Origin of the expression “to encourage the others” (pour encourager les autres)

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.”

or

“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.

He was court-martialed, found guilty of “failing to do his utmost” (Articles of War 12), and sentenced to death — under Article 12, as written, the court could not reach another outcome. As the court-martial were clearly troubled by this, they unanimously recommended that King George II should exercise his royal prerogative of clemency.
Several senior politicians, including Prime Minister William Pitt the Elder, were also willing to intercede for Byng, as they (rightly) suspected he was being made a scapegoat for the appalling state of readiness of his fleet.
Unfortunately for Byng, he had three factors working against him:
(a) as junior officers had been sentenced to death and executed for similarly not doing the impossible with defective means, there was pressure on the court martial to apply the law with the same severity to senior officers.
(b) King George II (grandfather of “Mad King George” III from whom the American colonists declared independence) clearly placed a great premium on personal bravery: he was, in fact, the last British monarch to personally lead his troops in battle (at the 1743 Battle of Dettingen).
(c) There was bad blood between George II and Pitt, who had pressured the king to relinquish his hereditary position as Duke and Prince-Elector (Kurfürst) of Hannover as it created a conflict of interest.
In the end, George II denied clemency, and Admiral Byng was executed by a firing squad aboard a ship at Portsmouth harbor.

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).[26]

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.

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