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Winning the Victoria Cross

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The history of the Victoria Cross has been told so often that it is only necessary to say that the Order was created by Queen Victoria on January 29th, 1856, in the year of the peace with Russia, when the new racing Cunard paddle-steamer Persia of three thousand tons was making thirteen knots between England and America, and all the world wondered at the advance of civilization and progress.

Any rank of the English Army, Navy, Reserve or Volunteer forces, from a duke to a negro, can wear on his left breast the little ugly bronze Maltese cross with the crowned lion atop and the inscription “For Valour” below, if he has only “performed some signal act of valour” or devotion to his country “in the presence of the enemy.” Nothing else makes any difference; for it is explicitly laid down in the warrant that “neither rank, nor long service, nor wounds, nor any other circumstance whatsoever, save the merit of conspicuous bravery, shall be held to establish a sufficient claim to this Order.”

There are many kinds of bravery, and if one looks through the records of the four hundred and eleven men, living and dead, that have held the Victoria Cross before the Great War, one finds instances of every imaginable variety of heroism.

There is bravery in the early morning, when it takes great courage even to leave warm blankets, let alone walk into dirt, cold and death; on foot and on horse; empty or fed; sick or well; coolness of brain that thinks out a plan at dawn and holds to it all through the long, murderous day bravery of the mind that makes the jerking nerves hold still and do nothing except show a good example ; sheer reckless strength that hacks through a crowd of amazed men and comes out grinning on the other side; enduring spirit that wears through a long siege, never losing heart or manners or temper; quick, flashing bravery that heaves a lighted shell overboard or rushes the stockade while others are gaping at it; and the calculated craftsmanship that camps alone before the angry rifle-pit or shell-hole, and cleanly and methodically wipes out every soul in it.

Before the Great War, England dealt with many different peoples, and, generally speaking, all of them, Zulu, Malay, Maori, Burman, Boer, the little hillsman of the North-east Indian Frontier, Afreedi, Pathan, Biluch, the Arab of East Africa and the Sudanese of the North of Africa and the rest, played a thoroughly good game. For this we owe them many thanks; since they showed us every variety of climate and almost every variety of attack, from long-range fire to hand-to-hand scrimmage; except, of course, the ordered movements of Continental armies and the scientific ruin of towns. . . . That came later and on the largest scale.

It is rather the fashion to look down on these little wars and to call them “military promenades” and so forth, but in reality no enemy can do much more than poison your wells, rush your camp, ambuscade you, kill you with his climate, fight you body to body, make you build your own means of communication under his fire, and horribly cut up your wounded. He may do this on a large or small scale, but the value of the teaching is the same.

It is in these rough-and-tumble affairs that many of the first Crosses were won; and some of the records for the far-away Crimea and the Indian Mutiny are well worth remembering, if only to show that valour never varies.

The Crimea was clean fighting as far as the enemy were concerned,—for the very old men say that no one could wish for better troops than the Russians of Inkerman and Alma,—but our own War Office then, as two generations later, helped the enemy with ignorant mismanagement and neglect. In the Mutiny of 1857 all India, Bengal and the North-West Provinces, seemed to be crumbling like sand-bag walls in flood, and wherever there were three or four Englishmen left, they had to kill or be killed till help came. Hundreds of Crosses must have been won then, had anybody had time to notice; for the average of work allowing for the improvements in mankilling machinery was as high as in the Great War.

For instance—this is a rather extensive and varied record—one man shut up in the Residency at Lucknow stole out three times at the risk of his life to get cattle for the besieged to eat. Later, he extinguished a fire near a powder-magazine and a month afterwards put out another fire. Then he led twelve men to capture two guns which were wrecking the Residency at close range. Next day he captured an outlying position full of mutineers; three days later he captured another gun, and finished up by capturing a fourth. So he got his Cross.

Another young man was a lieutenant in the Southern Mahratta Horse, and a full regiment of mutineers broke into his part of the world, upsetting the minds of the people. He collected some loyal troopers, chased the regiment eighty miles, stormed the fort they had taken refuge in, and killed, captured or wounded every soul there.

