‘The Shooting of Admiral Byng on board the Monarque.’ The rights and wrongs of the matter have been disputed ever since, but Byng was not a political victim and Voltaire’s comment that he was shot `to encourage the others’ probably hit the nail on the head.
France needed to preserve Canada not only for itself but also in order not to present in Europe an appearance of weakness that would attract predators; like all states on the European continent, France was vulnerable to attack. To preserve Canada, however, France had no choice but to find an equivalent to exchange for whatever parts of Canada Britain might take. There were three possibilities. France could try to repeat the triumphs of the previous war by attacking the Austrian Netherlands. Although some members of the Royal Council of State advocated such an attack, Louis XV’s memory of the long and expensive war apparently was too fresh; moreover, the great Saxe had died in 1750 and no one could really replace him. A second possibility was seizing the British island of Minorca with its magnificent harbor, the best in the western Mediterranean. This was worth trying, but it might not be enough to force the British to make peace. The best chance of an acceptable peace was through the third possibility, the capture of George II’s beloved German electorate, Hanover, whose inhabitants wanted desperately to remain neutral in case of another British-French war. Louis XV delayed making a decision until after France invaded Minorca. He also delayed negotiating a renewal of France’s fifteen-year alliance with Prussia, due to expire in June 1756. Unless Prussia was willing to help France attack Hanover, the French dared not act without Austrian approval, as the Austrian Netherlands was dangerously close to the French invasion route into Germany. France needed the help of one of the two great German powers in order to avoid raising the opposition of the smaller states of the Holy Roman Empire. Obtaining the approval of Maria Theresa of Austria, however, was likely to depend on France’s cooperating with an Austrian invasion of Prussian Silesia. It is hardly surprising that Louis wished to delay making the momentous choice between Austria and Prussia until after France tried to capture Minorca.
Newcastle, unsuccessful in reaching agreement with Austria for the defense of the Austrian Netherlands and under great pressure from George II to protect Hanover, now made a series of mistakes. He first arranged to hire Russian troops, as Britain and the Netherlands had done during the previous war. On 30 September his ambassador in St. Petersburg signed a treaty by which Britain would pay Russia to provide 55,000 troops to defend Hanover, although it was not specified against whom. Not content with the treaty, Newcastle leaked news of it to Frederick II of Prussia, who was terrified of Russia. Newcastle suggested to him that their countries should guarantee the Holy Roman Empire against invasion. Contemptuously disregarding his existing alliance with France, Frederick agreed to this; rather than helping France capture Hanover, he agreed to help Britain defend it. Frederick also insisted that the treaty be modified so as to exclude the Austrian Netherlands, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire but not Germany. He was willing to see France attack it as long as he did not have to help. The British- Prussian agreement was signed at Westminster in January 1756.
Empress (Czarina) Elizabeth of Russia was outraged at what she regarded as a betrayal by the British, whom she had believed wished protection for Hanover from Prussian attack. Maria Theresa also felt betrayed because of the exclusion of the Austrian Netherlands. In April the two empresses, already allies, began preparing a joint attack on Prussia. France, betrayed by Prussia, dropped plans for renewing their alliance and began serious negotiations with Austria for an alliance that would permit France to attack Hanover.
First, however, France made a final effort to end the war. While the French army assembled 70,000 troops along its Atlantic coast to threaten an invasion of England, the court collected 15,000 troops to invade Minorca. This required fifty transports and 130 supply ships, as well as an escort of a dozen ships of the line. The naval force was under the command of Roland-Michel Barin, marquis de la Galissonniere, the former acting governor general of New France whose alarmist reports had greatly influenced Rouillé. The convoy and its escort sailed from Toulon on 12 April. The troops landed on Minorca a week later. They met little resistance, as the British retreated to the great fortress of Fort St. Philip with its 600 cannon protecting the splendid harbor of Port Mahon. In the harbor were a British 58-gun ship of the line and two 50’s; these managed to escape. Although the fort’s garrison was only 3,000 men, the siege seemed likely to be lengthy, and help from England already was on the way.
On 6 April a squadron commanded by Admiral John Byng (son of the victor of the Battle of Cape Passaro) sailed from Portsmouth for the Mediterranean. The French had bluffed Anson and his colleagues in the inner cabinet into sending only ten ships of the line, however, and the British ships were short of crewmen. After a brief stop at Gibraltar, Byng sailed to Minorca where he found his way blocked by La Galissonniere’s squadron. On 20 May Byng, reinforced by the three ships of the line that had escaped from Port Mahon, approached from windward in order to attack the French squadron.
Coordinating an attack at sea was even more difficult than coordinating an attack on land, and Byng failed to explain his plans adequately to the captains of the ships in his squadron. As his thirteen ships of the line approached La Galissonniere’s waiting dozen ships of the line, the British ships at the head of the line came under heavy fire. The Intrepid, the sixth ship in the line, was badly damaged and dropped out of position. The ship behind her, the Revenge, failed to close the gap, and she and the ships behind her did not seriously engage in the battle. Although casualties in the two squadrons were approximately equal and the French squadron was forced to give way, Byng’s squadron, with two ships seriously damaged, was unable to pursue; the French apparently had concentrated their fire on masts, sails, and spars to disable pursuit in case of defeat while the British had concentrated on French hulls, gun batteries, and crews. (This, however, may have been at least partly a result of the French fleet’s inaccurate firing at long distance, while the approaching British waited to fire until they were alongside the French.) Byng, a chronic pessimist, declined risking another battle and retreated to Gibraltar to repair his ships, leaving Fort St. Philip under siege. On the night of 27-28 June a surprise attack breached the fort’s outer defenses. The aged British commander, despairing of assistance, decided to surrender.
The French capture of Minorca did not cause the British to make peace. The English public was outraged rather than despondent at the news. To appease it, Newcastle made Byng the scapegoat for the inner cabinet’s failure to send enough ships, manufactured evidence against him, and had him court-martialed. He was sentenced to death and, after the king declined to pardon him, he was executed.
The Newcastle government soon suffered another setback. In April 1756 the French sent 1,000 more regulars and 1,000 recruits to Quebec aboard three ships of the line and three frigates. Aboard the squadron was a new commander for the French army contingent in Canada, Maréchal de camp (Brigadier General) Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm de St. Véran. Like his predecessor, he was placed under the command of a naval officer, Lieutenant General of the Fleet Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnol, marquis de Vaudreuil, who had replaced Duquesne as governor general of New France the previous year.
Vaudreuil had spent many years in Canada and Louisiana, and he had a matchless grasp of the best strategy for the unique conditions of North America. His strategy was to divert British forces by assisting his Indian allies to attack the frontier and to disrupt any British offensive by attacking their assembly points before they could mobilize their forces. He could do so because the American provincial regiments who served alongside British regulars were disbanded at the end of each campaigning season and had to be recruited again the following year, making mobilization very slow. Vaudreuil’s strategy had been only partly successful in 1755 because the attack on the British army at Lake George had been mishandled. The attack in 1756, although risky, was more successful. Vaudreuil sent Montcalm with a mixed force of 3,000 regular troops, marines, Canadian militia, and Indians to attack Oswego. Proceeding by night in small boats to avoid the British fleet on Lake Ontario, Montcalm reached Oswego undetected and soon captured the 1,500-man garrison. He destroyed the post and then returned to Canada so his militia could attend to the harvest.