John Byng (1704–57) was a Vice-Admiral in the Royal Navy. He is best known for the loss of Minorca to the French at the Battle of Minorca, marking the start of the Seven Years War in 1756.
Battle of Minorca
In 1756, a fleet under Byng's command sailed for the Mediterranean to support British forces in Minorca. On arrival, Byng found the garrison at Port Mahon besieged by French forces. After an indecisive action with the French fleet covering their invasion, Byng returned to Gibraltar. The fortress at Port Mahon surrendered to the French a month later and the island was lost.
On his return to England, Byng was arrested and tried by court martial under the provisions of the 12th Article of War: ‘Every person in the fleet, who through cowardice, negligence or disaffection... shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage; every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof by the sentence of a court-martial, shall suffer death’.
Death by firing squad
Byng was sentenced to death, but with a strong recommendation for clemency. However, hostile public opinion and the bitter atmosphere of the politics of the time, combined with the personal oppostion of George II to grant a royal pardon, meant this did not happen. Byng went bravely to his execution by firing squad on the quarterdeck of his flagship Monarch. The French Satirist Voltaire famously wrote shortly afterwards that 'in England it is thought good occassionally to shoot an admiral to encourage the others': but it has not happened again.