Medal News

Volume 48, Number 7, August 2010

Outstanding result

Volume 48, Number 7, August 2010

Courage under fire THIS month’s “Letters to the Editor” sees a letter from Richard Leach who feels rather strongly about the inclusion of a Victoria Cross within the honours systems of Australia, Canada and New Zealand. He feels so strongly that they shouldn’t exist (he refers to them as “bogus”) that he is rather upset that we put them in our MEDAL YEARBOOK! His letter has been included in the magazine solely to stimulate debate and I must stress that we do not agree with his sentiments that the institution of Victoria Crosses for Commonwealth countries somehow “reduces” the original award or “insults” those who received it. Of course, the inclusion of the Crosses in the YEARBOOK is inevitable: they are part of the relevant awards systems and therefore cannot be overlooked, however the fact that they exist at all has created a certain amount of consternation in some quarters, both in the UK and in the respective countries themselves, and so maybe the question of their existence should be addressed. The first of the “new” Victoria Crosses was that for Australia as part of the ongoing revamp of their honours and awards system, started in the 1970s in an attempt to move away from the “colonial” British way of doing things. The Australian medals are indeed very different from the British ones, the designs and ribbons are very distinct and in most cases they bear very little resemblance to the awards made under the previous system—which is why it is perhaps surprising that in 1991 the Australians decided to institute a new pre-eminent award that didn’t just draw influence from an old “Empire” decoration but actually copied it completely—the Australian VC is even made of the same metal as the original Victoria Cross (the cascabels of the Chinese guns captured from the Russians during the Siege of Sebastopol in the Crimea. The New Zealand VC is also cast from the same metal and the Victoria Cross for Canada has a large amount of it in its composition). The Canadians followed their ex-colonial counterparts in 1993 with the institution of the Canadian Victoria Cross and whilst this medal’s design had the Latin Motto Pro Valore rather than the English For Valour (to reflect the bi-lingual nature of the country) and it included metals other than that from the gun cascabels in its make up (principally a Confederation Medal from 1867 and metals mined from across the country), it is still very obviously a VC. New Zealand instituted theirs in 1999 and, like the Australian version, it is true to its origins in every respect. To further cement the ties and confirm that these are very much seen as “proper” Victoria Crosses, any winners of the awards will automatically be welcomed into the very elite Victoria Cross and George Cross Holders Association. Having established that these are “real” VCs the simple question raised by this is why did these three countries decide to go that way? Obviously there have been many incredibly brave men from Canada, Australia and New Zealand who have won the VC in the past—but they did so under the British Honours system. Surely when new systems were introduced it was right to institute a brand new “highest” honour, wasn’t it? The New Zealanders managed to do it with the George Cross—which is now superseded by the reinvented New Zealand Cross—so why not with the Victoria Cross? Those in the UK who object to these new Crosses apparently do so because they feel that their existence somehow dilutes the “power” and “importance” of the original; those in the relevant countries who object do so because they feel there is still too much emphasis on the Colonial past, and to institute a Cross that harkens back so obviously to a potent symbol of Empire is to miss the chance to cut ties still further. I am afraid I have no sympathy with the first argument—those few men who will receive the “new” Crosses (and to date there have been just two—one for Australia to Trooper Mark Donaldson and one for New Zealand to Corporal Willie Apiata; no Canadian VCs have been awarded) are no less brave than the men awarded the original, their deeds no less worthy of the award and to suggest that the new Crosses are in some way inferior to the British one is plainly ludicrous. Similarly it has to be accepted that in countries with their own honours systems, even if they share a Monarch, to maintain a “British” award as their highest is clearly not acceptable so something had to change. So to object on the grounds that they simply should have kept what they had holds no water either. Those who argue that the new Crosses are too reminiscent of the past do have some sympathy from me—but it only goes so far. Yes these Crosses are quite obviously meant to be seen in the same vein as the original and, yes, the VC itself is indeed a symbol of Empirical might that will be unsavoury for some, but all too often change is made for change’s sake and so I will argue that whilst the implications of keeping a Victoria Cross may be distasteful to a few, the vast majority will see it differently. The Victoria Cross has always been the ultimate symbol of bravery, courage, valour in the face of the enemy—in all the wars, battles and skirmishes fought by British and Empire troops, encounters that have involved millions of men in the last 150 years, only a handful of VCs have ever been awarded—it really is the crème de la crème. It represents the absolute pinnacle of human bravery and is recognised as such across the globe. Look at it like that and it is small wonder that the Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians want to carry on the tradition and include the VC within their honours systems. Many of their countrymen have won and worn the VC with pride in the past and now others will have the chance to do so again. So Mr Leach, I cannot agree with you that these awards are “bogus”. I see them as part of an ongoing process to recognise the bravest of the brave and to suggest otherwise is, I think, to somehow miss the point.

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