Our most brave


Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY JOSEPHINE SAR­GENT

Ex­cep­tional acts of hero­ism have earned 100 our high­est brav­ery award, the Vic­to­ria Cross

IT’S A SIM­PLE crim­son rib­bon at­tached to a small bronze medal bear­ing just two words: “For Valour”. But the sig­nif icance of the Vic­to­ria Cross is truly im­mense. Awarded for wartime acts of hero­ism, courage and sac­rif ice, it’s the high­est award for brav­ery a per­son un­der Bri­tish or Com­mon­wealth mil­i­tary com­mand can achieve.

To date, 100 Aus­tralians have re­ceived the dis­tin­guished award. They are men – none so far has been be­stowed on a woman – recog­nised as the bravest among the brave. They have caught live grenades mid-air to throw back into en­emy trenches, rid­den out on horse­back un­der f ire to save the life of an­other, or fought on while se­ri­ously wounded.

Named af­ter Queen Vic­to­ria – who, in 1856 as the Crimean War (1853–1856) con­cluded, be­lieved a spe­cial trib­ute was needed for out­stand­ing acts of valour – the Vic­to­ria Cross was the f irst truly egal­i­tar­ian award in the Im­pe­rial Hon­ours and Awards sys­tem. “Dur­ing the Crimean War, jour­nal­ists were mak­ing their way onto bat­tlef ields and re­port­ing on the heroic deeds of [ev­ery­day] Bri­tish sol­diers,” says Dr Aaron Pe­gram, a se­nior his­to­rian at the Aus­tralian War Memo­rial.

This me­dia at­ten­tion prompted Queen Vic­to­ria to recog­nise these sol­diers, ir­re­spec­tive of rank, for their ex­cep­tional acts of brav­ery. Be­fore this, only off icers and those with dis­tin­guished ser­vice had been awarded with medals.

THE PO­TEN­TIAL re­cip­i­ents for Aus­tralia’s high­est wartime brav­ery award are the 2 mil­lion peo­ple who have served in our mil­i­tary since the Boer War of 1899–1902. “Since its in­cep­tion in 1856, only 1363 Vic­to­ria Crosses have been awarded to Bri­tish and Com­mon­wealth sol­diers, sailors and air­men – show­ing just how rare it is to re­ceive this award,” Aaron says.

Con­sid­er­a­tion for the award re­quires an act of “most con­spic­u­ous brav­ery, or some dar­ing or pre-em­i­nent act of valour or self-sac­rif ice, or ex­treme de­vo­tion to duty in the pres­ence of the en­emy”. It must be wit­nessed by at least three peo­ple in­clud­ing at least one of­fi­cer. A writ­ten ci­ta­tion is sub­mit­ted for ap­proval across var­i­ous lev­els be­fore fi­nal ap­proval from the reign­ing Bri­tish monarch.

His­tor­i­cally, the medals were bronze cut from a can­non taken in 1855 by Bri­tish forces dur­ing the Crimean War’s Siege of Sev­astopol. But that stock is said to have run out at the start of World War I. “It’s not en­tirely clear where the stock used to­day comes from, but most likely from an­other can­non cap­tured dur­ing the Crimean War,” Aaron says. Lon­don jew­ellers Han­cocks have hand­made all Vic­to­ria Cross medals.

A sig­nif icant change was made to the hon­our in Jan­uary 1991, when the Vic­to­ria Cross for Aus­tralia was in­sti­tuted as part of the Aus­tralian Hon­ours and Awards Sys­tem, rep­re­sent­ing a de­par­ture from the tra­di­tional Im­pe­rial sys­tem. The medal, how­ever, is no dif­fer­ent from its im­pe­rial equiv­a­lent, and has been awarded four times since the change, most re­cently to Cor­po­ral Cameron Baird of the 2nd Com­mando Reg­i­ment. He re­ceived the award posthu­mously af­ter he was killed try­ing to draw en­emy fire away from his men in Afghanistan in 2013.

De­spite the award ’s egal­i­tar ian in­tent, it is not fully rep­re­sen­ta­tive of Aus­tralia’s broader mil­i­tary his­tory. No mem­ber of the Royal Aus­tralian Navy, for ex­am­ple, has yet been awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross. Aaron be­lieves this could be be­cause “in the pres­ence of the en­emy” is a key cri­te­rion. “Aus­tralian sailors have re­ceived many brav­ery dec­o­ra­tions for their hero­ism – some were awarded the Ge­orge Cross for de­fus­ing sea mines dur­ing and af­ter the World War II,” he says. “It’s ex­tremely danger­ous work, but for what­ever rea­son, it was found to be more ap­pro­pri­ate to award those sailors with other awards.” In­sti­tuted by King Ge­orge VI in 1940, the Ge­orge Cross is the sec­ond-high­est brav­ery award in the Im­pe­rial Hon­ours and Awards sys­tem.

DE­SPITE THE PRES­TIGE of the Vic­to­ria Cross, sol­diers awarded the medal talk of a bur­den, Aaron says. “Men may have been do­ing brave things all around them in the midst of com­bat, but be­cause of the way the cards fell, only one of them was marked for dis­tinc­tion,” he ex­plains. “Some sol­diers see them­selves not as he­roes, but do­ing the job they were trained to do.”

For ex­am­ple, Wally Peeler was awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross for his ac­tions at Brood­seinde in Bel­gium dur­ing WWI, but later ref lected: “I don’t think I was brave – not any more than the other Aussies who were with me. I sim­ply had a job to do and I did it… Only af­ter­wards did I re­alise how lucky I’d been not to get killed my­self.”

The 100 Aus­tralians awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross are an im­por­tant part of Aus­tralia’s mil­i­tary his­tory. Some have be­come na­tional icons, but oth­ers have worn the crim­son rib­bon less com­fort­ably. On the fol­low­ing pages we list them all and fea­ture ex­panded sto­ries of a rep­re­sen­ta­tive few, cov­er­ing each mil­i­tary cam­paign. You can ex­plore the full sto­ries of many more on the Aus­tralian War Memo­rial web­site: awm.gov.au

“Many had feet of clay,” Aaron says. “And that’s the in­ter­est­ing thing. Some men were def ined by their split-sec­ond de­ci­sion on the bat­tlef ield. But oth­ers did not see them­selves as he­roes at all. They were just or­di­nary men do­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary things un­der con­di­tions very few of us would ever ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Queen El­iz­a­beth II con­grat­u­lates Aussie sol­dier Daniel Keighran at a Buck­ing­ham Palace re­cep­tion for re­cip­i­ents of Vic­to­ria and Ge­orge Cross medals.

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