Sixty Joyless De-Britished Uncrowned Commonpoor Years (1949-2009)

Elizabeth II Vice-Regal Saint: Remembering Paul Comtois (1895–1966), Lt.-Governor of Québec
Britannic Inheritance: Britain's proud legacy. What legacy will America leave?
English Debate: Daniel Hannan revels in making mince meat of Gordon Brown
Crazy Canucks: British MP banned from Canada on national security grounds
Happy St. Patrick's: Will Ireland ever return to the Commonwealth?
Voyage Through the Commonwealth: World cruise around the faded bits of pink.
No Queen for the Green: The Green Party of Canada votes to dispense with monarchy.
"Sir Edward Kennedy": The Queen has awarded the senator an honorary Knighthood.
President Obama: Hates Britain, but is keen to meet the Queen?
The Princess Royal: Princess Anne "outstanding" in Australia.
H.M.S. Victory: In 1744, 1000 sailors went down with a cargo of gold.
Queen's Commonwealth: Britain is letting the Commonwealth die.
Justice Kirby: His support for monarchy almost lost him appointment to High Court
Royal Military Academy: Sandhurst abolishes the Apostles' Creed.
Air Marshal Alec Maisner, R.I.P. Half Polish, half German and 100% British.
Cherie Blair: Not a vain, self regarding, shallow thinking viper after all.
Harry Potter: Celebrated rich kid thinks the Royals should not be celebrated
The Royal Jelly: A new king has been coronated, and his subjects are in a merry mood
Victoria Cross: Australian TROOPER MARK DONALDSON awarded the VC
Godless Buses: Royal Navy veteran, Ron Heather, refuses to drive his bus
Labour's Class War: To expunge those with the slightest pretensions to gentility
100 Top English Novels of All Time: The Essential Fictional Library
BIG BEN: Celebrating 150 Years of the Clock Tower

Wednesday, 26 July 2006

The Victoria Cross is not for sale

"The military honours bestowed upon me are the property of the men of my unit as well as myself and were obtained at considerable cost of the blood of this country. Under no circumstances could I consent to any material gain for myself for my services."

- Captain Charles Upham, Victoria Cross and Bar, one of only three recipients to have ever won the Victoria Cross twice. The other two being Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Martin-Leake (picture right) and Noel Godfrey Chavasse.

Those words and temperament of character from New Zealand's greatest war hero are ones that his three daughters are having just a tad difficulty living up to. We learn that they have received a million dollar offer from Australia and one worth almost three times that much from a British collector, and have given the New Zealand Government a chance to match it. I suggest the taxpayers of New Zealand cough up the cash because these three have obviously forfeited their right to hang such honour in their house, now that Charles Upham has died (he passed away in 1994). Besides, the price seems to be what the market can bear, since we also learn the other day that the VC of Australia’s most decorated Gallipoli veteran, Captain Alfred Shout, fetched the record price of $1 million (AUS). So I suppose it stands to reason that inheritors of a double VC should get at least double the cash.

Only it doesn’t stand to reason. The Victoria Cross is priceless. It is first in the order of precedence, ranking higher than any order of chivalry, be it the Order of Canada, the Bath, the Garter, be it the Supreme Order of Christ. I submit that if there is one thing worse than cash for peerages, it is cash for VCs. Granted the buyers and sellers of VCs are not, as such, trading in honours (they are not paying to be a VC holder, only to own the VC), but it’s still not keeping in the spirit of the medal’s true value. The Victoria Cross is no mere trinket. The British Commonwealth’s highest award for valour and gallantry “in the face of the enemy” represents the life and blood of nations. It is sacred. It should not be for sale.

King George V felt so strongly about this, he ordered that no matter the crime, no authority could ever strip a man of his VC, commenting that a recipient should still be permitted to wear the decoration even if he were on the gallows. (His Private Secretary stating in a letter the King's view that:"no matter the crime committed by anyone on whom the VC has been conferred, the decoration should not be forfeited. Even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the scaffold.")

