Gallantry On display

Posted on Wed, 1 December 2010 by Alyson Thomas
Posted in: Medal News
Gallantry On display The true worth

AS YOU can see from this month’s front cover, MEDAL NEWS was privileged to be amongst the first invited to view the exceptional new Lord Ashcroft Gallery and its Extraordinary Heroes exhibition with more than 240 Victoria Cross and George Cross groups. A full report on the Gallery—which you really should visit if ever you get the chance—appears within the pages of this issue where mention is made of the opening reception. What is only touched on in the article is just what an occasion that was—not because it was full of red carpets, glitz or glamour, indeed whilst not a modest affair it certainly wasn’t OTT in any way—but rather because of just who exactly was present. There weren’t many “celebrities” per se, at least not of the instantly recognisable TV/film type (although one or two more recognisable faces did stand out), but from a medal point of view it was incredible. Lord Ashcroft was there of course, his pride in the new gallery obvious for all to see, as was the emotion he showed when telling us of his love of the medal hobby, his passion for the Victoria Cross and his interest in gallantry that stretched back to when he was a boy hearing tales of his father landing on Sword beach as a Lieutenant in one of the first waves in on D-Day, and watching such classic films as “Cockleshell Heroes” and the like. But his presence was to be expected as this gallery quite fittingly bears his name (he donated £5 million to make it a reality and his collection makes up by far the largest part of its exhibit) and he couldn’t not be there. But what came as something of a surprise, admittedly a very pleasant one, was the sheer number of Victoria Cross and George Cross recipients, not to mention many others’ next of kin, who had come along to see the Gallery opened at last.

As medal collectors we are thrilled if we are able to meet one recipient of a high level gallantry award, and here in one place were dozens, all recipients of the very highest awards for gallantry and valour that their countries could bestow upon them. We managed to meet, and chat to, Johnson Beharry, VC, Matthew Croucher, GC, Tony Gledhill, GC, as well as Willie Apiata, VC and Mark Donaldson, VC (both of whom, incidentally, have viewed the debate in MEDAL NEWS about their VCs not being “proper” ones with some interest and not a little derision. We are hopeful that Trooper Donaldson will write in as promised and give us his definitive answer!). We also got to chat to John Gregson, one of only two men still eligible to wear the Albert Medal (he declined the 1971 George Cross exchange) and managed to briefly meet the three Gurkha VCs still alive: Tul Bahadur, Lachiman Gurung and Rambahadur Limbu. It was quite an evening, and to see them all marching at the Cenotaph for the brief ceremony there the following day was again something we were very privileged to experience. However, the point of mentioning them being at the reception isn’t to crow about who we met and how lucky we were to be there, but rather because as we met them and chatted to them one thing became more and more obvious, something that perhaps many of us are guilty of forgetting: that the medals proudly worn, and those on display at the Gallery are not simply artefacts. They aren’t collectables in the same way as stamps and coins are; they aren’t merely things to be gawped at and hoarded, but rather they are symbols of very real acts and, in these cases, symbols of some of the most heroic deeds man is capable of. Many of you who have served, or are still serving, will not have overlooked this most obvious of points of course. You will know full well what medals actually mean, but often those of us who have never been involved with the forces directly, and who perhaps have come to this hobby through an interest in history or indeed just because medals are fascinating things to collect, are guilty of forgetting just what a medal actually is and failing to realise that whilst we pride ourselves on owning some fantastic groups, the real pride came long before as those medals and decorations were first awarded. Whilst most of the time the vast majority of collectors, whether private individuals or trusts, museums, etc., do appreciate exactly what they have, it cannot be denied that often medals get treated just like other “exhibits”—by museums and collectors alike—either put on show in frames like butterflies or hidden away in safes like coins and jewellery without their true worth ever really being acknowledged. The Lord Ashcroft Gallery, thankfully, isn’t like that, but that’s because Lord Ashcroft isn’t like that; his belief that those who won these awards should be honoured and remembered with dignity is obvious and perhaps it is because of that belief, and the way he has gone about making it a reality, that so many of the recipients of these most prestigious awards, and their families, were there at the Gallery opening.

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