Bravest: Australia's Greatest War Heroes and How They Won Their Medals

Bravest: Australia's Greatest War Heroes and How They Won Their Medals

by Robert Macklin


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781742375847
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 04/01/2011
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Robert Macklin is a journalist and  author who has written a number of books including The Man Who Died Twice (with Peter Thompson), Backs to the Wall (with G.D. Mitchell) and Fire In The Blood.

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Australia's Greatest War Heroes and How they Won their Medals

By Robert Macklin

Allen & Unwin

Copyright © 2008 Robert Macklin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-74269-286-9


'One miserable scribbler' and a little bit of ribbon

The Victoria Cross had its genesis in the Crimean War, but its original conception had little to do with that sovereign's concern for her soldiery. Rather, it was a reaction to the changing conditions of war, as journalists began reporting on the horrors of battle and the appalling incompetence of some military commanders almost as they occurred.

The war itself was an exercise in Imperial hubris. It began in the early 1850s in a dispute between Russia and France over which nation should have 'sovereign authority' over the Christian churches within Palestine. The Ottoman Turks under Sultan Abdulmecid — who occupied Palestine at the time — sided with the French. In response, Tsar Nicholas I mobilised his armies in Europe and began a diplomatic offensive in Constantinople. The French sent a naval task force through the Dardanelles to support the Ottomans; Russia increased its military pressure in Europe, and the sultan made a pre-emptive attack on the Russian Army near the Danube.

Beneath the politico-religious manoeuvrings an Imperial power play was at work. The Russians sought an unencumbered route through the Dardanelles to and from their Black Sea ports, while the French and British resisted any perceived Russian 'expansionism'. Wise heads such as the leader of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, were aghast at the violent turn of events, as the Russians inflicted heavy casualties on the Ottoman troops in Europe, then destroyed a large part of their navy. Despite his vigorous advocacy, Britain joined with France to 'defend' the Ottoman Empire, and in March 1854 both declared war on Russia.

The commander of the British forces was Lord Raglan, a crusty, wilful aristocrat who had lost an arm at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 while serving as aide-de-camp to Lord Wellington. He had seen no action since then, having been Wellington's military secretary until the great man's death in 1852. Nonetheless, at the outbreak of hostilities Raglan was promoted to full general and given charge of 27,000 troops sent to join 30,000 from France and 7000 from Turkey.

Raglan was also accompanied (despite his vehement protests) by a contingent of war correspondents who would transmit their battlefield reports by the new electric telegraph. Chief among them was William Howard Russell, the Irish-born correspondent for The Times. Though educated at Trinity College and Cambridge, Russell's sympathies were with the junior officers and the other ranks, who bore the brunt of Raglan's mismanagement. As thousands of young men were sacrificed to his stupidity and incompetence on the battlefield and to disease and starvation behind the lines, Russell took up their cause.

The front-line soldiers called the reporter 'a vulgar low Irishman who sings a good song, drinks anyone's brandy and water and smokes as many cigars as a Jolly Good Fellow. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters.' Indeed, so graphic were his despatches that they inspired Florence Nightingale to set out for the Crimea with 38 newly trained young women volunteers to begin her legendary nursing career. Russell's account of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade was a classic of its kind.

But his reporting did not find favour with Queen Victoria, who described his reports as 'infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers'. Similarly, her consort, Prince Albert, complained that 'the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country'.

The House of Commons became restive. The Liberal MP for Bath, John Roebuck, led the attack on the Conservative government, and when his call for an inquiry into the condition of the British Army won majority support, the prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, resigned. Roebuck's associate in the same constituency, Captain George Treweeke Scobell, began pressing for an 'Order of Merit' for 'persons serving in the Army or Navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry during the present war and to which every grade and individual ... may be admissible'.

At the time there was no award for conspicuous courage in the British Army, and certainly none for the private soldier, who was regarded as little more than the sweepings of the gutter. The official attitude was that the troops would 'do their duty' for queen and country and that this should be reward enough.

For officers above field rank — majors in the army and captains in the navy — there had been an attempt to reward acts of valour after Waterloo with the Order of the Bath. But it lost much of its distinction in the Crimea, when Raglan recommended its award to entire general staffs.

In response to Russell's vivid descriptions of the battlefield — and with the parliament anxious to placate public opinion — the army hastily introduced the Distinguished Conduct Medal for sergeants and lower ranks in December 1854; the navy followed suit with the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for petty officers and seamen.

But when Scobell persisted with his demands for an honour that recognised supreme courage without reference to rank or class, the new prime minister, Lord Newcastle, felt obliged to raise the issue with Prince Albert. Newcastle cast his appeal in the most pragmatic terms. 'The value attached by soldiers to a little bit of ribbon is such as to render any danger insignificant and any privation light, if it can be attained,' he wrote. 'I believe that great indeed would be the stimulus and deeply prized the reward of a Cross of Merit.' Such an award should be 'within the reach of every Private soldier and yet to be coveted by any General at the head of an Army'.

