Monday, March 14, 2011

Admiral John Byng

John Byng was executed on March 14, 1757.  His crime of failing to defeat a French fleet he encountered during the Battle of Minorca (1756) ended a distinguished career, and the loss of Minorca probably contributed to hi being court-marshalled.  Byng figured in an earlier encounter with the French (1708) which Walter Scott reports on in his "Tales of a Grandfather".  The venue was more local - the Frith of Forth.  The French got away in this encounter, too, but an attempt to land James Francis Edward Stewart failed, and a potential Jacobite rising subsided.

'...They sailed accordingly on 17th March from the road of Dunkirk; and now not a little depended on the accidental circumstance of wind and tide, as these should be favourable to the French or English fleets. The elements were adverse to the French. They had no sooner left Dunkirk road than the wind became contrary, and the squadron was driven into the roadstead called Newport-pits, from which place they could not stir for the space of two days, when, the wind again changing, they set sail for Scotland with a favourable breeze. The Comte de Forbin and his squadron arrived in the entrance of the Frith of Forth, sailed as high up as the point of Crail, on the coast of Fife, and dropped anchor there, with the purpose of running up the Frith as far as the vicinity of Edinburgh on the next day, and there disembarking the Chevalier de St. George, Marechal Matignon, and his troops. In the mean time, they showed signals, fired guns, and endeavoured to call the attention of their friends, whom they expected to welcome them ashore.


None of these signals were returned from the land; but they were answered from the sea in a manner as unexpected as it was unpleasing. The report of five cannon, heard in the direction of the mouth of the Frith, gave notice of the approach of Sir John Byng and the English fleet, which had sailed the instant their admiral learned that the Comte de Forbin had put to sea: and though the French had considerably the start of them, the British admiral contrived to enter the Frith immediately after the French squadron.


The dawn of morning showed the far superior force of the English fleet advancing up the Frith, and threatening to intercept the French squadron in the narrow inlet of the sea into which they had ventured. The Chevalier de St. George and his attendants demanded to be put on board a smaller vessel than that commanded by Mons. de Forbin, with the purpose of disembarking at the ancient castle of Wemyss, on the Fife coast, belonging to the earl of the same name, a constant adherent of the Stewart family. This was at once the wisest and most manly course which he could have followed. But the son of James II was doomed to learn, how little free will can be exercised by the prince who has placed himself under the protection of a powerful auxiliary. Mons. de Forbin, after evading his request for some time, at length decidedly said to him,—" Sire, by the orders of my royal master, I am directed to take the same precautions for the safety of your august person as for his Majesty's own. This must be my chief care. You are at present in safety, and I will never consent to your being exposed in a ruinous chateau, in an open country, where a few hours might put you in the hands of your enemies.  I am intrusted with your person; am answerable for your safety with my head; I beseech you, therefore, to repose your confidence in me entirely, and to listen to no one else. All those who dare give you advice different from mine, are either traitors or cowards." Having thus settled the Chevalier's doubts in a manner savouring something of the roughness of his profession, the Comte de Forbin bore down on the English admiral, as if determined to fight his way through the fleet. But as Sir George Byng made signal for collecting his ships to meet the enemy, the Frenchman went off on another tack, and, taking advantage of the manoeuvre to avoid the English admiral, steered for the mouth of the Frith. The English ships having been long at sea, were rather heavy sailers, while those of Forbin had been carefully selected and careen'd for this particular service. The pursuit of Byng was therefore in vain, excepting that the Elizabeth, a slow-sailing vessel of the French fleet, fell into his hands...'

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