A commemoration of inspiring gallantry

Speech made to Hammersmith Conservatives on 25 March 2015.

Lieutenant Eric Ashcroft
Leading Seaman James Joseph Magennis
Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse
Lieutenant-Commander George Nicholson Bradford
Sergeant Joshua Mark Leakey
Lieutenant William Barnard Rhodes-Moorhouse

Text of speech Lord Ashcroft gave to Hammersmith Conservatives.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to thank Hammersmith Conservatives for inviting me to speak to you this evening, and in particular Mark Higton and Richard MacLure who have made this evening possible. It is a great privilege to be here, too, in this splendid, historic venue: as some of you here will know, the Cavalry and Guards Club’s earliest roots date back more than two centuries to 1810.

The title of my talk tonight is “A Commemoration of Inspiring Gallantry,” and I have been specifically asked to speak to you about some of the Great War VCs in my medals’ collection. In a few moments, I will do just that – detailing the stories behind an Army VC (and Bar), a Royal Navy VC and an RAF VC (strictly a Royal Flying Corps VC at that point). In short, there will hopefully be something for everyone.

However, before I do this I would like to explain just a little about my own passion for bravery and gallantry medals – and why someone has deemed me qualified to address you this evening. I would also like to offer a little insight into the concept of courage and why I have chosen to devote a considerable amount of time and resources into championing those who have displayed outstanding gallantry.

The great enthusiasm in bravery that I developed as a boy grew partly from my general interest in events from the Second World War but, more specifically, because I had been inspired by my late father, Eric Ashcroft. My father was a modest man but eventually, with much prompting from his persistent son, he told me of his own terrifying experiences on June 6, 1944 during the D-Day landings. He movingly recalled how he and his fellow officers had been told to expect 75 per cent casualties – dead and wounded – as they landed in Normandy.

As a small boy, I sat wide-eyed as he painted a vivid picture of his small landing craft crashing through the waves towards Sword Beach. According to my father, the landing craft was filled with the real smell of vomit and the metaphorical smell of fear. Yet, when they reached the shallow water, the front of the landing craft dropped down and they ran into the unknown as the “ping” of the machine gun bullets sounded all around them. As they raced up the beach, they came under a relentless fire. There were immediate casualties, including my father’s commanding officer, a colonel, who was shot dead at my father’s side. As the battle raged my father, too, was hit by shrapnel. Although he had received serious injuries to his back and an arm, he fought on until finally he was ordered from the battlefield.

Gradually, my interest in bravery grew and grew. Courage is a truly wonderful quality yet it is so difficult to understand. Wiser – and braver – men than me have struggled to comprehend gallantry and what makes some individuals risk the greatest gift of all – life itself – for a comrade, their country or, sometimes, even for a complete stranger.

As a schoolboy, I posed more questions about courage than I could answer. What is it that makes some people respond to danger differently from others? Are we all capable of a certain level of bravery given the right circumstances? What is the crucial factor that makes some people more courageous than others? Is it in their genes, their upbringing or their training? Are they motivated by patriotism, religious conviction, a respect for those who fight alongside them or simply an old-fashioned sense of duty?

The more I thought about the concept of courage, the more it intrigued me. You can’t measure bravery, you can’t bottle it and you can’t buy it but I strongly suspect that everyone present today instinctively respects someone who is deemed to be brave. And quite rightly so.

Even truly courageous people find it impossible to measure courage or to define what makes some people exceptionally brave. However, Brigadier Sir John Smyth, a recipient of the VC for his First World War exploits and an expert on bravery, was convinced that courage was expendable. “Most people only have a limited amount of it – and if the pitcher is taken too often to the well, then the well will run dry,” he wrote. Smyth was frank about the difficulty in assessing bravery levels: “Who can say whether it takes more courage to attack an angry bull elephant with a spear, than to disarm a very sensitive mine, or to have your toenails pulled out and disclose nothing, or to dive into a burning aircraft to try to pull out members of the crew when the rescuer was well aware that the plane was carrying bombs which might explode at any moment.”

