A medal not an award

In my last post I insisted that the Victoria Cross medal is awarded not won.

However, this isn’t true. Many soldiers have set out with the express intention of winning a VC.

Take our old friend Thomas Henry Kavanagh, who was:

‘anxious to perform some service which would ensure to me the honour of wearing our Most Gracious Majesty’s Cross.’


An award not a medal

Servicemen are awarded the Victoria Cross.
They receive it.
It is bestowed upon on.
They do not WIN it.
It is not a gold medal in the Olympics.

General Dad

In my last post I talked about Frederick Roberts and his being awarded the Victoria Cross during the battle of Colenso. I implied that the award had as much to do with Frederick’s influential father as it did with gallant actions.

As a follow up I wanted to draw your attention to Walter Congreve, who braved his life to rescue Roberts, and was subsequently awarded the VC.

After the Boar War he remained in the army and quickly progressed through the ranks. By 1915 he was a Major-General fighting in the trenches of Northern France.

However, Walter was not the only Congreve in France. His son, William, was a Major in the Rifle Brigade. Here’s wikipedia account of the days before his death:

During the period 6 July/20 July 1916 at Longueval, France, Major Congreve constantly inspired those round him by numerous acts of gallantry. As Brigade Major he not only conducted battalions up to their positions but when the Brigade headquarters was heavily shelled he went out with the medical officer to remove the wounded to places of safety, although he himself was suffering from gas and other shell effects. He went out again on a subsequent occasion tending the wounded under heavy shell fire. Finally, on returning to the front line to ascertain the position after an unsuccessful attack, he was shot and died instantly.

For his action William Congreve was awarded the VC.

Is this history repeating its self?

How much does his father’s position play in this mater?

Once again it’s difficult to tell. Having read William Congreve’s diary there is no question he was a brave and committed soldier. However, so where many other soldiers who never received nation’s highest award for gallantry.

Roberts’ mysterious medal

‘On 15 December 1899 at the Battle of Colenso, South Africa, Lieutenant Roberts, with several others, tried to save the guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery, when the detachments serving the guns had all become casualties or been driven from their guns. Some of the horses and drivers were sheltering in a donga about 500 yards behind the guns and the intervening space was swept with shell and rifle fire. Lieutenant Roberts with two other officers (Walter Norris Congreve and Harry Norton Schofield) helped to hook a team into a limber and then to limber up a gun. While doing so, he fell badly wounded and later died of his wounds.’


The Battle of Colenso was a disaster of the British and shows Redvars Bullers at his incompetent best. It is tempting to suggest that the awarding of VCs after this battle was a tried and tested method of deflecting press interest from poor general ship (see Rorke’s Drift). However, I want to look at another aspect.

Frederick Hugh Sherston Roberts, son of the commander Field Marshall, died two days after the battle from his wounds. Technically, this left him ineligible to receive the Victoria Cross.

The idea of posthumously awarding the VC had been resisted from it’s inception. In 1856, Lord Panmure (Secretary of State for War) had ruled that the medal was ‘an order for the living.’

The Indian Mutiny presents a number of cases in which soldiers awarded the VC, later died before the medal was presented. Though importantly, these men were alive at the time of confirmation. There is also the award for Cornet Banks, who was included in a list of VC recipients in 1858, despite being dead. However, it appears that was a genuine oversight, with the War Office being unaware of his death.

It was not uncommon for the memorandums to be issued that stated that had the person in question survived, they would have been awarded the VC. The most famous of these being Coghil and Melvill’s exploits in the Zulu War.

This brings us back to Frederick Roberts. If you apply the strict wording of the warrant, as it existed at the time. Roberts is ineligible for the VC. Though he survived the incident (just), he was dead by the time the board considered the award. Therefore he should not have been considered.

So why was he awarded the medal, breaking over forty years of tradition?

Unfortunately, no official papers have been located relating to the decision. However, it is difficult to ignore the influential position of his high ranking father, who, on being questioned about the VC suggested that:

‘the WO [War Office] might have desired to stretch a point in this instance.’

The issue is further clouded by the actions of Queen Victoria, who requested the medal be forwarded directly to her for presentation to Roberts’ father. This was most unusual, since in all other cases the medal had been sent by letter to the next of kin.

Another political VC?


Lieutenant William Leefe-Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross only three days after being the first British airmen to shoot down a German airship over British soil. The infamous ‘Zeppelins’ had been causing havoc in English skis, with thier raids having a physiological effect far beyond any physical damage.

Although four further airships would be shot down in the following months, Leefe-Robinson’s success on 2 September 1916 caught the public’s imagination. Many locals came to refer to the event as ‘Zeppelin Sunday.’

It is my belief that this Victoria Cross has as much to do with propaganda as gallantry. In a recent correspondence with Bret Holman at Airminded, he pointed me towards Joseph Morris’ book The German Air Raids on Britain, 1914-1918 (1925), in which the author implies that Leefe-Robinson’s main achievement was a huge morale boost to the civilian population.

Another political VC?

Kavanagh VC

It is my view that in the years prior to the First World War, many soldiers would seek out actions that may ultimately result in the awarding of the Victoria Cross.

In Thomas Henry Kavanagh’s personal account of his actions during the Indian Mutiny he says:

‘In undertaking this enterprise, I was actuated by a sense of duty, believing that I could be of use to His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief when approaching for the relief of the besieged garrison, which had heroically resisted the attack of thirty times its own number for nearly five months within a weak and irregular entrenchment; and secondly, because I was anxious to perform some service which would ensure to me the honour of wearing our Most Gracious Majesty’s Cross.

This is just one example.

Here is a full transcript of his account.