A hundred in a million: our obsession with the Victoria Cross

The recent concentration on Victoria Cross heroes as major ‘carriers’ of the Anzac legend has skewed Australian military history. AAP/Mark Graham

The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.


Martin O'Meara, a Tipperary man who had enlisted in Perth, was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for carrying both wounded comrades and ammunition under shellfire at Pozières in August 1916. In 1919, he returned to Perth with three wounds and sergeant’s stripes. The 1963 book They Dared Mightily coyly notes that soon after the war:

His health broke down completely.

What it did not reveal was that O’Meara also returned with “delusional insanity, with hallucinations … extremely homicidal and suicidal”. Committed to the insane ward at Claremont repatriation hospital, where he was usually held “in restraint”, he died in 1935, his sanity destroyed by the war.

By then, another Western Australian VC, Hugo Throssell, had taken his own life in 1933. “My old war head is going phut,” he confided to friends.

Curiously, neither O’Meara’s nor Throssell’s trauma seems to attract much attention in the slew of books extolling VC heroes that have appeared in increasing numbers in recent years.

Hugo Throssell was awarded a VC for his actions at Gallipoli. AWM

During the Crimean War (1854–56), Queen Victoria expressed a desire to recognise exceptional deeds in some tangible form. Previously, bravery had been recognised, if at all, inconsistently – by promotion, monetary reward or mere praise. Instituting a reward “For Valour” – as the medal was inscribed – standardised the record of heroism. It was a classic Victorian device combining high notions of heroism with bureaucratic documentation.

The VC has always attracted attention. When it was first introduced, it soon became a standard benchmark of valour – the attainment of which conferred useful advantages on a man’s career. During the Indian mutiny-cum-rebellion in 1857–58, young British officers all wanted to gain a VC. An astonishing 24 were awarded for actions performed in one day – November 16, 1857.

The awards, though open to all ranks (all European ranks, anyway), mostly went to lieutenants in their 20s in massively disproportionate terms. Gaining a VC became a career-defining distinction. Those who care about them tend to deprecate the idea that VCs are “won”. They murmur “it’s not a raffle, you know”.

Through the second half of the 19th century, the VC became the apogee of the Victorian soldier’s dreams of glory. Awarded after clashes with mutineers, Afridis, Sudanese fuzzy-wuzzies, Asantes, Zulus and Pathans, by the end of the reign of its namesake it had become firmly fixed as the ultimate military decoration.

About 1357 VCs have been awarded – 100 of them to Australians in five wars. Six were awarded in the South African war, 66 in the Great War, 20 in the Second World War, four in Vietnam and four in Afghanistan. To put that in perspective, that is 100 men among the million or so Australians who have seen action in wartime since 1900. Statistically, we are looking at a group that is exceptional in every sense.

A highly visible commemoration

The VC is not just a relic of Australia’s colonial standing. It was re-invented as the Victoria Cross for Australia in 1991. During the intervention in Afghanistan, four members of the Australian Army received VCs.

While proponents of the Anzac legend stress its continuities, there seems to be a world of difference between the volunteer citizen soldier VCs of the Somme and the regular soldiers of the Australian Defence Force in Uruzgan province. What connects them is acts of bravery performed at great cost.

With the enormous veneration that the VC attracts, it is important to make clear at the outset that every single one of those awarded the VC has performed a deed worthy of the highest regard. It’s always a “deed”. Archaic language comes easily when talking about the VC.

There is no question that these men all did things that were heroic, in some cases displaying extraordinary “valour” – more archaic language. The point is not that they did not individually deserve recognition, or even that others arguably deserved recognition for comparable deeds and did not receive it. The point is that Australians now seem so fascinated by the VC that such attention has begun to get in the way of a balanced perspective on its place in military history.

Harry Murray was the Great War’s most decorated Australian. AWM

The commemoration of VCs is highly visible. In Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries, their headstones are marked not by the badge of their regiment (for British soldiers) or of their national force (for dominion troops) but by a representation of the VC itself. Cemeteries in which VCs lie are always identified, by signs and explanatory panels or in guidebooks and websites.

The hometowns of many VCs commemorate their own VCs, with statues and memorials, such as to John Bernard (Jack) Mackey in the main street of Portland, NSW; Edgar Towner in Blackall, Queensland; Harry Murray in Evandale, Tasmania; and no fewer than three VCs in Euroa, Victoria.

And VCs are becoming the focus of local remembrance. The local council in Tumut (NSW) is proposing to change the name of a local park to Ryan Park, after John Ryan, a Tumut man awarded the VC in the attacks on the Hindenburg Line in 1918, who is already commemorated in the park.

Tumut’s example exemplifies exactly how adulation of the VC is skewing the traditional Australian egalitarian emphasis on service and sacrifice.

The Victoria Cross and the Australian War Memorial

VCs increasingly populate Australian military history, which has enjoyed an unending boom since the early 1980s. There is a minor cottage industry in writing about VCs, with books ranging from expert and scholarly studies to illustrated compilations recycling summaries of VC deeds and privately published works by enthusiasts.

