Yorkshire VCs – For Valour
Yorkshire VCs by Alan Whitworth published by Pen & Sword Books
Most people have heard of the Victoria Cross, but very few people who have won the nation’s highest military award for bravery are alive today. Unlike other medals, it is not bright and shiny (it’s a dark bronze), it’s rather small (less than 1½” wide), its ribbon is a dull crimson, and it’s intrinsically worthless. And yet it is the most highly prized decoration a soldier, sailor or airman can earn. Only members of the armed forces of Britain, Commonwealth countries and some other former members of the British Empire are eligible to be awarded the VC, and to do so they must have committed a significant act of extreme bravery in the face of the enemy. Since the first VC was pinned to a chest over 150 years ago only 1,357 have been awarded. The medal bears the simple inscription, “For Valour”.
After a short preface which provides the background on the medal and its origins, Alan Whitworth’s book is divided into two main parts: the first is a very useful series of potted histories of each of Britain’s modern military campaigns (from the Crimean War of 1854 to the Iraq war of 2003 – though the 1st and 2nd World Wars are omitted for reasons of space) and the second major part lists all the people with some sort of Yorkshire connection (they were born, lived or died in Yorkshire, or were buried in the county) who have won the VC.
The potted histories are very useful and informative, and help provide a context for what follows. They are also disturbing: Britain has been at war on one or more fronts almost continually over the timespan covered by the book (and for much of the period leading up to it); many of the campaigns would now be regarded as illegal and barbaric; Britain’s colonial past involved brutal suppression of natives, summary ‘justice’ including beatings and executions, what we would now call ethnic cleansing and concentration camps; and the use of comparatively advanced weapons against pitifully armed native tribesmen.
Nevertheless, the people who actually fought the battles that had been decreed far away in Westminster showed, in many instances, great determination, indefatigable endurance, and remarkable courage – often in the face of foes numbering in the thousands when the British forces could be counted in hundreds.
The list of Yorkshire VC winners in the second part of the book is much more than merely a roll-call of honour. Besides providing details of name and rank and where the recipient was born, died and buried, each entry is accompanied by the listing in the London Gazette which related the official reason and circumstance for the award. This is complemented by one or more paragraphs of well-researched biographical background plus the current location of the VC where known (a number of these are in Richmond’s Green Howards Museum). Whilst the Gazette entry provides a brief outline, it’s often the biographical details which bring home just how brave the medal winners were. Indeed, many VCs were awarded posthumously – the act of supreme courage that led to the award was often accompanied by the supreme sacrifice of death-in-action or soon after as a result of wounds received.
For most people this is not a book to be read from cover to cover – but rather one that should be dipped into from time to time. And maybe the best way of approaching it is to randomly turn to a VC-holder’s entry in part 2, and then find out more about the campaign from part 1.
For those with a particular interest in military history, this will be a useful adjunct to the growing body of literature on medals and the people to whom they were awarded. For people interested in collecting medals and militaria this will be particularly useful in providing background information as well as providing locations for see those Yorkshire VCs on public display. But it’s also excellent reading for anyone with an interest in Britain’s history since the 1850s and/or tales of valour and determination.
The author, Alan Whitworth, is a Yorkshire-based historian and writer who wrote the biographical section of the book and has also produced many other books about different aspects of Yorkshire. The Brief History of Modern British Campaigns was written by Max Arthur, a highly-regarded military historian (with a sideline in football – his first love) who specialises in documenting the oral histories of soldiers and those affected by war.
The book is completed by a 16-page gallery of photographs, a comprehensive index and several useful addenda including a complete list of Yorkshire VC holders; a glossary of abbreviations, acronyms and military terms; a bibliography; and an appendix which explains the role of the London Gazette and provides a listing of the Yorkshire VCs cited therein.
Yorkshire VCs is available direct from the publishers, Pen and Sword Books, at a special price of £15.99 (RRP £19.99).