The distinct shape of the Victoria Cross makes it an award that is easily recognised as Britain’s supreme gallantry award. Originally the colour of the medal ribbon depended on which service the recipient served in, with red ribbons for the army and blue for the navy. Prior to its inception there were a small number of medals with a similar shaped cross, awarded at the behest of Queen Victoria for acts of bravery. One of these was awarded to a certain Private Charles Byrne who suffered terrible injuries in the early part of the Crimean War and afterwards went to live in Kingsteignton with his daughter and her family. It has been suggested that his chance meeting with Queen Victoria in 1855 played a part in the eventual introduction of the Victoria Cross. To appreciate his connection with the award one needs to understand how it came to be instituted in the first place.
The graphic accounts of the suffering of servicemen through injury and disease that were sent back to Britain by war correspondents, such as William H Russell of The Times, inspired the likes of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole to set off for the Crimea to nurse the sick and wounded. Such news also stirred up the public who wanted to see some acknowledgement for the soldiers suffering. For years senior officers could aspire to membership of the Order of The Bath, whilst junior officers might hope of a promotion. In some quarters it was still considered that acts of bravery by common soldiers were little more than what was expected of them and thus were only entitled to campaign medals. Such medals were awarded whether any act of bravery was involved or not. Whilst politicians deliberated about an award for supreme gallantry which covered all ranks and classes, casualties mounted. The pressure for some medal to recognise the contribution of lower ranks saw the introduction of The Distinguished Conduct Medal for Sergeants and lower ranks towards the end of 1854. The navy duly followed suit with the Conspicuous Gallantry medal for petty officers and seamen, but still there was no award which included all ranks and classes largely due to the slow winding bureaucracy of government. Lord Newcastle, the Secretary of State for War, favoured the idea of an award for all ranks and found support from Prince Albert. When the award was finally agreed and instituted in January 1856, the Crimean War had ended.
Prince Albert is said to have gained the support of his wife for the scheme following a visit she made to Netley Hospital near Southampton in 1855. It was there that she met Private Charles Byrne who had been involved in an attack on the Redan. She was so moved by the scale of his wounds that she ordered the bullet that had been taken out of his throat, be set in a silver cross to form a medal to be presented to him. Private Byrne’s story was told many years later by Dr John Ley, former Medical Officer of Health for the Newton Abbot Rural District, in his book “From Youth Onwards”
Dr Ley described how soon after he had come to the area he had visited an elderly blind man who was living with his daughter and son-in-law in Kingsteignton. Unfortunately, Dr Ley could not remember the man’s name, only that his son-in-law was a gardener named Locke. Thus, for readers of his book, the identity of the recipient of the “Silver VC” remained a mystery for several years. Fortunately, since Dr Ley penned his memoirs the identity of this brave soldier has been confirmed as Private Charles Byrne of the 34th Regiment of Foot. The Western Morning News covered the story in July 1952 together with a photograph of the medal.
According to Dr Ley, the medal was in the shape of the Victoria Cross and Byrne had in his possession a newspaper account, which he had pasted in a scrapbook. The report described the Queen’s visit and her conversation with him, and also stated that only three of these crosses were ever awarded.
After the first unsuccessful attack on the Redan, Byrne was found lying between the great Redoubt and the trenches, clutching the throat of a dead Circassian. It appeared that before he had throttled the Circassian, the latter had managed to stab him in the forearm with his sword, which was still embedded in his arm. In addition to this injury he had been blinded having been shot sideways through both eyes. A great part of his lower jaw had been shot away, and he had numerous stab wounds in his chest. When discovered he was insensible and had no recollection of how he received his wounds. It was generally thought that the bullet wounds had been caused by other Circassians coming out of the Redoubt to finish off the wounded after the first attack was repulsed. Dr Ley remarked that he had never seen a man “who had been so knocked about”.
With such severe injuries, Private Byrne spent several weeks in the field hospital before being returned home to Britain to be nursed at Netley Hospital where was to meet Queen Victoria. His medal was for many years in the possession of his family but has now been placed in the care of Carlisle Museum where it is on display.
Records show that in 1862 Private Byrne was also awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal*.