The dictionary defines courage as “the ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.” This is certainly an accurate, if simplistic, definition but, having studied the concept of bravery for more than half a century, I know that courage is not something that can be adequately summed up in only a handful of words. Nelson Mandela, however, put it astutely when he said: “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

In broad terms, I consider there are two types of bravery: spur-of the moment and premeditated courage. I have nothing but admiration for those who display spur-of-the-moment bravery, perhaps a serviceman who, in the heat of battle and with his blood up, risks his life to save a wounded comrade and/or friend. However, I have even more admiration for those who display premeditated, or “cold”, courage: for example, members of the Special Forces who are required to go undercover behind enemy lines know, if they are caught, they face possible imprisonment, torture or death.

Such “cold” courage is also displayed, time and time again, by bomb disposal experts. I will never, of course, fully understand the sort of pressure that bomb disposal teams are placed under. However, I have, twice in the past five years, spent training days with Explosive Ordnance Disposal(EOD) operators. My insight into their work has left me with a feeling of total respect for the dangerous and difficult tasks that bomb disposal teams perform.

While I was a schoolboy, I heard of something called the Victoria Cross: the VC, Britain and the Commonwealth’s most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. The notion of making a bravery award to low-ranking soldiers and sailors did not come under serious consideration in Britain until 1854. Until then, it was widely believed that simply serving country and sovereign was sufficient reward for such “ordinary” servicemen. However, after nearly 40 years of peace, Britain became involved in a major war against Russia. The Crimean War was the first conflict to be covered by a corps of war correspondents and men like William Howard Russell, of The Times, filed a series of perceptive and critical articles that highlighted the lack of proper equipment and the ravages of cholera and typhoid: the two diseases claimed 20,000 lives compared with the 3,400 killed in battle.

Queen Victoria, advised by her civil servants and encouraged by her husband, Prince Albert, eventually came up with the idea of an egalitarian gallantry award for bravery in the face of the enemy that could be awarded to all ranks and that was inscribed simply: “For Valour”. The VC was established by a Royal Warrant of January 29 1856 that announced 15 “rules and ordinances”, some of which have been revised over the past 159 years.

As time passed, my passion for bravery, in general, transformed itself into one for gallantry medals, in particular. Such medals are the tangible record of an individual’s service and courage. When I was in my early 20s, I hoped one day to own a VC, Yet, I was a man of few means and the cost of such decorations was then prohibitive to me.

During my 20s and 30s, I worked as an entrepreneur and my life was dominated by my work. Yet, even then I still found time to read the occasional book about military history and the VC. I loved the fact that there was a supreme gallantry medal that could be awarded to any man – or woman – regardless of rank, class, colour, religion or creed. During my 30s, I became aware that VCs occasionally came up for sale at auction and I started ordering the relevant catalogues.

So I hope that I have explained my passion for bravery – but what was the dream that it turned into? I will fast forward until shortly after my 40th birthday. By now I was fortunate enough to have made a little money as an entrepreneur and so – in July 1986 – I bought my first VC at auction. It was a decoration that had been awarded to Leading Seaman James Magennis for valour during the last year of the Second World War. After taking possession of my purchase, I was struck with a feeling of awe, and I felt humbled and inspired to be the guardian of the Magennis VC. This medal had originally been intended as a one-off purchase but I quickly decided that collecting VCs would be a hobby that I would pursue and enjoy for the rest of my life.

One VC became two, soon the collection hit double figures and so on. Today the collection stands at 189 VCs, by some way the largest of its kind in the world. The total number of VC awards stands at 1,358 to a total of 1,355 men – with three men having received a second VC or “Bar”. As my collection grew, I wanted to bring the decorations to a wider audience. I knew I wanted the VCs to be enjoyed by thousands of people but the difficulty was how to achieve it. In short, the dream was somehow to get the collection on show in a suitable location – but I was an international businessman not a museum curator.

