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Devon County

Devonshire Rgt.

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Thomas Arthur VC

The only known photograph of Thomas with 

his Victoria Cross

Many accounts tell us that Thomas Arthur had other surnames but the most reliable suggestion comes from the then Vicar of Abbotsham who believed his surname and that of the remainder of his family, to be ARTHURS. The final 's' seems to have disappeared from use.


The awarding of honours to men in the ranks was a new departure at the time of the Crimean War because it was believed that acts of bravery from the ranks came only from the leadership of officers so it was they who received the great honours our country has to bestow. So when Queen Victoria ( wearing a red jacket and a black skirt and accompanied by Prince Albert we are told) presented medals to her troops  in Hyde Park, it was quite a momentous occasion in British military history. Of the 62 VCs her Majesty named for the presentation, only 22 medals were to go to officers. From this time on, British foot soldiers were to have their brave deeds recognised properly and Thomas Arthur was to be rewarded for not one but two such acts of heroism. 


The suggestion that there needed to be such awards came from a War Correspondent of the Times who was actually present on the battlefield and wrote reports detailing what he had witnessed. Back home his reports were read with huge interest and  a public clamour began for some means of  honouring the men, not for their rank, but for their courage on the field of battle.


The decision not to use a valuable metal to make such a medal was quite deliberate - it was thought that no man should be encouraged to do a reckless deed in the hope of winning something he could sell after a battle, so one of the guns captured in the Crimean war was sent back to the UK to be used as gunmetal. For years the tale of this gun has been told but  in modern times its metal was analysed and discovered to be of Chinese origin - in other words, it was a gun captured but not made by the Russians from  whom we had captured it. It is believed today that there is only enough metal left to make another 80 Crosses. In spite of its intrinsic lack of value, a Victoria Cross, sold with its history, at auction, can be expected to make a minimum of a quarter of a million pounds.  Thomas Arthur's medal was sold by his family shortly after his death in 1902 and realised just over £40 - today a very generous sum which would have meant that his family would never starve. It is now in the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich.


Slab inserted in the grass to commemorate  Gunner Thomas Arthur
In Abbotsham, Thomas is commemorated on a tiny stone set in the grass alongside the War Memorial. The parish had a quandary when they set about commemorating him as he did not die in Devon but in Savernake, Wiltshire, where he had lived happily  since leaving the army in 1874. 



From the London Gazette, 24 February 1857:


"When in charge of the magazine in one of the left advanced batteries  of the Right Attack on the 7th of June 1855, when the Quarries were taken, he, of his own accord, carried barrels of Infantry ammunition for the 7th Fusiliers several times during the evening across the open. 

Volunteered for  and formed one of the spiking party* at the Assault on the Redan on the 18th June 1855.

*A commando-type task in which a small select group spiked the guns of the enemy by attempting to wreck the fittings on the gun cariages  which in the battle would be used to move heavy guns onto the battlefield, rendering them immobile and useless - a dangerous and difficult task. 


And was the British Army grateful to Gunner Arthur for his displays of initiative and courage?


Sadly, the answer is a flat "no". The day after his citation was published in February 1857, he was absent without leave just for 24 hours, possibly having celebrated a little too heartily. A Regimental Court Martial sentenced him to 28 days  imprisonment which he served from 21 May to 17 June 1857 in Weedon Military Prison, Northamptonshire.


He remained in the army until 1874, retiring in India before returning home to Bideford very briefly. For his years in the army he received 1 shilling and threepence farthing per day on which he brought up a family of four. It is not known if the Queen awarded him a small pension at the end of his service, something which occasionally occurred.



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