Prince Albert could see the value in this and raised the matter with Victoria. It has been suggested that Queen Victoria was deeply affected at this time by a visit to a Southampton hospital, where she was confronted by the dreadful wounds of Corporal Charles Byrne, blinded and with much of his jaw shot away. Certainly she ordered that a special decoration be struck for him — one that incorporated the bullet that took his sight.

In his official response to Lord Newcastle, the Prince Consort said the sovereign favoured 'a small cross of merit' for personal deeds of valour. It should be open to all ranks. And in Victoria's practical way, she suggested that it carry a small annual pension of £5. Albert himself felt that a number of the crosses should be given to individual regiments, with the bulk earmarked for officers, a smaller proportion for sergeants, and one — just one — for private soldiers. Winners would be selected by a panel of the same rank as the person to be awarded.

However, when Lord Newcastle put the matter to the House of Lords he was on the brink of political perdition. The following day his government fell, a victim of the carnage of Crimea. His place at the War Office was taken by Lord Panmure, whose nickname — the Bison — reflected his 'crash through or crash' attitude to public policy. He took up the challenge of drawing up the warrant that would set out all the conditions for eligibility for the new award.

At this stage Victoria took an increasing interest. It was she, it is said, who suggested the inscription 'For Valour' rather than the proposed 'For the Brave', which implied that the winner's comrades-in-arms were deficient in courage.

Hancocks & Co of New Bond Street provided the design and sent samples to the palace. Victoria made some further sensible suggestions, including that the medal be manufactured from 'real bronze', with a 'greenish varnish' to protect it. Nonetheless, it still took a full year to negotiate the warrant, which was finally signed at Buckingham Palace on 29 January 1856.

It was a wordy and windy document. The VC could be conferred 'on the spot', it said, if the act of merit was witnessed by an admiral or a general; a recommendation could be made to staff commanders by a witnessing ship's captain or a regimental commander. If these superior officers were not present, reports of the valorous deed must rise through the ranks and contain 'conclusive proof' that it took place. Later it became generally accepted that this required three eyewitnesses.

The warrant incorporated Prince Albert's concept of 'ballots' for award winners when a unit of more than 50 men was deemed to have performed some outstanding act of bravery in the field. The officers would select one of their own, as would the petty officers or non-commissioned officers. The more numerous privates or seamen would elect two of their number for the honour. In practice, this procedure would soon fall from favour, the last such awards being approved in the First World War, though it would be provided for in the various rewritings of the Imperial warrant until the 1960s.

By the time the original warrant was promulgated, the Crimean War was drawing to a close. The Allies had won the siege of Sebastopol in September 1855 and the new tsar, Alexander II, agreed to abandon plans to establish military or naval fortifications on the Black Sea coast.

The queen then had the idea that the 'bronze' to be used in the medal's manufacture should be taken from Russian cannon captured in the war. Her ministers passed the royal wish down the line and, while the record is distinctly murky, it appears that one cannon was obtained. However, recent investigations by the Australian War Memorial reveal that from 1914 VCs were actually cast from two Chinese cannons.

According to John Ashton, who as senior conservator of objects in 1995 analysed 54 VCs held by the AWM and compared his results with a similar analysis by the British Royal Armouries, the composition of the metal and the method of casting the guns leave no doubt about their Chinese origin. There is a slight possibility that they might have been used by the Russians in the Crimean siege of Sebastopol, but this is drawing a very long bow. The Russians manufactured their own armament, and there is no evidence that early Chinese cannon made their way to the Black Sea port.

As we will see, the origin of the metal is only one of the intriguing twists in the history of the medals — the first of which would be won before the Crimean War was over.


'A matter of chance'

The Crimean War was not fought exclusively in the Crimea. There were naval engagements in the Far East, off the Kamchatka Peninsula, and in the Baltic Sea. They had little impact on the outcome of the war and would be all but forgotten had not a twenty-year-old midshipman, Charles Lucas, thrown caution to the wind to save himself and many of his fellow sailors from death or serious injury on 21 June 1854.

An Anglo-French fleet had been sent to the northern Russian port of Kronstadt to destroy the Russian fleet there. Faced with superior firepower, the Russians chose to remain at anchor, so the Allies attacked the shore defences on the mainland and on the nearby Aland Islands.

Lucas was serving on the eight-gun paddle sloop Hecla, which was bombarding the Aland fortress of Bomasund when a heavy Russian shell smashed into its open gun deck with its fuse still burning. According to his captain's report, 'Ignoring shouted warnings, Lucas ran at the smoking missile, whose fuse had been cut to length by its gunners to explode close on impact.' As a gunner himself, Lucas well knew the explosive power of the shell. But gathering it in his arms, he ran to the ship's rail and heaved it overboard.

Just as it struck the water the shell exploded. Two crewmen were injured, but without Lucas's action many of the ship's company would have been killed. His commanding officer, Captain William Hall, immediately promoted the young Irishman to lieutenant and sent a despatch recording his brave and selfless action to the Admiralty.

