Anybody who has been reading war fiction or military history — or, to a lesser extent, crime fiction — likely has seen expressions like:
“A few of the mutineers were shot pour encourager les autres.”
“As executing all those who had refused the order to attack would have been impossible, a few of the ringleaders were made an example of, to encourage the others.”
The meaning of the expression is obvious from context. But the other day I stumbled onto its exact origins.
To cut a long story short: during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), an admiral named John Byng was ordered to relieve the besieged British garrison on the island of Minorca. He sailed in a hastily assembled fleet of ramshackle vessels, then after an inconclusive sea battle with the French returned to Gibraltar — probably figuring that, if he pressed on, he’d sacrifice his men for no tangible result.
Byng’s execution was satirised by Voltaire in his novel Candide. In Portsmouth, Candide witnesses the execution of an officer by firing squad and is told that “in this country, it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, in order to encourage the others” (Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres).
As a postscript, this blatant error juris (miscarriage of justice) eventually, 22 years later, prompted a revision of Article 12 to allow for alternative punishments such as the court-martial deems appropriate in view of the details and circumstances.
But Voltaire’s idiom is with us to this day, even as its origins have gotten somewhat lost in the mists of time.