The Mystery Victoria Crosses

I came across this interesting article today and it reminded me of the debate that exists regarding the Victoria Cross and Special Forces.

The article tells of William Williams who was awarded the VC in 1917. Williams was serving on a disguised and armed merchant ship, known as a ‘Q-ship’. Its job was to lure German U-Boats to the surface and attack them with hidden guns.

The Wikipedia site describes Williams’ actions as follows:

‘On 7 June 1917 HMS Pargust (one of the Q ships) was out in the Atlantic when her engine room was damaged by a torpedo fired from a U-boat. The ‘Panic party’ went away and the U-boat surfaced, thinking that Pargust was a merchant vessel. When the U-boat was about 50 yards away, the Commander of Pargust gave the order to fire and the submarine blew up and sank. The explosion when Pargust was torpedoed loosened the gun covers and Seaman Williams with great presence of mind took the whole weight on himself and physically prevented the covers from falling and betraying the ship to the enemy.’

The secrecy of this mission resulted in a rather vague citation, when on 2 August, 1917 the London Gazette published the following:

‘His majesty the King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the under mentioned Officers, Non-commissioned Officers and Men.’

It the atmosphere of secrecy that surrounded the Q-ship operations the vague citations was understandable. In fact, Williams was not the only ‘vague’ VC and he became part of a group known as the mystery VCs.

This raises an important question.

Should ‘sensitive’ actions be eligible for the VC?

Historically this was not such an issue. Special Forces operations only became part of regular combat during the Second World War. This means that in the years prior to WW2, the inclusion of vague citations was a suitable cover for ‘sensitive’ actions.
However, in the media hungry world of modern warfare this is no longer the case. In the recent conflict in Iraq, Special Forces played a large and significant role in the war. These troops often operated deep in enemy territory and at extreme risk. Naturally, the nature of this kind of warfare produces a high proportion of VC worthy actions. Yet, the secret nature of the missions means that the public issuing of a VC becomes impossible, since it would attract much unwanted media attention.

In his book, ‘Looking for Trouble’, General Sir Peter De La Billiere, a retired SAS commander, writes extensively about his time commanding Special Forces. In one telling passage he explains that:

‘I should have liked to recommend him [Mike Kealy] for the Victoria Cross, but this was politically impossible, for a VC would have attracted far too much attention and publicized our presence in Oman to an unacceptable degree.’

General De La Billiere’s comments come as no surprise. However, attempts have been made to award members of the SAS with the VC.

On Monday 25 March 2002, The Scotsman newspaper ran an article titled ‘SAS Afghan hero is awarded VC.’ The opening paragraphs read as follows:

‘A regimental sergeant major in the SAS is to become the first living recipient of a Victoria Cross since the Vietnam War, for his bravery in action against al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan. The soldier was part of a 90-strong British force which found itself outnumbered two to one during fierce fighting around the Tora Bora cave complex in the White Mountains. Despite being shot in the leg and wounded, he fought on as the SAS beat the odds to take the complex. The four hours of hand-to-hand combat sub-sequently became known as the Battle of the Caves. But because the identity of SAS soldiers is never disclosed, the man’s name will never be made public. Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, is believed to have wanted the man’s name to be published to create a “feel good” factor around the British presence in Afghanistan. However, he reluctantly agreed the man’s identity and the details of his gallantry would not appear in the London Gazette when the honour is officially announced.’

However, it never happened. Instead, two members of the SAS were awarded Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses.

So what is the answer?

The problem as I see it, is that the VC is a public medal. A key aspect of the issuing of the award is the public ‘feel good’ factor that is produced. The VC is a demonstration of the gallant acts of the British army. It publically illustrates just how bravely our soldiers are fighting and dying to protect our freedom. It makes us ‘feel good’ about the army. The VC is a political statement and therefore a political medal, with factors beyond military considerations impacting on the way it is awarded.

This means that secret, or anonymous, awarding of the medal is pointless. The medal has to make a statement. It must be public.


Men who did not feel fear

In June 1919, Charles Wilson, a strong and confident Yorkshireman, strode through the doors of St Mary’s hospital in Paddington, London. He had recently been appointed as physician to outpatients, fulfilling of a life long ambition. Yet, even in his moment of triumph, Charles’ deep, dark eyes betrayed a deeper and permanent sadness.

