Magazine article The Spectator

'Victoria's Cross', by Gary Mead - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Victoria's Cross', by Gary Mead - Review

Article excerpt

Victoria's Cross Gary Mead

Weidenfeld, pp.288, £25, ISBN: 97801843542698

'It is the task of a Patton or a Napoleon to persuade soldiers that bits of ribbon are intrinsically valuable. The historian's job, in part, is to spot contradictions and unravel obfuscations, and the history of the VC is steeped in both.'

To this job of de-obfuscating, Gary Mead, former journalist and military historian, might well add 'though the heavens fall'. For although he concedes that, remarkably, the Victoria Cross remains 'one of the few British institutions that is untarnished by accusations of corruption, scandal, political intrigue or manipulation', the procedure for awarding the highest British decoration for courage in the presence of the enemy is 'peppered with anomalies, contradictions, prejudice and favouritism', as well as political convenience.

None of this could have been gainsaid 100 years ago, but, he argues, the system now needs urgent reform, not least because the medal that recognises supreme valour is becoming an endangered species. For a start, the VC committee, comprising principally the MoD's permanent under-secretary and the service chiefs of staff, has over the years so loaded the decoration and themselves with arbitrary requirements that it has become almost impossible to win it, even posthumously. These requirements include: the need to protect the value of the medal by not over-awarding it; a 90 per cent chance of the recipient's being killed in action; and, given his godlike status (he -- so far not she -- is traditionally saluted by the highest ranks), the recipient's ability to handle the honour. I put all this to one field marshal, a soldier of considerable operational experience, who agreed wholeheartedly.

At the time of its institution 'for valour' late in the Crimean war Victoria's cross was the only medal for bravery available for officers, who were otherwise rewarded by appointment to an order such as the Bath, though this tended to be for signal service rather than brave deeds -- the latter being expected of gentlemen. The other ranks' Distinguished Conduct Medal had been instituted at the beginning of the Crimean war for 'distinguished, gallant and good conduct in the field'; but in the absence of good tactics there was of necessity much valour, and hence the need for the VC, which also did much for the standing of the monarchy.

This pattern -- tactical disaster recovered by heroism -- continued throughout Victoria's other wars, the VC becoming a proud feature of every campaign or battle, of which perhaps Rorke's Drift was the most prolific example, as well as one of the most unedifying. …

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