b. 09/1832 Castlecomer, Ireland. d. 10/07/1879 Carleon, Wales.
John Byrne (1832-1879) was born in September 1832 in Castlecomer, Kilkenny, Ireland. He would enlist in the British Army at the age of 18 in 1850 at Coventry, where he had gone in search of work. He enlisted with the 68th Regiment of Foot (later Durham Light Infantry). Byrne’s introduction to Army life was not a smooth and within the first 18 months of service, he had two spells in the glasshouse (military prison) due to his wild, unpredictable nature.
It was the posting to the Crimea which were the making of Byrne’s military career. On the 5th November 1854, at the Battle of Inkerman, Byrne would become the first man from the 68th Regiment of Foot to be awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry. During the midst of the battle, the 68th had been ordered to withdraw under withering enemy fire. On the retreat, Byrne noticed a wounded comrade lying wounded and in the open. Byrne decided, at the risk of his own life, to run back and pick up the man on his back, and carry him to safety. This was not his only act of supreme gallantry as five months later at the Siege of Sebastopol, he fought hand to hand with Russian infantryman thus denying a breach in the British lines of defence.
Byrne would be part of the first group of men to be awarded the newly created Victoria Cross on 24th February 1857. Byrne was unable to attend the first investiture at Hyde Park on 26th June 1857, so his medal was awarded to him on the island of Corfu a month later, on 22nd July 1857 by Major General Sir George Buller.
Byrne then returned to ordinary Army life and struggled to move up the ranks. He made Corporal in 1861, but took five more years to reach his third stripe and become a Sergeant. In 1869, he chose to take a discharge from the Army but within days he had enlisted with the Queen’s County Militia from which he immediately transferred back to the 68th, his old regiment with the same rank of Sergeant. He finally retired from the Army after 21 years of service in 1872.
Little is known about his civilian life following except the tragic circumstances of his death seven years later in Newport, South Wales. On 10th July 1879, Byrne was with a party of men engaged with the ordnance survey, when he failed to turn up at 8am for the group to begin work. He did turn up ten minutes late, and he immediately pulled out a revolver from his pocket, and pointed it at a young man called Watts and shot him in the right shoulder.
Byrne then calmly walked away, and Watts (who had a flesh wound) was able to walk home. The police were summoned and PC Garth and PC Conway arrived and head for 7, Crown Street, where a large crowd had gathered outside, and Byrne was inside. The officers went to the door where they were met by Byrne and his revolver. He told them everything was fine and that he would come out at 3pm not before.
Inspector Sheppard arrived at 2pm and with the two officers, decided to enter the house. As soon as they broke in, they heard a shot, and Byrne dead from a gunshot wound to the head. At the later inquest, it was stated that Watts had insulted the VC holder whilst out on the town drinking the night before the incident. The result of the inquest was a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind. The inquest into Byrne’s death, following his suicide inside the Crown Inn, in Newport, in July 1879, heard that he had probably imagined the insult.
Watts denied making the insult and told the Coroner he had simply advised Byrne to put out his pipe while on parade, as the men had previously been instructed by their commanding officer. But Byrne clearly interpreted this as grave slight. His landlady, Eliza Morgan, told the inquest how, on returning to her lodging house, he slammed the table in fury, saying: “I served my Queen and country for 21 years and I’ll never be insulted by a curr puppy.” She said Byrne then stormed out, declaring that Watts “isn’t fit to black my boots”.
A few hours later Byrne – having shot Watts – found himself holed up at the Crown Inn, where he told the landlord, Salter Davy, that he had shot the youth “by accident”.
Mr Davy tried to persuade Byrne to give himself up, but – confronted by a local Sergeant – the soldier, his back to the fireplace, took his gun, put the barrel into his mouth and pulled the trigger. Byrne was buried in St Woolas Cemetery, Newport, and a new headstone was installed by the Durham Light Infantry in November 1985. His medals are not publicly held.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: ST WOOLOS CEMETERY, NEWPORT, WALES. RC SECTION, BLOCK 14, E15
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Durham Light Infantry Memorial.