Pour encourager les autres
A recent visit to Southill Park in north Bedfordshire uncovered for me the tragic story of John Byng, Vice Admiral in the British Navy at the time of the Seven Years War 1756-63. Son of a very successful naval commander, John Byng rose through the ranks and led a small fleet to defend Menorca from the French in 1756. A combination of circumstances, including the vital repair of his ships, led him to abandon action and retreat to Gibraltar. Before he could return to the battle zone, he was relieved of his command, shipped back to England
and court-martialled. Though many, including Parliament itself, pleaded clemency from the King, George II did not exercise the royal prerogative of mercy. So, on the quarter deck of HMS Monarch in the Solent, Byng knelt on a cushion awaiting his fate. He indicated his readiness for execution by dropping his handkerchief, a signal for the platoon to open fire.
His execution was the last of his rank to take place in this way, and the Articles of War that condoned his denouement were changed soon afterwards. As recently as 2007, Byng’s descendants sought a posthumous pardon for their ancestor, but it was duly revoked.
His execution was engagingly satirized by Voltaire in Candide when he wrote: Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres (In this country, it’s good to kill an admiral from time to time so as to encourage the others).