Wednesday 3 September 2014 by Robert Nichols. 9 comments
News, Opinion, views and commentary, Victoria Cross

It is often asserted that it is somehow disrespectful, or otherwise inappropriate, to speak of someone “winning a VC”. This is not so. It is, in fact, perfectly permissible – and sometimes unavoidable – to say that someone has won a Victoria Cross or some other bravery award.

But why does this make some people uncomfortable? The reason seems to be because they see the term “win” as reserved for the outcomes of prizes or competitions. However, the word is plainly not restricted to such contexts. Rather, it is widely used to convey the meaning “achieve, get, or earn by effort”. For example, it is common to talk of winning respect or acclaim, of winning ore from a mine, or of winning a battle. And when we say that someone has won our respect we intend to suggest that this is because of various merits they possess or actions they have performed. Similarly, when we speak of someone winning a Nobel Prize – or even a Brownlow Medal – we don’t mean to suggest that their name has simply been drawn out of a hat, but rather that this award is due recognition of outstanding, or in any case praiseworthy, achievement. And, on the face of it, similar considerations clearly apply in the case of military awards.

There is another interesting parallel worth considering. The word “win” is clearly being used metaphorically in such contexts – just as “lose” is often used metaphorically in analogous ones. But it is curious that no one ever objects to us speaking of men “losing their lives” in battle. Surely, if there is something disrespectful about winning a VC, it should be no less so to speak of losing a life. And yet no one thinks this. Indeed, it does seem somewhat ludicrous to suggest that we cannot say that “Dasher” Wheatley won a VC, but that it is perfectly acceptable to say that he lost his life while doing so.

It is worth pointing out that the use of “win” is common in standard reference works on medals and awards; for example, Abbott and Tamplin’s British gallantry awards, Lionel Wigmore’s They dared mightily, and even the UK Ministry of Defence fact sheet on Military honours and awards. All of these works use the word quite happily. In addition, Australian official historian Charles Bean often speaks of men winning the Victoria Cross: for example, in Anzac to Amiens (1946) he refers to “Colonel Neville R. Howse, a country surgeon who had won a V.C. in South Africa”. Furthermore, Anthony Staunton, the acknowledged Australian expert on the Victoria Cross (and long-time member of the Orders and Medals Research Society of the UK), does not believe that using the term suggests the award was the result of a prize or lottery. He and other prominent scholars who have contributed entries to the Australian dictionary of biography – A.J. Hill, Kevin Fewster, and R.P. Serle spring to mind – speak freely of their subjects “winning a VC”.

Neville Howse

“In the Boer War he won the Victoria Cross.” Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 22 September 1930

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Australian soldiers have themselves typically used such expressions, as various entries in The Anzac book (1916), edited by Charles Bean and “Written and Illustrated in Gallipoli by The Men of Anzac”, make clear. For example, “Crosscut”, a member of the 16th Battalion, AIF, contributed a poem entitled “How I won the VC”.

The original Anzacs had no problem with using the term “win”. The Anzac book, 1916 The original Anzacs had no problem with using the term “win”. The Anzac book, 1916 ART00035

It is also important to note that there are difficulties with other possible formulations, and so if we are denied recourse to the term “win” we will sometimes generate much unnecessary awkwardness. Take, for example:

He was awarded his VC for the valour he showed at Pozierès.

This is fine, of course, and precisely what we would often say. However, problems can arise if we are prevented from ever saying that someone won a VC. For example, Neville Howse is by common consent the first Australian to win a Victoria Cross. But, strictly speaking, he was not the first Australian to be awarded a VC. For Howse’s award was not gazetted until 4 June 1901, by which time two other Australians, John Bisdee and Guy Wylly, had already been awarded their VCs. Bisdee’s award was gazetted on 13 November 1900 and Wylly’s on 23 November.

But if we cannot say that Neville Howse was the first Australian to win a VC – the most natural and succinct formulation, and the one that most people would naturally understand – what can we say? It would have to be something like this:

Howse was the first Australian to perform an action for which he was later (successfully) recommended for the award of a VC.

Clearly, it will not always be appropriate, or desirable, to use such a laboured expression. What about this:

There were seven Australian VCs awarded at Lone Pine.

However, someone unacquainted with the situation might misinterpret this to mean something untrue; namely, that seven men took part in an award ceremony of some kind at Lone Pine. Perhaps this will work:

There were seven recipients of the VC at Lone Pine.

