Lest we forget: The crumbling last posts of history's heroes
The words 'We will remember them', from the Ode of Remembrance, ring hollow around the neglected graves of hundreds of Victoria Cross recipients
Paul Gallagher is a reporter for the Independent and Independent on Sunday having joined the group in 2012. He has previously worked for the European Voice, Daily Mirror and the Observer and been based in Brussels, Belfast, Tokyo and London.
Sunday 03 November 2013
They are the bravest of the brave, but they have become the nation's forgotten heroes. Awarded the highest and most prestigious honour for gallantry in the face of the enemy that the monarch can bestow on British subjects, many holders of the Victoria Cross lie in crumbling, forgotten graves with little hope of a fitting memorial. Dozens have no gravestone at all.
Andrew Fitzgibbon, who, aged 15, became Britain's youngest ever recipient of the Victoria Cross, is one of the 78 VC recipients who lie in an unmarked plot. He died in 1883, aged 37, and is buried at the Old Military Cemetery in Delhi, India.
Today, no one knows exactly how many VC graves still exist. It is a situation that spurred Gary Stapleton to set up the Victoria Cross Trust, which celebrated its first anniversary in October. The Doncaster-based charity has yet to receive any money from government.
"There is so much misinformation out there about the Victoria Cross," Mr Stapleton told The Independent on Sunday. "People assume that all the VC graves are supported and looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission [CWGC] – even MPs think that – yet this is a common misconception. Only those VCs who were killed on the battlefields during the First and Second World Wars are commemorated. The rest, who died in old age after fighting in other conflicts, have no support unless from relatives – and many of those have passed away, leaving many [graves] to crumble."
Even the most senior officers' gravestones have fallen into disrepair. Field Marshal Sir George White was 44 when, in October 1879, he was awarded the honour for leading the charge against a fortified enemy position in Afghanistan, despite being outnumber eight to one.
Although a grand statue of him on horseback is located on Portland Place in London, a member of the public last week sent the trust a picture of the field marshall's gravestone at Broughshane Presbyterian Churchyard in Co Antrim, overgrown with weeds and "in much need of a clear-up".
Putting the British government to shame, the Australian authorities earlier this year paid the trust to look after the gravestones of the four Australian recipients of the VC buried in the UK, along with memorials to two further Australian recipients who were cremated here.
The trust said it was "very frustrating" that there has been so much excitement around funding for 28 VC paving slabs that will be unveiled next year when so many VC graves are in such poor condition.
Around 1,000 VC graves have fallen into neglect. There are estimated to be more than 1,200 VC graves in total, with the CWGC responsible for just 377.
Duane Ashworth, patron of the VC Trust and the father of Lance Corporal James Ashworth, the most recent VC recipient, who was posthumously awarded the honour following his death in Afghanistan last year, called the situation a disgrace.
"I would be absolutely devastated if, long after I'm gone, James's grave gradually fell into disrepair like so many VC recipients today, because there is nothing in place for its upkeep. And that's the situation today. We want to have government funding so that the trust can properly care for the fallen."
The Labour MP for Stalybridge and Hyde, Jonathan Reynolds, said: "There is clearly a debate to be had about the role that government plays in honouring military heroes so that they can be put to rest with the dignity that they deserve."
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