Had he the foresight, Emperor George would no doubt have widened this policy to forbid the auctioning off of VCs too, much as one cannot auction off one’s citizenship. We cannot sell our passport because we do not own it; we are merely passport holders. Ditto for the Victoria Cross. Recipients of the VC are often described as winners or holders of the award, not owners. The comparison is valid, I think, since heroism in the face of a nation’s enemies represents the highest act of citizenship. It seems to me that there is a special responsibility to protect the dignity of these gallant acts, and not cheapen them by selling them off to the highest bidder.

The grandson of Alfred Shout, Graham Thomas, who sold the medal last week, said keeping the VC in his family home had become too much of a responsibility. He also needed the funds to help his children and grandchildren, and to pay medical bills. "Anyway, I think Captain Shout would support my decision to sell it to support his descendants".

Too much of a responsibility. Well, Captain Shout certainly knew a lot about responsibility, not to mention the sacrifice responsibility sometimes requires. Not sure hanging a VC on your wall of honour constitutes a grave responsibility or an immense joy, but I’m thinking the latter more than the former. As for the brave soldier somehow agreeing from his grave with the decision of his grandson to get rich off his heroism by selling the family jewels to a private collector, I’d have to say don’t think so. It is more likely that Graham is expressing seller’s remorse and is conveniently trying to lessen the guilt he feels for his actions.

But all of this is important now not because of principle alone. It so happens that this year, the 150th year of the Victoria Cross, we continue to find ourselves in the thick of our still unfolding history. Last week, the Americans, Brits and Canadians were engaged in pre-dawn offensives against hundreds of Taliban. Obviously we are still carrying out operations “in the face of the enemy”. We are witnessing our soldiers being killed on a weekly basis, meaning that the winning of a VC is still very much within the realm of possibility. All this is to say that soldiers are required to wear their medals when in uniform. For them, selling them is not an option. So why should it be an option for their offspring? Why should those who buy it be able to sell it again for even more? Why should a man profit from another man's courage?

Beaverbrook (originally posted here)


Anthony Staunton said...

Collectors preserve history

Despite writing numerous books and article on medals I am not a medal collector. However I have given some thought to the issue of whether medals in general or the Victoria Cross in particular; should be allowed to be sold. The last WW1 veterans are nearly gone and many WW2 veterans are now passing away and their widows are following. More and more WW2 medals, photos, documents will become available and should be preserved.

A person making a will, often gifts house contents to a child or relative not interested in family history. A lot of people are into family history and keep photos, papers and relics. But the great majority are not. It is very common for photos, papers and relics to be thrown away after someone has died. If you put a monetary value on mementos there is a greater possibility that this material may be saved.

No monetary value can be put on experience. However, a monetary value can be put on a memento or relic. Millions of people have served in the wars in the 20th century. Tens of millions of medals have been issued. It is not possible for public museums to collect, store or display more than a fraction of medals issued. For a whole lot of understandable reasons families cannot or will not hold onto to these relics. So why not encourage individuals to be the custodians of the nation’s relics for a brief period. Most collectors are not collecting for mercenary reasons but for the research value and the intellectual stimulation.

Nearly 1000 of the 1356 Victoria Cross awards (including 3 bars) issued are in the care of either a public institution or a private trust. This is an extraordinary survival rate with three quarters of all VCs preserved for posterity. These medals have been saved by a free market system without regulation. We should thank collectors who first started buying VCs at auction before many of the institutions which hold them today ever opened their doors.

Dr. J.C. Roberts said...

I appreciate Anthony Staunton's observation, however for every legitimate collector who does indeed curate these awards there are a dozen rogues. Go to any of the various 'Victoria Cross' websites and research the provenance given and you will discover a fiction. The VCs recently stolen in New Zeeland will eventually appear at auction. Lord Beaverbrook is quite right: the only way to stop the illicit trade is to make the VC the property of the Crown with criminal penalty for attempted sale.

Dr. J.C. Roberts

spud said...

I very much appreciate the comments of Lord Beaverbrook, Anthony Staunton and Dr. John C. Roberts.

My maternal grandmother was the great niece of Thomas Henry Kavanagh, VC. Besides trying to establish Thomas' descent in the Kavanagh Clann, we would also like to know where his Victoria Cross is located and that it is in the possession of the rightful heir. Can anyone advise us of the geneaolgy for Thomas Henry Kavanagh and which of his descendants has his Victoria Cross?

We would appreciate any help with these answers that you out there may have.

Thank you,

Patricia Johnson