BOOK REVIEW: ‘Uncommon Valour: The Story of the Victoria Cross’

115. UNCOMMON VALOUR (VC)

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Uncommon Valour: The Story of the Victoria Cross

Author: Granville Allen Mawer

Total Number of Printed Pages: 282

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 6

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When writing in this volume’s Introduction, the author makes the following observations: ‘…The VC [Victoria Cross] is the ultimate bravery award…’ and that ‘This book sets out to not only examine individual deeds with a view to understanding them, but to also align them collectively with the expectations of those who instituted the decoration and those who administered it thereafter’. As a precis of the book’s intent it cannot be bettered.

Within the volume, an Acknowledgments section is placed immediately after the Contents pages. Within this the author pays tribute to those who assisted him in book’s creation. A list of Illustrations follows. The title is self-explanatory. Within the book the author has used a variety of graphs to provide visualisation of statistics relating to the awarding of the Decoration. These are listed as a subsection (titled Figures) within the list of Illustrations section. The 27 Chapters which form the bulk of the book now appear. Within these the reader is led from the ‘Cross’s origins to the Twenty-first Century, With the exception of the book’s final Chapter (Chapter 27; Rules and Exceptions) each Chapter within it presents a particular aspect of the larger narrative. To reinforce that aspect, the actions of VC recipients are presented as specific examples of that particular perspective. Curiously (and in an apparent attempt to assist readers in finding specific individuals sans Index), although the names of such individuals appear under each Chapter when the latter are listed on the Contents page, the self-same names are not placed at the head of the individual Chapters within the volume itself. Why this should be so is unknown. The previously-mentioned Chapter 27 focusses both on military protocols in respect of the award and on efforts made to have deserving individuals added to the list of recipients.  Three Appendices follow Chapter 27. Appendix 1 (The 1856 Victoria Cross Warrant) reproduces the ‘Founding Document’ on which the award is based. The title of Appendix 2 (The Who, When, Where, What, Why and How of the Awards) is self-explanatory, with the information-concerned being presented in Table format. Within the table however, the recipient names are presented in a First name, Surname sequence instead of the more-usual Surname-first sequence. As result trawling through the tables to find a specific individual can be both tedious and time consuming.  By way of contrast, Appendix 3 (How I Won the Victoria Cross) is an Australian-sourced humorous recitation best described as being ‘A tale of unintended consequences’. Where necessary within the individual Chapters, additional information is provided through the use of End-notes, these being numerically-sequential and Chapter-specific.  The relevant citations appear in a designated Notes section placed after Appendix 3. The volume’s Bibliography now appears. It lists the printed sources used in its creation. The Bibliography is followed by the Index; the volume’s final section.  The book contains 49 Images that are ‘…Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise attributed’.  The source has resulted in a collection of pictures of varying quality, many excellent, but several seemingly from boys comics; those on pages 88, 118 and 173 being examples of the latter. There were several others. The volume contains numerous Quotes and while many carry supporting citations to verify their authenticity, others (such as those on pages 144 and 151 and 152 [for example]) do not. While wishing to believe that the latter are also authentic and accurate recitations of events, the absence of supporting citations does raise questions… The book contains no Maps.

For this reviewer poor proof-reading has served to reduce this book’s effectiveness and resultant usefulness. This is specifically evident in the Index where a lack of attention has served to destroy any pretentions of authority that that section (and, inter alia the entire book) might have had. The Index consists of 19 pages, numbered from 263 to 282. Random searching during the review process revealed that (for example) a written entry for Aaron, Arthur (incidentally the first entry in the Index itself; on page 263) could be found on page 266, and that one for Topham, Frederick (Index entry page 280) would be appearing on page 271; i.e. within the Index itself! These are but two of numerous similar examples. To find that one Index entry only leads to another Index entry raises serious doubts about what other ‘errors’ might exist. There is no way of knowing. It was also noted that at least one individual’s name (that of Moana-Nui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu) had been entered under M rather than his surname (Ngarimu) As the name is not ‘British’ this is perhaps understandable, although the name IS correctly given within the Appendix 2 table (Award No. 1238; page 238). Have other similar ‘mistakes’ been made? Again, there is no way to know.  In addition the Index is largely ‘People’-focussed, to the almost total exclusion of geographical locations or events. Notably (despite being active participants in the larger narrative and mentioned within the volume), Australia, New Zealand and Canada as geographical / political entities are not mentioned within the Index. When combined with the previously-noted issues with Images, Quotes, Maps and Award Tables the ‘Index-related’ difficulties serve to seriously-erode the volume’s usefulness as a serious work on its subject.

