b. 12/1866 Dublin, Ireland. d. 17/02/1944 Canterbury, Kent.
Thomas “Paddy” Byrne (1866-1944) was born in the St Thomas Parish of Dublin, Ireland in December 1866. At the age of 20, he enlisted with the 8th Hussars, and served with that Regiment for 12 months, before transferring into the 21st Hussars, later the 21st (Empress of India’s) Lancers. He would serve for over 22 years with the Regiment overseas; the first 8 years in India, next 2 in Egypt, and then 1 in South Africa.
It would be during the Sudanese Campaign of 1898, that saw Byrne become a holder of the Victoria Cross. He was gazetted for the VC on 15th November 1898 for his actions at the Battle of Khartoum on 3rd September 1898. At the Battle of Khartoum, Sudan, despite having received a bullet in his right arm, he went to the assistance of the wounded Lieutenant Molyneux who was unhorsed and surrounded by Dervishers. Byrne’s arm had lost its strength so his sword dangled uselessly from his hand as he charged the enemy time and time again, giving the Lieutenant a chance to escape. Byrne also received a spear wound in his chest but managed to ride away to safety.
Byrne’s identity as Molyneux’s saviour was not discovered until a few days later. It was discovered by Winston Churchill (later a British Prime Minister) who was working as a war correspondant for the Morning Post. Churchill actually allowed skin from his own chest to be grafted onto Byrne’s deep chest wound helping to save his life. Churchill had described Byrne as “the bravest man I have ever known.”
He was invested with his Victoria Cross whilst still recuperating, at Osborne House, Isle of Wight on 6th January 1899, from Queen Victoria. He left the Army following a period of service in South Africa, earning the Queen’s South Africa Medal with three clasps, and spent the latter years of his life in Kent. He died on 17th February 1944 in Canterbury, aged 76, and was buried in Canterbury Cemetery. His grave was restored in recent years. His medals have had an interesting history.
Following Thomas Byrne's death in 1944 his Victoria Cross was inherited by his son Edward who subsequently had it stolen from him whilst serving in East Africa in 1949. A Nairobi police report confirms the theft. Edward Byrne kept the VC pinned to the inside of his jacket and whilst working as a military policeman in Nairobi his room was burgled and the jacket stolen. The Victoria Cross was never recovered.
In 1976 Thomas Byrne's grandson applied for an 'official replacement' Victoria Cross and this was granted by HM Queen Elizabeth II and Hancocks was instructed to issue a replacement VC fitted in an official case.
Two years later, on the 27 September 1978, the official replacement Victoria Cross was placed at a Sotheby's auction and was sold for a sale hammer price of £700. Upon learning of the sale HM Queen Elizabeth II was definitely not amused and stated she would never again approve of an official replacement Victoria Cross.
The Thomas Byrne official replacement VC was subsequently listed for £2,850 at a Charles Lusted auction on 1st January 1979, but remained unsold. It was last sold at Spink’s auction house for £6,500 on the 12th March 1996, to an anonymous buyer.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD. REPLICA VC AND OTHER MEDALS SOLD AT AUCTION IN AUGUST 2015 FOR £40,000 TO UNKNOWN BUYER.
BURIAL PLACE: WEST GATE CEMETERY, CANTERBURY, KENT. RC SECTION MJ, GRAVE 22
Courtesy of Stewart May