“And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been” (Ecclesiasticus 44:9)
- Gary Mead
This book has considerable value as a factual history of the Victoria Cross and the vicissitudes attending its maturity, supported by a selection of detailed examples of awards. Of particular value are a fairly horrifying account of the shambolic logistics of the Crimean War and how badly it was managed, and a cameo of the Special Operations Executive and its sometimes flawed, but extraordinarily courageous female operatives.
Unfortunately the narrative is extended to a somewhat flawed analysis. An example is the contention that the VC’s inception was linked to the abolition of purchase of commissions. Both were results of the Crimean War but as the author himself demonstrates the VC was essentially initially the Queen’s idea; to suggest a link is post hoc, ergo propter hoc reasoning. Also, repetition, however strident, doth not an argument make. Some arguments are stretched too far but I will be charitable and say that is probably because Mead lacks the necessary background but doesn’t realise that. This results in glib emotional value judgments. Examples of this lack of bottom are describing the our total strategic victory at Jutland as ‘indecisive’ is an example of this, and his ignorance of the wider strategic impact of the Dams raid.
The whole book is coloured by the author’s personal views on the VC awards process and its development, indeed this appears to be why it was written. Too often this critique is spoilt by shrill, strident polemic and sometimes drifts into a distasteful denigration of a particular award and even of the recipient, and the text is spattered with little drops of gratuitous leftiness (British Empire = bad etc.). This, and sometimes cynical interpretations of citations and circumstances, and what came across to me as a distasteful, snide tone set my teeth on edge from the very outset. Criticism of the views of such as Roberts, Kitchener and Haig, men with probably rather more experience of war and danger than this civilian commentator seems rather arrogant. All this obscures rather than supports the author’s fundamental theses, of which some, shorn of polemic, may some validity.
On p.179 we have a clear demonstration of want of understanding and flawed logic. “The twenty-first century soldier is more likely to be supervising drones, far from the battlefield, as rushing to bayonet the enemy in a trench”. This comes almost immediately after “asymmetric wars … women will increasingly be drawn into ‘facing’ the enemy”. The drone operator is an irrelevance to any VC discussion and, as war is not won until infantry occupies ground, there will always be operations where Tom goes in with the bayonet - ‘asymmetric’ warfare still includes, if not perhaps increases the need to get up close and personal.
The author also makes a good case for awards to SOE’s and other women. But the arrow of time is unidirectional; trying to reinvent the past gets us nowhere; women (as Mead points out) have been eligible for the VC for a long time, it’s just that they haven’t been seen as in VC-eligible situations - but in future they may well be, if they can meet the physical requirements of the infantry role to the same extent as men. In our ships and aircraft of course they are already in the front line and have been for some time. I think the whole argument in this book about females is thus an irrelevant gripe.
When the Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel’s dead there needs to be extra respect for the NCO or OR who steps up to the officer role, as in the case of Sergeant Byce (p.209) whose VC recommendation didn’t make the cut - in this case the author has a very valid point. However in other places Mead doesn’t seem to accept the greater responsibilities involved in a position of leadership or that the responsibility of a commissioned officer is an order of magnitude beyond what is required of an OR. To say that an officer merely did his duty is in my mind insultingly dismissive.
The Byce case brings us to another of the author’s bêtes-noires, the filtering process. It is unavoidable that recommendations go up through channels and the author is undoubtedly right that personal views seep in, from officers on the one hand who may disapprove of singling out and those who do not want to be outshone by a junior, to those who want to bask in the reflection of a VC award within their command. As the filtering is done by humans it is difficult to see how this is avoidable. Along with this is the problem of articulacy of advocacy and again this is ineluctable because that is the way the world works. The author seems to think that bottom-up petitioning is eligible but I fail to read this into either warrant. I know of at least one case (from 1917) where the men thought their officer should have been recognised - for carrying one of them out of no-man’s-land in spite of having his own nose shot off while doing that - but there was no award.
The author’s complaints include what he sees as a political slant to the awards process. However he demonstrates that the VC’s very inception was essentially political, in that it drew the public gaze from shambolic administration at a high level to individual bravery at the sharp end of the war. As it is the Government that runs all awards processes, a political dimension should be unsurprising. The author goes on to remind us that without Prime Ministerial intervention there would have been no VCs for the Falklands at all. There is a deeper story to that by the way. He can’t have it both ways.
The definition of ‘the presence of the enemy’ is a minefield. It could be argued that a piece of enemy ordnance that requires rendering safe represents his presence, yet this task, without any reference to the VC commonly attracts a GC instead; so also was gallantry during the Blitz by firemen, rescue services and others often very much in the enemy’s presence, although this case has now passed. The GC/GM for this sort of thing is now established by custom, in contrast (for instance) to an incident in November 1917 in which five British West Indies Regiment ORs were awarded Military Medals (one of them a Bar) for extinguishing fires that resulted when the Marengo ammunition dump near Beesinghe was hit by an incendiary bomb in the middle of the night. Equally impossible is distinguishing ‘conspicuous’ from ‘outstanding’, between different actions in different circumstances. The whole process cannot help but be subjective.
