Saturday, October 22, 2022

Naval justice and the Battle of Toulon

Admiral John Byng, RN
Here in the glass-enclosed newsroom high above Global Military Justice Reform Plaza, there was a frisson of excitement at the following excerpt from an online article about the Battle of Toulon (1744). Under the heading of "aftermath," the article reports:

Tactically, the battle was indecisive, but France and Spain both made significant strategic gains as a result. The escaping Franco-Spanish fleet was able to deliver troops and supplies to the Spanish army in Italy, decisively swinging the war there in their favour. The Spanish admiral Juan José Navarro was created Marquess of Victory after his conduct of the battle. The battle was followed by a French declaration of war on Britain and Hanover in March. In May the French also declared war on Maria Theresa and invaded the Austrian Netherlands, having abandoned their earlier plan to invade Britain.

These were significant consequences, resulting from the failure of the British fleet to bring a decisive action against a foe of inferior number. This was widely remarked on in Britain, leading to the House of Commons petitioning King George II for a public enquiry. This was held, and a dozen captains were tried by court-martial, seven were cashiered for failing to do their "utmost" to engage the enemy and support the already-engaged ships, as required by the Articles of War (two were acquitted, one died before trial). [Rear-Admiral Richard] Lestock was also tried, but was able to place the blame on [Vice-Admiral Thomas] Mathews, and with the help of powerful supporters in government, was acquitted and offered further employment. Mathews was also tried by court-martial in 1746, on charges of having brought the fleet into action in a disorganised manner, of having fled the enemy, and of having failed to bring the enemy to action when the conditions were advantageous. In his defence it was shown that he had fought bravely, but in June 1747 the court judged the charges were proven, and Mathews was cashiered (dismissed from the service).

The judgements were unpopular with the public, with a 1758 history declaring:

The nation could not be persuaded that the vice-admiral ought to be exculpated for not fighting, and the admiral cashiered for fighting.

The court-martial process was hampered by interference from politicians and civilian courts, so in 1749 Parliament amended the 1661 Articles of War to enhance the autonomy of naval courts. It also amended the section that read:

Every Captaine and all other Officers Mariners and Souldiers of every Ship Frigott or Vessell of War that shall in time of any fight or engagement withdraw or keepe backe or not come into the fight and engage and do his utmost to take fire kill and endamage the Enemy Pirate or Rebells and assist and relieve all and every of His Majesties Ships shall for such offence of cowardice or disaffection be tried and suffer paines of death or other punishment as the circumstances of the offence shall deserve and the Court martiall shall judge fitt.

Article XII in the 1749 Articles of War would instead read:

Every Person in the Fleet, who thro’ Cowardice, Negligence or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdrawn, or keep back, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty's Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending and being convicted thereof by the Sentence of a Court Martial, shall suffer Death.

This change would lead to the execution of Admiral [John] Byng in 1757.

1 comment:

  1. Gene

    You have been busy my friend.

    Read with much interest. Thank you.

    October 24, 2022


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