But this could be wrongly misinterpreted to mean that there were present at Lone Pine seven men who had each earlier won a VC. And so on, and so forth. There appear to be unfortunate complications that undermine almost every other suggestion. Hence our preference for “winning”. In the end, what we want is an expression that is readily understandable to all, that is to say, that uses plain language which people cannot misinterpret, and that allows us to make statements that are wholly congruent with the facts of the matter. And it seems clear that if we say

Seven Australians won the VC at Lone Pine

then everyone knows exactly what is meant, and what has been said is unambiguously true.

In sum, while it is not always obligatory to say that someone won a VC, choosing to do so is wholly unobjectionable. And, as we have seen, it is sometimes necessary to do precisely this if the writer wishes to make simple, clear, and accurate statements about those who have performed outstanding acts of bravery in the service of the nation.

Robert Nichols
Senior Editor




How fascinating! I try to avoid the phrase 'won the V.C.', but I really liked your comparison to the Nobel prize - as you say, the names aren't drawn out of a hat, but are won. Really interesting!


It's a pity the Senior Editor at a National Institution that has a major role in commemoration, which should be leading by example, chooses to educate the general public that populist jingoism is acceptable.


In the editor's laborious attempt to justify his expression to win, the correct context is 'VCs awarded for Lone Pine' not "at".

Robert Nichols says:

Torokina is quite correct: it is fine to speak of "VCs awarded for Lone Pine". However, the point is not that it is wrong to use "award" -- it clearly isn't -- simply that it is not wrong to use "won". Sometimes one term will be preferred, sometimes the other.

Andrew Bullock

The fact that media articles use the word win/won, doesn't make it any more correct. Journalists are hardly an authority on correct terminology. Additionally, I don't think I have ever heard the term "lost their life" when it comes to war, rather the term "killed" is almost always used. Personally, I would always use the term "awarded" over "won" when it comes to medals for actions of bravery. They are recognition, not prizes.

Vern Bechaz

If you look at any Medal chart or display you will never see the word "won" It is always Decorations and Medals Awarded to Australians. Any good book on Medals will use the term "awarded" to etc or sometimes "recipient of" a VC. Military Medals are awarded for bravery in action. they are not won. A soldier does not go into battle to "win" a medal. He is awarded a medal because he has done something above the call of duty. It happens on the spur of the moment and is never planned. On the other hand, a person who competes in the Olympic Games for example, plans their race and tries to "win" that race. They are then seen to have "won" a gold medal etc. they are not awarded a gold medal. I never use the term "won" I have too much respect for the recipient of the medal to view him as a competitor amoungst military men. I am ex-military and have done a lot of work with families who's relative was the recipient of a Victoria Cross and even they do not like the word "won" In relation to the term "lost their life" - it is used quite a lot in how a soldier died. A soldier who was wounded in action "lost his life" today due to his horific wounds. A soldier was KIA or killed in action on the battle field. Australian soldiers killed 10 enemy soldiers in that battle.

Phil Rutherford

I agree with Vern. This has been a fine commentary, except it overlooks one important fact: Nobody ever sets out to 'win' a VC. Unlike the Brownlow Medal, or the Nobel Peace Prize, those who are awarded such honours are well aware that the good works they do, whether on a sporting field or in some area of science, could have their services recognised with the award of the relevant prize. Not so VC 'winners'. They do not do what they do in order to gain this so-called prize (which is what 'winners' receive). They perform some act of bravery in order to protect their mates, to overcome adversity so that others may not continue to be threatened or harmed, to save others in the face of certain death. They do not do this as participants in some race but as someone who cannot see any way around a problem but through it. To say that somebody 'won' a VC - or any other bravery award - belittles not just what they did but who they are. And I have never yet heard anyone state that they 'won' an award. Most will say that it actually belongs to others, and they are carrying it in memory of those who cannot.

Michael Chigwidden

Interesting commentary. Whilst I accept the writer's explanations I know of one VC recipient who does not like the use of the word "win". I wonder how many other holders of the VC feel the same way?

David Underdown

Actually, Phil, John Brunt VC is recorded as saying "I've won the M.C., now for the V.C.!" The word win has always been used as medals (particularly the VC) as early as I've been able to trace accounts.