Although in this reviewer’s opinion the problems detailed above are of considerable magnitude, the volume is both well written and easy to read. Military Historians with a specific interest in the Victoria Cross may find it of interest, as could readers with a more ‘generalist’ interest in the British armed forces, and their awards for brave deeds. Readers seeking descriptions of ‘Feats of daring-do’ by ordinary individuals in unusual situations may also find it worth of their attention.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent I have given this volume a 6.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Uncommon Valour: The Story of the Victoria Cross’

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire’

41. DSCF9772 (2)

BOOK REVIEW

Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title: Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire

Author: Peter Baxter

Total Number of Printed Pages: 280

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7

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The well-known proverb states that ‘Great Oaks from little acorns grow’. This is the story of two such Oaks – Jan Smuts and Mohandas Ghandi and the encounters that they had with each other as they grew; encounters that were at times tests of wills, yet encounters that were, ultimately respectful, if only for the abilities that each possessed.  This is a multi-level tale that moves from South Africa, to Great Britain, to India, and again to South Africa, and does so over several decades and for a variety of reasons.

This book is essentially two biographies running in parallel, and is well-researched and written. Understandably, the narrative is primarily concerned with the main protagonists (Ghandi and Smuts). However, it also acquaints the reader with those who influenced, encouraged and worked with both men, and provides historical background for the countries and events that formed them.  Although at times some of the ‘background narrative’ appears to owe more to the  stream of consciousness writing-style than verifiable-fact (the description of Dadabhai Naoroji’s receiving of Ghandi’s petition being but one of several examples), the overall story is well-written and holds the reader’s attention.

A two-sentence Acknowledgments section follows the two pages comprising the Contents section. In it, the author thanks those who assisted him in the volume’s development and publication. This is in turn followed by a List of Illustrations which replicates the captions applied to the 30 Photographs and single cartoon appearing in a 16-page section near the centre of the volume.  An Introduction follows. This focuses on events in Great Britain that are pertinent to the narrative that follows, and introduces the reader to Mohandas Ghandi and his associates. The 31 Chapters which comprise the bulk of the volume then follow. An Epilogue provides closure to the narrative. It details the protagonist’s actions subsequent to going their separate ways. Endnotes are used throughout the book to provide additional information; their citations appearing in a dedicated Notes section placed after the Epilogue. A Further Reading section follows. This acts as a Bibliography and lists the literature used during the volume’s preparation. An Index completes the work.  No Maps are provided.

Although this volume is well-written and researched, this reviewer believes that it is very badly let down in two key areas; Quotes and the Index. Numerous quotes appear within the book. However, these have not been provided with verifiable source-citations. As a result, (and in the absence of such information), their authority and accuracy must inevitably be questioned, irrespective of their relevance to the narrative being presented. The Index is also disappointing. While examining it, this reviewer randomly looked for references to Australia, New Zealand (p.14) and Canada as well as for the British Aboriginal Protection Society (p.56), and for Hottentots and Ireland. These items appear within the volume’s pages as part of the narrative, yet this reviewer looked in vain for them, eventually giving-up the search. If these items could not be found, then what else may be missing? There is no way to know, and the authority of the Index suffered accordingly. Whether such matters are important will depend on the reader.

This volume may appeal to several groups of readers. Those with a specific interest in the history of ‘White’ South Africa are likely to find it of great interest. As it provides a detailed background to what subsequently occurred in India, readers with an interest in the British Empire, ‘British’ India, Imperialism and Colonialism may also find it of worthy of their attention. Readers specifically interested in either Ghandi or Smuts may also learn more about these individuals. As it covers the various conflicts that occurred within South Africa, the military aspect of the narrative may also be of interest to military historians.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Ghandi, Smuts and Race in the British Empire’