General Sir Peter de la Billiere was the charismatic commander of the British forces in the first Gulf War, a position he held until the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. Since his retirement he has been developing his talent as an author, drawing first on his own experiences with his autobiography Looking for Trouble, which told of his childhood, rebellion at school, the early death of his father and his military career. Storm Command, his personal account of the Gulf War, was a best seller.
Now, at the end of a series of engagements to speak about his most recent book, Supreme Courage, he explained how appropriate he found it to be completing his tour in Durham: he had started his army career in 1953 in the Durham Light Infantry (and had been stationed at Brancepeth Castle). He daughter is now a student at Durham University ("Aidan's is the best college!" he added, provocatively). The dli Museum was an appropriate setting for the evening's talk both because of this connection with the author and also because of the subject matter of his book. Supreme Courage reviews 150 years of the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth's highest award for gallantry, and tells the stories of a few of the men who have won the award. Members of the audience arriving at the museum that evening would have walked past a memorial to the Durham Light Infantry's eleven winners of the Victoria Cross.
Sir Peter's talk did not attempt to do justice, within the time available, even to that sample of heroes about whom he had written in his book. Instead, he reviewed the VC's 150 year history, and discussed a number of related themes. The award is generally regarded as the world's most exclusive award for valour (only 1355 have ever been awarded, and there are only 15 living recipients; the award to Johnson Beharry was the first since the Falklands war) yet its establishment was intended to create a more democratic medal. It can be awarded to officers and men alike, breaking the "rank barrier". Women were never debarred from the award, and their eligibility was made explicit after the First World War (despite the opposition of the Navy, said Sir Peter, with perhaps a touch of inter-force edge), though no woman ever has won a Victoria Cross.
The cross is awarded "for valour" and for devotion to duty "in the face of the enemy", and these simple words describe a wide variety of actions, from the DLI's John Byrne who fought in the Crimean War to Theodore Hardy, an army chaplain in the First World War, who interpreted his duties as including accompanying the troops to the front line, and tending to the wounded under heavy fire.
Sir Peter quoted Padre Hardy, "What is courage but the inspiration of the spirit?" and asked a number of thought-provoking questions. Which is higher, physical or moral courage? Is it possible to be courageous in an evil cause? Are suicide bombers, however misguidedly, courageous? ("I'm not answering that!"he added, hastily). Was there a difference between "hot courage", courage of the moment, like that displayed by Bill Speakman, who, despite being wounded, led a series of charges against the enemy in Korea, giving his unit time to withdraw safely, and "cold courage", a longer term, more sustained display of bravery - and he gave the example of Albert Jacka, the first Australian to win the VC?
His own view was that everyone has a certain amount of courage, which we spend in our own way. But once it is spent, the stock must be replenished before it can be used again. This was no blind glorification of spectacular deeds of courage, but a recognition that experiences like those honoured by the VC place even the bravest under great pressure, and that the award itself adds to that pressure. No one is fearless, he said, or if they are, they do not deserve medals, because they have no fear to overcome: courage is discipline over one's own fear.
One final surprise: Sir Peter pointed out that holders of the VC were characterised not only by courage, but also by luck. This had been brought home to him by the BBC, who had asked him to participate in a broadcast about the VC to be called Brave or Lucky?. His initial reaction was dislike of this question, but on reflection he felt that it was justified: he did not doubt that there were many people who had performed actions as brave as those of the VCs, but which were not witnessed, and others who would have done so had they had the opportunity. Holders of the VC had been brave and lucky, he concluded.
There is a brief video of Sir Peter talking about his book, Supreme Courage, at Meet the Author.