George Byng, Viscount Torrington was born in 1663. After school education he headed straight for the Royal Navy to make his name as a sailor. Having a nose for politics, he made himself agreeable to William of Orange (q.v.) and quickly became an Admiral.
George Byng’s most prominent successes as a sailor took place during the Wars of the Spanish Succession (q.v.), especially in 1718 at Cape Passaro, where the fleet he commanded managed the extraordinary feat of sinking an entire enemy squadron which had had the intention of making a landfall in Sicily prior to an invasion.
After retirement he lived quietly until his death in 1733 at the age of seventy. He was lucky to avoid the humiliating fate of his son John.
John Byng was born in 1704 when his father the admiral was forty-one. Though he did not do particularly well as a midshipman, and stayed perhaps too long in that junior rank, he did eventually manage to rise in the Royal Navy, no doubt helped by his distinguished parent.
Sadly, he was sent with a woefully inadequate fleet to save Minorca in 1756 when he was a somewhat long-in-the-tooth Rear-Admiral. It was the French fleet which was at that moment putting Minorca under siege; and another French fleet was attacking Gibraltar at the same time.
Poor inexperienced John Byng failed to emulate his infinitely more distinguished father. He did not drive the French away from Minorca, which was then a British possession. In fact he lost the island. Then he went on to Gibraltar where he failed again to remove the French nuisance from The Rock.
John Byng subsequently sailed back to London where he reported his failure, a report added to by most of his junior officers, none of whom held high opinions of George Byng’s son. He found himself in a Court Martial, much to the shame of his family. He was accused successfully of negligence, and sentenced (it was Time of War) to death. In this way the government of the day found a useful scapegoat for their own intolerable negligence in sending an inexperienced seaman with a ridiculously small fleet to attack not one but two fleets that were not only French, but much larger. John Byng was shot on board his own flagship. The French wit Voltaire was prompted to remark that in England ‘they like to shoot an admiral from time to time to encourage the others’. The italicised phrase (in the original French) has found its way into one of the most quotable quotes in the English language.
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