FOR Valour. The understated inscription on the Victoria Cross marks the holder out as someone who has crossed the boundaries of mere heroism, often to save lives, not kill, writes Stephen McGinty.
THE medal would bear her name, but it was not Queen Victoria who decided that acts of tremendous bravery by those in British military service should be recognised by a specific medal. The idea for what would become the Victoria Cross was that of her husband Prince Albert who in 1855 as the conflict in the Crimea deepened wrote a short memo.
If it had been any of my mates they would be in this position now …
“1. That a small cross of merit for personal deeds of valour be established. 2. That it be open to all ranks. 3. That is be unlimited in number. 4. That an annuity (say of £5) be attached to each cross. 5. That it be claimable by an individual on establishing before a jury of his Peers, subject to confirmation at home, his right to the distinction.”
At the time the British Army had no such system for recognising acts of great heroism in the face of the enemy.
While France had the Legion d’honour and the Dutch the Order of William the best that the British soldier could hope for was a Mention in Despatches or, if he was an officer, a lower grade of the Order of the Bath. What made the Victoria Cross revolutionary was that it was open to all and that its simplicity of design was part of the appeal. In the early stages the medal was to bear the inscription: “For the Brave” but it was then felt that this besmirched the name of everyone else who stepped on to the battlefield and instead the bronze cross with Crown and Lion would read: “For Valour”.
On a scorching hot day on the 26 June, 1857 Queen Victoria pinned 47 medals on to veterans of the Crimean War, the violence of which had been brought home to readers of the Times by one of the earliest war correspondents, William Howard Russell. The medals were always said to have been made from a Russian cannon captured at the Siege of Sevastopol in 1855, however modern analysis of the earliest medals reveals that the metal came from Chinese cannon, which, in turn may have been captured and re-used by the Russians. What is in no doubt is that over the past 160 years the reverence in which the VC is held in Britain has only grown.
Today, the remaining part of the Sevastopol cannon is kept in a locked safe at the Royal Logistics Corps at Telford. It was recently removed under armed guard and transported to Hancocks of London, the jewellers who have fashioned each of the 1,358 medals in existence, and on Wednesday this week the medal they crafted was awarded to Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey, of the Parachute Regiment, who becomes the only surviving recipient of the Victoria Cross from the 13-year conflict in Afghanistan.
On 22 August, 2013 L-Cpl Leakey, who was under heavy fire, twice went to the aid of a wounded US Marine captain during an assault on a Taleban stronghold in Helmand. After the group of British and American forces had leapt from helicopters they immediately came under attack from about 20 insurgents armed with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
When soldiers from the group became pinned down and surrounded, L-Cpl Leakey ran down a hill to provide first aid to the wounded captain and figure out what to do. Under a hail of bullets he then ran back up the hill to reposition a machine gun and began firing despite bullets “ricocheting” off the machine gun frame. He then ran under fire to retrieve a second machine gun and assist the injured captain and in so doing managed to turn the tide of the battle.
In an interview this week L-Cpl Leakey said the only thing he was scared of during the fire fight was “letting my cap badge down”. He said: “You don’t really think what could happen to yourself, you think ‘how is what I’m doing now going to improve the situation?’ It’s part of the very nature of being in the army, and especially the Parachute Regiment, that we have to adapt to situations you don’t expect to happen. In that particular incident I was in the best position to do that. If it had been any of my mates they would be in this position now. I don’t look at it about being about me in particular, I look at this as representing everyone from my unit, from my battalion, who was involved in the campaign in Afghanistan.”
It was Samuel Johnson who said: “each man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier” and while I know what he means I don’t quite agree. I do, however, think that while there are many different types of courage, it is on display in its purest form in times of conflict. Aristotle who pondered the issue of courage more than any other of the Greek philosophers said: “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.” He is also quoted as saying: “You will never do anything in this world without courage.” He has a point, for fear rises up easily in us all and through life we have to surmount it, even in something as simple as sitting an exam or starting a new job.
There is the everyday courage of acting in the face of fear and while this is noble and to be respected, it cannot quite compare to the heroism of putting one’s life on the line for someone else.
Perhaps it is a consequence of ageing and the realisation that we are all mortal, but I now find reading about the acts of valour carried out by the recipients of Britain’s Victoria Crosses to be incredibly moving. When researching The Scotsman’s supplements on the First World War, I came across the story of William Angus, a footballer from Wishaw Athletic who 100 years ago this summer found himself on the front-line at Givenchy and volunteering for what his senior officers considered a “suicide mission”. It was 11 June and Lieutenant James Martin was wounded in No Man’s Land, pleading for water and the victim of repeated German hand grenades. Angus persistently sought permission to attempt a rescue mission and, when this was finally granted, he tied a rope round his waist so that he could be dragged back if wounded or killed. He managed to reach Lt Martin, gave him a drink of brandy and then carried him for 70 yards before he himself was shot. Despite his own injuries he managed to tie the rope around Lt Martin and shouted for him to be dragged back as he staggered up to draw the enemy fire, he was hit several more times but managed to crawl back to the British trenches.
As Lieutenant Colonel Gemmill later wrote: “No braver deed was ever done in the history of the British Army.” Both men survived, became close friends and each year on the anniversary of the rescue Lt Martin sent Angus a telegram of thanks.
Today the annual financial reward of a VC is paltry, an additional £1,495, but the value of the deed and how it is viewed is priceless. There will be those who dismiss any military honour because of an opposition to conflict but what is so touching about so many of the VC stories is that they were earned not through an excess of violence but through an overwhelming need to protect one’s men or rescue a fellow soldier.
It is the selflessness of the act that is often so impressive. What I also like about the VC is that it is the only medal or honour that can never be repealed or removed. The heroism required to achieve one is indelible. As the private secretary to King George V wrote: “The King feels so strongly that, no matter the crime committed by anyone on whom the VC has been conferred, the decoration should not be forfeited. Even were a VC sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the scaffold.”
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