Friday, December 31, 2004

Captain Richard Annand VC

One story you won't have picked up this week was in the obituary columns. The first man to be awarded the VC in the Second World War died on Christmas Eve, aged 90. I took a special interest in this case, because just over five years ago I had the privilege of sitting next to Capt Annand at a dinner, when he was guest of honour at an event my dad was involved in. My memory of him is of a wonderful man; totally modest about what he actually did during the war, and tremendously interested instead in hearing all the stories of those sat around him.

Sixty years ago, Capt Annand was in a far more perilous situation. His act of bravery came on a day when his company were coming under heavy attack - as they fought, he went into enemy lines flinging a whole box of hand grenades as he went. Later, they were ordered to retreat, but he went back to the enemy lines, again throwing a whole box of hand grenades, this time largely to prevent the enemy from crossing a bridge. Subsequently he found out that his batman was missing, injured and unable to travel on the retreat; he went and found him, and pushed him back in a wheelbarrow until he collapsed of his own wounds. Many say he could easily have won the VC 3 times for what he did that day.

Thinking about this case, and also thinking about the Malta Convoy (of which my grandfather was a part), makes you realise how much of a better place the world is today. With reference to the Malta Convoy, the statement "if just one boat got through, the mission was a success" could never be uttered by a military leader today. There is uproar in certain circles in America that 1,300 troops have been killed in Iraq; 20,000 British soldiers died on the first day of combat in the Somme. Capt Annand's death means there are only 13 surviving VC holders. In many ways I hope he is the only VC I ever meet.

What the actions of Capt Annand also show is that there is a kindness and honour within the human spirit that cannot be diminished. The stories of the good Samaritans following the tsunami disaster in South-East Asia are a further demonstration of this. Doom-spreaders like Simon Jenkins in the Times today may say that we are always seeking for something to blame; but the problem is that bad news sells much more easily than the acts of kindness that make life the pleasure that it is. We should remember that the world is a better place now than it was in the past; more than that, we should be actively celebrating it. And we should thank the men like Capt Annand who were willing to sacrifice themselves to help others, and to help shape the society we live in now.