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The VC [Victoria Cross]

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Monday 28 April 2008

Robert Macklin, author


The VC [Victoria Cross]

The Victoria Cross, Australia's supreme award for military gallantry has been abandoned. Yet despite the high regard in which it is universally held, its demise occurred with barely a whimper. In 1991 the Australian Prime Minister's word in all matters pertaining to the Victoria Cross became law. On 15 January of that year the Queen and then Prime Minister Bob Hawke signed a document that ended an era. The VC ceased to be an Imperial honour. Even the title was changed. It became 'The Victoria Cross for Australia' and its new warrant differed starkly from those which had governed it for the previous 135 years.

The new arrangement provided no particular process for recommendation and review up the chain of command but made the Defence Minister the final arbiter. In practice this meant that the former system-within Australia-would usually be adhered to. The minister would almost certainly take the recommendation to cabinet, but at the least it would be 'signed off ' by the Prime Minister of the day.

The decoration would 'only be awarded for the most conspicuous gallantry of a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy.'

But those eligible would not only include not only members of the Defence Force but 'other persons determined by the Minister for the purposes of this regulation'.

This marks a reversion to the only other time when civilians were permitted to receive the VC, that is during the Indian Mutiny. But even then they needed to be operating under the command of a military officer. Today not even that condition applies.

By widening the field of eligibility and separating the VC from its traditional roots the Hawke government can be accused, with some justice, of devaluing the honour, at least until the new regime develops its own tradition.

Anthony Staunton, the premier Australian authority on the VC', says the VC for Australia is regarded among many servicemen as the 'pup' VC, a reference to 

the First World War 'pup' battalions, which were created by fusing the Anzac 'originals' with untried reinforcements from Australia. At first they were regarded as second-string but in time they developed their own distinguished records and traditions.

Some important elements of the VC remain. Hancocks, the London jeweller, will continue to cast and engrave the medals for the Australian authorities; the source of the bronze will in all probability remain the Chinese cannons that have provided the metal since the awards inception

But the changes to the award are part of a larger process which includes the other Imperial service awards now abandoned: the DSO, DCM, MC, MM, and Mentioned-In -Dispatches in the army and their equivalents in the other services: the Distinguished Service Cross in the navy and the air force's Distinguished Flying Cross.

In their place, for all branches of the service, have been substituted (in descending order) the Star of Gallantry, the Medal of Gallantry and the Commendation for Gallantry. The new unit awards are the Unit Citation for Gallantry and the Meritorious Unit Citation.

It's a development that does not enjoy universal favour. The War Memorial's Director, Steve Gower questions the change of designation. 'I find them very hard to correlate to the former Imperial awards,' he says. 'I think it's important to have our own. But I really don't know why they were not designated the Australian DSO, the Australian MC and MM.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of the change, some universal and immutable truths remain: the best VC is the one that is never awarded, because war is the last-and the worst- resort. Its greatest heroes will always be those who hate it most and wish to end it quickest. And their stories will forever be a treasured part of our national heritage.


Robert Macklin