Once again, I will fast forward, this time to the summer of 2008. As a result of a great deal of behind-the-scenes discussion, I was able to announce that I had given a sizeable donation so that my VC collection would go on display in a new gallery. In the end, the location was not just a suitablelocation but quite literally the best possible location for the VCs – the world-renowned Imperial War Museum in London. On Armistice Day, 2010, Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal was gracious enough to open the gallery and thereby turn my dream into a reality. Since then the gallery has been viewed – free of charge – by hundreds of thousands of people and it has gone from strength to strength. I am hugely proud of it and all that it represents and the gallery’s aims are simple and threefold: to intrigue, inspire and amaze.

The collection of VCs that is on display covers most of the campaigns in which the decoration has been awarded over the past 159 years, and there are a number of hugely impressive individual stories. In 2009, for example I took possession of the decorations of Captain Noel Chavasse, a medical officer, who earned a VC both at the Somme and at Ypres, thereby becoming the only “VC and Bar” of the Great War. The largest number of VCs awarded for any single war or conflict is 633 and, of these, 189 were awarded posthumously.

In the entire history of the Victoria Cross, only three VC and Bars (or double VCs) have ever been awarded – and the life and bravery of Captain Noel Chavasse is the first individual story that I would like to detail this evening.

By any standards, Chavasse was the most remarkable man and the courage and self-sacrifice he displayed were quite extraordinary. Chavasse was born – the younger (by 20 minutes) of identical twins – in his father’s vicarage in St Peter le Bailey, Oxford, in November 1884. His father, who had seven children, in fact went on to become the Bishop of Liverpool, while Chavasse was educated at Liverpool College School before graduating with a first from Trinity College, Oxford. While at university, he was a talented sportsman, earning blues for athletics and lacrosse. In 1908, both Chavasse and his twin brother, Christopher, represented Great Britain in the London Olympic Games in the 440 (yards). Noel finished third in his heat while Christopher finished second, neither time being fast enough to progress further.

Chavasse qualified as a doctor in 1912 and, after the Great War broke out in the summer of 1914, he had no hesitation in joining the war effort. He served with the Royal Army Medical Corps and was attached to the 10th King’s (London Scottish). His battalion saw action in June 1915 at Hooge, near Ypres, when Chavasse continually went into action for 48 hours until he was convinced that no more wounded men needed treatment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his sterling efforts. Such was his concern for the men who served in the trenches that, shortly afterwards, he asked his sister to buy 1,000 pairs of socks and other comforts out of his own money for the battalion.

In late July 1916, the battalion moved to trenches in front of Guillemont. On August 9, as a result of heavy fighting, his unit of 600 men sustained 189 casualties. Chavasse tended to wounded servicemen all day and night under heavy fire, frequently in full view of the enemy. At one point, and despite already having been wounded, he rescued three injured men from a shell-hole just 25 yards from the enemy trenches. He also buried the bodies of two dead officers and recovered numerous identity discs from dead soldiers.

He was awarded the VC for “conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” after saving the lives of an estimated 20 seriously-injured men. Almost a year later, Chavasse was involved in the third Battle of Ypres, in which Allied forces recaptured the Passchendaele Ridge, outside the Belgian town, over several months at a cost of almost half a million lives. On the evening of July 31, 1917, Chavasse received a skull wound. He had his injury bandaged but he refused to be evacuated. Instead, time and again and in appalling weather, he went into no-man’s-land to search for and attend the wounded. With virtually no food, in great pain and desperately weary, he again saved several lives.

In the early hours of August 2, he was finally taking a rest at his aid post when it was struck by a shell: everyone at the post was either killed or wounded. Chavasse himself received at least six separate injuries but somehow he crawled for half a mile to get medical help for his comrades. By now his swollen face made him unrecognisable and he was operated on for a serious abdominal injury. Yet he found the strength to dictate a final letter to his fiancée and cousin, Gladys, in which he explained why he had carried on helping others despite his injuries: “Duty called and duty must be obeyed.” He died on August 4, 1917, aged 32.