Then there was a lance-corporal who afterwards rose to be Lieutenant-Colonel. He was the enduring type of man, for he won his Cross merely for taking a hand in every fight that came along through nearly seventy consecutive days.

There were also two brothers who earned the Cross about six times between them for leading forlorn hopes and such-like. Likewise there was a private of “persuasive powers and cheerful disposition,” so the record says, who was cut off with nine companions in a burning house while the mutineers were firing in at the windows. He, however, cheerfully persuaded the enemy to retire, and in the end all his party were saved through his practical “cheerfulness.” He must have been a man worth knowing.

And there was a little man in the Sutherland Highlanders—a private who eventually became a Major-General. In one attack near Lucknow he killed eleven men with his claymore, which is a heating sort of weapon to handle.

Even he was not more thorough than two troopers who rode to the rescue of their Colonel, cut off and knocked down by mutineers. They helped him to rise, and they must have been annoyed, for the three of them killed all the mutineers—about fifty.

Then there was a negro captain of the foretop, William Hall, R.N., who with two other negroes, Samuel Hodge and W. J. Gordon of the 4th and 1st West Indian Infantry, came up the river with the Naval Brigade from Calcutta to work big guns. They worked them so thoroughly that each got a Cross. They must have done a good deal, for no one is quite so crazy reckless as a West Indian negro when he is really excited.

There was a man in the Mounted Police who with sixty horsemen charged one thousand mutineers and broke them up. And so the tale runs on.

Three Bengal Civilian Government officers were, I believe, the only strict non-combatants who ever received the Cross. As a matter of fact they had to fight with the rest, but the story of “Lucknow” Kavanagh’s adventures in disguise, of Ross Mangle’s heroism after the first attempt to relieve the Little House at Arrah had failed (Arrah was a place where ten white men and fifty-six loyal natives barricaded themselves in a billiard-room in a garden and stood the siege of three regiments of mutineers for three weeks), and of McDonell’s cool-headedness in the retreat down the river, are things that ought to be told by themselves. Almost any one can fight well on the winning side, but those men who can patch up a thoroughly bad business and pull it off in some sort of shape, are most to be respected.

Army chaplains and doctors are officially supposed to be non-combatants—they are not really so—but about twenty years after the Mutiny a chaplain was decorated under circumstances that made it impossible to overlook his bravery. Still, I do not think he quite cared for the publicity. He was a regimental chaplain—in action a chaplain is generally supposed to stay with or near the doctor—and he seems to have drifted up close to a cavalry charge, for he helped a wounded officer of the Ninth Lancers into an ambulance. He was then going about his business when he found two troopers who had tumbled into a water-course all mixed with their horses, and a knot of Afghans were hurrying to attend to them. The record says that he rescued both men, but the tale, as I heard it unofficially, declares that he found a revolver somewhere with which he did excellent work while the troopers were struggling out of the ditch. This seems very possible, for the Afghans do not leave disabled men without the strongest hint, and I know that in nine cases out of ten if you want a coherent account of what happened in an action you had better ask the chaplain or the Roman Catholic priest of a battalion.

But it is difficult to get details. I have met perhaps a dozen or so of V.C.’s, and in every case they explained that they did the first thing that came to their hand without worrying about alternatives. One man headed a charge into a mass of Afghans, who are very good fighters so long as they stay interested in their work, and cut down five of them. All he said was: “Well, they were there, and they couldn’t go away. What was a man to do? Write ’em a note and, ask ’em to shift?”

Another man I questioned was a doctor. Army doctors, by the way, have special opportunities for getting Crosses. Their duty compels them to stay somewhere within touch of the firing-line, and most of them run right up and lie down, keeping an eye on the wounded.

It is a heart-breaking thing for a doctor who has pulled a likely young private of twenty-three through typhoid fever and set him on his feet and watched him develop, to see the youngster wasted with a casual bullet. It must have been this feeling that made my friend do the old, splendid thing that never grows stale—rescue a wounded man under fire. He won this Cross, but all he said was: “I didn’t want any unauthorized consultations—or amputations—while I was Medical Officer in charge. ’Tisn’t etiquette.”

His own head was very nearly blown off as he was tying up an artery—for it was blind, bad bush-fighting, with puffs of smoke popping in and out among the high grass and never a man visible—but he only grunted when his helmet was cracked across by a bullet, and went on tightening the tourniquet.