The 1920 rules provide for a ballot for unit awards but this also seems not subsequently to have been invoked (I may stand to be corrected on this). The citation for the VC awarded to the CO of H.M.S. Campbeltown after the St Nazaire raid of 1942 is an example: “ .. This Victoria Cross is awarded to Lieutenant Commander Beattie in recognition not only of his own valour but also of that of the unnamed officers and men of a very gallant ship's company, many of whom have not returned.” So is that awarded to AB Savage after the same event: “This Victoria Cross is awarded in recognition not only of the gallantry and devotion to duty of Able Seaman Savage, but also of the valour shown by many others, unnamed, in Motor Launches, Motor Gun Boats and Motor Torpedo Boats, who gallantly carried out their duty in entirely exposed positions against Enemy fire at very close range.”
As Tinsley’s Magazine put it on 3.8.1879, quoted by Mead, “ .. It is true that there is reasonable complaint that many who ought to have got the Cross have not got it, and that many who have deserved it less than the unsignalized have got it..” Probably many can think of incidents during service, or in their family’s service, that went entirely unrewarded. The requirement for corroboration is rather obvious, even from the author’s own examples. The author canvasses the case of Henty-Creer lost with his X5 in the Tirpitz midget submarine raid of 1943. Nobody knows to this day what happened to him. I refer the reader to the recent review of the 1988 book about X5 at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Mystery-X5-Lieutenant-H-Henty-Creers/dp/0718306287 .
In this and other cases, families can have no standing in the petition process because their understanding is necessarily second hand and they are by nature partisan for their candidate.
Who will ever know about individual bravery in sinking ship or blazing bomber or in the slaughter of the Somme? Korvettenkapitä n Fritz-Otto Busch, a supernumerary on board the Nazi cruiser Prinz Eugen (‘Prinz Eugen’, 1958, English translation 1960) watched the Hood through a binocular sight throughout her last action and recorded how her forward and secondary armament continued in action, even as it appeared one of her after turrets was bodily hurled into the air. Nobody will ever recognise the individual courage that kept those guns in action.
The meretricious and populist political fad for innovation (like the subsuming of the MM into the MC) and retrospective revisionist meddling (like the blanket pardon for those executed in WW1 for cowardice) should not in my opinion be extended to the VC in any way, nor should the award be a response to populist demagogy which would debase the VC to the level of a vote for a TV show. How other countries reward valour is a total irrelevance.
The various revisions of the VC Warrant are described - it is not as if this award has not received proper thought. The Warrant itself and other appropriate material taking the story up to 1920 can be read at http://www.victoriacross.co.uk/vcrules.html . It was hardly to be supposed that something created in rather a hurry to meet the situation of the Crimean War, and which served it purpose reasonably well in the Indian Mutiny, conflicts involving thousands, would still be fit for purpose in a war which, all unanticipated, involved millions; still less a generation later when the civilian population would be in the firing line. To meet these exigencies the book describes, but disagrees with, the inception of first the MC and MM and then the GC and GM. Both served what I believe the British people want, which is for the VC to be extraordinarily special and therefore only rarely awarded.
A Major Clark’s individual view is quoted (p.24) but with no indication to the reader of Clark’s experience and qualifications so one has no idea of how much weight to attach. There will always be a variety of views about honours and decorations. As Kipling put it, “There are nine and sixty ways of reciting tribal lays and every single one of them is right!” The 2012 review by Sir John Holmes’ committee, cited by Mead, summarises current attitudes even though it only deals with campaign medals and not gallantry awards:
A curiosity is that 2004 & 2010 editions of Mead’s book are listed on the internet but are not mentioned in the publication data given with this version. The preface is essentially the equivalent of a management summary. The fifty pages of notes show the considerable depth of research, but also include many lengthy asides which would be better placed in the text, or arguably as footnotes; it is irritating to have to work to and fro using two bookmarks. The index looks comprehensive but is actually incomplete. To the useful select bibliography I would add General Sir Peter de la Billiè re’s ‘Supreme Courage’ (2004) and John Winton’s ‘The Victoria Cross at Sea’ (1978 ). There is a good selection of illustrations, too often marred by dismissive captions. As to style, the author quotes VCs and others to the effect that nobody suddenly pitched into a dangerous situation thinks primarily of what the reward shall be, but nevertheless Mead repeatedly writes of men ‘winning’ the VC as if that were the end in view. As a pettier cavil, ‘enlisted men’ is an Americanism. I would like to have proofread this book with a big red pencil (or even a pair of scissors) so that it emerged fifty pages shorter and far more palatable