More books on individual VCs have appeared in the past decade than at any period: ten between 1930 and 2000, but 17 since then. There have been several general books: Victoria Cross: Australia’s Finest and the Battles They Fought by Australia’s premier VC expert, Anthony Staunton; Bravest: Australia’s Greatest War Heroes and How They Won Their Medals by Robert Macklin; and, for children, Australia’s Victoria Cross Heroes by Nicholas Brasch.

VCs also figure inevitably in campaign studies, though their deeds are rarely of any significance to the broader story. For example, the six VCs awarded at Lone Pine figure prominently in every account of the action, even though they were all awarded to men of battalions sent into the fight later – and whose officers therefore survived to submit the “recommendations” with which the process begins. The VCs do not reflect the nature of the fight, but are unavoidably associated with accounts of it.

Australia venerates the VC arguably more than before the “war on terror” brought us perpetual conflict. Since the 1980s, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has strongly promoted the VC, which has done much to enhance the medal’s stature. It can be argued this promotion has the effect of inclining the museum’s visitors – both in person and online – to take an unduly positive view not only towards these few heroes, but also to the uncritical view that the AWM promotes towards Australia’s military history.

The AWM’s VC collection went from being negligible 50-odd years ago to occupying the large gallery now at its heart. Significantly, VCs had no strong presence in the AWM as conceived by the Australian official correspondent and later historian Charles Bean, but its collection, and the space devoted to it, grew after his death. It was first displayed in a telephone-box-sized showcase holding a few medals, quaintly called “VC Corner”.

A “Hall of Valour” opened in 1981 and has been enlarged twice, most recently in 2011. It now displays 67 Australian VCs (and three British VCs with Australian associations) and comparable decorations such as the George Cross. While the AWM does not buy VCs on the open market, it accepts medals donated by supporters – notably businessman Kerry Stokes, who has purchased at least seven VCs for it. This reflects the more elevated stature accorded the medal in recent years.

The AWM promotes VC recipients as the highest exponents of the “Anzac spirit”. It publishes books about them and articles in its magazine, Wartime, invites VC recipients to participate in ceremonies and public programs, and VCs are prominent in its new café, opened by Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2014.

The AWM has adopted Ben Roberts-Smith, VC, in particular as its mascot – if a powerful man more than two metres tall and correspondingly broad can be so described. He has officiated at exhibition openings and book launches, led the Anzac Day march and spoken at and for the AWM – in person, in print and on film, most recently writing a foreword to the AWM’s book, Anzac Treasures.

Far from fostering a neutral or critical attitude to war and Australia, the AWM arguably promotes rather than merely documents, at the expense of the awareness of the experience of the anonymous majority of soldiers.

The Australian War Memorial has adopted VC recipient Ben Roberts-Smith as its ‘mascot’. AAP/Alan Porritt

Bolstering a faltering commitment to war

There is a curious naivety to accounts of what are often described as “VC Battles”. A man performs a “deed”; his “valour” is recognised by the award of a VC; the accompanying “citation” describes what he did, usually in creaky, passive prose. But the effect is miraculous. The citations are couched as truthful statements without authors, but also without ambiguity, and accepted seemingly without question.

The mystical process is validated by the award being made not just in the name but often by the hand of the sovereign. Adulation of VC heroes is now at odds with a more open, critical understanding of Australia’s attitude to conflict.

It is now possible to show that Australians deserted or caught venereal diseases; to argue that respected commanders were actually fools or knaves; that the Anzac legend was tarnished as well as burnished. But the greater regard for VCs acts to neutralise critical attention. It will undoubtedly be regarded as poor taste to criticise what is perhaps Australian military history’s last remaining sacred cow.

And yet, as the scrutiny of the awards made in the Great War to Australians suggests, this was not a process untouched by suggestions of pragmatism and political opportunism. The timing of awards, recommendations rejected, the language of the citations, the circumstances of their award, subjectivity and serendipity all suggest that the process was very much a human and indeed a political process. Gaining one decoration attracted others.

“I always got first go at the bucket,” Harry Murray admitted cheerfully to explain later decorations.

As Victoria D’Alton’s research shows, VCs were not simply awarded because a few soldiers performed brave deeds. Rather, they were very much the product of an imperial system under stress. For example, it is surely significant that half of the VCs awarded to men of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on the Western Front were awarded in 1918, the year when the Australian Corps was under the most severe strain, losses were proportionally greater than even 1916 and volunteers in Australia had almost entirely dried up.

Like the timing of John Monash’s knighthood and Nellie Melba’s damehood, it can be suggested that awards were intended to bolster Australia’s faltering commitment to the war. Arguments within the chain of command over the nature of “deeds” to be rewarded – aggressive actions became preferred over rescuing wounded comrades – show the process to be all too political.

What did war do to men?

Whether the attention VCs now attract would impress Great War VCs is problematic. Many played down their awards, as VCs tend to do. Joe Maxwell, the second most highly decorated Australian soldier of the Great War (a boilermaker superbly suited to leadership in war but with little aptitude for peace), reflected modestly that:

If I was the bravest man that day, then God help the man who was most afraid.