As I have hinted, in most of our little affairs before the war, the enemy knew nothing about the Geneva Convention or the treatment of wounded, but fired at a doctor on his face value as a white man. One cannot blame them—it was their custom, but it was exceedingly awkward when our doctors took care of their wounded who did not understand these things and tried to go on fighting in hospital.

There is an interesting tale of a wounded Sudanese—what our soldiers used to call a “fuzzy”—who was carefully attended to in a hospital after a fight. As soon as he had any strength again, he proposed to a native orderly that they two should massacre all the infidel wounded in the other beds. The orderly did not see it; so, when the doctor came in he found the “Fuzzy” was trying to work out his plan singlehanded. The doctor had a very unpleasant scuffle with that simple-minded man, but, at last, he slipped the chloroform-bag over his nose. The man understood bullets and was not afraid of them; but this magic smelly stuff that sent him to sleep, cowed him altogether, and he gave no more trouble in the ward.

So a doctor’s life is always a little hazardous and, besides his professional duties, he may find himself senior officer in charge of what is left of the command, if the others have been shot down. As doctors are always full of theories, I believe they rather like this chance of testing them. Sometimes doctors have run out to help a mortally wounded man of their battalion, because they know that he may have last messages to give, and it eases him to die with some human being holding his hand. This is a most noble thing to do under fire, because it means sitting still among bullets. Chaplains have done it also, but it is part of what they reckon as their regular duty.

Another V.C. of my acquaintance—he was anything but a doctor or a chaplain—once saved a trooper whose horse had been killed. His method was rather original. The man was on foot and the enemy—Zulus this time—was coming down at a run, and the trooper said, very decently, that he did not see his way to perilling his officer’s life by double-weighting the only available horse.

To this his officer replied: “If you don’t get up behind me, I’ll get off and give you such a licking as you’ve never had in your life.” The man was more afraid of fists than of assagais, and the good horse pulled them both out of the scrape. Now by our Regulations an officer who insults or “threatens with violence” a subordinate in the Service is liable to lose his commission and to be declared “incapable of serving the King in any capacity”; but for some reason or other the trooper never reported his superior.

The humour and the honour of fighting are by no means all on one side. A good many years ago there was a war in New Zealand against the Maoris, who, though they tortured prisoners and occasionally ate a man, liked fighting for its own sake. One of their chiefs cut off a detachment of our men in a stockade where he might have starved them out, and eaten them at leisure later. But word reached him that they were short of provisions, and so he sent in a canoeful of pig and potatoes with the message that it was no fun to play that game with weak men, and he would be happy to meet them after rest and a full meal. There are many cases in which men, very young as a rule, have forced their way through a stockade of thorns that hook or bamboos that cut and held on in the face of heavy fire or just so long as served to bring up their comrades. Those who have done this say that getting in is exciting enough, but the bad time, when the minutes drag like hours, lies between the first scuffle with the angry faces in the smoke, and the “Hi, get out o’ this!”that shows that the others of our side are tumbling up behind. They say it is as bad as football when you get off the ball just as slowly as you dare, so that your own side may have time to come up.

Most men, after they have been shot over a little, only want a lead to do good work; so the result of a young man’s daring is often out of all proportion to his actual performances.

Here is a case which never won notice because very few people talked about it—a case of the courage of Ulysses, one might say.

A column of troops, heavily weighted with sick and wounded, had drifted into a bad place—a pass where an enemy, hidden behind rocks, were picking them off at known ranges, as they retreated. Half a battalion was acting as rearguard—company after company facing about on the narrow road and trying to keep down the wicked, flickering fire from the hill-sides. And it was twilight; and it was cold and raining; and it was altogether horrible for every one.

Presently, the rear-guard began to fire a little too quickly and to hurry back to the main body a little too soon, and the bearers put down the ambulances a little too often, and looked on each side of the road for possible cover. Altogether, there were the makings of a nasty little breakdown—and after that would come primitive slaughter.

