The concept of courage, valour or bravery in war can be traced back to Classical Greece, with the 5th Century B.C. historian Thucydides recognising that ‘the prize for courage will surely be awarded most justly to those who best know the difference between hardship and pleasure and yet are never tempted to shrink from danger.’ Fortitude, the deliberate facing of dangers and bearing of toils was considered one of the cardinal virtues by the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas, while bravery in battle was a basic tenet of the concept of chivalry.
Napoleon Bonaparte recognised that, in the wake of the French Revolution, the award of Orders such as the Legion d’honneur should henceforth be based upon merit not nobility. The supreme military award of the Legion d’Honneur recognises extreme bravery, and is usually reserved for soldiers who have died in battle. Queen Victoria approved in 1856 that an exceptional act of valour or devotion by a member of the British Armed Forces in the face of the enemy should be honoured with the Victoria Cross, regardless of military rank or class. From 1863, the United States Congress has awarded the Medal of Honor to officers and enlisted personnel who have distinguished themselves in battle.
Captain Georges Guynemer became the first French fighter pilot to shoot down 50 enemy aircraft during the First World War. His active service between 1915 and 1917 matched his abiding interest in aviation and mechanics with his exceptional skill as a marksman and pilot. His great gallantry in the air, together with his devotion to duty, was recognised by the award of the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1915. He soon became a national hero in France, and citation of his award of the Officier de la Legion d’Honneur in June 1917 noted his brilliant exploits, his audacity and disregard of danger. He was also chivalrous – when the German fighter pilot Ernst Udet found that both of his machine guns had jammed in the middle of an airborne duel with Guynemer, the French pilot broke off the fight and waved to his adversary. On 11 September 1917 Guynemer was shot down and killed during a patrol over Langemark. The twenty-two year old knight of the air was memorialised in the Pantheon in Paris, as a ‘symbol of the aspirations and enthusiasms of the Army of the Nation’.
One of the earliest recipients of the Victoria Cross was also one of the youngest when he distinguished himself by his gallantry in the face of the enemy. Fifteen year old Drummer Thomas Flynn served with the 64th Regiment of Foot at Cawnpore on 28 November 1857 during the Indian Mutiny. Flynn was wounded during a thousand yard charge up a ravine towards a battery of enemy guns, yet he was still able to engage in hand to hand fighting with two of the enemy gunners. The 64th Regiment was then forced to retreat when counter-attacked, holding an entrenched position until the main British force arrived later that day. While Flynn survived the battle, he discharged from the army twelve years later after a career marked by drunkenness and ill-discipline.
One of the most decorated American soldiers of the Second World War was Lieutenant Audie Murphy. On 25 January 1945 the nineteen year old officer was in command of a company of the US 15th Infantry Regiment near the village of Holzwihr in the Colmar area of North-East France. When Murphy’s company was attacked by several hundred German infantry supported by six tanks he ordered his men to take up defensive positions in nearby forest. Murphy himself covered their withdrawal, calling down supporting artillery fire. He then climbed on a burning American tank destroyer, turning the vehicle’s .50 calibre machine gun on the German troops. He continued operating the machine gun for an hour, despite the danger that the burning tank destroyer would explode, and that he had himself been wounded in the leg. Murphy then organised his troops in a successful counter-attack. In recognition of his extraordinary heroism, Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor, which he wore together with the Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Star medals, and two Bronze Star medals which he had previously been awarded for valour in Italy and France.
Winston Churchill observed in 1944 that while a medal glitters, ‘it also casts a shadow’. In 1917 Georges Guynemer realised that he would likely not survive the war, but refused to consider leaving the front line to become a flying instructor for ‘it will be said that I have ceased to fight because I have won all the awards.’ Thomas Flynn left the army in 1869 and tried to build a new life in the United States, but he returned to England a decade later to work as a navvy in the railways. He died destitute, in a workhouse in Ireland, and was buried in a common grave. Audie Murphy enjoyed a successful career in Hollywood films after the Second World War, but suffered from nightmares, insomnia and depression due to his experiences of combat. As Cyril Bassett, the only New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915, once reflected: ‘When I got my medal I was disappointed to find I was the only New Zealander to get one at Gallipoli, because hundreds of Victoria Crosses should have been awarded there. All my mate ever got was a wooden cross.’
Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.