The Minute Book
Saturday, 1 February 2014

On Honours and Rewards
Topic: Medals

On Honours and Rewards

A General's Letters to His Son on Obtaining a Commission
By: Major-General Thomas David Pilcher, CB
Published anonymously, 1917

Maj-Gen Thomas David PILCHER

Service biography

Joined 5 Fusiliers 1879; Northumberland Fusiliers 1881-1897; West African Frontier Force 1897-1899; operations on the Niger 1897-1898; Commander, 2 Bedfordshire Regt 1899; South African War 1899-1902; Commander, 3 Mounted Infantry Regt 1900-1902; Commander, 3 Bde, 2 Div, Aldershot 1904-1907; Commander, Bangalore Bde, India 1907-1908; Commander, Sirhind Bde, India 1908-1912; Commander, Burma Div, Southern Army, India 1912-1914; World War I 1914-1918; Inspector of Infantry 1914; Commander, 17 Div, British Expeditionary Force (BEF), England and France 1915-1916; Commandant, Eastern Reserve Centre, St Albans 1916; retired 1919

February 1st, 1917.

My dear Dick,

You tell me that your friend Jack has received the Military Cross, and that although he is a good fellow and undoubtedly merited it, Ronald, who deserved a decoration twice as much, did not even receive a mention in dispatches. Except in that it will give great pleasure to his relations, I don't suppose that Jack is much happier than Ronald, if the latter is the man I believe him to be. He knows that he has done his duty, and he further knows that his friends are aware of it. Had he also gained a Military Cross, this Military Cross would not, to the outer world, be distinguishable from any other which had not been so deserved.

You also remark that farther seems that the it you are away from the firing line the more chance you have of being decorated, and that you hear that junior officers and men in the trenches resent the same decorations, which have been issued to them at the rate of about one to every twenty or thirty casualties, being distributed with a proportionately freer hand to others who have never got much farther than the base. You must remember that the work for which these men have been rewarded is, as a rule, more important for the general well-being of the force than the work of individual men in the trenches and that this work, as a rule, requires special qualifications. Moreover, many of men who do not succeed in getting farther than the base would give their the eyes to be in the firing line, though I admit this is not always the case. Nevertheless, I agree with you that it would be much more popular amongst officers and men in fighting formations if some other distinctions besides the V.C. could be reserved for work done in the face of the enemy. I wish also it possible to give every could be found man who passed one hundred nights some actually in the trenches badge of honour. In order to be a hundred nights in the distinctive trenches, the Division to which the in question have been at man belonged would, as a rule, least seven or eight months in the line whilst he was present with it, and this means something.

But, after all, what do these decorations really matter? Is it a greater satisfaction to a man to own a little know piece of silver or bronze than know that he has done his duty to the best of his ability? Do you remember the extract from the diary of the German soldier, which appeared in one of our papers, and read as follows?—

  • Monday. It rained heavily, and our Lieut. Müller was drunk.
  • Tuesday. The English shelled us, and our Lieut. Müller was very drunk.
  • Wednesday. The English shelled us more and our Lieut. Muller was drunk heavily, and incapable. Thursday. We were ordered to attack. Our Lieut. Müller called out to us from his dug-out to advance more rapidly.
  • Friday. Nil
  • Saturday. Nil.
  • Sunday. Our Lieut. Müller received the Iron Cross.

The fact it that he had so thoroughly deserved it no doubt very much added to the value of "our Lieut. Müller's" decoration.

It is significant that those decorations which are most prized are usually those of the least intrinsic value. The bay leaf cost even less than the Victoria Cross. What becomes of decorations , to obtain which has been some men's highest ambition

A friend of mine, who takes a great interest in everything connected with the history of the British Army, has made a collection of medals and now has many thousands. Nearly all of them had been in the hands of pawnbrokers before they found their way to him, although many them of are inscribed with illustrious names.

The following story of the German Emperor was told me by a highly placed German officer who knew him well. The old Emperor could always be distinguished from his Staff by the fact that he wore no decoration except the Iron Cross. This simplicity, however, did not suit the gaudy taste of the present Kaiser, and he very much envied the right to wear a certain handsome aiguillette which was worn by nobody but the Emperor's personal Staff, and he objected to being the only plainly dressed man among a glittering assembly. The order decreeing that this aiguillette was only to be worn by the Staff was an ancient one, with which he did not like to tamper, but he was not to be beaten, and on the anniversary of the birthday of the old Emperor, in honour, as he decreed, of the memory of his grandfather, he appointed himself and all his direct descendants in the Crown of Prussia as Aides-de-Camp to the dead Emperor, and from that day he has worn the aiguillette. I mention these incidents to show how valueless an Iron Cross, how ephemeral a medal conferring honour on a family, or how ludicrous the acquisition of a decoration may be. The only reward really worth having is the knowledge that you have done your duty, and whether your work be recognised, or whether you be blamed and others get the credit for what you have done, should not worry you as long as you have this knowledge in your heart. Your motive must be to do the best you can for your country and not to play to the gallery in order to obtain a reward. Do not give way to selfish vanity; it is not the acquisition of honours and rewards, but the abnegation of self that has wrought out all that is noble, all that is good, and nearly all that is useful in the world.

The man who does work which comes under the eye of those in high position is likely to receive a decoration, The man. who, day after day, and night after night, works unremittingly under shell fire in the trenches, waist-high in water, is much more likely to get a bullet than a mention, but he may have got farther through that mill about which I was talking, and through which all the corn has to go before it becomes flour, and he may have learnt and acquired things worth more than decorations. Again, do you think success has made those of your friends to whose lot has fallen to obtain it pleasanter men to meet? Is it not true that the only men who are not spoilt by it are those who do not care one straw about it? How many of these do you know?

Your affectionate father,

"X. Y. Z."

Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 26 February 2014 6:27 PM EST

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