Today, the Battle of Balaclava, with the Charge of the Light Brigade, is probably the only battle of the Crimean War remembered. On 5th November 1854, however, a far more important battle was fought at Inkerman, just outside the great Russian naval base of Sebastopol. Early that morning, hidden by swirling fog, a huge Russian Army attacked the British lines. The battle was total confusion. Caught up in that turmoil were two hundred men of the 68th (Durham) Light Infantry, fighting for their lives. Charging down hill, they drove back three Russian battalions. Then the 68th was attacked. With their ammunition gone, the soldiers were forced to retreat and leave their wounded behind. As they fell back and the Russians advanced firing, Private John Byrne turned and ran back towards the enemy to rescue a badly wounded soldier, Anthony Harman. Probably for the first time in his life - he was just twenty-two years old - John Byrne had done something for which he would not get into trouble.
No known photograph, unfortunately, has survived of John Byrne. From his documents, however, a picture does emerge of this man - the first soldier of The Durham Light Infantry to be awarded the Victoria Cross. He was born in Castlecomer, Kilkenny, in Ireland on 27th September 1832, Nothing, however, is known of his family or early life until, on 27th July 1850, he enlisted at Coventry, aged seventeen years and ten months, as 2832 Private John Byrne, 68th (Durham) Light Infantry. He was not the ideal soldier, even by the standards of the 1850's, and in November 1853 he was sent to prison, for an unknown crime.
In August 1854, the 68th Light Infantry set sail for the Crimea and Private Byrne was released from his cell to join his Regiment. Within three months, he was at Inkerman rescuing a wounded soldier - the first act for which he would be awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 11th May 1855, after he had survived the miseries of the Crimean winter, John Byrne was again involved in a savage fight. That night, during a storm, a large Russian force left Sebastopol and attacked the British trenches near the Woronzoff Road held by just two companies of the 68th Light Infantry. The attack was eventually driven off but only after the most fierce hand to hand fighting. In one contest, John Byrne struggled in the dark and driving rain with a Russian soldier on the parapet of the trench, before bayoneting him and capturing his musket - "an example of bravery the consequence of which was the speedy repulse of the sortie". This was the second act of bravery for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross had been created during the Crimean War as an award for bravery open to all ranks. On 24th February 1857, the first list of names appeared in the London Gazette. It contained the name of Private John Byrne, 68h Light Infantry. In June, Queen Victoria herself made the first presentations in Hyde Park, London. As, however, the 68th Regiment was on the island of Corfu in the Mediterranean, Private Byrne had to wait until 22nd July, when his cross was presented by Major-General Sir George Buller.
John Byrne VC, however, had not finished with war. In late 1863, he sailed with his Regiment for New Zealand, where the Maoris were fighting to halt the spread of British settlements on North Island. At the battle of Te Ranga on 21st June 1864, Corporal John Byrne VC was the first man of his company to jump down into the rifle pits, where he bayoneted a Maori soldier. This soldier grabbed Byrne's rifle with one hand, held it firm and, despite the bayonet still sticking in him, tried to cut Byrne down with a war axe. This terrible struggle only ended when Sergeant John Murray killed the Maori (for the full story of this battle see the chapter on (John Murray VC). For his bravery and actions during this battle, Corporal Byrne VC was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.
In 1866, John Byrne was promoted to Sergeant. He finally took his discharge at Cork in 1872, after twenty-one years' service. He was then forty years old and was described as being 5'7" tall with grey eyes, brown hair and a fresh complexion. He had made his life in the 68th Regiment and without its support he was soon in difficulty. He joined the 2nd North Durham Militia in Durham, as a Colour Sergeant, but was discharged within a few months for "insubordination and highly improper conduct" - no doubt drink was the cause of his downfall.
He does not reappear in the records until 1878, when he began work as a labourer with the Ordnance Survey in Wales.
On 10th July 1879 at Newport in Gwent, John Byrne accused a fellow workman, John Watts, of insulting the Victoria Cross. In the argument that followed, he shot Watts, who was about nineteen years old, with a small revolver, hitting him in the shoulder. When the police went round to his lodgings at 7 Crown Street, Maindee, John Byrne VC DCM placed the barrel of the revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was forty-six years old.
At the inquest held on 12th July, the Coroner was told that Byrne had arrived in Bristol in October 1878, claiming that he had lost all his possessions in a fire in Cork. Byrne's landlady, Mrs. Eliza Morgan, then stated that, although her lodger enjoyed a pint of beer, she had never seen him under the influence of drink.
John Byrne was buried in an unmarked grave at St Woolo's Cemetery, Newport and, for over one hundred years, was all but forgotten. Then on 4th November 1985, during a simple ceremony at the cemetery, Major-General Peter de la Billiere (who originally served with The Durham Light Infantry) unveiled an inscribed headstone to John Byrne - recognition at last for the very first soldier of the Regiment to be awarded the Victoria Cross.