At the inception of the VC two years later, Lucas became the first to have earned it, though a more senior officer, Commander Henry James Raby, of the Naval Brigade, took precedence at the investiture in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857. Queen Victoria sat astride her favourite horse through the event and in short order invested some 62 recipients.

Raby's primacy had its disadvantages. Victoria's aim for the specially sewn loop on his tunic was a little off, and she pinned the medal directly on his chest. The commander barely flinched beneath his beard.

Like Lucas, Raby was honoured for having saved his comrades-in-arms when he braved enemy fire — in his case at Sebastopol — to carry a wounded man to safety. The Australian military historian Bill Gammage says: 'The kinds of things for which you got VCs changed over the years. Rescuing a friend earned you a VC up to the South African War. Occasionally this applied in the First World War, especially to airmen who had been forced down.'

Gammage's view of the way in which the honour developed is borne out by the VC tally in the first great conflict that followed its inception, the Indian Mutiny of 1857. In only fourteen months, no fewer than 182 VCs were awarded, the same number as for the entire Second World War. Most of the feats in question were efforts to save British lives as the mutineers sought to wipe out the colonial forces. In a single day — 16 November 1857 — the siege of Lucknow resulted in 23 VCs; and 30 crosses were gained in the retaking of Delhi.

Because of the nature of the conflict, the warrant was extended to cover civilians fighting under a regular officer; four such awards were made. On eight occasions, units conducted ballots to select VC nominees.

The issue of posthumous awards arose, but Lord Panmure's War Office adamantly opposed them. The palace was more accommodating, and while the cross was not officially awarded posthumously until 1902, on at least five occasions during the mutiny, those who had earned it — all had it conferred 'on the spot'— died before the medal arrived. Panmure sought to cancel the honours, but Victoria intervened and the winners' families received the medal, though not the annuity that usually accompanied it.

The War Office struck back; 'on-the-spot' awards were eliminated, but the issue persisted. In the Boer War, when soldiers were killed after being recommended but before their investiture, the War Office, under great pressure from relatives, approved the awards. From 1907 posthumous awards were officially accepted, and in 1920 the warrant was amended to reflect the new reality.

In the meantime, Australia had its first brush with the VC when, on 20 June 1861, the wife of Victorian Governor Sir Henry Barkly presented the medal to Private Frederick Whirlpool. Actually, 'Whirlpool' was an alias; he was born Fred Conker in London and was also known as Humphrey James. But whatever his name at the time, 'Whirlpool' had distinguished himself at Jhansi during the Indian Mutiny by carrying wounded soldiers to safety despite seventeen severe wounds, one of which, according to the citation, 'nearly severed his head from his body'.

Thirteen years later, another VC winner, Private Timothy O'Hea, arrived in New South Wales. As a member of the 1st Battalion of the Prince Consort's Own Rifle Brigade, he had been travelling from Montreal to Quebec in 1866 in a train carrying munitions and explosives destined for the forces opposing Fenian raiders crossing the border from America.

When the train stopped at Danville, smoke was seen billowing from the side of a car that held 2000 lb of explosives. Sparks from the wood-burning engine had set the roof of the carriage alight, and the fire was spreading down one side. The troops uncoupled the car, and the driver began to pull the rest of the train clear. But the town would have been devastated in the explosion. Tim O'Hea grabbed the carriage keys from his sergeant and ran to the locked door with a ladder. Once inside, he dragged the explosives clear of the flames. When water buckets arrived, he single-handedly extinguished the fire.

This was the only VC earned on Canadian soil, and in no sense was it 'in the presence of the enemy'. The War Office had approved awards for incidents not 'in the presence of the enemy' in 1858, but this was the first use of the amended warrant. Such awards ceased when it was rewritten in 1881.

O'Hea's triumph was short-lived. Acclaimed as a hero on his arrival in Australia, he joined an expedition in 1869 to search for the remains of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt and perished in the Queensland Outback.


Excerpted from Bravest by Robert Macklin. Copyright © 2008 Robert Macklin. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Shades of valour,
1 'One miserable scribbler' and a little bit of ribbon,
2 'A matter of chance',
3 Bullets 'thick as hail',
4 'I begin to hate the damned country where I was born',
5 'An ardent Australian patriot',
6 'I managed to get the buggers, Sir',
7 'The bravest man in the Aussie Army',
8 'Tell Dad I'm still fighting',
9 'A compelling, ubiquitous figure',
10 An ideal leader,
11 'I wasn't mad',
12 'Hit with a sledge hammer',
13 A paradoxical attitude to heroes,
14 'To live and learn and see much',
15 Cross purposes,
16 Down to the wire,
17 The endless day,
18 The larrikin,
19 One of our very best,
20 One among many,
21 'Guest of the Emperor',
22 That moment of decision,
23 Courage beyond compare,
24 'That's what I'm here for, Sir',
25 'His crew before himself',
26 'One's nerves suffer a bit',
27 A wall of fire,
28 A war of nerves,
29 'Indomitable',
30 'We went and had a beer',
31 Anomalies,
List of VC winners,

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