On being a hero

This country’s attitude to our armed services has undergone a considerable change in the last few years.

Seven or eight years ago, I ran an appeal for Help for Heroes (or some sort of a predecessor) and had one donation – £20. There was no interest in supporting our boys back then.

I’d visited the US and the contrast between them and us was noticeable – Americans were able to differentiate between their troops and Government policy, and people would send gifts or letters to random soldiers, just to show support. I wanted us to be able to do the same.

Obviously, we’ve got a different history: for many years, courtesy the IRA, our soldiers were invisible, because they dare not wear uniforms in public. But we did seem to have a national mentality that they were just people doing a job, so where’s the fuss? Now that’s all changed, which is good, but we seem to have gone from one extreme to another, which is not so good.

An increasing number of people are growing uneasy about the fact that ALL soldiers are seen as heroes, just because they’re in the army, and that people who don’t support all soldiers are somehow letting the side down.
Look at the newsreader who doesn’t wear a poppy: they’ll be pilloried in the tabloids.

But we live in a democracy – the same one that soldiers died for – and we have freedom of speech, and the freedom to choose whether to wear, or even buy, a poppy.

Clearly, there are failings in the system: too many soldiers seem to be let down by the Ministry of Defence, both when they are wounded and when they are discharged.

It’s likely that some people join the army because they can’t cope in civvy street, and still can’t cope when they leave. Even so, the Government has a responsibility to people who have laid their lives on the line for their country.
Organisations such as Congleton’s excellent LOL should not have to rely on charity to help ex-employees of their nation to get back on their feet.
That aside, it also can’t be true that all servicemen are heroes, simply because they’re in the army (or navy or RAF).

Most of them are men (or women) doing their jobs. The odd one will do something that makes them a hero, but it is the odd one. That’s why heroes are so revered.

I’ve made the point before that young men don’t join the army because they want to discuss philosophy and read books: many soldiers are not people that the more middle class supporters of the likes of Help for Heroes would want to sit next to in the pub. Having lived briefly in Aldershot, I speak from experience.

I’m musing on this because, looking back in our archives, I found some comments made by Lionel Head, former editor and chairman of the Chronicle.
Writing in early 1950 – ie only a handful of years after the end of WW2 – he pondered the flaws of Congleton’s greatest hero, Sgt Harold Eardley, VC MM.
Lionel reflected on the nature of bravery and the mentality of those who commit acts that can only astonish more normal people.

He recalled that six years previously “the houses were bedecked with bunting, and the Mayor, town clerk and half the corporation fetched (Sgt Eardley) from Crewe in regal state; the band played, and Movietone News, Gaumont-British and daily press photographers shot from all angles as the hero’s car thrust its triumphant way through crowds of cheering townspeople.”

“It was a fine piece of work,” the King had said, awarding Sgt Eardley the VC, which he won by destroying three machine-gun posts single-handedly.
But, asked Mr Head: “Where is he now, that hero whom we delighted to honour six years ago?”

He explained.
“Unfortunate events that subsequently occurred have blotted his name and face from their memory,” said Mr Head, who reflected that if Sgt Eardley had been killed, his name would have lived on for ever in glory.
Lionel argued that, with some VCs, a “nobility of character subordinates fear”. He had met these men, and they usually died.

“Then,” he wrote, “there is the other kind, to which Congleton’s VC belongs: devoid not only of physical fear but of other normal human instincts and restraints.
”The type that doesn’t know the meaning of fear often doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong either.”
He went on: “In some cases – as in this – the VC is incapable of conforming to the conventional social pattern. For one reason or another, the hero comes to be forgotten.” As had been the case with Earldey, it appeared.

I’m surprised that Lionel wrote this down so close to the VC being awarded, though his successor, John Condliffe, had several interesting stories about Sgt Eardley.
For example, after the VC came home, he went on a bender for three days and didn’t go home. A worried (and rather annoyed) Mrs Eardley had to come into the Chron to find out where her husband was, asking John where the hero was to be found.

As for the incident referred to by Lionel: perhaps it was the day Sgt Eardley visited a local stately home and left not only with universal praise ringing in his ears, but also some of the silverware. The gentlemen of the police were summoned but it was not deemed appropriate to press charges: the man was a hero, after all.

This and other escapades would have been widely known at the time and Lionel’s comments about the VC being forgotten could have resonated down the decades – the campaign to get a statue erected in his honour took some time to get going.

It’s a lesson: Sgt Eardley was heroic when he stormed the machine gun nests – and deserved his VC – but his behaviour off the battlefield showed that simply being in uniform did not make him a hero.

Conversely, Falkland veteran Simon Weston became known for the serious injuries he suffered on the Sir Galahad. His only action at the time was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet in his life subsequently he has become something of a hero.

I read his autobiography many years ago and it was clear that he was a lager-drinking lad who was headed for a fairly predictable life. But after suffering the horrendous burns, he became a person he would never dreamed of being, and received an OBE for services to charity.

Pick your hero of choice: the one who earns the honour for heroism on the battlefield, but who can’t live up to it afterwards, or the one who spends his life working for and representing his fellow servicemen, and is noble enough to become friends with Argentine pilot who dropped the bomb that caused his injuries.

They’re both heroes, of course, but it’s because of what they did, not simply because they wore a uniform.

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