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Brian Best
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Over the years since the VC was instituted there have been people who have carried out acts of valour that have, for some reason or another, not been rewarded with the VC while others, contentiously ‘less worthy’ have received it. This though is not a book about moans and groans about who got the VC but is a note of several very brave men who have been passed over. The author has written several books about winners of the Cross so is well placed to know about those who did not quite make it.

The reasons for denying the VC are manifold but basically come down to three groups: those that the Awards Committee did not agree had met the high standards, those whose valour was not seen by suitable witnesses, generally a higher ranking officer on the scene, or those whose act of bravery took place at a time when several other VCs were being awarded; i.e. the quota system. The author takes these and explains the reasons for non award without rancour but certainly not agreeing with Horse Guards or the Admiralty or later the Awards Committee. Often the award was stopped by a civil servant in London.

The book starts with the introduction of the new medal for valour on the battlefield, instituted in the name of the Monarch. Many Battalion, Regimental, Brigade officers put themselves forward initially and although this was the first real all-ranks medal, it was very much the officer corps that were put forward. Much of this did not survive arrival at Horse Guards, then the HQ of the Army. Several cases were retired very senior officers petitioning on behalf of their serving sons. It took a while for the award to settle down. One was a Trooper who rode in the Charge at Balaclava who considered he should get the new medal and put himself forward - it was refused but this just led to a 40 year series of correspondence with Horse Guards where he continued to claim he was worthy of the medal. He did not succeed. The book covers the major conflicts of Crimea, Indian Mutiny, Zulu/South African Wars, Ashanti Wars, First and Second World Wars and post WW2.

The author also points out some recipients who would, under today’s circumstances and even those of the day, not have been awarded, on the evidence available. For instance, the officers at Rorke's Drift were put in for lower awards but Queen Victoria suggested the VC more appropriate – they got it. I won’t go in to much detail of the events as that is the substance of the book and I don’t want to disturb your enjoyment should you get this book – which I suggest you should. There are cases where absolutely the VC was appropriate, but many cases where the award is doubtful. Indeed, in some cases, amendments were required to the Charter instituting the VC to allow the medal to be presented.

The author notes that during WW1 the awards moved from early days of the war where saving comrades under fire gained a recommendation whereas later in the war it was more for attacking the enemy or staunch defence that saw the VC recommendation. There is no hint that any of the awards were unworthy, just that the reasons for being recommended changed over the course of the war.

WW2 brings one case of a highly, and rightly, decorated officer actually refusing the VC saying he thought he had enough recognition. After his death in action, his name was put forward yet again, but was refused by the Awards Committee. The Second World War saw a reduction in the number of Crosses awarded compared to the First and this is explained that there were now more medals that could be awarded, however, in many of the cases where the VC was knocked back the resulting award was not just downgrading the award but a mere Mention in Despatches.

Post WW2 discusses the conflicts in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan with some stories of people who were refused a VC and the reasons. One of these was an SAS officer and the author discusses the difficulties of presenting the award these days. The Carter says that the event must be witnessed by suitable witnesses and this is taken to mean officers. Much of the work of the SAS is done outwith the sight of the rest of the army and often the group leaders are Warrant Officers or Senior NCOs therefore there is a lack of competent witnesses. The author contends that the SAS Regiment are now resigned to the fact that special forces will not receive the VC by the very nature of their work.

This is not a big book, but it is huge in interesting information about the award of the VC, including abuses of the system by some officers. This is an enthralling book which I recommend very highly whether you agree with the author or not; if nothing else it brings good insight in to the wars of the 19th and 20th Centuries leading in to this current 21st Century.

5/5 Mr MRHs

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