Australia and Victoria Cross Awards

Among the many memorial plaques in the Liverpool Anglican Cathedral is a small plaque and bust honouring Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, VC & Bar, MC (9 November 1884 – 4 August 1917).

Chavasse was a medico, an Olympian and one of only three people to be awarded a Victoria Cross twice. There are many other memorial plaques in the Cathedral including for soldiers, civilians, nurses, dock workers and others killed in the relentless German bombing of the port city.

They and Chavasse are honoured among their own community. In Australia VC winners are honoured in the Australian War Memorial Hall of Valour with many communities erecting statues or memorials for locals such as St Kilda’s for Albert Jacka VC, MC & Bar.

The next AWM addition will be Edward ‘Teddy’ Sheean who was recommended for a VC to the Queen by Scott Morrison following a community and media campaign.

There is no doubt Sheean was a very brave and self-sacrificing young man but his case for a VC had been considered before in the 468 page 2013 report Unresolved Recognition for Past Acts of Naval and Military Gallantry and Valour.

That report concluded: “the awards process was followed correctly and there was not sufficient evidence that there was a manifest injustice with regard to the outcome of the recommendation concerning Sheean. The Tribunal concluded that Sheean’s actions displayed conspicuous gallantry but did not reach the particularly high standard required for recommendation for a VC.

“If Sheean had lived he might have been recommended for a higher Imperial honour (such as a second or third level gallantry award) rather than the fourth level MID, but such intermediate honours were not available posthumously in 1942, and the equivalent level Australian gallantry honours should not be recommended now.

“The Tribunal therefore concluded that it could not recommend that Ordinary Seaman Sheean be awarded the VC for Australia.”

The finding was not enough, of course, to deter Morrison who can be relied on to prefer the populist gesture rather than proper analysis. Worse his intervention has set a precedent which can potentially demean the value of gallantry and valour awards and leave them open to the sort of political manipulation which infects our honours system.

The award of VCs to Australians already has odd divergences, which are not in themselves problematic given the nature and number of our wars, but do raise some questions about awards in the wars in which Australia has been continuously involved for the past two decades and the 20 odd this century.

During the Boer War there were around 16,000 Australian troops involved and six VCs were awarded – a ratio of one to every 2,666 involved. There were 64 awarded in WWI with many of them at Gallipoli. All told about 334,000 Australians served overseas during the war giving a ratio of one VC for every 5218 troops.

In 1919 somewhere between 250 and 350 Australian troops left the AIF to join the British contingent fighting for the White Russians in the 1919 Russian Civil War. They, along with the White Russians lost, although two of the Australians were awarded VCs giving a ratio of one to every 125 Australian participants.

WWII saw 20 VCs awarded out of the approximately 400,000 soldiers who served overseas – a ratio of one to 20,000. Korea involved some 17,000 soldiers but no VCs.

In Vietnam there were 60,000 troops (counting multiple tours and Air Force and Naval personnel) and four VCs were awarded – a ratio of one to every 15,000 troops.

There were 14,000 in Iraq, but no VCs, and 26,000 in Afghanistan for four VCs – a ratio of one to 6,500.

There are obvious, but glib, things suggested by the figures. Basically recent wars produce more VCs and there may be a positive correlation between a war’s unpopularity and VC awards.

There is also some general decoration inflation going on. For instance, National Servicemen who went to Vietnam received two medals. Years after they got back and became civilians they were awarded two more.

More importantly there are probably many individuals in many wars who ought to have been awarded honours but who weren’t. Even more importantly anyone who goes into any form of combat feels some fear and needs a combination of training and bravery to overcome it.

Another conclusion from many of Australia’s wars is that the people who send the troops often indulge alternately in euphemisms and hyperbole. David Stephens,  in The Honest History Book,  talks about our use of words such as sacrifice, fallen, died for our freedom (what Gallipoli had to do with our freedom is a good question) rather than saying killed or “they died serving a government policy.”

Indeed, the book also makes clear that the only Australian soldiers in Gallipoli and the Middle East who were ‘fighting for freedom’ were those who were rescuing Armenians from the Turkish genocide.

No-one comes back from a war untouched or unaffected. The figures on veterans’ problems are stark. Dealing with them often involves battles with the Department of Veterans Affairs despite the efforts of many helpful DVA staff and despite governments’ diversion of resources to commemoration activities like the $600 million squandered on WWI commemoration.

There are also growing numbers of voluntary organisation helping veterans. Soldier On, for instance, was established by John Bale, Cavin Wilson, and Dr Danielle Clout, following the 2008 death of John’s close friend, Lieutenant Michael Fussell, from an IED blast in Afghanistan.

While building on the local Armidale community’s support for Fussell’s family they also recognised a need to support both younger veterans injured physically and psychologically in incident’s like Michael’s, and their family members. They also wanted to help those who had been impacted during peacekeeping operations, training exercises, and general duties.

From that beginning they have set up centres in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, as well as offices in Adelaide, Albury, Brisbane, Newcastle and Perth offering assistance with trauma-related mental health conditions, employment and education.

Similarly, Mates4Mates has provided physical, psychological and social support services to more than 4,600 people have directly benefited from our services and continue to access support regularly in south east and north Queensland, Tasmania and outreach locations around Australia.

They are motivated by the best sense of lest we forget. It’s a tragedy that many of our governments are not – especially when it comes to discussing the dishonest claims about why we got involved in wars such as Vietnam and Iraq.

Declaration of interest: The blog served as an Artillery officer in Vietnam.