Homecoming VC hero was shunned by his countrymen

Hero Tom Hughes received the highest award for valour for his exploits on The Somme – but was ultimately to be shunned by his own countrymen and died in poverty.

Hughes received his Victoria Cross from King George V while on crutches – he would never walk properly again.
Hughes received his Victoria Cross from King George V while on crutches – he would never walk properly again.

He and other Irishmen like him who had fought for the British cause came to be seen virtually as traitors and were airbrushed out of history.

After the Great War, and hobbled by injuries sustained in battle which meant he could never walk properly again, Hughes, from Hednesford in Staffordshire, returned to his native Ireland to find it a very different place to that which he had left.

He became a hill farmer at Castleblayney, which after Ireland was partitioned in 1921 was a few miles on the Irish Republic side of the border with Northern Ireland.

Hughes, a Catholic, turned to the bottle and spent the later part of his life in and out of the workhouse before his death aged 56 on January 4, 1942. His sister was forced to sell his medals.

However over time attitudes towards Ireland's soldiers of the King have softened, and in the last few years plaques have been erected in the Irish Republic in their honour, including to Hughes.

A colourised picture of Hednesford hero Tommy Hughes

His poignant story has been researched by Cannock historian Richard Pursehouse for his new book, provisionally titled 'Great War Victoria Crosses of the Midlands.'

"After Home Rule in 1921, with Ireland becoming divided along religious lines, Thomas Hughes struggled with his fame, seen as having taken 'the King’s shilling,' and became increasingly dependent on alcohol," said Richard.

And in a BBC Northern Ireland documentary commemorating the centenary of the Somme battle in 2016, his great-nephew Peter Hughes said: "Because he took the King's shilling, as everyone called it, he would have been seen as one of the enemy and it just showed how the community feeling had turned – 1917 the hero, to 1940s the enemy."

Richard's researches have shed light on Hughes' connections with Hednesford and Cannock.

"He left his native Ireland in 1910 to seek a different life, and found employment as a stable hand over Hednesford Hills under the mentor and racehorse trainer Lawrence Rooney. He worked for Rooney for two years, and afterwards for the McGowan’s stables at East Cannock," he says.

He was known to everyone as "Irish Tommy."

A depiction of his VC-winning exploit

When war was declared in August 1914, Hughes was employed at the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery Company’s wharf at East Cannock and in November 1914 he volunteered at Hednesford drill hall.

Private Hughes – later he was promoted Corporal – was to serve with the Connaught Rangers, and fought on the Western Front, gaining the VC in September 1916.

The citation said: "For most conspicuous bravery and determination. He was wounded in an attack but returned at once to the firing line, after having his wound dressed. Later, seeing a hostile machine gun, he dashed out in front of his company. He shot the gunner, and single handed captured the gun. Though again wounded he brought back three or four prisoners."

The Cannock Chase Courier covered the story, describing Hughes as a young jockey who had trained horses on Hednesford Hills.

It said: "He joined the stables of Mr Rooney who then had a rather lengthy string of stables, at Hednesford. Until Mr Rooney moved in 1914 to become the private trainer of Mr Reid Walker at Stanton, Shifnal, Private Hughes remained with him but he would not leave the Chase, and he afterwards undertook, perhaps, less contented work on the wharf of the Cannock and Rugeley Colliery.

"He was a devout Catholic, and regularly attended the services at St Joseph's, Hill Top and the resilient priest greatly liked the lad for he was of a quiet respectful demeanour. Hence, probably, there sprang up between the Rev P Boyle and T Hughes a great attachment.

"Both of them were at the annual function at the Drill Hall, Hednesford, in 1914, and a few days afterwards he joined, to fight for King and Country."

Hughes was still on crutches when he was presented his Victoria Cross by King George V on June 2, 1917.

The Hednesford hero's medals

Richard says: "He was discharged as no longer fit for war service on February 12, 1918, and a few months later he was invited back to Cannock Chase to boost attendance at Hednesford and Cannock War Weapons Week in July 1918.

"During a ceremony presided over by his friend Reverend P J Boyle at Anglesey Lawns he was again presented his Victoria Cross by Colonel R S Williamson, along with a locally-funded ‘appreciation’.

"Streamers and flags were put up around Anglesey Lawn, and investors proceeded to the ‘selling centre’ in Market Hall to invest in the war savings certificates and war bonds.

"Eventually Hughes returned to Ireland, where he helped run the family farm in his home town with his sister Annie and her son Michael. The people of Castleblayney collected a sum of money, and he purchased the hill farm near Castleblayney."

Richard says Hughes never married, but was understood to have had an illegitimate son, Ken, who was born in England.

His Victoria Cross is now held by the National Army Museum, Chelsea.

In 2016 four Irish war heroes, including Hughes, were honoured with the unveiling of stone plaques during Armistice Day commemorations in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.

They had been paid for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and arranged by the British government.

Irish public spending minister Paschal Donohoe led dignitaries, including the British Ambassador to Ireland, in a wreath-laying ceremony at the cemetery's Cross of Sacrifice in memory of the Irish men and women who died in the war.

Local hero Tom Hughes attended Hednesford's war weapons week in July 1918

The unveiling of the plaque for Private Hughes was attended by his niece Josephine Sharkey from Dundalk, and members of her family including her daughter Siobhan, along with other relations.

Siobhan read a poem which had been specially composed for the occasion of the presentation of the Victoria Cross to Private Hughes by King George V in 1917.

And in 2017 a blue plaque was unveiled in Hughes' honour at Castleblayney.

The wording reads: "Ulster History Circle. Thomas Hughes VC 1885-1942. Soldier. Guillemont, the Somme, 3rd September 1916, born in Coravoo, lived in Fincarn."

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