Sunday, 1 March 2015

Let us now praise famous men

On two consecutive days last week, our daily fishwrap carried large pictures of men, one man each day.  The second day's picture was of 'Jihadi John', the murderer of hostages held by the self-styled Islamic State, whose identity had just been discovered.  It struck me at the time that this was an obscene reversal of the previous day's picture, which was of Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey.  L/Cpl Leakey had just been presented with his Victoria Cross which he had been awarded for his action in Afghanistan in August 2013.

The Victoria Cross (VC) is Britain and the Commonwealth's highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy.  I did post information about this award in the way-back but it might bear repeating. The medal is a typical example of British understatement being a dull bronze suspended on a plain crimson ribbon.  Since its inception in 1856, it has been awarded some 1357 times with three recipients receiving a second award (a bar).  It was originally believed that the medal were cast from Russian cannons captured in the Crimea although it now seems that the guns were actually of Chinese origin.  There remains only 358 oz (10 kg), stored in a vault maintained by 15 Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps at Donnington, Telford. It can only be removed under armed guard. It is estimated that approximately 80 to 85 more VCs could be cast from this source. A single company of jewellers, Hancocks of London, has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since its inception.

Lord Ashcroft, in an article published in the Daily Telegraph, suggested that bravery might be something in the blood, handed down through the genes.  L/Cpl Leakey is not the only member of his family to have won the VC; Sgt Nigel Gray Leakey, Joshua's second cousin twice removed, was posthumously awarded the medal in the Second World War.  As further evidence of the existence of what he calls the "bravery gene", Lord Ashcroft pointed out that three fathers and sons have been awarded the medal as well as four pairs of brothers.  And there are plenty of other cases of blood relations winning the medal.  Given that the VC has been awarded only 1,358 times, those family connections form a significant proportion of the total awards.

Interestingly, Lord Ashcroft agrees with something I have long believed, that there are two types of bravery.  The first - and, perhaps, most obvious - is the sort of bravery shown by L/Cpl Leakey who ran through heavy fire to rescue trapped and wounded comrades.  he has been reported as saying that he didn't think what might happen to him, he simply took the action that seemed necessary.  This is the sort of unthinking bravery that has been the reason for the award of many of the VCs that have been won.

I think there is also another type of courage, what Lord Ashcroft describes as "cold" courage.  This is the courage shown by, for example, bomb disposal experts who regularly put themselves into dangerous and potentially fatal situations well aware beforehand what they are doing.  A prime example of this type of courage was shown by another Lance Corporal in the First World War.  In 1918, during the Battle of the River Aisne, Joel Halliwell was captured by the Germans and was a prisoner for a short time before escaping back to British territory.  He was met with carnage along the way, seeing many of his comrades lying wounded in the chaos.  Finding a stray enemy horse, he rode back through the heavy shell- and gunfire to pick up the wounded one by one and take them back to safety. Braving these terrifying conditions over and over, he picked up ten of his comrades until unfortunately, the horse was fatally wounded. He then trekked well over a mile and back to bring water for the wounded men.

I can but wonder when I consider the bravery shown by men such as these.

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