Harry Murray, accepted as the Great War’s most decorated Australian, rarely wore his medals, attended just two Anzac Day services after 1919 and declined to take part in formal occasions, such as the dedication in 1941 of the Australian War Memorial. He refused the chance to return to France in 1956 for fear of “raking up very sad memories”. He found, as did many VCs, that receiving the award changes everything.

Mark Donaldson received a VC for his actions in Afghanistan. AAP/David Crosling

“Try not to let it go to your head,” Ted Kenna (a 1945 VC) counselled Mark Donaldson in 2009. Donaldson’s reflective autobiography, The Crossroad, suggests that he possesses an unusual, and useful, degree of common sense and modesty.

As it becomes more valorised, the VC arouses extremes of passion, with individuals advocating the claims of those arguably “denied” recognition, who have been known to lobby for years to gain redress. In 2013, an Inquiry into Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour reported, after an extensive two-year inquiry involving dozens of written submissions and public hearings, into the claims of 13 individuals supposedly denied recognition.

These individuals included John Simpson Kirkpatrick (arguably the Great War’s most famous Australian soldier), Edward Sheean (who died heroically on HMAS Armidale in 1942) and ten other sailors. No Royal Australian Navy member has been awarded the VC.

The very existence of the inquiry – the product of determined pressure over many years – aroused further claims. It examined another 140 cases. In a detailed and well-justified report, the tribunal made the “courageous” recommendation that no “retrospective” VCs should be awarded. Interestingly, while professional historians generally argued against retrospective awards, some popular writers urged that they were justified.

The number of books on VCs now available means that they are overwhelmingly the best documented and most celebrated members of Australia’s military forces. Some of these books reflect their authors’ expertise (notably Anthony Staunton or Andrew Faulkner).

Writing about VCs is entirely legitimate and some are works of quality. However, such books invariably celebrate heroic “deeds”, but are rarely portraits of what war does to men as well as what men do in war.

Still, it is incontrovertible that these men did perform acts of individual bravery meriting recognition. Even if other men performed brave deeds that were not recognised, or resulted in anomalies of recognition, surely there is no harm done?

Actually, there is.

Skewing Australia’s military history

Much has been made in recent years of the “militarisation” of Australian history. The argument, first advanced by Marilyn Lake and her co-authors in What’s Wrong with Anzac?, has been largely dismissed by those who value military history as a field of study and endeavour. It has also been derided by those who venerate VCs, such as Mervyn Bendle, whose articles in Quadrant denigrate all those who present the Anzac legend as anything other than the premier article of faith and shibboleth of belief in Australia.

While some of the arguments of Lake and others have been well-founded, such as in their identification of the elevation of Anzac into a founding myth and the undue promotion of military history through the deployment of government funding, they have been advanced by scholars who generally do not identify as military historians and who do not actually know the field from within.

Writing as a historian familiar with the history of the Australian Defence Force and its precursors and the operational history of Australian forces in several wars, generally before 1945, I would argue that the recent concentration on Victoria Cross heroes as major “carriers” of the Anzac legend has had the effect of skewing the presentation and perception of Australian military history.

The awarding of a VC to Arthur Blackburn helps to soften the story of the battle of the Somme. AWM

Focusing on and invariably celebrating the heroism and success so often a part of the VCs’ stories has the effect of distracting attention from the horror and futility that is also part of the broader story. The Australian VCs awarded on the Western Front – just more than half of the total – celebrate individual valour in ways that counter the mass, industrial-scale, indiscriminate slaughter of that war. Perhaps that partly explains their popularity.

For example, the story of Arthur Blackburn, South Australia’s celebrated VC at Pozières, helps to soften the anonymous, violent, degrading death that was for 6000-odd Australians the essence of the Somme. The recent intensification of interest in the VC suggest that war is about heroic individual endeavour, not assaults by infantry killed en masse or the deployment of high-technology weapons.

Veneration of VCs challenges Australia’s tradition of democratic commemoration. Robert Macklin, in his book Bravest, which deals with a selected few VCs, claims that:

The VC has a particular appeal to the egalitarian streak in the Australian character.

But even Macklin concedes that as the VC became ever more prized, its story became “ever more gloriously arrayed with myth and legend”. I would argue that the VC story actually denies the egalitarian streak in Australian military history because it valorises the few rather than empathising with the many.

Writing on the Somme in 1916, Bean reflected on the AIF’s part in the great offensive. He praised its men but emphasised that:

They are not heroes. They are just ordinary Australians doing their particular work as their country would wish them to do.

While Bean’s official history duly notes each Australian VC, he surely knew that those decorated were not the only heroes. It is significant that the Roll of Honour in the memorial he founded records the names but not the decorations of the dead.

A century on, Bean’s admiration for the egalitarian, volunteer citizen force he documented, celebrated and mourned seems less accepted than once it was. The emphasis on “Anzac VC heroes” ensures that Australia sees glory in its war history rather than the horrific reality.


You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.