The Corbett One Name Study


PRIVATE FREDERICK CORBETT, V.C

A CORBETT MYSTERY
by Paul Corbettę

Although the reign of Queen Victoria was said to be an era of peace with no major wars being fought by British troops, many small expeditions and minor engagements were undertaken, usually to defend expanding imperialism or to avenge the kidnap of a minor civil servant. In the period 1875-85 Africa became a hot bed of revolt against British Imperialism with the Zulu rebellion in 1879, the 1st Boer War in 1880 and finally an Arab revolt in Egypt in 1882. In each case it was decided by the government to send a force to crush rebellion.

It was to Egypt that the 3rd King's Royal Rifle Corps was sent to help restore the authority of the Khedive and to protect British interests in the Suez Canal. Amongst these men was a Private Frederick Corbett. Corbett had joined the KRRC at the age of 20 in 1873. His service to this time had been carried out at various outposts throughout the empire. He was with the battalion in Capetown when the orders for Egypt were received. He embarked on HMS Orontes on 22 February 1882 and arrived at Alexandria on 17 July 1882 via Malta and Cyprus. Corbett was employed as a servant to Lt. Henry Granville Lindsay Howard-Vyse and accompanied him on a patrol to protect an armoured train which had been sent to wreck the railway at Mallaha Junction on 22 July 1882.

Corbett saw his first action of the war when, with Lt. Vyse, he blocked the advance of a body of enemy cavalry trying to get to the train. On 9 August 1882, General Alison, the senior officer in charge, ordered a reconnaissance in front of Kafr-el-Duar. A force of 2000 men advanced at 4.40pm. Half the force, as a right hand column, followed the railway line. The other half, as the left hand column, including the 3rd KRRC, followed the line of the Mahmudiyeh Canal. This force was again split with the 3rd KRRC patrolling the right bank, while the others patrolled the left. Very soon the enemy was contacted on this bank and fled into the bush pursued by the British troops. This action left the KRRC alone on the right hand bank. To cover any enemy advance 3 officers and 6 men of the Mounted Infantry section were sent ahead. They had not ventured far when they contacted a large body of enemy infantry. The patrol dismounted and returned fire, expecting help from the rear. Instead an order to retire was given. This action left the small party isolated, Lt. Vyse and Corbett amongst them. Casualties were soon suffered and Lt. Vyse was shot in the thigh and mortally wounded. Corbett remained in the open by his officer trying to staunch the flow of blood, but Lt. Vyse bled to death within a few minutes. Refusing to leave his officer, Corbett helped carry the body away under fire.

The British forces, by this time, had regained their composure and attacked along both sides of the canal forcing the enemy to retreat. For conspicuous bravery in attempting to save the life of his officer, Corbett was awarded the Victoria Cross. It was presented to him on 3 February 1883 by Field Marshall Lord Napier, in Egypt. In addition to the Victoria Cross, Corbett also received the Egypt medal with clasps "Tel-el-Kebir" and a Khedives Star awarded by the Egyptian Khedive.

Returning to England, Corbett was discharged from the KRRC in June 1883 as medically unfit due to a large varix (a permanent abnormal dilation of a vein or artery) on the thigh.

Shortly after this time he disposed of his V.C. According to family sources he fell into bad company and sold the cross as he was unable to stand his corner. He did, however, have a number of copies made for ceremonial purposes.

On 19 December 1883 he succeeded in rejoining the Army as a driver in the Royal Horse Artillery, following a further medical board. He appears to have been unable to match his previous service record because on 30 July 1884 he was convicted by District Court Martial at Aldershot for being absent without leave, fraud and embezzlement and received 28 days hard labour. Because of this, his Victoria Cross award was rescinded and all of his medals repossessed.

In February 1887 he was given 84 days hard labour for theft and in September 1889 another 84 days for striking a superior officer. He was again discharged from the services in January 1891 as medically unfit. He received no pension. He appears to have attracted trouble following his return to civilian life.

An article in the East London Advertiser on 14 March 1896 stated that he was charged for refusing to work at the Greenwich Union Workhouse. In September 1904 he was sentenced to 1 months hard labour for breaking a glass panel in the door of the War Office. This incident probably arose because his V.C. had come into the possession of the Urban District Council at Kingsbury, Middlesex, who wished to return it to him. The War Office intervened stating that under no circumstances should it be returned. A local newspaper reported this fact and also noted that the V.C. award had been rescinded, a fact that to this point had not been made public. Corbett must have been annoyed at this and blamed the War Office for his troubles.

He appears to have lived out the rest of his days peacefully until he died on 25 September 1912 in the Maldon Workhouse in Essex. Even after his death controversy followed his military awards. Two V.C.'s named to him were held, one at Winchester Barracks the home of the KRRC and one at the Royal Artillery mess at Woolwich. They were both examined in 1951 and neither was found to be the original cross. The one at Winchester remains with his other medals, but the other has since been sold. The real cross was in the possession of Kingsbury Council in 1904 but no records were held as to its disposal at a later date.

Attempts to research his early life prior to joining the Army have met with little success. He was born on 17 September 1853 at Malden in Essex the son of William, a baker and Jane. Here, however, is the problem. He was christened David Embleton, his real name. He enlisted in the Army under the name of Frederick Corbett and continued to use that name until his death. As his early life is not documented, the reason for his change of name cannot be ascertained. He did not use his mother's maiden name, so we will have to speculate. For whatever reason, he chose to use the name Corbett and to date he is the only Corbett to have held this country's highest award for gallantry. Winning the cross may have had an effect on a previously good character but no-one can dispute that he was a very brave man.

If anyone can throw any light on the current whereabouts of any of his crosses I will be pleased to hear from them, in the strictest confidence, of course.

(Paul Corbett is one of the early members of The Corbett Study Group and is interested in the whereabouts of all Corbett medals. He has supplied the Group with considerable details about Corbetts who died in WW1. 
See 1914-18 War Deaths)

Frederick Corbett is the great great granduncle of Kevin Clark. Kevin sent the pictures and wrot on 2 May 2004: At last he has been recognised for his bravery.5 years ago we found proof of his burial at Maldon cemetary and a ceremony was held a few weeks ago to erect a headstone with acknowledgement of his VC .

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