The Victoria Cross

Before the flak-jacketed John Simpson there was William Howard Russell, a gritty Irish journalist, who pioneered war reporting from the bloody front lines of the Crimean War. Previously war reports were confined to formal dispatches where pithy accounts failed, perhaps, to fully capture the bravery and chutzpah of the men involved. Come the Crimean War though, the reports had a bit more flavour to them and the people back home got a better sense for the bravery and sacrifice being made on foreign lands by men who, the public came to think, deserved a bit more recognition for their efforts. The French had the Legion d’honneur and even the reluctant war-mongers in the Netherlands gave out the Order of William. Yet Britain, she with the greatest taste for provoking indigenous revolt in foreign lands had nothing. Nothing more than a pat on the back and a “well played, chap” for bloody, month-long stands against white-lipped Russian troops, armed with nothing more than cunning, tea and good humour. And all at the expense of couple of arms. So that changed. Queen Victoria told the War Office to do something about it. And so was born the Victoria Cross.

In Britain, the Victoria Cross is the highest award there is. When Johnson Beharry collected the first Victoria cross to have been awarded in over thirty years for risking both life and limb in getting his unit to safety in Iraq, everyone else in the ceremony had to wait. He was first up for Her Maj. Michael Jackson, who was in charge of the entire British Army and was there picking up a knighthood, was behind him in the queue. As he should be. The cross itself, is made from the inner bits of two cannons captured from the Russians in the Siege of Sevastopol, a year-long fracas that is recorded in dusty military annals as one of the classic sieges of all time. It was the subject of Leo Tolstoy’s Sebastopol Sketches and the inspiration behind Lord Tennyson’s celebrated poem The Charge of the Light Brigade. Behind the front line a young Florence Nightingale was making a name for herself, restoring morale and tending to all those on the wrong end of a Russian canon ball. The medals have always been made by Hancocks of London, yet with wars not what they were and orders increasingly patchy, they now also do a bit of business in rare and collectable jewellery.

Since Queen Victoria told the War Office to do something about it, a grand total of 1,358 medals have been awarded. Yet they have been awarded to 1,355 men which, to those with a bit of Poirot about them, doesn’t add up. The only explanation is that three men, have got two each. Which is spot on. Three men have been awarded the VC and bar, the bar being a thin metal bar that is attached to the ribbon of a medal to indicate the bearer has got a couple of stories to tell, not just the one.

The first man was Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse a brilliant Oxford graduate, qualified medical Docotor, and 400m Olympian. At the Battle of Guillemont he braved snipers and shell splinters to rescue men from no man’s land. He did it again in the early stages of the offensive at Passchendaele. He died shortly after from his injuries but died the most decorated solider of World War I. His family later left his medals to his old Oxford college, who sold them to a collector for £1.5m in 2009. The second man was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Martin-Leake who won his first medal on the high veld of Vlakfontein in the Second Boer War. With men injured, the twenty-seven year old surgeon ignored the spitting bullets and tended to his men, before being shot himself. With his injured men all around him, and the Boer presumably sent packing, he refused offers of water until everyone else had been served. Thirteen years later he was back in action on the Western Front in World War I pulling more injured soldiers to safety despite some lying yards from enemy trenches. The last man to win two VCs wasn’t even British. He was a sheep farmer from the South Island of New Zealand. Yet in May 1941 Charles Upham found himself a long way from home, in Crete, fighting the jerries. The citation for his first medal is actually worth looking up. The man makes Bond look wet – James not Jennie. To quote you an hors d’oeuvre:

 When his platoon was ordered to retire he sent it back under the platoon Sergeant and he went back to warn other troops that they were being cut off. When he came out himself he was fired on by two Germans. He fell and shammed dead, then crawled into a position and having the use of only one arm rested his rifle in the fork of a tree and as the Germans came forward he killed them both. The second to fall actually hit the muzzle of the rifle as he fell.

Having been evacuated to Egypt he was back at it six months later, this time at the Battle of El Alamein where he would stage sole recces on enemy outposts armed only with a Spandau gun and destroy German tanks with well aimed grenades. He also got shot, a lot. But he always went back into the fray: His voice could be heard above the din of battle cheering on his men”, read the dispatch. His company was eventually over run and Upham fell into enemy hands. The Germans, however, were soon to discover that Upham wasn’t too interested in being a prisoner of war. He first tried to escape by jumping off a moving truck. He made it about 400 yards before he was captured, a broken leg slowing him down. He then jumped out the toilet window of a high speed train and knocked himself unconscious landing on the track. His third attempt involved climbing the prison fences in broad daylight. Having become entangled in barbed wire he fell and looked up to see a prison guard pointing a gun at his head. Upham sat up and lit himself a cigarette. The Germans by now realised he was trouble and so threw him into solitary confinement where exercise was permitted but only with two armed guards and the cover of a machine gun tower. One day, Upham legged it, through the barracks and straight out the front gate. He was soon caught and dispatched to Colditz. The guard in the tower later admitted that he didn’t shoot Upham out of respect. Charles Upham remains the only fighting solider to have been awarded two medals.

And get this. After arriving back in New Zealand his local community, who had heard about his war-time exploits, had a whip round, raising £10,000 so that he could buy a farm. And what did he do? Take the money and head to the nearest tailor for a new velvet suit? No, he put the money into a scholarship, to fund children of ex-servicemen through University and then went straight down to Barclays and asked for a loan to buy a farm. The spirit of such men astound, leaving a hollowness, a feeling of deep discomfort when considered in the context of today’s drippy, media-obsessed political leaders. Politicians who appear to want for nothing more than a colleague’s job, a peerage and a comfy life speaking at leadership seminars for bored accountants. Not many VCs get awarded these days, but then, there are fewer opportunities. And at least there’s been no dumbing down. No medals for And and Dec to give to weathered celebrities eating gorgs in some steamy, far-away jungle. So that’s a relief.

For point of reference, and to keep a trace of consistency; Joseph Bazelgette’s great grandson, Squadron Leader Ian Willougby Bazelegette, won a Victoria Cross himself, posthumously, for bravery in the cockpit of his Lancaster bomber in the skies over France in  World War II.

God damn interesting stuff.

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