After the splendid ceremony at Government House where Corporal Daniel Keighran was invested with the VC, the TV news reported that the medal, like all its predecessors, was struck from the original Russian cannon captured by the British during the Crimean War. Though it was only the third Victoria Cross For Australia to be awarded since its inception in 1991, this gave the story the added gravitas of a noble tradition.
Alas, it wasn’t true.
In fact, metallurgical research by our own War Memorial conducted in the 1990s has revealed that from 1914 the cannons gradually dismembered to supply the medals were not Russian at all. Instead, they came from one of the most disgraceful conflicts in British history.
I discovered this startling fact when researching my 2008 book, Bravest with the cooperation of the then Director of the AWM, General Steve Gower. He provided me with the results of the metallurgical analysis of 54 VCs then held at the AWM by Dr John Ashton. It revealed that the composition of the metal and the method of casting left no doubt that the cannons were Chinese and almost certainly had been captured during the 1842 Opium War.
The one-sided ‘war’ followed demands that the Chinese open their ports to the opium trade. When they resisted, British expeditionary forces from India ravaged the Chinese coast and dictated the terms of settlement. The British then used the opium they had grown in India to pay for tea from China and not incidentally to addict and debilitate an entire nation.
Dr Ashton confirmed his results with a similar analysis by the British Royal Armouries and detailed in the 2005 book, The Bravest of the Brave by British military historian John Glanfield. But, perhaps not surprisingly, they were given scant publicity. So the myth prevails; unbeknown to Corporal Keighran, he bears on his chest a reminder of one of the most unsavoury events in history.
So, what to do? We can gloss over the issue like the Brits and pretend it’s all tickety-boo. Or we can take the opportunity to assert our unique national identity as the Hawke Government did in breaking the imperial bonds to create the Victoria Cross For Australia two decades ago.
But if we were to choose the Australian way, what would take its place? We could follow British tradition and select the captured weaponry of an enemy such as the German Amiens Gun now displayed outside the War Memorial. It contains enough metal to decorate our heroes for evermore.
Alternatively, we could melt down pieces of the Japanese midget submarine or some captured munitions from the battle of Milne Bay or the Kokoda Track. But I have to say it seems a little perverse to use enemy materiel to create a quintessentially Australian decoration.
No doubt there are plenty of authorities in Defence and the AWM better placed than I to sort through the possibilities. So, here’s an opportunity for Defence Minister Stephen Smith to task a committee to find an agreed alternative. He would write his name in history. And given the attachment of his military underlings to ‘tradition’ – however misplaced – this would itself be an act of conspicuous gallantry.