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  • Writer's pictureStephen Callaghan

The 'Man' Behind the medal.

Not many of my posts will come with a warning, but this post deals with issues of abuse. While all dates and details are factually correct, the names within have been changed.


The “man behind the medal” is a term often used by medal collectors to describe the life and actions of a soldier who medal or medals might be in their collection.

Medals to soldiers are often seen in a light, that they must have done something brave or courageous to earn them or that they were just inherently good people. Generally, most medals given to soldiers are just campaign medals, essentially awarded for just being there, not to take away from the hardship of typical Victorian campaign.

With the above in mind, let’s take a look at a medal to a soldier of the Leinster Regiment, who from appearance was a long serving soldier, but the more we dive into his personal life, the more of a monster he was.

Early Life and Military Service

John Smith was born on 8 October 1869 at Mall Lane, Clonmel, County Tipperary. He was baptised on 10 October. He was the son of John Smith, a chimney sweep, and Elizabeth Smith (Nee Blake).

John joined the Royal Artillery at Preston, Lancashire on 11 May 1889. Upon enlisting he was recorded as being chimney sweep and having served a 5-year apprenticeship with T. Smith in Clonmel, his father. Prior military service consisted of service in the 4th (Militia) Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment.

Physically, John was recorded as being 5 feet, 4 ½ inches tall, and having blue coloured eyes and brown hair.

Posted to the 4th Brigade Depot, he only served 52 days before he was discharged on 29 June 1889, after paying 10 pounds. His character was descripted as “good”, and intended place of residence was listed as Main Street, Clonmel.

Back in Ireland, John enlisted in the Royal Artillery at Waterford on 21 November 1889. His prior purchased discharged was recorded. He was posted to the Royal Artillery at Woolwich in December. He was recorded as coming down with influenza at Woolwich on 3 December 1889. John served until 30 June 1890 when he discharged after paying 18 pounds.

Not content with having spent 28 pounds on being discharged from the army twice, he joined the Leinster Regiment at Clonmel on 21 September 1891. He listed his prior service with the 4th Royal Irish Regiment and Royal Artillery. He was posted to the Leinsters at Birr and his service with the regiment included being posted to the depot at Birr and later service with the 2nd and 1st regular army battalions. He served for 6 years before being posted to the army reserve.

With the outbreak of the Second Anglo Boer war in October 1899, John was recalled for service and was sent to South Africa with the 1st Battalion, Leinster Regiment. After the war he was demobilised in October 1902, then later transferred to the reserves until his final discharge from the army on 20 September 1903. During his time with the regiment he served in India, Malta, Bermuda, Canada and South Africa.

For his service John received the Queen’s South Africa medal with the clasps “Cape Colony”, “Transvaal” and “Wittenbergen” and the King’s South Africa medal with the clasps “South Africa 1901” and “South Africa 1902”.

Private Smith's Queen's South Africa medal

John joined the Royal Regiment of Artillery at Waterford 4 May 1907, listing his prior full term of service with the Leinster Regiment. Upon enlisting he was descripted as having a large scar (from a bullet) on his right arm, possibly a wound from service in South Africa or an accidently mishap during service. A discharge date is not recorded but he was present for training in 1908.

With the outbreak of the Great War John enlisted for one-year of service with the army reserve, joining the Royal Irish Regiment. From the reserve he was transferred to the regular army and he served with the 2nd Battalion, going overseas to France with the British Expeditionary Force in September 1914.

While in France Private Smith was taken Prisoner of War during on 20 October 1914 during the Battle of Le Pilly. He was held in a POW camp in Switzerland until he was repatriated on 29 November 1917.

After repatriation he was transferred to the Royal Defence Corps where he saw out the rest of the war. Private Smith was demobilised on 1 March 1919. For his service in the Great War he was entitled to the 1914 Star, British War medal and Victory medal.

Personal & Criminal Life and Becoming a Monster

After looking at the military service of John, we come to his family and personal life. He married Mary Jane Sheehan at Clonmel on 18 February 1903. Both were recorded as living on Bank Lane, Clonmel, and they had the following children; Margaret, John ,Elizabeth Smith (born on 12 April 1904), Timothy Smith (born 22 July 1905) and Mary Jane Smith (born on 23 June 1910).

When looking through petty session records, we see his many run ins with the law. John’s crimes get progressively dark, his last charge, despite found not guilty (due to lack of evidence) is very chilling to say the least.

· 1 June 1886, assaulted Mary Anne Hackett, ordered to pay a fine of 2 shillings and six pence.

· 11 July 1888, assaulted Patrick Cody, no appearance in court.

· 16 July 1888, assaulted William White, no appearance in court.

· 22 November 1889, assaulted Mary Lewis (a child), sentenced to 7 days’ imprisonment, with 1-month bail.

· 12 November 1890, drunk, sentenced to 7 days’ imprisonment.

· 20 January 1891, trespassing in pursuit of game, 7 days’ imprisonment.

· 12 August 1891, drunk, 7 days’ imprisonment.

· 11 November 1903, assaulted a police officer, 26 days’ imprisonment.

· 26 January 1906, larceny, sentenced to 2 calendar months’ imprisonment.

· 3 October 1907, assault Patrick O’Brien, sentenced to 1 calendar month imprisonment

· 6 November 1907, neglected his children, sentenced to 2 calendar months’ imprisonment

· 13 September 1910, ill-treat his four children, sentenced to 3 calendar months’ imprisonment

· 3 April 1912, assaulted Constable Timothy McCarthy, 2 calendar months

· 25 October 1912 assaulted Laurence Whelan, sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment

· 6 March 1914, charged with larceny,

· 18 March 1914, drunk, sentenced 7 days’ imprisonment

· 20 August 1919, allegedly assaulted and beat his wife.

· 2 December 1919, charged with “violently & feloniously assault on Elizabeth Smith his daughter & against her will feloniously ravish and carnally know” – found not guilty.

These are some of the crimes John was charged with, how many more went undocumented? The crimes involving his children are particularly sinister. Despite the length of his military service his behaviour is inexcusable and raises the awkward point of just because he has medals, or just because he was a veteran of the Boer War and Great War doesn’t mean he was a good person, or even deserves to be remembered.

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