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Irish VC discovered after 150 years buried in mud


For valour: Victoria Cross

For valour: Victoria Cross

For valour: Victoria Cross

Buried in Thameside mud and only unearthed more than 160 years later, the Victoria Cross found by a treasure hunter had an incredible story to tell.

Tobias Neto stumbled on the VC in December while examining the foreshore with his metal detector.

With the help of the Museum of London, Mr Neto discovered the medal he had found was one of 16 awarded for gallantry to British forces at the Battle of Inkerman on November 5, 1854.

The story that has emerged from his chance discovery is one of both tragedy and heroism, culminating in the shooting of a young work colleague by a decorated veteran of the Crimean War who then turned the gun on himself.

With the whereabouts of only two of the Inkerman VCs unaccounted for, the one found by Mr Neto in all likelihood belonged to a private called John Byrne - a man who appears to have been so tormented by what he had witnessed in battle he suffered a catastrophic breakdown.

Byrne, from County Kilkenny, was awarded the VC for returning to the front line to rescue a wounded comrade under heavy fire.

But following his return from Crimea, his life appears to have spiralled out of control, as a result of suffering what would now be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While working as part of an Ordnance Survey team, Byrne became convinced his work colleague John Watts was taunting him.

In a fury, the former soldier pulled out a revolver and shot the terrified 18-year-old, wounding him on the arm.

Hours later, surrounded by a large crowd and several police officers, Byrne turned his gun on himself and pulled the trigger.

The inquest into Byrne's death, following his suicide in the Crown Inn, Newport, South Wales in 1879, heard 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 been instructed by their commanding officer.

But Byrne clearly interpreted this as a 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, shot himself.

Byrne's troubled state of mind may explain how the VC came to end up in the Thames mud.

A report of the inquest quoted a Lt Barklie, who gave evidence that Byrne arrived in Bristol the previous October in a state of destitution and looking for work, having spent time in a lunatic asylum in the Straits Settlements - what is now Malaysia and Singapore - before returning to Britain. It appears that by the time Byrne arrived in the South West he may have lost or sold his medal.

Mr Neto, who lives near the Thames at Putney, is convinced that Byrne threw the medal in the Thames "in a fit of regret and despair". Byrne was buried beneath a simple gravestone in the Saint Woolos Cemetery, in Newport - his story forgotten until now.

Kate Sumnall, the finds liaison officer at the Museum of London, suggests the lost medal could also have belonged to a Scottish soldier called John McDermond, the other recipient of a VC from Inkerman which has not been accounted for.