In 1909, he had been made a medical registrar at St Mary’s, but disillusionment had led the young doctor to resign his post and travel abroad. However, within eighteen months he had retuned to London, eager to prove his critics wrong. He went on to graduated from the London MD examinations and passed the examination for membership of the Royal College of Physicians. Yet, in October 1914, having regained his position at St Mary’s, he once again resigned but this time he intended to join the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Charles concealed his medical experience and qualifications from the army, later explaining that he wanted to ensure he would be posted to the front. Throughout the war, Charles acted as the doctor for the First Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers. His services didn’t go unrecognised and he was awarded the Military Cross in the battle of the Somme (1916), the Italian silver medal for valour (1917) and was twice mentioned in dispatches.

Yet, despite all his achievements, including his elevation to the title of Lord Moran and appointment as Winston Churchill’s personal doctor, I feel that Charles Wilson’s greatest legacy is his book, the Anatomy of Courage.

I have a copy sitting in front of me as I write. It was printed in its year of publication – 1945. It has a plain red, material bound cover. This gives the book a rough and tactile feel. Its pages are slightly yellowed and emit the comforting musty odour, that all historians grow to love. On the spine of the book, in small gold letters, are the words:

The Anatomy of Courage – Lord Moran

The aim of the author is simple. He uses his own experience and diary entries to examine the courage of the soldiers he lived alongside for many years in the trenches. Yet, this is no sentimental journey; he observes that four types of solider exist:

  • ‘Men who did not feel fear’
  • ‘Men who felt fear but did their job’
  • ‘Men who felt fear and showed it but did their job’
  • ‘Men who felt fear, showed it and shirked’

Wilson suggests that a man’s courage is like a bank account and that each day he is in combat he is paying from that account. As his balance is exhausted, the solider slips from one category to the next, until one day he is broken.

Wilson’s work is fascinating. Its conclusions are insightful, though often tinged with the sadness that he failed to recognise a soldier at the breaking point.

For me the book has one key section. Wilson talks in depth of the importance of the first type of solider, one who ‘did not feel fear.’ He explains that this type of man is very rare, yet these are the leaders, the men who win battles, the men who spark all around them to greater feats of courage.

He concludes:

‘And now because courage is rare. Because it alone stands between us and the ruin of our cause, we must once more acknowledge and confess the primacy of courage.’

It is for this reason that the Victoria Cross was invented – to acknowledge these rare men.

Victoria Cross and the Crimea

In response to a previous post, Gavin Robinson has asked to see more about the Crimean War.

Below is a breakdown of the first set of VCs issued for the Crimean War:

  • 1855; Sebastopol, Crimea – 58
  • 1854; Battle of Inkerman – 19
  • 1854; Battle of Balaclava – 9*
  • 1854; Battle of the Alma – 7
  • 1855; Sea of Azov – 7
  • 1854; Aland Islands, Finland – 3
  • 1855; Fort of Viborg, Finland – 2
  • 1855; Woronzoff Road -2
  • 1855; Kars – 1
  • 1855; Taganrog – 1
  • 1855; Genitichi – 1
  • 1854; Little Inkerman -1

*Includes the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade

I think these figures raise two important issues.

The first is that medals were issued for actions in both Russia and Finland. The Crimean War was a global war, which spread far beyond the Crimea. Today, the name of the conflict illustrates are ignorance, however at the time the war was very much a European, as well as Russian, affair.

The second point is the shear number of medals. My research has shown that the initial flood of enthusiasm for the new medal resulted in a large number of awards being issued, many of which would have never been passed by the committee only a few years later. A feeling developed, pioneered at times by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, that the medal must remain exclusive. The army agreed with this view, with many in the higher echelons believing that its existence would drive many solider onto new heights of gallantry. Yet, not all thought that this was such a desirable approach for the common solider. The Duke of Wellington felt strongly that a solider should do his duty and that excessive acts of bravery had a negative impact on the cohesion of the unit.

Victoria Cross awards 1856-1913

VC Statistics

As a follow on to my last post, here is the break down of VCs award between 1856 and 1913.

