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Bloody Heroes

T his is a theme I return to once in a while and here it is again

. Three reasons. One, as I write it is the last month of the 20th century and this is a set which was produced in the early part of the 20th century. Quite when can be disputed but lets say 1900-1901.

It commemorates acts of bravery that had occurred in the latter part of the 19th century and was produced by one of the great cigarette card producers of all time.

As this century comes to and end there has been something of an explosion of programmes dedicated to war veterans memories. These are fiendishly powerful memories. The wounds of memory are so painful for many of these people still. I do not want to think there is anything going to happen to me which means I can start a sentence but just have to stop half way through.

Those are the first two reasons, I think.

The third is a set has just come to light in someone's attic. There is something fun about such things still happening and quite pleasing they do. The fact it never happens to me does not sour me on other people's good fortune.

What it does do is neatly sum up a couple of ways of getting Victoria Crosses.

The set is of course, Taddy's, Victoria Cross Heroes, series one.

Apart from the general stuff about Taddy I have not actually written a page about a set from this company before.

Two reasons, they are rare and they are expensive. However every day on the television I see cars which are rare and expensive and it does not stop me wanting one of them.

VC cards come in two types, those which show the fellow in the manner of a passport photograph and those which show our fellow engaging in the act of bravery itself. Taddy produced sets in both styles. This set shows the chap acting out the brave deed.

Being an early card the reverse of the thing is taken up by a pretty large advertisement for Taddy itself. Often this took up the entire reverse of a Taddy card but thankfully times they were a changing and in this instance half the reverse of the card is devoted to a brief description of what is actually going on.

Without that description things would be pretty feeble. In a later series the back was taken up by the advertisement and a proportion of the front of the card was used for the description. This set also is of the passport photo style.

The quality of the card image is high, and so It should be.

If I was going to be critical (and if you are paying $2000 for a set of 25 cards, you have a right to be critical) there is not enough text on the reverse of the card. I give card 2 as an example.

Details from Card
Private Beach 55th Regiment defending a wounded officer from several Russians at Inkerman on 5th Nov 1854

Now this does not quite do justice to the situation.

What it does do is neatly sum up a couple of ways of getting Victoria Crosses. Without wishing to do anyone a dis-service by simplification there are three basic ways, 1. Incapacitating a superior enemy force, 2. Saving a comrade(s) against a superior enemy force, 3. Remaining at your post when all but overwhelmed.

In either situation the odds against you surviving the incident are long.

Private Beach combines two events, fighting off a superior force whilst saving a colleague.

Card One is Private Ablett who is seen in the act of throwing an enemy grenade which had just appeared in his trench at Sebastopol (Sept 2nd 1854). This I mention as it seems to barely fits in with my theory. Unless I define the grenade as the superior enemy force (which you cannot deny) in which case he manages all three, throwing the superior enemy force out of trench, thereby saving his comrades, whereas most everyone else would have hit the dirt.

Ablett went to Canada in 1912 and fought during the First World War for Canada and served as a reservist in the Second World War.

Surgeon John Crimmin of the Bombay Medical Service spent Jan 1st 1889 winning a VC by defending wounded men under fire near Lwckaib. The illustration shows him running some attacker through (card 18). Now I am not sure if this is artistic licence or not. I would not like to cast doubt on the accuracy of my beloved cigarette cards without good reason and without digging out an eye witness account of the event I am not actually going to know. Either way it is not the way anyone would plan to spend a New Year.

Card 11 is another one showing hand to hand combat but this time we can be pretty certain it is accurate as Captain Cook won the VC by engaging a powerful Afghan single handed and therefore saving Major Galbraiths life (Dec 2nd 1878). Obviously it was necessary for the card to tell us the Afghan was powerful although by the look of the illustration he had some strangely small feet.

When I was having a look at the reasons people did manage to win a Victoria Cross there seemed to be a pretty high percentage won for reason 2, saving comrades. You would not believe it by the looks of this set though as it is pretty bloodthirsty bunch.

Card 9 shows Corporal Goate, 9th Lancers. During the Indian Mutiny he attacked several rebel Sepoys and having dispersed them followed one into the river and ran him through with his lance. This seems to be taking things a bit too far but it probably would to me as I sit here 140 years later tapping away and worrying about possibly stubbing my toe again going up the stairs.

This card is something of a mystery as the tale told on the reverse of the card does not quite tally with other versions of events. This should mean I have got it wrong somewhere but there is a tale to be told of a solider called William Goat. More work to be done there I suppose.

On 25th October 1901, the Portsmouth Evening News ran an obituary for William Goate. He had died of cancer at the age of 64. I wonder if he smoked Taddys and if he saw this card?

Big man, small feet.

The final card of the series shows Piper Findlater, gallantly playing his pipes to encourage his comrades to fight on despite having serious wounds himself and under heavy fire. The fact he was so significantly wounded there was no chance he was going to get up and run away might have influenced his decision to remain with his comrades but it does certainly make a novel way of winning a VC.

Under the heading of unusual VC's is card 17 which depicts Gunner Collis of the Royal Horse Artillery. Later Gunner Collis was to be stripped of his VC for a criminal offence, one of the very few people to have such a dishonour bestowed upon him (Collis)

The lack of words gives a sort of what happened next effect. I am not sure how this was taken in the early part of the century. Britain was more prone to war at the time and perhaps these deeds of daring-do were more readily accessible to the average person.

Now though you might wonder what happened to Colour Sergeant Gardiner of the 57th regiment after he had remained facing the enemy despite being under terrible fire, until all his ammunition ran out.

Given it has been estimated the chances of surviving an act of bravery intense enough for an award is about ten to one against (not bad odds for a horse but not so good when it comes to life and death) things are not looking good for the Colour Sergeant.

Defending the hospital

In this instance though it would seem he survived the incident. He was also not alone as he had encouraged his men to take up positions within shell-holes from which they could lay down a constant fire upon the enemy.

At the time Gardiner was 34 years old or so. Relatively ancient and perhaps an example of an old and bold soldier. For most of the people winning the VC were disturbingly young. For example, Goate was 22 when he won the VC.

Rorke's Drift is full of heroic British deeds. It is the whole thing about a small band of people fighting with little hope of survival because they have nothing else to do, now reduced to something you watch when half drunk at Christmas. Card 13 shows Private Jones defending the door of the hospital at Rorke's Drift against 'fearful odds' during the night of Jan 22 and 23rd 1879. Certainly from the illustration the odds do indeed look fearful and desperate in the extreme. It takes something to defend a doorway for two nights being reduced to the bayonet. Unpleasant in the extreme and an event that could unhinge a good few.

Although I return to this theme every so often, I still have yet to do it justice, so I will be returning to it again, there can be little doubt about that.