What we learn from our Victoria Cross winners
The death of Ted Kenna has reminded us again of the breathtaking bravery exhibited by him and all winners of the Victoria Cross.
Mr Kenna, who with his wife spent the final years of his life in Geelong in order to be near their daughter, is the fifth VC winner to have a connection with the Geelong region.
To survey the stories of these five winners of the VC is to touch a special part of Australia’s regional history. They tell of a haulage contractor and an apple packer, an accountant and council worker, along with a professional soldier who displayed a rare bravery at a moment of extreme pressure.
The first was the most famous: Albert Jacka. Born in Winchelsea in 1893, Jacka was the first Australian VC winner of World War I. On 19-20 May 1915 Jacka on his own recaptured a trench, shooting five Turks and bayoneting two others. When his commanding officer found him in the trench, legend has it that he was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette and simply said “I got the beggars, sir.”
Many historians have suggested that Jacka deserved two more VC’s for other acts of bravery later in the war. He went on to become the Mayor of St Kilda but died in his late thirties having never properly recovered from the many wounds he sustained in battle.
Percy Cherry achieved his VC on 26 March 1917 leading a battalion in clearing the French village of Lagnicourt and then defending it against heavy fire the next morning. Cherry was born in Drysdale in 1895 and having survived the action for which he was awarded the VC was killed that very afternoon by a German shell.
James Newland, the oldest Australian winner of the VC, achieved his award at the age of 35. Newland was born in Highton and was awarded a VC for his bravery in three separate incidents in France in April 1917. Incredibly the last of these actions involved defending the same ground that Cherry had defended only a few weeks earlier against heavy German attacks.
Who would have imagined that the very same piece of French turf would, within a month, yield two VC’s to two sons of Geelong?
Newland died in Melbourne in 1949 at the age of 67 having contributed to Australia’s war effort in the Boer War, WW I and WW II.
Rupert Moon won his VC in an engagement with Germans near Bullecourt in France. During the course of clearing the enemy, first from a concrete machine-gun shelter and then trenches, Moon was injured four times. After the war Moon worked in Geelong as an accountant and later became the Managing Director of Dennys Lascelles. Moon died in the late 1980’s and is buried at Mount Duneed.
Ted Kenna was the only one of the Geelong VC’s to earn his award during WW II. Standing in the field of enemy fire Kenna almost single handedly silenced a machine gun post as bullets whistled by him having become the main target of fire. Kenna lived most of his post war life in the Western District working for the local council before coming to Geelong a few years ago.
In addition to the remarkable coincidence at Lagnicourt there are crossed paths and commonalties between these men.
All the First World War VC’s fought at Gallipoli and the Western Front. Newland was among the very first troops to land at Gallipoli at 4.30am on April 25. Jacka, Newland and Cherry all fought in the battle of Pozieres. Jacka also participated in the battle near Bullecourt where Moon won his VC. Is it possible that the Geelong VC’s met during the war?
All five VC’s received wounds on or around their face. Both Kenna and Moon, whose acts of bravery have similarities by standing in full view of oncoming fire and returning it, sustained wounds to their jaw.
Geelong is by no means the only region to have connections with the VC. Indeed there are many parts of our country which have been blessed by a connection with such remarkable men. Yet to see this group in the context of a single geography within Australia is to have some impression of how the service of our armed forces so deeply impacted upon the consciousness of each locality. It helps to explain, no matter what the size of the town, why you will find within it a memorial to those who have died in war.
Most of all these stories tell of men who made the remarkable decision to allow their existence on this earth to end at that moment in order to preserve the existence of their comrades. That ordinary men could do such an extraordinary thing somehow offers hope to us all about what our capabilities might be when put to the test.
They are stories that inspire.
All of us should become aware of these men and their deeds in particular our youth. To know our history is to know ourselves. These local stories should be told in our local schools.
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