THE only known medal belonging to the DurhamLightInfantry’s first Victoria Cross winner is to feature in the new exhibition, Courage, Comrades, Community, but it is possible that the VC itself has just been dredged out of the River Thames.
There appears to be a 50/50 chance that the VC found by a metal detectorist on the muddy foreshore belongs to Sgt John Byrne, whose bravery during the Crimean War saw him included in the list of the first recipients of Queen Victoria’s new medal.
Byrne was born in County Kilkenny, in Ireland, in 1832, and joined the 68th Regiment of Foot – the forerunner of the DLI – in 1850. He was never a model soldier, and was released in August 1854 from prison, where he’d been languishing for ten months for an unknown offence, so he could sail with the regiment to the Crimea.
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There, at the Battle of Inkerman on November 5, he distinguished himself. The infantrymen were retreating, out of ammunition, when Byrne changed course and ran back towards the enemy guns to rescue a wounded colleague. For this heroism, he was awarded one of the first VCs.
After the Crimea, the 68th was sent to New Zealand where, on June 21, 1864 at the Battle of Te Ranga, Byrne dived into a rifle pit and bayonetted a Maori.
Even with the knife driven through him, the Maori clung to Byrne’s rifle and set at him with a war axe. Sgt John Murray threw himself into the pit, killed or wounded eight Maoris as he hacked his way to rescue Byrne. Rescuer Murray received a VC; the rescued Byrne a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
DLI FORERUNNERS: Officers of the 68th Light Infantry, which became the DLI, in the Crimea on May 11, 1855, when Pte John Byrne, the regiment's first VC winner, was serving. Picture courtesy of Durham County Record Office D/DLI 2/ 1 /299(1)
In 1872, after 21 years’ service, Byrne left the 68th and joined the 2nd North Durham Militia, probably in Gilesgate, as a coloursergeant.
After a couple of months, he was discharged for “insubordination and highly improper conduct”. It would appear that a large quantity of drink had been involved, and the next few years of his life are lost in a haze until he reappeared as a labourer in Newport, south Wales. There, on July 10, 1879, he accused a 19-year-old fellow workman, John Watts, of insulting the VC. Watts claimed he had simply reminded Byrne to put his pipe out, as instructed, but Byrne shot the teenager with a revolver in the shoulder.
With the police chasing him, he returned to his lodgings, where he told his landlady: “I served my Queen and country for 21 years and I’ll never be insulted by a curr puppy.”
When the police arrived to arrest him, he placed the revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 46 years old, and was buried in an unmarked grave – in 1985, Major-General Peter de la Billiere, on behalf of the DLI, unveiled an inscribed headstone over the body of this troubled man who, in modern terms, could have been suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
Although Byrne’s New Zealand Campaign Medal is in the DLI Collection, the whereabouts of his VC is unknown. The only other of the 22 Inkerman VCs which is missing went to Pte John McDermond, of the 47th Regiment of Foot, for rescuing a colonel. Both were awarded on November 5, 1854.
In December 2015, dectorist Tobias Neto discovered a VC bearing that date in the mud of the Thames foreshore.
The Museum of London is currently trying to establish to which of these brave men it belonged.