The expression “Pour encourager les autres' is a well known quote from Voltaire’s Candide. The full quote is "dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres" - in this country (England), it is good, to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others'). It refers to the fate of Admiral John Byng who was executed in 1757.
Last Wednesday marked the 250th anniversary of Admiral Byng’s execution for failing to "do his utmost" during the Battle of Menorca at the start of the Seven Years’ War. There is a memorial to him in a church in Southill, Bedfordshire which sums up his fate quite well “To the perpetual Disgrace of Public Justice... a Martyr to Political Persecution...when Bravery and Loyalty were Insufficient Securities for the Life and Honour of a Naval Officer”
Thursday’s Guardian reported that descendants of the admiral had petitioned the government for a posthumous pardon. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said Byng could not receive the sort of pardon that ministers granted last year to men executed during the first world. "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." A spokesman said,
But descendant Sarah Saunders-Davies from Romsey, Hampshire, 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."
John Byng (1704-1757) had been tasked with preventing the capture of the British garrison on Menorca after a French invasion (Menorca had fallen into British hands along with Gibraltar during the War of the Spanish Succession. The admiral made it clear that he believed he did not have enough ships or men to perform his task , but was denied reinforcements. When a French fleet hove into view, they were half-heartedly engaged but then allowed to escape. Byng eventually set sail back to Gibraltar without relieving the fort.
He may have been unfortunate that the French commander's jubilant account of the battle reached London before his own report did and the government, privately ashamed it had underestimated the threat to the island, determined to make its admiral a scapegoat. It released an edited version of Byng's dispatch to inflame the public against him then had him arrested, brought back to England and put before a court martial at Greenwich.
The government had recently altered the articles of war to ensure officers could not evade responsibility for their actions through the pulling of strings. The only punishment for dereliction of duty was death. On March 14 1757, despite appeals from the court martial - two vice-admirals refused to sign the sentence - Byng was led on to the quarterdeck of his flagship, the Monarque and was shot by an execution party of Marines. In the words of the Newgate Calendar: “Thus fell, to the astonishment of all Europe, Admiral John Byng; who, whatever his errors and indiscretions might have been, was at least rashly condemned, meanly given up, and cruelly sacrificed to vile political intrigues.”
No Royal Navy admiral has been executed since. Given the time that has passed it is rather too late to grant him a pardon now.