A fascinating anecdote – both amusing and sad in equal measures – was recounted this weekend by the great niece of a First World War hero: a recipient of the VC by the name of Sergeant Jack Grant. In an article published on an Australian website, Corinne Grant told how her late great uncle had, at point-blank range, successfully stormed two German machine-gun posts which were commanding a ridge in northern France. For his bravery in 1918, he was awarded the VC and acclaimed in his citation as a man who “displayed coolness, determination and valour of the highest order” and for being “a splendid example to [us] all”.
Some time after the war, Sergeant (later Lieutenant) Grant, a New Zealander, along with other VC recipients, was invited to the British home of Lord and Lady Mountbatten in recognition of receiving the Commonwealth’s most prestigious gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy. He accepted the invitation but, after making the journey half way across the world, he decided to have a couple of drinks for Dutch courage. Unfortunately, one drink led to two, two drinks led to four and by the time of the presentation he was distinctly the worse for wear. Upon setting eyes on Lady Mountbatten, he went up to her, slapped her on the bum and yelled, “How yer goin’, Edwina?” He then turned to the room and declared, ”My shout, lads!”
In fact, Sergeant Grant never got the chance to buy a round of drinks: he was frog-marched from the premises and not seen again. I enjoyed this story for the same reasons as Sergeant Grant’s great niece, who wrote on the website dailylife.com.au: “I love it [the anecdote] because it makes my uncle human. At the time, however, it caused him nothing but shame. No-one wanted a war hero that wasn’t faultless. Jack never came to terms with the adulation. Trying to live up to what other people wanted him to be turned him into someone he wasn’t and he did things that were completely out of character. War changes people but so do the expectations of a demanding public. He lived in a lonely world and he died a lonely man.”
Incidentally, Ms Grant was prompted to tell her family’s story because of an on-going debate in Australia about how the nation should treat its war heroes. It follows controversial comments made on Australian television by two commentators who jokingly mocked one of their country’s VC heroes. Despite apologising, the two individuals have been vilified for the past fortnight over their inappropriate remarks. No-one holds the recipients of the VC in greater esteem than I do. Indeed, over the past 26 years I have built up the world’s largest collection of VCs (now totalling 173 decorations), gallantry medals which are on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London.
But I feel strongly that, although our war heroes should be respected and honoured, they should not be put on pedestals, and we should not pore over every aspect of their private lives. For this can lead both to acute disappointment (in that few men can stand up to such scrutiny) and unfair pressure (on the medal recipients themselves). In my role as a collector of gallantry medals and as a result of my on-going support for the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association, I have been privileged enough to meet countless recipients of the VC and other decorations.
Typically, their courtesy is matched by their modesty, although some of them have been “characters” and others were politically incorrect. But these men had invariably been rough, tough servicemen, not suited civil servants trained to mind their ‘p’s and ‘q’s. No doubt some of these men drank too much, others probably chased too many girls and perhaps still more had other foibles. It is far from impossible that some of the men I met had broken the law. But do such human failings make such men less brave? No, of course they don’t.
Indeed the very first VC that I ever purchased back in 1986 had been awarded to Leading Seaman James Magennis, a colourful character if ever there was one. He received his VC for an astonishing act of bravery in 1945, the final year of the Second World War, when he dived to release a mine that had become attached not just to its target, a Japanese cruiser, but also (accidentally) to the mini-submarine containing himself and two comrades. Leading Seaman Magennis was acclaimed in his citation for displaying “very great courage and devotion to duty” and for showing “complete disregard for his own safety”.
He was undoubtedly brave but he was no saint. A hard-drinking, Belfast-born sailor with a twinkle in his eye, Leading Seaman Magennis, like Sergeant Grant before him, struggled with his fame and he squandered money raised to mark his bravery. I bought Leading Seaman Magennis’s VC at auction knowing of his human failings and, in truth, liking him all the more for them. He was a professional serviceman not a Benedictine monk and I still treasure his medal to this day.
In the past (prior to 1920), eight VC recipients had to forfeit their medals as a result of subsequent criminal actions or other behaviour that was deemed to have brought them and their awards into disrepute. Yet, in my mind, it is entirely wrong to punish any servicemen (many of whom had, no doubt, suffered war traumas) in such a way. In fact, King George V, when he repealed the forfeiture statute, actually wrote that “even if a man should commit murder, he should be able to go to the scaffold wearing his Victoria Cross.” Last month I had the privilege of introducing Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC, a hero of the Second Gulf War with Iraq, before he gave a speech to students from the Ashcroft Technology Academy in south-west London.
Private Beharry is still affected by the serious head injuries that he received during the second of his two VC actions. However, he was an inspirational speaker and his account of his experiences gripped his young audience. Private Beharry was also charming and charismatic but if, heaven forbid, after all he has been through, it emerged one day that there was a flaw, or flaws in his personal life, I would think none the less of him for it. Our living war heroes are, like all of us, made of flesh and blood. Like all of us, they have their character strengths, and they have their weaknesses. It is right for us to champion the bravest of the brave, but it is wrong to burden them with such high expectations that we are in danger of destroying them.
* Lord Ashcroft's books include Victoria Cross Heroes.