In March 2007, Iranian gunboats seized a party of Royal Navy sailors and marines from HMS Cornwall in disputed waters off the coast of Iraq. The ease of their capture, the lack of any resistance and the subsequent behaviour of the British personnel caused a furore in Great Britain and severely damaged the reputation of the Royal Navy.
Foundations Of Empire
The action echoes an event in history which similarly embarrassed the country and led to the execution of an admiral. But in so doing, the foundations for the largest empire the world had ever seen were laid, a navy was galvanised and the French writer Voltaire was moved to write in the novel Candide, 'it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others' (il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).
1756 saw the start of the Seven Years War (1756-63) between France and Great Britain. Both countries were rapidly expanding with colonies throughout the world and the rivalry escalated into full-blown war. Key to the success of any overseas venture was the dominance of the navy. In modern parlance, a strong navy allowed projection of force and protected the lightly-armed merchant ships as they plied their trade between far-flung colonies. Both France and Britain funded their navies lavishly and placed their hopes of Empire firmly in the hands of the admirals.
A Crucial Moment In History
Early in 1756, the French invaded the island of Menorca in the Mediterranean, a British possession since 1706. The Fort of St Philip held out against the French, but reinforcements were urgently needed. Admiral John Byng, former Commodore-Governor of Newfoundland was dispatched with a fleet of ten ships to relieve the siege and return the island to British control. Highly regarded within the Royal Navy as a bright and capable officer, Byng was also a member of the House of Lords. His fleet carried soldiers to reinforce the garrison, but the usual complement of Royal Marines had to stay behind to make room for them. Byng was deeply unhappy about this as it meant that, once the soldiers were offloaded to the fort at St Philip, his ships would be undermanned and vulnerable to attack.
In May 1756, Byng arrived off the coast of Menorca where he found a French fleet of 13 ships lying in wait. Battle was joined the next day, but was characterised by a reluctance in the British to fully engage the enemy. Byng's fleet manoeuvred energetically, but took more damage than it inflicted. However, it was enough to chase off the French fleet. It was at this point that Byng made his fatal mistake. Mindful that the French might still be nearby, he refused to land the soldiers to relieve the fort of St Philip. He sailed around the island for four days, then set course for Gibraltar to repair his damaged ships. No sooner had he left the area than the French returned and took the fort and control of the Island.
An Example Must Be Made
The news was met with fury in London. The government decided that action had to be taken. In an example of political spin which would be admired today, stories of Admiral Byng's cowardice were leaked to the press and agitators paid to stir up public resentment in markets and towns throughout the country. When Byng was arrested at Gibraltar and escorted back to Britain, he was not unduly perturbed. The Admiralty fully supported him and he had powerful friends in the House of Lords.
At his trial, despite the public opprobrium directed his way, Byng was relaxed and confident. Indeed, on the day he was due to be sentenced, he ordered a hackney carriage in advance to collect him at the end of the day.
He had reason to be confident. There was a certain tradition within the Royal Navy of blame being apportioned to lower officers. Justice was administered by admirals, not to admirals. Even a recent change to the Articles of War, making officers responsible for their actions, was not seen as applying to senior officers. Besides which, it was felt that he hadn't actually done anything wrong. Certainly he had failed in his mission, but he had acted within his orders throughout. The failure was down to the things he didn't do and that was something there would always be excuses for.
The court viewed things differently. At his trial it was charged that he did not do his utmost, a charge that carried the death penalty under the Articles of War. He was found guilty and executed by firing squad on the deck of HMS Monarch on the 14 March, 1757.
A Navy Invigorated
The effect on the Royal Navy was electric. It led captains and admirals to understand that it was no longer enough to blindly follow orders to the letter, but to execute the spirit implicit in the orders as well. It gave the Admiralty carte blanche to instruct officers to carry out a mission without necessarily giving step-by-step instructions. This was important when a ship's captain might find himself months away from Britain and faced with a situation requiring immediate action. An entire generation of naval officers developed the principles of 'manoeuvre warfare' at sea, acting decisively and immediately to take advantage of any opportunity that presented itself. Concurrent with the free hand they had been given, it was also understood that the price of not doing enough was severe.
It also had an effect on Britain's seafaring rivals. Royal Navy ships would attack an enemy on sight and press home the attack with the desperation of men who knew they could not afford to fail. Faced with a British ship, an enemy commander knew he was going to be attacked and he also knew he was likely to be beaten. Thus the Royal Navy developed a psychological ascendancy over its enemies in the latter half of the 18th Century. Little wonder that the greatest exponent of aggressive naval warfare, Admiral Lord Nelson approached the combined Spanish and French fleets at Trafalgar on the 21 October, 1805 confident of victory. When he famously signalled 'England expects every man to do his duty', he did so knowing this was backed with the threat of ignominious execution, not only for the men in his fleet, but also for himself.
In 2007, Admiral Byng's descendants petitioned the Ministry of Defence for a posthumous pardon. It was refused. In refusing the pardon, the MOD reinforced the ethos that a Naval Officer is expected to do everything humanly possible to execute his mission. The Commander of HMS Cornwall must be nervously awaiting a call from the Admiralty.