A boy whom I knew was acting command of one company that was specially bored and sulky, and there were shouts from the column of “Hurry up! Hurry there!” neither necessary nor soothing. He kept his men in hand as well as he could, hitting down rifles when they fired wild, till some one along the line shouted: “What on earth are you fellows waiting so long for?”

Then my friend—I am rather proud that he was my friend—hunted for his pipe and tobacco, filled the bowl in his pocket because, he said afterwards, he didn’t want any one to see how his hand shook, lit a fuzee, and shouted back between very short puffs: “Hold on a minute. I’m lighting my pipe.”

There was a roar of rather crackly laughter and the company joker said: “Since you are so pressin’, I think I’ll ’ave a draw meself.”

I don’t believe either pipe was smoked out, but—and this is a very big but—the little bit of acting steadied the company, and the news of it ran down the line, and even the wounded in the doolies laughed, and every one felt better. Whether the enemy heard the laughing, or was impressed by the even “one-two-three-four” firing that followed it, will never, be known, but the column came to camp at the regulation step and not at a run, with very few casualties. That is what one may call the courage of the much-enduring Ulysses, but the only comment that I ever heard on the affair was the boy’s own, and all he said was: “It was transpontine (which means theatrical), but necessary.”

Of course he must have been a good boy from the beginning, for little bits of pure inspiration seldom come to or are acted upon by slovens, self-indulgent or undisciplined people. I have not yet met one V.C. who had not strict notions about washing and shaving and keeping himself decent on his way through the civilized world, whatever he may have done outside it.

Indeed, it is very curious, after one has known hundreds of young men and young officers, to sit still at a distance and watch them come forward to success in their profession. Somehow, the clean and considerate man mostly seems to take hold of circumstances at the right end.

One of the youngest of the V.C.’s of his time I used to know distantly as a beautiful being whom they called Aide-de-Camp to a big official in India. So far as strangers could judge, his duties consisted in wearing a uniform faced with blue satin, and in seeing that every one was looked after at the dances and dinners. He would wander about smiling, with eyes at the back of his head, introducing men who were strangers and a little uncomfortable, to girls whose dance-cards were rather empty; taking old and uninteresting women into supper, and tucking them into their carriages afterwards; or pleasantly steering white-whiskered native officers all covered with medals and half-blind with confusion through the maze of a big levee into the presence of the Viceroy or Commander-in-Chief, or whoever it was they were being presented to.

After a few years of this work, his chance came, and he made the most of it. We were then smoking out a nest of caravan-raiders, slave-dealers, and general thieves who lived somewhere under the Karakoram Mountains among glaciers about sixteen thousand feet above sea-level. The mere road to the place was too much for many mules, for it ran by precipices and round rock-curves and over roaring, snow-fed rivers.

The enemy—they were called Kanjuts—had fortified themselves in a place nearly as impregnable as nature and man could make it. One position was on the top of a cliff about twelve hundred feet high, whence they could roll stones directly on the head of any attacking force. Our men objected to the stones much more than to the rifle-fire. They were camped in a river-bed at the bottom of an icy pass with some three tiers of these cliff like defences above them, and the Kanjuts on each tier were very well armed. To make all specially pleasant, it was December.

This ex-aide-de-camp happened to be a good mountaineer, and he was told off with a hundred native troops, Goorkhas and Dogra Sikhs, to climb up into the top tier of the fortifications. The only way of arriving was to follow a sort of shoot in the cliff-face which the enemy had worn smooth by throwing rocks down. Even in daylight, in peace, and with good guides, it would have been fair mountaineering.

He went up in the dark, by eye and guess, against some two thousand Kanjuts very much at war with him. When he had climbed eight hundred feet almost perpendicular he found he had to come back, because even he and his Goorkha cragsmen could find no way.

He returned to the river-bed and tried again in a new place, working his men up between avalanches of stones that slid along and knocked people over. When he struggled to the top he had to take his men into the forts with the bayonet and the kukri, the little Goorkha knife. The attack was so utterly bold and unexpected that it broke the hearts of the enemy and practically ended the campaign; and if you could see the photograph of the place you would understand why.

