Our most brave
SE RVING OUR COUNTRY IN WAR REQUIRES GALLANTRY FOR ANY MEMBER OF THE AUSTRALI AN MILITARY. BUT EXCEPTIONAL 100 ACTS OF HEROISM HAVE EARNED OUR HIGHEST BRAVERY AWARD, THE VICTORIA CROSS.
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.