Courage that defies belief… and why we owe them all a debt of gratitude

  • 14 November, 2012
  • Bravery
  • Medals

Published in the Daily Mail on 14 November 2012.

Chief Gunner Israel Harding

Bravery, in general, and the Victoria Cross, in particular, have been two of my greatest passions for more than half a century.

Some of the supreme acts of courage carried out by our servicemen in order to have been awarded the VC – Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy – simply defy belief.

It was therefore with great disappointment and distress that I read in the Daily Mail at the weekend that many of the graves of our war heroes have fallen into disrepair.

The Highland Road Cemetery in Southsea, Hampshire – the cemetery containing the largest number of graves belonging to our VC heroes – is a case in point, with some headstones unsteady, covered in grime and with their inscriptions barely readable.

The plight of these graves has been highlighted by the Victoria Cross Trust, a charity founded with the honourable aims to maintain memorials and graves commemorating the lives of holders of the VC.

Nearly 1,000 recipients of the VC are buried in churchyards in the UK and it is many of these graves that have fallen into a pitiable state (whereas the Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the graves of 386 VC recipients who fell in action abroad).

The concerns of the Victoria Cross Trust have now been reinforced by the findings of the Bow Group, an influential think-tank which has called on the Government to help provide an estimated £1.2million required to survey and restore the graves that have fallen into a state of disrepair.

Over the past three decades, I have championed bravery, building up the largest collection of VCs in the world – now on display to the public at a gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London.

I have also written four books on gallantry: the first, Victoria Cross Heroes, was published to mark the 150th anniversary of the VC being instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856.

I feel protective towards the graves of those 177 men whose VCs are now in my collection. It is for this reason that I am today pledging up to £1,000 per plot to restore any of these specific graves if, for whatever reason, they have fallen into major disrepair.

I hope that my pledge, so soon after Remembrance Sunday, will encourage others, including the Government and concerned groups or individuals, to find the funds to restore every derelict grave of a VC recipient to its former glory.

Many families of fallen VC heroes have tended the graves of their loved ones for several decades. However, it is often the medal recipients from the 19th century and the First World War whose graves are now in the greatest need of restoration.

Today’s descendants of these recipients may not even be aware of the bravery of yesteryear or the whereabouts of their forebears’ graves.

Until the Daily Mail highlighted the case at the weekend, I was unaware that the grave of one of the VC recipients whose medals I own is apparently in need of renovation.

Israel Harding was a gunner in the Royal Navy when he was awarded the VC in  September 1882 for bravery in Egypt. He was serving on HMS Alexandra during  the Anglo-Egyptian War when the city of  Alexandria was under bombardment from British warships.

During the engagement, a ten-inch shell passed through the ship’s side and lodged on the main deck. Harding, who had been below deck, raced to the scene of the  danger as soon as he heard a shout that there was a live shell on board.

Without thinking of his own safety, he picked up the shell and threw it into a tub of water. This prevented the shell from exploding and claiming many lives.

The brave actions of Harding, then 48, were feted by his comrades and he was awarded the VC just two months after the incident.

He was buried at Highland Road Cemetery, close to his birthplace, after his death in May 1917, aged 83.

If my inquiries now reveal that Mr Harding’s descendants are no longer able to care for his grave then, with the blessing of the family or relevant authority, I will make the necessary funding available to carry out restoration work. And I will do the same for other graves belonging to the recipients of medals in my collection if it is shown they have fallen into a state of disrepair.

Graves, like gallantry medals, should be seen as a tangible relic of someone’s courage. They should be considered as a tribute to someone who has risked, and in some cases given his life for his comrades, his sovereign or his country.

As a nation, we owe every VC recipient a debt of gratitude – and also a responsibility to care for that individual’s final resting place for ever more.

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