News & Blog

From Waterloo to Walmer Castle

Posted on Thu, 1 February 2018 by Alyson Thomas - Medal News

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Backwards facing

THIS month’s News and Views features the story of Chips, the husky-crossbreed awarded the latest Dickin Medal by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). The “Animal VC” (yes we know it’s not actuallythe same as a Victoria Cross but it is the highest award for gallantry an animal can receive thus the comparison) also featured in the last issue of MEDAL NEWS with the award to Mali for his work in Afghanistan but Chips’ medal was a little different—inasmuch that it was awarded 75 years after the action (on Sicily during World War II) and, of course, long after the recipient had gone to the big kennel in the sky . . .

The Dickin Medal itself often causes controversy in medal collecting circles, some believing it is an admirable attempt by an animal charity to recognise the important part animals play in war (and they most certainly do) whilst others feel the award is something of a waste of time, both because the animal itself has no idea of the significance of the award and also because it only was “brave” enough to win it because it was responding to its natural instinct and training and wasn’t actually being “brave” per se at all. The counter argument to that viewpoint is twofold—firstly whilst the animal might not be aware of what’s going on the humans around it are and it is important for us, as humans, to recognise the contribution of all those who aid in fighting alongside us and secondly there are numerous cases of human bravery medals being awarded to men who, when it comes down to it were simply following their natural instinct and their training, in that respect it might be asked how do they differ from a dog like Chips?

In this particular case, of course, the controversy may stem not so much from what the award is, who (or what) it was awarded to or for what action but rather when the award was made and why. I have utmost respect for the PDSA and the Dickin Medal, I am one of those who believe it is an excellent award and some of the stories it has brought us are inspirational, however, on this occasion I am not so convinced. That Chips was worthy of the Dickin Medal is not in doubt, he absolutely saved the lives of the men in his platoon and a similar action by a human would have certainly resulted in a gallantry award, however, as the Dickin Medal was only instituted in 1943 Chips probably missed out because of timing (Chips saved his platoon in July of that year, the previous earliest action to qualify for a Dickin award was September 1943). This has been rectified now, but why? The PDSA press release doesn’t tell us the reasoning behind the award being made this year, apart from the fact that it is the 75th anniversary of the Casablanca Conference and this would seem to be a way to mark that. But Chips and his handler are no longer with us, nor I imagine are many members of the platoon he saved; the conflict for which he is honoured is long past and whilst it is important to recognise the role of animals in war, there were many awards for World War II—that “they also served” is recognised, it is acknowledged and this new award doesn’t add to that. I suspect, although I am happy to be corrected, that the PDSA is simply following the trend of recent years in awarding retrospective medals because it is fashionable to do so—in many cases these retrospective medals have been awarded because a genuine error has been made or perhaps politics got in the way, but in this case I’m not certain that applies—I think that the PDSA were told about Chips, thought he was worthy of a Dickin Medal and so awarded one—but that raises the question, where does that end? I am certain there are dozens, if not hundreds, of cases of animal bravery probably worthy of a Dickin Medal—think of World War I and the pigeons and horses used then, think of the number of animals used in warfare before the era of mechanisation. Is anybody going to tell me that nowhere in amongst the hundreds of thousands of animals who served alongside us then, there won’t be more Dickin Medal worthy acts of animal bravery? Of course there will, so does that mean they are to be honoured too? If they are and we are about to get a slew of new awards, then it is guaranteed that certain factions will start looking again at stories of human heroism, believing that if animals can be retrospectively decorated then humans most certainly can too. This is, of course, a slippery slope as whilst some stories are clear cut and obvious, others will have clouded across the years, and when viewed with those wonderful rose-tinted glasses of hindsight may appear other than they really were.

I have said it many times but we cannot and must not start to judge history from the perspective of today, we must not be so conceited as to believe we know better than our forebears and we must not start to change the past because it is fashionable to do so. I do not want to take anything away from the Dickin Medal or the award of it to Chips, and I certainly don’t want to detract from the wonderful work of the PDSA, they had their reasons for making such a retrospective award in this case—I just hope they don’t do it too often.