Why it is not incorrect to speak of winning a Victoria Cross
Wednesday 3 September 2014 by Robert Nichols.
It is often asserted that it is somehow disrespectful, or otherwise inappropriate, to speak of someone “winning a VC”. This is not so. It is, in fact, perfectly permissible – and sometimes unavoidable – to say that someone has won a Victoria Cross or some other bravery award.
But why does this make some people uncomfortable? The reason seems to be because they see the term “win” as reserved for the outcomes of prizes or competitions. However, the word is plainly not restricted to such contexts. Rather, it is widely used to convey the meaning “achieve, get, or earn by effort”. For example, it is common to talk of winning respect or acclaim, of winning ore from a mine, or of winning a battle. And when we say that someone has won our respect we intend to suggest that this is because of various merits they possess or actions they have performed. Similarly, when we speak of someone winning a Nobel Prize – or even a Brownlow Medal – we don’t mean to suggest that their name has simply been drawn out of a hat, but rather that this award is due recognition of outstanding, or in any case praiseworthy, achievement. And, on the face of it, similar considerations clearly apply in the case of military awards.
There is another interesting parallel worth considering. The word “win” is clearly being used metaphorically in such contexts – just as “lose” is often used metaphorically in analogous ones. But it is curious that no one ever objects to us speaking of men “losing their lives” in battle. Surely, if there is something disrespectful about winning a VC, it should be no less so to speak of losing a life. And yet no one thinks this. Indeed, it does seem somewhat ludicrous to suggest that we cannot say that “Dasher” Wheatley won a VC, but that it is perfectly acceptable to say that he lost his life while doing so.
It is worth pointing out that the use of “win” is common in standard reference works on medals and awards; for example, Abbott and Tamplin’s British gallantry awards, Lionel Wigmore’s They dared mightily, and even the UK Ministry of Defence fact sheet on Military honours and awards. All of these works use the word quite happily. In addition, Australian official historian Charles Bean often speaks of men winning the Victoria Cross: for example, in Anzac to Amiens (1946) he refers to “Colonel Neville R. Howse, a country surgeon who had won a V.C. in South Africa”. Furthermore, Anthony Staunton, the acknowledged Australian expert on the Victoria Cross (and long-time member of the Orders and Medals Research Society of the UK), does not believe that using the term suggests the award was the result of a prize or lottery. He and other prominent scholars who have contributed entries to the Australian dictionary of biography – A.J. Hill, Kevin Fewster, and R.P. Serle spring to mind – speak freely of their subjects “winning a VC”.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Australian soldiers have themselves typically used such expressions, as various entries in The Anzac book (1916), edited by Charles Bean and “Written and Illustrated in Gallipoli by The Men of Anzac”, make clear. For example, “Crosscut”, a member of the 16th Battalion, AIF, contributed a poem entitled “How I won the VC”.
It is also important to note that there are difficulties with other possible formulations, and so if we are denied recourse to the term “win” we will sometimes generate much unnecessary awkwardness. Take, for example:
He was awarded his VC for the valour he showed at Pozierès.
This is fine, of course, and precisely what we would often say. However, problems can arise if we are prevented from ever saying that someone won a VC. For example, Neville Howse is by common consent the first Australian to win a Victoria Cross. But, strictly speaking, he was not the first Australian to be awarded a VC. For Howse’s award was not gazetted until 4 June 1901, by which time two other Australians, John Bisdee and Guy Wylly, had already been awarded their VCs. Bisdee’s award was gazetted on 13 November 1900 and Wylly’s on 23 November.
But if we cannot say that Neville Howse was the first Australian to win a VC – the most natural and succinct formulation, and the one that most people would naturally understand – what can we say? It would have to be something like this:
Howse was the first Australian to perform an action for which he was later (successfully) recommended for the award of a VC.
Clearly, it will not always be appropriate, or desirable, to use such a laboured expression. What about this:
There were seven Australian VCs awarded at Lone Pine.
However, someone unacquainted with the situation might misinterpret this to mean something untrue; namely, that seven men took part in an award ceremony of some kind at Lone Pine. Perhaps this will work:
There were seven recipients of the VC at Lone Pine.
But this could be wrongly misinterpreted to mean that there were present at Lone Pine seven men who had each earlier won a VC. And so on, and so forth. There appear to be unfortunate complications that undermine almost every other suggestion. Hence our preference for “winning”. In the end, what we want is an expression that is readily understandable to all, that is to say, that uses plain language which people cannot misinterpret, and that allows us to make statements that are wholly congruent with the facts of the matter. And it seems clear that if we say
Seven Australians won the VC at Lone Pine
then everyone knows exactly what is meant, and what has been said is unambiguously true.
In sum, while it is not always obligatory to say that someone won a VC, choosing to do so is wholly unobjectionable. And, as we have seen, it is sometimes necessary to do precisely this if the writer wishes to make simple, clear, and accurate statements about those who have performed outstanding acts of bravery in the service of the nation.