Men who lifted comrades out of warfare’s pit of hell
The Victoria Cross commemorates self-sacrificing heroism
War is hell yet its heroes are celebrated. To mark 100 years since the armistice that brought an end to World War I, we decided to publish a special magazine, A History of Courage, telling the story of Australia’s 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross, from the often forgotten Boer War to the ongoing hostilities in Afghanistan.
In some quarters, the 1914-18 conflict is dismissed as pointless, yet its significance for Australia has become clearer with the passage of time. Almost half a million men enlisted, more than 60,000 died. As Geoffrey Blainey writes today, grieving families wondered whether news of the armistice should be celebrated at all. But the achievements of the Australian Imperial Force were accurately recorded by Charles Bean. The first was helping to defeat Germany. “Its second was to register ‘like a shooting star’ a new and unknown democratic nation to the world,” Paul Kelly writes today. “And its third was to furnish Australians with an indispensable gift amid tragedy — the story of how ‘the Australian nation came to know itself’.”
Hard to believe now, but there was a mood in the Europe of 1914 that a short, sharp war might be just the thing, a purgative for an enfeebled civilisation. And so began the war to end all wars, except of course it ushered in nothing more peaceful than an anxious pause before an even more destructive conflagration. Today there are grim flashpoints that a miscalculation could transform into nuclear strike and counterstrike — something that all the heroism of wars past cannot prevent.
Periods of peace and prosperity are fleeting in many parts of the world and rare in the long stretch of human history. The horror of war is a lesson regularly expounded upon, seemingly never learned. Pluralistic democracy is a near miracle and often besieged by chaos and conflict. Its values are precious and sometimes there is no choice but to fight in their defence rather than live under a false and oppressive peace. The century since the armistice has witnessed enough evil, but victory by Germany in either world war would have added bitter chapters to the story. The heroic struggle of soldiers and citizens against global aggression was vindicated. Amid the convulsions of war, some individuals stand out as especially inspiring, especially worthy of recognition. This is the purpose of the VC, cast in bronze from the remains of captured cannons. But what are heroes made of? The men we profile today come from such different epochs and the events that thrust them into the limelight — the circumstances in which they seized the initiative — have their own particular features. These men are not triumphalists glorying in the number of enemy killed, although death is a given of the battlefield. Duty, the cause of freedom, devotion to empire or nation are all elements of heroism. But a defining feature in many of these 100 accounts is great-hearted courage and sacrifice that shields comrades from enemy fire and brings back the wounded, no matter the cost. It’s this fierce comradeship that puts flesh on the abstract idea of patriotism; likewise, the benign form of nationalism is built from living bonds between a vast number of individuals and families.
Those entitled to wear the VC have often been self-effacing, insisting they simply did what anyone would do. Perhaps this is because they know better than many the terrible lottery of war, the seemingly arbitrary way in which one life is snuffed out and another sent home intact. Even so, these heroes made a crucial decision and committed themselves to a course of action that lifted war’s death sentence from comrades, sometimes at their own mortal cost. And if veterans have more reason than the rest of us to dwell on the price of war, it does not diminish their patriotism, just as the poetry of Wilfred Owen documented the misery of the trenches while the poet himself still believed he should be nowhere but on the frontline.
In Vietnam in 1969 a wounded warrant officer Keith Payne covered the withdrawal of his troops under heavy fire from the enemy and kept returning to the scene of the fight until he had found 40 wounded men. Asked years later if he had been afraid, he said: “My god yes, yes, I was.” Courage is not the opposite of fear, it is fear transcended. And heroism of that kind is worth celebrating as long as the bedrock values of our democratic society stand in need of protection.