Supreme award both an honour and a burden

By Andy MacDonald

There was little doubt that Victoria Cross winner Sergeant John Grant had downed a skinful of booze before he turned up at the swanky London function.

"I'll shout the bar!" he bawled before falling over a table, drunk.

But that was not the worst of his behaviour at the 100th anniversary of the VC, hosted by Lord Louis and Lady Edwina Mountbatten in 1956.

"How are you, Edwina?" the Taranaki-born former depression-era labourer, who died in 1970, inquired, slapping her heartily on the back.

History does not reveal her ladyship's response, but Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, himself a VC winner, was outraged. Grant, who won his VC on the Somme in World War I, was frog-marched from the premises.

It is anecdotes such as this that Professor Glyn Harper of Massey University has gathered to animate the lives of New Zealand's bravest servicemen.

His new book - co-authored by serving Army officer Colin Richardson - seeks to dispel the myths that have grown around New Zealand winners of the supreme award for bravery on the battlefield.

"I wanted to get to the bottom of who they were," the Palmerston North historian said.

This involved unearthing a vast amount of hitherto unseen information from yellowing military files at Archives New Zealand, in Wellington.

The VC was inaugurated in 1856 and altogether 1353 have been awarded, 29 of them to New Zealanders or men with strong links to New Zealand. No woman has won the VC, although both Maori and Pakeha have received them. No New Zealand winners are still alive.

All the winners with a New Zealand flavour are studied in the book In the Face of the Enemy.

The most famous was Captain Charles Upham, one of just three people to win the award twice, and a fair amount of space is devoted to his exploits in Crete and North Africa during World War II.

Professor Harper found the wiry North Canterbury farmer's character beyond reproach, unlike those of some of his fellow VC winners.

As noted sporting journalist Sir Terry McLean said: "Was he New Zealand's greatest soldier of the Second World War? The question is unimportant. He was Charles Hazlitt Upham. Charlie Upham. Unforgettable."

Unforgettable indeed. One contemporary source described Upham as "obstinate, pugnacious, independent, blunt, tactless, hard-swearing, highly strung [and] careless in his dress".

But the mantle of responsibility that came with two VCs was a hefty one for Upham to shoulder after the war.

"Unlike Dick Travis of the First World War, Captain Upham had to live with the legend his deeds of valour created," said Professor Harper.

Others, such as Sergeant Haane Manahi, of the Maori Battalion, were recommended for the decoration but infamously missed out.

Professor Harper was quick to note Manahi's signal bravery in the brutal hand-to-hand battle for Takrouna heights in North Africa in 1942.

The battle turned sour when an Italian grenade was lobbed into a shelter holding New Zealand wounded, killing them all. Of the Italian infantry engaged in the battle there "were no survivors. Those who were not bayoneted or shot were thrown over the cliffs", Professor Harper says.

He pointed out that Manahi, who died in a car crash in 1986, was awarded the lesser, but still prestigious, Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions despite being recommended for the VC.

Manahi's was not an isolated story, and one certainly familiar to veterans of World War I.

After the failed attempt to break the stalemate on Gallipoli, many soldiers lamented about the VCs that should have been awarded.

Only one New Zealander won the VC for his actions on the dusty escarpment above Anzac Cove: Lance-Corporal Cyril Bassett.

"All my mates got were wooden crosses," the reticent Bassett, who died in 1983, famously said.

This reticence was a trait shared by many New Zealand VC winners: Upham, Sergeant Jack Hinton, and Sergeant Dick Travis among them.

Travis - who was born Cornelius Dickson Savage in Hawkes Bay - was killed in action on July 25, 1918, just one day after winning the award.

His bravery was legendary among the battle-hardened men of the New Zealand Division and his exploits have been well documented.

Not so well known was the fallout surrounding the ownership of his medals and personal effects, or the probable reason for his fleeing Hawkes Bay and changing his name.

Professor Harper's scouring of the records has revealed that Travis was most likely run out of town after his girlfriend, the daughter of a local notable, became pregnant. He vanished, turning up years later in the wilds of Southland as a horsebreaker.

War beckoned in 1914 and Travis was soon on his way to Gallipoli, and then the Western Front, where dual talents as a sniper and savage trench raider won him a trinity of bravery medals, the awe of his comrades and a sobriquet as King of No Man's Land.

Years after the war one of his mates, Alexander "Bull" Swainson, sent a bouquet to his friend's lonely grave at Couin, northern France.

"We consider he was the greatest soldier New Zealand has ever produced," Mr Swainson said.

After Travis' death, his girlfriend or "intended wife", Lettie Murray, and family rowed over ownership of his possessions. The Prime Minister was called in to adjudicate.

But his battlefield will, written just before his death, was not to be denied: His possessions went to Miss Murray and were later donated to Southland Museum.

Another sad stoush over ownership surrounded New Zealand-born Captain Alfred Shout, who won the VC for his actions on Gallipoli.

The carpenter was serving with the Australian forces during the bitter battle for Lone Pine in early August 1915.

He caught a Turkish hand grenade - intending to throw it back - and it blew up, carrying away part of his face and severing his hands.

He died from his wounds days later and was buried at sea. Debate continues still as to whether he was a Kiwi or an Aussie.

In Professor Harper's opinion, and because Shout wore an Australian uniform, it was "therefore inappropriate for New Zealand to stake any claim...tempting as this might be".

Another controversial VC winner was Sergeant Clive Hulme, who won the gong for his work with a sniper's rifle and while wearing a German uniform.

Hulme, who was known for his brashness, donned a German camouflage smock and cap before stalking enemy paratroopers around Crete in 1941.

His brother - "Blondie" Hulme - died of wounds received in the frenetic fight around Galatas and Sergeant Hulme apparently felt a "cold need to avenge" his death.

But the powerfully built Hulme was probably breaking the Geneva Convention by wearing an enemy uniform and operating behind their lines, a crime punishable by summary execution if captured.

Heated debate has broken out over whether his actions constitute a war crime. His battalion's history is couched in the language of diplomacy, stating simply that his actions "may possibly have misled the Germans".

Hulme, who died in 1982, was thought to have killed at least 33 Germans, was severely wounded in the process and eventually returned to New Zealand incapacitated.

Professor Harper concluded that he was operating "against the rules of war" at the time.

But he adds: "There's no disputing that he was a very brave man."

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