Visiting villages for the first time I tend to make a beeline for the church. In addition to being the focal point for a small community it can sometimes be the oldest building in the village. Of course it is a place of worship but a church also reminds us of the ‘great and good” who worshipped there and who also lived in the village or at least had a connection to it.
On a recent visit to Wyck Rissington in Gloucestershire I came across a brass plaque in St Lawrence’s Church honouring John Butler VC, DSO.
The plaque presumably was placed there by his family, namely his parents and widow. His father Francis had also served in the army and following his retirement was the squire of the Wyck Hill Estate. Francis John Paul Butler was born in London in 1855 and died there in 1936. However, given his connection to the hamlet of Wyck Rissington he was buried there.
John Fitzhardinge Paul Butler was born in Berkeley, Gloucestershire on 20 December 1888, the only son of Francis and Elspeth Butler. The couple had two daughters, Muriel Elspeth b1878 and Kathleen Louisa b1882. John was educated at Horris Hill, a prep school near Newbury then he went to Wellington College and subsequently followed his father into the army by attending the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. After passing out he joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in February 1907 as a 2nd Lieutenant gaining promotion to Lieutenant in 1909 and Captain in March 1915.
The KRRC was part of the Indian Army and John can be found in the 1911 Census serving with the 4th battalion which was stationed at Chakrata in the United Provinces. The UK Census thus included military personnel serving in garrisons across the world. Whilst John was in India his parents and one of his sisters and six servants were listed at 3 Buckingham Palace Gardens in London.
Prior to the outbreak of WW1 he had been attached to the Pioneer Company, Gold Coast Regiment in West Africa. I had been aware that the Great War had encompassed East Africa but the fact that the conflict was also on the west side of the continent was new to me.
War was declared in August 1914 and his regiment became part of the West Africa Frontier Force and were immediately involved in action against the enemy in Cameroon on Africa’s west coast. On 17 November 1914 Butler and a party of 13 men went into thick bush and attacked the enemy which numbered around 100 and defeated them. The party captured their machine gun and ammunition. The following month whilst on patrol duty with a few of his men John, swam alone across the Ekam River, despite it being held by the enemy. In the face of brisk fire he completed his reconnaissance on the far bank of the river and returned to safety. Whilst he was in the water two of his men were wounded.
As a result of this action and his bravery he was gazetted for the Victoria Cross on 23 August 1915 and received the medal the following day from King George V at an investiture at Buckingham Palace. Whilst home on leave he married Alice Amelia Brookman in late 1915. John was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the King’s Birthday Honours List in June 1916 for his services in West and East Africa.
Later in August 1916 the 1st Division of the British West African Frontier Force including John’s regiment had been moved to German East Africa, now Tanzania. They reached the town of Morogoro only to find that the Germans had moved south into the steep Uluguru mountain range, in particular Kikirunga Hill, where they set up defensive positions. The Gold Coast Regiment received orders to expel the Germans from the hill. On 5 September John Butler’s regiment moved out of their camp and set off on their mission. The Germans opened fire with an artillery barrage forcing John and his men off the road into a sheltered position. Fortunately no casualties were inflicted.
He and some of his men were sent forward to scout the German positions and shortly after an enemy machine gun opened up on the position they had just occupied. Not long after another enemy machine gun opened up, the Germans having made the most of the opportunity in reaching the hill first. Later in the afternoon he went forward to see how the skirmish was progressing, however, he and several others were wounded by machine gun fire from the hill in front of him. Despite this the Pioneer Company advanced to engage the enemy and make good the ground that had been won.
John Butler died that evening from the wounds he had sustained, he had been shot in the lungs. He was originally buried where he fell but was later buried in Morogoro Cemetery, Tanganyika (Tanzania), about 100 miles west of Dar es Salaam. This is one of the numerous Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries lovingly tended throughout the world. His grave can be found in Plot III, Row C, Grave 43.
Following his death probate was granted on 27 December 1916 to his father and Claud Douglas Pennant, a barrister at law. The value of his estate was some £48,850, some £5m in today’s money. Therefore, he left a not inconsiderable estate. John’s Victoria Cross and other medals along with the citations are held and displayed at the Royal Green Jackets Museum in Winchester.
The fallen of WW1 and indeed WW2 are remembered on war memorials usually local to where they came from. John Butler may be unique in that his name is recorded on several memorials in addition to his gravestone in modern day Tanzania. Seeing the plaque in St Lawrence’s Church prompted this piece of research and resulting article. However, he is also remembered on the war memorials in Cirencester, Berkeley, his schools as well as at Sandhurst. In addition a Victoria Cross Commemorative paving stone in the market place in Berkeley bears his name as does the KRRC memorial in Winchester an also the cenotaph in Kumasi, Ghana.
It therefore goes to show that a simple remembrance brass plaque in a Cotswold village church by a loving family can lead to an unexpected trail of one man’s heroic action during the Great War of 1914-18. If there is a moral in exploring old churches or indeed anywhere else observing a simple memorial plaque can reveal a lot more.
The Victoria Cross is the highest decoration of the British honours system. It requires an act of extreme bravery in the presence of the enemy. The motto simply says “For Valour”. Since its inception in 1857 following the Crimean War 1358 VCs have been awarded with only one man receiving it twice. Queen Victoria personally presented it to the first 62 recipients in 1857. During WW1 626 were awarded, 46 of those were in theatres beyond the Western Front and Gallipoli. 181 were awarded during WW2.
It is commonly believed that the medal which is made of bronze was and still is struck from a captured cannon at Sebastopol during the Crimean War and a supply of 10kg of metal is stored at a MOD depot at Donnington in Shropshire. However, a doctorate student at Newcastle University has shown that at various times since the start of WW1 the medals have been struck from multiple sources. This may well be open to interpretation and is way beyond the scope of the above article about John Butler!
The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross – www.vconline.org.uk
Ancestry – www.ancestry.co.uk
– England and Wales National Probate Calendar
– De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1919
– Victoria Cross Medals 1857-2007
Horris Hill School Newsletter January 2021 – http://www.horrishill.com