Only the valiant: the Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross is unrivalled as a symbol of valour in the British Armed Forces. Instated by Royal Warrant on January 29th, 1856, the medals are traditionally fashioned out of bronze from a cannon captured at Sevastopol in the Crimean War and crafted exclusively by Messrs Hancock. The design is a simple Maltese Cross, with royal crest and inscription ‘For valour’. Decorated with a few sprigs of laurel, the only other ornament is a V linking the medal to the ribbon. The recipient’s name and a description of their deeds in engraved on the back, and it is worn on the left breast, suspended by a ribbon that was originally blue for navy, dark red for army, but is now universally scarlet.

It is considered a uniquely pure and honourable award. Is it fancy, richly decorated or materially precious? No. Does it bring added dividends in the form of land, honours or an automatic change in rank? No (though there is a small pension for recipients below commissioned rank). Can it be bought, won by negotiation or wangled by having the right friends or loyalties? No. Is it awarded only to those of a certain rank, branch of service or gender? No. The only way to gain this award is to exhibit “conspicuous bravery or devotion to the country in the presence of the enemy”. If you’re not sure precisely what “conspicuous bravery” entails, look no further than the story of Charles Upham, one of just three men (the others being army medics Noel Chavasse and Arthur Martin-Leake) ever to gain a Bar to his award, i.e. to earn the Victoria Cross twice; frankly, he probably earned each award several times over!

The first Victoria Cross was given for his actions in Crete from 22nd-30th May, 1941, as noted in ‘The Bronze Cross’ by F. Gordon Roe. Second Lieutenant Charles Hazlitt Upham, of the 20th Battalion, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (The Canterbury Regiment), was in charge of his platoon during an attack on Maleme. The platoon fought its way over 3000 yards, three times being held up by enemy machine gun posts. Each time, Upham personally dispatched the obstacle with the use of grenades or his pistol. When the company withdrew, he helped to carry one wounded man to safety, then helped lead the men in a mission to recover more wounded soldiers. Next, he and a corporal went in search of a company that was at risk of being cut off, and led the soldiers to safety.

Over the next two days, Upham was pummelled in a series of attacks; he was badly wounded by one shell, blown over by another and wounded again in the foot, all while suffering from acute dysentery. Nonetheless, he absolutely refused to head to the medical centre, and once more took charge of his platoon on 25th May at Galatas. His platoon drove the enemy back, but soon a retreat was ordered. Once more, the brave Upham went in search of troops that were in danger of being cut off, and was nearly shot for his troubles (he played dead, then took out the two Germans attacking him). Finally, at Sphakia on May 30th, he spotted an opportunity to ambush the enemy on the way through a ravine. Quietly, he and two rifleman climbed a hill overlooking the ravine, then when the Germans appeared he personally shot 22 of them, so that the remainder scattered in a panic.

Lieutenant C H Upham, for his bravery in Crete, decorated with the V.C. by General Sir Claude Auchinleck

The Bar was won on 14th/15th July 1942, at El Ruweisat Ridge in the Western Desert. Once again, Upham received a drubbing from the enemy, being wounded twice, but opted to remain with his men rather than be sent for treatment. When communications broke down, he carried an important message himself past enemy machine gun posts, at great peril. According to This England’s ‘The Register of the Victoria Cross’, Upham led his company in an attack just before dawn, and destroyed a German tank and several guns and vehicles with hand grenades. He was finally forced to seek medical help after his arm was broken by gunfire, but returned to his men straight after. He was eventually wounded so severely that he was unable to move, and he and his surviving comrades were taken prisoner, but he continued to give ‘Jerry’ hell, launching multiple escape attempts. A German watch tower guard had the chance to shoot him during one of these escapes, but refrained from doing so out of sheer respect, as he could see that other guards were coming down the road and would catch him anyway.

Upham lived through the war and achieved great fame through his double award. Unfortunately, like many heroes, he wasn’t a man who really enjoyed plaudits and adulation. Back in New Zealand he took to farming in a remote location, with no phones or easy roads, and apparently refused to let German cars on his land. He died in 1994, and 5,000 people turned out to honour him as his coffin passed by.

This weekend, to commemorate these exceptional men, we're giving 2 years for the price of 1 to the first 100 to subscribe for full membership.

Use code VC-DOUBLE

The offer starts at 00:01 on the 24th September, and ends at 23:59 on the 26th September. Recipients of the offer will be emailed Tuesday 27th confirming the 2 years subscription. Please check your inbox.

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