Coincidentally, one of those to treat Chavasse during his final hours after his fatal wounding, was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Martin-Leake, who received his first VC for courage during the Boer War and the Bar to his VC during the Great War. Chavasse’s death bed is believed to have been the only time that the two gallant men from the Royal Army Corps were in the same place at the same time.

The citation for a posthumous Bar to Chavasse’s VC concluded that: “By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example, he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would have otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions. This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.”

Captain Noel Chavasse VC and Bar, MC, has at least 12 memorials dedicated to his memory – more than any other VC recipient in the world. I felt hugely privileged when I was able to add his medal group to my VC collection in 2009. Chavasse’s service and gallantry medals were left by his family decades ago to St Peter’s College, Oxford. Five years ago, with the college keen to sell the group, I happily paid an “uncommercial” price for the Chavasse medals, knowing the proceeds were going to such excellent academic causes.

One of the most remarkable Great War Royal Navy VCs in my collection is the medal group awarded to Lieutenant Commander George Bradford. He was born in Darlington in April 1887 and was educated at his local grammar school and, later, the Royal Naval School in Eltham, south-east London, and Eastman’s School in Southsea, near Portsmouth. He joined Britannia in 1902 and was renowned as a fine athlete and boxer, becoming Navy officers’ welterweight champion and twice appearing in the finals of the Army and Navy Officers’ championships.

On the night of April 22 1918, Bradford was in command of the naval storming party aboard Iris II – an ex-Mersey ferry – at Zeebrugge, Belgium. The aim was to block the harbour and prevent German U-boats entering and exiting. The London Gazette described the commander’s heroism that night:

“When Iris II proceeded alongside the Mole [the harbour wall at Zeebrugge] great difficulty was experienced in placing the parapet anchors owing to the motion of the ship. An attempt was made to land the scaling ladders before the ship was secured. Lieutenant Claude E.K. Hawkings managed to get one ladder in position and actually reached the parapet, the ladder being crushed to pieces just as he stepped off it. This gallant young officer was last seen defending himself with his revolver. He was killed on the parapet. Though securing the ship was not part of his duties, Bradford climbed up the derrick [a small crane used to load and unload cargo] which carried a large parapet anchor and was rigged out over the port side; during this climb the ship was surging up and down and the derrick crashing on the Mole.”

“Waiting his opportunity, he jumped with the parapet anchor on to the Mole and placed it in position. Immediately after hooking on the parapet anchor, Lieut.-Commander Bradford was riddled with bullets from machine-gun fire and fell into the sea between the Mole and the ship. Attempts to recover his body failed. Lieut.-Commander Bradford’s action was one of absolute self-sacrifice. Without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death, realising that in such action lay the only possible chance of securing Iris II and enabling her storming parties to land.”

Bradford’s body was found and buried a few days later by the Germans. He had been killed on his 31st birthday. His mother received his posthumous VC from George V on April 3 1919 at Buckingham Palace. It was the second time she had attended such a ceremony on behalf of one of her four sons. Lieutenant Roland Bradford, of the 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, had been awarded the VC for his bravery in October 1916 displayed in France. He survived that battle but died in Cambrai, France, in November 1917. A third son, James, was awarded the Military Cross – also when serving with the Durham Light Infantry. He was killed in the Battle of Arras in May 1917. Her eldest son, Thomas, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, survived the war. Mrs Bradford placed “In Memoriam” notices in The Times on the anniversaries of her three sons’ deaths every year until her own death in 1951. Incidentally, it was recently established that at least 320 brothers fell in action on the same day (as each other) during the Great War: a truly staggering and sobering statistic.

Is it any wonder that, after the recent award of the VC to Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey for his bravery in Afghanistan, when I was asked to write an article on courage for The Daily Telegraph, I concluded that bravery does indeed “run in the blood”.