Conflict Number of VCs

  • Crimean War (1854–1856) 111
  • Persian War (1856–1857) 3
  • Indian Mutiny (1857–1859) 182
  • Taranaki Maori War, New Zealand (1860–1861) 2
  • Third China War (1860–1862) 7
  • Umbeyla Campaign (1863) 2
  • Shimonoseki Expedition, Japan (1864) 3
  • T’ai P’ing Rebellion (1851–1864) 1
  • Bhutan War (1864–1865) 2
  • Canada (special) (1866) 1
  • The Gambia (1866) 1
  • Waikato-Hauhau Maori War, New Zealand (1863–1866) 13
  • Andaman Islands Expedition (1867) 5
  • Abyssinia Expedition (1867–1868) 2
  • Looshai Expedition, India (1872) 1
  • First Ashanti Expedition (1873–1874) 4
  • Malaya (1875–1876) 1
  • Baluchistan (1877) 1
  • Ninth Cape Frontier War (1877–1878) 1
  • Zulu War (1879) 23
  • Second Afghan War (1878–1880) 16
  • Second Naga Hills Expedition (1879–1880) 1
  • First Boer War (1880–1881) 6
  • Basuto War (1879–1882) 6
  • Occupation of Egypt (1882) 3
  • Sudan (1881–1885) 4
  • Chin Field Force, Burma (1889) 1
  • Karen-Ni Expedition, Burma (1888–1889) 1
  • Hunza-Naga Campaign, India (1891) 3
  • Manipur Expedition, India (1891) 1
  • The Gambia (2nd) (1892) 1
  • Kachin Hills Expedition, Burma (1892–1893) 1
  • North West Frontier, India (1895) 1
  • Matabeleland Rebellion, Rhodesia (1896) 2
  • Mashona Rebellion, Rhodesia (1896–1897) 1
  • Crete (1898) 1
  • Malakand Frontier War, India (1897–1898) 1
  • Mohmand Campaign, India (1897–1898) 3
  • Tirah Campaign, India (1897–1898) 7
  • Boxer Rising, China (1900) 2
  • Sudan Campaign (1896–1900) 6
  • Third Ashanti Expedition (1900–1901) 2
  • Second Somaliland Expedition (1902) 1
  • South African War (Boer War) (1899–1902) 78
  • Kano-Sokoto Expedition, Nigeria (1903) 1
  • Third Somaliland Expedition (1902–1903) 3
  • Armed Mission to Tibet (1903–1904) 1
  • Fourth Somaliland Expedition (1903–1905) 2


(Though taken from Wikipedia, this data is based on the excellent research of Mike Chapman)

A political medal

The Victoria Cross medal was instigated on 29 January 1856, in a climate of public distrust and suspicion. In the years prior to the medal’s announcement, the British army had been embroiled in a bloody and prolonged conflict in the Crimea. Though victorious, inept administration, indecisive general ship and damming media coverage, had dealt a severe blow to the public’s perception of the British army.

As a direct result, wide scale public and governmental examination of the army was undertaken. It was in the wake of this public relations disaster that the Victoria Cross was born. It is my view that the medal was created to meet both a military and a public need. Contemporary changes in the structure of the army, together with additions to the gallantry award system, meant that a need had been created for a universal gallantry award. In addition, there existed an increasing demand from the British public for an award system that allowed acts of bravery to be recognised in a official manner.

It is for these reasons that I believe that the Victoria Cross was, and still is, a political medal. By this I mean that factors beyond the fulfilment of military guidelines are significant in deciding ,when and to whom, the medal is awarded.

To examine this more closely lets us look at a some facts about the medal in the years prior to the First World War.

Between the medal’s instigation in 1856 and the start of the First World War in 1914, 522 VCs were awarded.

111 VCs were presented for actions during the Crimean War (1854 – 1856) and 182 for gallantry during the Indian Mutiny (1857-1859). These two campaigns represent 56% of the medals presented during this period.

This means that during a time when VCs were award for a total of forty eight conflicts, over half the medals issued were for just two wars.

This is even more surprising when you consider the Boer Wars (1899-1902) and the Zulu War (1879). These disputes have the similarity that they were highly ‘visible’ conflicts, in which the national newspapers levelled a large amount of very public criticism. Yet, the Boer Wars saw 78 VCs presented and the Zulu War a mere 23. This means that more medals were issued during the Crimean war, than both of these campaigns combined.

If we look at the Zulu War even more closely we see that of the 23 medals issued, 14 arise from the disastrous battle of Isandlwana (January 22, 1879) and subsequent defence at the defence of Rorke’s Drift (January 22January 23, 1879).

So what does this mean?

If during this period, VCs were being issued whenever an act of gallantry fulfilled the strict military guidelines, we would expect to see a correlation between conflicts, numbers of soldiers in active combat and the number of VCs issues.

However, this is not the case.

Therefore, I believe that factors, other that gallantry, influenced when and to whom the VC was awarded.