The Victoria Cross (VC) is Britain’s highest award for gallantry. Of the 1,358 Victoria Crosses issued since 1856, over 600 were issued in the First World War. 175 of these were awarded to men from overseas. Of these, only 14 were not born in Britain or other parts of the Commonwealth.
So why was the Commonwealth so important?
A full answer to this question, on which there are many books written, is not possible in the short space of a blog. From the start, Commonwealth partners stood alongside Britain, supplying men, goods and money, not just in 1914 when it was thought that the war would be over by Christmas, but throughout the war. Men joined for many reasons. Some countries introduced conscription in the second half of the war. Prior to that millions of men had volunteered for reasons as diverse as adventure, honour, politics or simply to earn a living.
Certain battles of the war are strongly associated with particular countries; Neuve Chapelle with Indian troops, Gallipoli with the Australians and New Zealanders, Vimy Ridge with the Canadians, Delville Wood with the South Africans. That does not mean they were the only ones who fought in the battle, nor that these were the only places where they fought, but for reasons including their achievements, losses and the bravery of their actions, we make those associations.
The incidences of gallantry and heroism are too many to count. The Victoria Cross represents only the pinnacle of these. The men themselves represent the diversity of the best of their generations, and came from many countries, backgrounds and ranks - from Private to Lieutenant Colonel. As well as the Western Front and Gallipoli, their actions cover less remembered theatres like Russia, East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia. The youngest of these men to be awarded the VC, Thomas Ricketts, was 17 years old, the oldest, Cyrus Peck, was 47, both Canadians. The first of these VCs were awarded in October 1914 to Khuddad Khan, the last was to Samuel Pearse, in August 1919.
In some cases, the men had less than unblemished histories before acting with such heroism that they were awarded the VC, such as Maurice Buckley, who had previously deserted and reenlisted in the Australian Imperial Force under an assumed name or Richard Travis, who had changed his name after claims of impropriety. By contrast, despite having been medically discharged as unfit for duty because of tuberculosis, Samuel Frickleton voluntarily re-enlisted.
For these men, fighting so far from their countries, home leave was not a realistic option. So the importance of the comrades alongside them was particularly significant. This may be why so many actions are for defending or saving men at great risk to their own lives, for example Chatta Singh, who left cover to rescue his commanding officer whilst under heavy rifle fire and after treating his wounds stayed with him for five hours ‘shielding him with his own body on the exposed side’, until it was safe to move him. Often the bravest offensive actions occurred when their lives of their comrades were badly threatened, such as when Frederick Chopins and four men charged a machine gun that could have wiped out their platoon.
Were these ordinary men? In some ways – yes. Although some were professional soldiers, many returned to the jobs they held before the war, such as farming or working in a store. In other ways they were far from ordinary. At the necessary moment, they demonstrated ‘almost superhuman powers’ like South African Reginald Hayward. The important point is that these extraordinary actions from otherwise seemingly ordinary men inspired those around them, and continue to inspire people today.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Commonwealth Society