sent with an inadequate fleet in May 1756 to prevent the capture of the British garrison at St Philip's Castle on the island of Menorca after a French invasion. The admiral made it clear that he believed he did not have enough ships or men, but was denied reinforcements. When a French fleet hove into view, they were half-heartedly engaged but then allowed to escape and Byng eventually set sail back to Gibraltar without relieving the fort.

The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, when it was captured during the War of the Spanish Succession. On the approach of the Seven Years' War, it was threatened by a French naval attack from Toulon, and was invaded in 1756. Admiral John Byng  was serving in the Channel at the time and was ordered to the Mediterranean to relieve the British garrison of Fort St Philip, at Port Mahon. Despite his protests, he was not given enough money or time to prepare the expedition properly. His fleet was delayed in Portsmouth for five days while additional crew were found. His correspondence shows that he left prepared for failure, that he did not believe that the garrison could hold out against the French force, and that he was already resolved to come back from Minorca if he found that the task presented any great difficulty.  In the battle of Minorca, neither side lost a ship in the engagement, and casualties were roughly even, with 43 British sailors killed and 168 wounded, against French losses of 38 killed and 175 wounded.

Admiral John Byng (1704 – 1757) was a Royal Navy officer. After joining the navy at the age of thirteen, he participated at the Battle of Cape Passaro in 1718. Over the next thirty years he built up a reputation as a solid naval officer and received promotion to vice-admiral in 1747. He was a Member of Parliament from 1751 until his death.

At the battle of Minorca, he called a council of his captains at which he suggested that Minorca was effectively lost and that the best course would be to return to Gibraltar to repair the fleet. The council concurred, and the fleet set sail for Gibraltar, However, before his fleet could return to sea, another ship arrived from England with further instructions, relieving Byng of his command and ordering him to return home. On arrival in England he was placed in custody.  He was to be court-martialled and found guilty of failing to "do his utmost" to prevent Minorca falling to the French. He was sentenced to death and, after his plea for clemency was denied, was shot dead by a firing squad on 14 March 1757.

First Lord of the Admiralty Richard Grenville-Temple was granted an audience with the King to request clemency, but this was refused in an angry exchange. Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder was aware that the Admiralty was at least partly to blame for the loss at Minorca due to the poor manning and repair of the fleet. Lord Newcastle, the politician responsible, had by now joined the Prime Minister in an uneasy political coalition and this made it difficult for Pitt to contest the court martial verdict as strongly as he would have liked. He did, however, petition the King to commute the death sentence. The appeal was refused; Pitt and King George II were political opponents, with Pitt having pressed for George to relinquish his hereditary position of Elector of Hanover as being a conflict of interest with the government's policies in Europe. The King did not exercise his prerogative to grant clemency. Following the court martial and pronouncement of sentence, Admiral Byng had been detained aboard HMS Monarch in the Solent and, on 14 March 1757, he was taken to the quarterdeck for execution in the presence of all hands and men from other ships of the fleet in boats surrounding Monarch. The admiral knelt on a cushion and signified his readiness by dropping his handkerchief, whereupon a squad of Royal Marines shot John Byng dead.

~ and the spark for a search on this shooting down of Admiral was an oneliner that was read in BBC today on ‘Gambling Vs Insurance’ which said, the  patrons of UK, bet, for example, on whether Admiral John Byng would be shot for his incompetence in a naval battle with the French. He was.

Interesting ! with more than tinge of sadness !!

With regards – S. Sampathkumar

20th Mar 2017.

Biblio : theguardian; bbc and Wikipedia.

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