Brian Best, Unrewarded Courage (Frontline, 2020)
To earn a Victoria Cross, a soldier has to do something extraordinary above and beyond any required action or even a mere act of bravery. But some soldiers did those things and were not rewarded with the VC. In Unrewarded Courage, Brian Best sets out to explain why that happened.
The book begins with the introduction of the VC during the Crimean War. An award for the most extreme acts of bravery seems like a straightforward concept, but it was not. Who was to get it and why has plagued the VC since its inception. Best takes us through a chronological survey of British wars and expeditions, narrating accounts of astonishing acts of bravery, some of which received the VC, while some did not, but at this remove it is difficult to tell them apart.
The tardiness of the reporting process to recommend a VC scuppered a few cases. There were also commanders who simply did not believe in the VC, arguing that the candidates all acted within their duty as a British soldier. Class played its usual role in preventing those of lower backgrounds receiving the VC, while giving it to those of the aristocracy who did little to earn it other than use their status to lobby hard. Politics played its part too, controlling the flow of VCs for certain engagements, keeping the numbers down but also increasing the awards too when it suited British political purposes. Some brave men suffered from a morality problem in that they had done bad things in the past, so were all but ineligible no matter what they did. The rules for awarding the VC developed with new caveats added, though the rules could be bent if the occasion demanded, particularly if high level influence was brought to bear. The emphasis shifted too, from saving lives to damaging the enemy, but many of the same prejudices remain even in our seemingly enlightened world.
Best performs well in this book, weaving stories and reasons, so that the reader is not bogged down in analysis while still able to get indignant at some of the ridiculousness that seems to typify the British military at times. But Best’s efforts to keep things integrated start to break down in World War I and beyond when even he cannot find adequate reasons for the refusals, and the book ends in a catalogue of cases, which are still interesting but do not flow into each other as do Best’s earlier stories. Nevertheless, Unrewarded Courage is a riveting read, and at least Best has given these men the full recognition they deserve.