Magazine article The Spectator

'Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace', by Brian Izzard - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Glory and Dishonour: Victoria Cross Heroes Whose Lives Ended in Tragedy or Disgrace', by Brian Izzard - Review

Article excerpt

'The Victoria Cross,' gushed a mid-19th-century contributor to the Art Journal, 'is thoroughly English in every particular. Given alike to the highest and the lowest in rank, but given always with a cautious and discriminating hand... the Victoria Cross is an epic poem'. Like all epic poems, the VC has its tragedies. For some that tragedy lay on the field of battle; for others, as Brian Izzard details in his often depressing new book, it lay in the life that followed.

The original Royal Warrant by which Victoria instituted her eponymous medal stipulated that it was to be given only for service 'in the presence of the enemy' for some 'signal act of valour, or devotion to country'. Recipients were to receive a pension of £10 a year (worth £985 in today's money, rather less than the tax-free £10,000 now offered) and were eligible to win it more than once (only three have won it twice, none more than twice). Most importantly, it was to be awarded without reference to rank, length of service, or wounds -- and everyone, from civilians to buglers, drivers and Brigadier Generals, have since won this most distinguished gong.

Victoria's Warrant also ordained that 'if any person on whom such distinction shall be conferred, be convicted of treason, cowardice, felony or of any infamous crime ... his name shall forthwith be erased from the registry'. This has been done only eight times, and not since 1908. In 1920, George V took the view that even if a VC were hanged for murder he should be allowed to wear his medal 'on the scaffold', and the position appears to have stuck.

One wonders whether the King's views were cemented by the experience of George Ravenhill, to whom he had given the VC in 1901. Private Ravenhill had helped save guns and officers during the disastrous action at Colenso in the Boer war and had later won a Distinguished Conduct Medal at Frederikstad. By 1906, however, he and his wife and children were in the Erdington workhouse, and two years later he was convicted of stealing. He claimed that the Government owed him a pension of £50, and that, had he received it, he would not have needed to resort to theft. He was sentenced to a month in jail and had his VC struck down -- the last to be so treated. He re-enlisted to fight and survive the Great War, ending his days penniless once again, and in an unmarked grave. …

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