As a brief aside too, it is interesting to note that the Bradfords are far from the only family to be so widely decorated. Indeed Lance Corporal Leakey’s second cousin, twice removed, Sergeant Nigel Gray Leakey, was posthumously awarded the VC for his courage in Abyssinia during the Second World War. Furthermore, over the past 159 years, not only have three fathers and sons been awarded the VC, but also four pairs of brothers. And there are numerous other cases of blood relatives being awarded two or more gallantry awards.

The final recipient of the VC from my medal collection that I want to tell you about this evening is 2nd Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse, the first airman ever to be awarded the VC. Born in London in April 1887 and a member of a wealthy and adventurous family, Rhodes-Moorhouse was, by his early twenties, fascinated with the new sport of flying: remember the first powered flight by the Wright brothers had taken place in December 1903 so in the early years of the 20th century flying was an entirely new phenomenon. Rhodes-Moohouse paid for flying lessons and was one of the pioneer airmen, attracting large crowds when he flew in the UK and the US.

When war was declared, he successfully volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner to the RAF. His 25-minute training flight from a local aerodrome was his first for two and a half years. However, there was a shortage of experienced pilots on the Western Front, and in March 1915 Rhodes-Moorhouse joined 2 Squadron at Merville, France. His squadron flew the Farnborough-designed Bleriot-Experimental 2a and 2b, which were sturdy aircraft but had a maximum speed of just 70 mph at ground level. His brilliant service did not go unnoticed by his superiors and he was therefore singled out for a special, but highly dangerous, role.

On April 22, the Germans conducted their first gas attack on Allied troops, and for the next four days they took the initiative in battles in and around St Julien and Ypres. On the 26th, the Royal Flying Corps was ordered to bomb the enemy’s railway network to prevent reinforcements reaching the front line. Rhodes-Moorhouse, who had been due some much-deserved leave, was set to bomb the strategic railway junction at Courtrai – one of three targets for four aircraft. He took off alone from Merville at 3.05 pm, having been advised by his flight commander, Maurice Blake, to drop his 100 lb bomb from just below cloud level. But after making the 32-mile flight, he dropped right down to 300 feet to ensure a direct hit. He was greeted with a volley of rifle and machine-gun fire and, when he was directly over the target, a burst of machine-gun fire perforated the aircraft’s fuselage and smashed into his thigh. At the same time, fragments from his own bomb ripped through the wings and tailplane. Badly wounded and in great pain, Rhodes-Moorhouse had two options: land behind enemy lines, receive urgent medical attention and become a prisoner of war; or try to limp back to his home airbase. It came as no surprise to those who knew him that he chose the latter option with his report. Indeed, he dropped a further 200 feet to gain some extra speed and again encountered heavy fire from the ground. This led to two new wounds to his hand and abdomen.

At 4.12 pm, Maurice Blake, his CO, and a group of 2 Squadron officers were sitting on a river bank listening to the gramophone when they saw Rhodes-Moorhouse’s badly damaged aircraft approaching at a low height. The pilot just cleared a hedge, switched off the engine and made a perfect landing. Blake and another officer lifted him from the battered aircraft, which boasted 95 bullet and shrapnel holes. Rhodes- Moorhouse was taken to a nearby office, where he insisted on filing his report while his wounds were tended. He was then moved to a casualty clearing station in Merville, where it was discovered that a bullet had ripped his stomach to pieces. He was given painkillers, but the doctors decided nothing else could be done for him.

The next morning, Blake was told his friend was dying and had asked for him. Rhodes-Moorhouse showed his commanding officer a photograph of his wife and son, and asked Blake to write to them and his mother. He said that if he was awarded a Military Cross, it should go to his wife. After a short doze, he revealed: “It’s strange dying, Blake, old boy – unlike anything one has ever done before, like one’s first solo flight.” Just after 1 pm, he received Holy Communion and a note arrived informing him that he had been recommended for the Distinguished Service Order. At 2.25 pm, with a recently delivered letter from his wife resting on his pillow, Rhodes-Moorhouse died. He was 27. Unusually for the times, but at his own request, Rhodes-Moorhouse’s body was returned to Britain where he was given a funeral with full military honours.

