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.
‘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.