A VERY BRITISH HEROISM; Utterly Self-Effacing ... Worried Only about Their Comrades ... on the 150th Anniversary of the Victoria Cross (in an Era When Footballers Are Hailed as Heroes) We Brought Together the Oldest and Youngest VCs. Their Stories Will Inspire You
Byline: ROBERT HARDMAN
DO NOT look to Germany's World Cup to see real national heroes in action this month. Look, instead, to central London. They will not be complaining about the heat or their metatarsals, even though some of this lot can barely walk. They will all be infuriatingly modest, so much so that some will probably refuse to discuss why they are even there.
But every single one of them has done more for their country than any sporting contest will ever demand. Just don't pick a fight with them.
This coming week sees a series of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross, the most revered award for bravery in conflict. To date, 1,355 men have been awarded this crimsonribboned, bronze cross in recognition of ' conspicuous bravery or devotion to the country in the presence of the enemy'.
Today, just 12 of them survive around the world, and nine are well enough to make it to London.
Over three days, they will be entertained by the Queen, they will open a fascinating (and free) VC exhibition at the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks in central London on Wednesday, and there will be plenty of catching up.
This bold little group will also include two women for whom such occasions are always tinged with grief. Just two VCs were awarded after the Falklands War, both posthumously. But Sara Jones, widow of Colonel H. Jones VC, and Freda McKay, mother of Sergeant Ian McKay VC, are always included as honorary members.
They will be joined by 22 of the 24 surviving holders of the George Cross, the blue-ribboned medal for the 'greatest heroism or the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger' - military or civilian.
One of them passed away, quietly, just a few days ago. Sir John Rowlands GC saved countless lives defusing Nazi bombs. They gave him a life expectancy of ten weeks at the time. He did it for the entire war.
These heroes are also in London to mark the 50th anniversary of their club, the VC and GC Association. It not only keeps them all in touch, but it raises funds to help needy widows or members and to maintain VC and GC graves.
On Monday they will join the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall for a special service at Westminster Abbey. There, too, will be 2,000 descendants and relations of everyone who has ever won a VC or a GC.
Some gene pool.
It will be an occasion for the rest of us to look on and ponder the eternal question: 'How did they do it?' Since no VC I have ever met likes to talk about his heroics, there seems only one way of winkling it out of him: get another VC to ask him.
So I have brought together the oldest VC and the youngest VC to discuss life, death and what it's like to straddle the gap.
ERIC WILSON and Johnson Beharry know all about it. They may have been different ranks from different backgrounds in different wars more than half a century apart. But they know what it is like to risk life and limb under enemy fire for the sake of their comrades. They just don't necessarily think of it as bravery.
'What is bravery? I don't know.
You just did what you had to do,' says Colonel Wilson, 93, looking out over the beautiful garden of his Dorset cottage as his wife, Joy, prepares lunch. Private Beharry, 26, is equally vague about this bravery business.
'My commanding officer always says: "You were a bloody idiot and thank God you were," ' he laughs. 'I had trained to be an infantry soldier, I loved being one, and I was just doing the job.' Touchingly, each is as impressed by the other as he is modest about himself. The younger man is gripped by the older's explanation of his battle tactics. The older is fascinated when Pte Beharry shows him the two battered, bloodstained helmets which saved his life.
Both are extremely proud that they share a regimental link.
Pte Beharry's Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment is the modern incarnation of Col Wilson's original unit, the East Surrey Regiment. …