At home, he was instantly acclaimed as a hero. The Daily Mail noted: “Such endurance is enough to make all of us ashamed of ever again complaining of any pain whatever. He was one of those who have never ‘done their bit’ till they have done the impossible.” Lobbying from influential and senior comrades, including his friend Maurice Blake, meant that they secured Rhodes-Moorhouese a posthumous VC, and swiftly too: his award, for “most conspicuous bravery” was announced on May 22 1915, less than a month after his death. At the time, General Sir John French, the British commander, said the pilot had been responsible for “the most important bomb dropped during the war so far”. As well as his posthumous VC, Rhodes-Moorhouse was promoted posthumously to the rank of full lieutenant.

Before his mission, Rhodes-Moorhouse had written several letters to his family, to be sent to them in the event of his death. One particularly touching one was to his baby son Willie, in which he expressed his love and affection for his wife, with whom he stressed he had never had a “misunderstanding or quarrel”. He urged his son always to seek the advice of his mother and hoped he would be an engineer and obtain “a useful knowledge of machinery in all forms”. He also urged him to “keep up your position as a landowner and a gentleman” (the family had acquired the sixteenth-century Parnham House and its estate in Dorset, before the war). Then, with an affectionate farewell, William Rhodes-Moorhouse signed what he described as his “first and last letter” to his son.

There was a poignant and astute postscript: “I am off on a trip from which I don’t expect to return but which I hope will shorten the War a bit. I shall probably be blown up by my own bomb or if not killed by rifle fire.”

The footnote to this tragic story is that Rhodes-Moorhouse’s son went on to become a Battle of Britain pilot during the Second World War and actually served at Merville, France, where his father had been killed in action 25 years earlier. After 12 combat victories and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Willie Rhodes-Moorhouse’s Hurricane was shot down in a dog-fight over Kent on September 6 1940. The body of the young officer, who died aged 25, was recovered and his ashes were later interred next to his father’s at the family’s Parnham estate. As I stated earlier, I am convinced that bravery does indeed run in the blood.

The medal groups of Captain Noel Chavasse, Lieutenant Commander George Bradford and Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse are all on display at the gallery bearing my name at the Imperial War Museum, along with 186 additional VCs from my collection and 14 George Crosses, medals which I started collecting as recently as 2010. Some 48 VCs and 31 GCs in the care of the Imperial War Museum can also be seen at the gallery, where admission is free.

I should point out, ladies and gentlemen, that my medals’ collections have been amassed quietly, responsibly and sensitively over the past 29 years. There has never been any “ambulance chasing”: I have only been interested in purchasing decorations that the recipients, or their latter-day owners, were – for a variety of reasons – seeking to sell.Over the past decade, I have done all that I can to champion courage. I have written five books on bravery, including Victoria Cross Heroes, published in 2006 to mark the 150th anniversary of the creation of the VC.

Furthermore, I regularly write on the subject of courage for newspapers and magazines. I have amassed, as well as my VC collection, other collections of Special Forces decorations and medals for courage in the air. I lecture on bravery and I support numerous military charities, including being a major donor to the RAF Bomber Command Memorial in central London that was unveiled by Her Majesty The Queen in central London in the summer of 2012.

As time has passed, I have become less frustrated by our inability to pinpoint exactly what makes some men, and women, able to excel in the most dangerous of circumstances, while others are unable to match such gallantry. I have finally concluded that I and others do not have fully to understand bravery: we simply have to be able to admire, cherish and champion those who display it.

To conclude, I hope you can now see why my 50-year journey centred on the concept of bravery means so much to me – and why I am so delighted that it has been possible to turn my passion into a dream and, eventually, my dream into a reality.

For now, at least, the centenary of the Great War provides us with a wonderful opportunity to highlight the astonishing bravery of our servicemen during the 1914-18 war. My work, however, is ongoing and I will continue to do all I can in

Now, I have deliberately left ten minutes at the end of my talk for questions from the floor. I can’t promise to be able to answer all your queries but I will certainly do my best…