It was hard toe-nail and finger-nail crag-climbing under fire, and the men behind him were not regulars, but what are called Imperial Service troops—men raised by the semi-independent kings and used to defend the frontier. They enjoyed themselves immensely, and the little aide-de-camp got a deserved Victoria Cross. The courage of Ulysses again; for he had to think as he climbed, and until he was directly underneath the fortifications, one chance-hopping boulder might just have planed his men off all along the line.

But there is a heroism beyond all, for which no Victoria Cross is ever given, because there is no official enemy nor any sort of firing, except one volley in the early morning at some spot where the noise does not echo into the newspapers.

It is necessary from time to time to send unarmed men into No Man’s Land and the Back of Beyond across the Khudajanta Khan (The Lord-knows-where) Mountains, just to find out what is going on there among people who some day or other may become dangerous enemies.

The understanding is that if the men return with their reports so much the better for them. They may then receive some sort of decoration, given, so far as the public can make out, for no real reason. If they do not come back—and people disappear very mysteriously at the Back of Beyond—that is their own concern, and no questions will be asked, and no enquiries made.

They tell a tale of one man who, some years ago, strayed into No Man’s Land to see how things were, and met a very amiable set of people, who asked him to a round of dinners and lunches and dances. And all that time he knew, and they knew that he knew, that his hosts were debating between themselves whether they should suffer him to live till next morning, and if they decided not to let him live, in what way they should wipe him out most quietly.

The only consideration that made them hesitate was that they could not tell from his manner whether there were five hundred Englishmen within a few miles of him or no Englishmen at all within five hundred miles of him; and, as matters stood at that moment, they could not very well go out to look and make sure.

So he danced and dined with those pleasant, merry folk,—all good friends,—and talked about hunting and shooting and so forth, never knowing when the polite servants behind his chair would turn into the firing-party. At last his hosts decided, without rude words said, to let him go; and when they made up their minds they did it very handsomely; for, you must remember, there is no malice borne on either side in that game.

They gave him a farewell banquet and drank his health, and he thanked them for his delightful visit, and they said: “So glad you’re glad. Au revoir,”and he came away looking a little bored.

Later on, so the tale runs, his hosts discovered that their guest had been given up for lost by his friends in England, where no one ever expected to see him again. Then they were sorry that they had not put him against a wall and shot him.

That is a case of the cold-blooded courage worked up to after years of training—courage of mind forcing the body through an unpleasant situation for the sake of the game.

When all is said and done, courage of mind is the finest thing any one can hope to attain to. A weak or undisciplined soul is apt to become reckless under strain (which is only being afraid the wrong way about), or to act for its own immediate advantage. For this reason the Victoria Cross is jealously guarded, and if there be suspicion that the man is playing to the gallery or out pot-hunting for medals, as they call it, he is often left to head his charges and rescue his wounded all over again as a guarantee of good faith.

In the Great War there was very little suspicion, or chance, of gallery-play for the V.C., because there was ample opportunity and, very often, strong necessity, for a man to repeat his performances several times over. Moreover, he was generally facing much deadlier weapons than mere single rifles or edged tools, and the rescue of wounded under fire was, by so much, a more serious business. But one or two War V.C.’s of my acquaintance have told me that if you can manage the little matter of keeping your head, it is not as difficult as it sounds to get on the blind side of a machinegun, or to lie out under its lowest line of fire. where, they say, you are “quite comfortable if you don’t fuss.” Also, every V.C. of the Great War I have spoken to has been rather careful to explain that he won his Cross because what he did happened to be done when and where some one could notice it. Thousands of men they said did just the same, but in places where there were no observers. And that is true; for the real spirit of the Army changes very little through the years.

Men are taught to volunteer for anything and everything; going out quietly after, not before, the authorities have filled their place. They are also instructed that it is cowardly, it is childish, and it is cheating to neglect or scamp the plain work immediately in front of them, the duties they are trusted to do, for the sake of stepping aside to snatch at what to an outsider may resemble fame or distinction. Above all, their own hard equals, whose opinion is the sole opinion worth having, are always sitting unofficially in judgment on them.

The Order itself is a personal decoration, and the honour and glory of it belongs to the wearer; but he can only win it by forgetting himself, his own honour and glory, and by working for something beyond and outside and apart from his own self. And there seems to be no other way in which you get anything in this world worth the keeping.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1936, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.