John Byng (1704-1757), British admiral, was the fourth son of George Byng, Lord Torrington, and entered the navy in 1718. The powerful influence of his father accounts for his rapid rise in the service. He received his first appointment as lieutenant in 1723, and became captain in 1727. His career presents nothing of note till after his promotion as rear-admiral in 1745, and as vice-admiral in 1747. He served on the most comfortable stations, and avoided the more arduous work of the navy. On the approach of the Seven Years' War the island of Minorca was threatened by an attack from Toulon and was actually invaded in 1756. Byng, who was then serving in the Channel with the rank of admiral, which he attained in 1755, was ordered to the Mediterranean to relieve the garrison of Fort St Philip, which was still holding out. The squadron was not very well manned, and Byng was in particular much aggrieved because his marines were landed to make room for the soldiers who were to reinforce the garrison, and he feared that if he met a French squadron after he had lost them he would be dangerously undermanned.
His correspondence shows clearly that he left prepared for failure, that he did not believe that the garrison could hold out against the French force landed, and that he was already resolved to come back from Minorca if he found that the task presented any great difficulty. He wrote home to that effect to the ministry from Gibraltar. The governor of the fortress refused to spare any of his soldiers to increase the relief for Minorca, and Byng sailed on the 8th of May. On the 19th he was off Minorca, and endeavoured to open communications with the fort. Before he could land any of the soldiers, the French squadron appeared. A battle was fought on the following day. Byng, who had gained the weather gauge, bore down on the French fleet of M. de la Galissonière at an angle, so that his leading ships came into action unsupported by the rest of his line. The French cut the leading ships up, and then slipped away. When the flag captain pointed out to Byng that by standing out of his line he could bring the centre of the enemy to closer action, he declined on the ground that Thomas Mathews had been condemned for so doing. The French, who were equal in number to the English, got away undamaged.
After remaining near Minorca for four days without making any further attempt to communicate with the fort or sighting the French, Byng sailed away to Gibraltar leaving Fort St Philip to its fate. The failure caused a savage outburst of wrath in the country. Byng was brought home, tried by court-martial, condemned to death, and shot on the 14th of March 1757 at Portsmouth. The severity of the penalty, aided by a not unjust suspicion that the ministry sought to cover themselves by throwing all the blame on the admiral, led in after time to a reaction in favour of Byng. It became a commonplace to say that he was put to death for an error of judgment. The court had indeed acquitted him of personal cowardice or of disaffection, and only condemned him for not having done his utmost. But it must be remembered that in consequence of many scandals which had taken place in the previous war the Articles of War had been deliberately revised so as to leave no punishment save death for the officer of any rank who did not do his utmost against the enemy either in battle or pursuit. That Byng had not done all he could is undeniable, and he therefore fell under the law.
Neither must it be forgotten that in the previous war in 1745 an unhappy young lieutenant, Baker Phillips by name, whose captain had brought his ship into action unprepared, and who, when his superior was killed, surrendered the ship when she could no longer be defended, was shot by sentence of a court-martial. This savage punishment was approved by the higher officers of the navy, who showed great lenity to men of their own rank. The contrast had angered the country, and the Articles of War had been amended precisely in order that there might be one law for all.
The facts of Byng's life are fairly set out in Charnock's Biogr. Nav. vol. iv. pp. 145 to 179. The number of contemporary pamphlets about his case is very great, but they are of no historical value, except as illustrating the state of public opinion.