Magazine article The Spectator

A Century and a Half of Conspicuous Bravery

Magazine article The Spectator

A Century and a Half of Conspicuous Bravery

Article excerpt

Michael Ashcroft, a devoted collector of the Victoria Cross, marks the 150th anniversary of the medal's creation and salutes its simple beauty

The concept of bravery intrigues me as much today as it did when I was a schoolboy.

What is the crucial factor that makes some people more courageous than others? Is it in their genes, their upbringing or their training? Are they motivated by patriotism, religious conviction, respect for those who fight with them or simply an oldfashioned sense of duty? Is the bravery of most people premeditated or is it a spur-of-themoment response to the heat of battle?

These are the sorts of questions I started to pose when, nearly half a century ago, I was a 12-year-old boarder at Norwich School. I watched films and read books about war, particularly the second world war, which had ended the year before I was born.

But it was bravery - rather than uniforms or weapons or battle plans - that fascinated me most. I was in awe of people who had performed heroic acts in the face of great danger. I looked up to people who risked the greatest gift of all - life itself - for their comrades and their country. One of the brave men I revered was my father, Eric Ashcroft, who at dawn on 6 June 1944 found himself crashing through the waves heading for Sword Beach as part of the D-Day landings. As a young lieutenant, he had been briefed to expect 75 per cent casualties - dead and wounded - as they landed in Normandy. In fact, my father's commanding officer was shot dead at his side as they reached the beach. My father was struck by shrapnel: despite serious wounds, he fought on until ordered from the battlefield.

It was this early interest in bravery which led later to my fascination with the Victoria Cross (VC). This year - 2006 - marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of the VC, the world's most prestigious award for valour. I cannot pretend to have answered all the testing questions I posed as a schoolboy but I have, through reading and research, learnt to appreciate the splendour of the decoration that was first created by Queen Victoria towards the end of the Crimean war. The beauty of the VC is its simplicity and the fact that it is awarded entirely on merit. It is the premier award for bravery which Britain and other Commonwealth countries can bestow upon their servicemen, yet it respects not rank nor birthright nor colour nor creed. The medal is a modest Maltese cross, a little over an inch square. It is cast from base metal with no intrinsic value and the VC citations usually begin: 'For most conspicuous bravery. . .'.

When I was in my early twenties and building a business career, I became aware that it was possible to buy VCs on the rare occasion they came up for sale. I ordered the relevant auction catalogues but the prices of the medals were then prohibitive to me. Yet I resolved one day, if my financial circumstances allowed it, to buy a VC.

At the age of 40, I fulfilled my dream. I went to a Sotheby's auction in London in 1986 and successfully bid for the VC that had been awarded to Leading Seaman James Magennis, a diver who, while serving in Malaysia in 1945, had fixed a mine to the underside of a Japanese warship.

I was not a regular customer at Sotheby's and so it took a few days for the cheque to clear. Eventually my driver picked up the VC and brought it to my offices in Hanover Square. …

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