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Shrine Stories: The Victoria Cross

A Victoria Cross medal against a red backdrop with the words 'Shrine Stories' repeated over it. The medal has a red ribbon, and leaf detail on the top fascinator. The medal itself is a small cross with a crown and a lion, and the words 'For Valour' on it.
First World War (1914-18)

The Victoria Cross is the highest award for acts of bravery during wartime, and to date, only 101 Australians have been presented with this prestigious medal.

One of them is Captain Robert Grieve, whose medal is on display in the Shrine Galleries.

Join us as Philip Powell unpacks the story behind Grieve’s VC, his unlikely meeting with the Queen and how the medal survived a large fire.


Across the Line, Lone Canyon 


LAURA THOMAS: Welcome to the Shrine Stories podcast, a place where we take a look into the stories behind the objects on our gallery floor.  My name is Laura Thomas, and in this episode, we’re going to take a look at the story behind the Victoria Cross medal we have on display here at the Shrine. 

The medal belonged to Robert Grieve, and joining me now to talk about why it was awarded and the quite amazing story of how it came to the Shrine is amateur historian, writer and expert on all things Grieve, Philip Powell. Thanks for joining me Philip.

PHILIP POWELL: Pleasure to be here.

LAURA THOMAS: Who was Robert Grieve?

PHILIP POWELL: On the seventh of June 1917, Bob, and that was only went by, was a 27 year old captain in the 37th Battalion of the AIF's 3rd Division. He was in charge of A, A for alpha, company of about 200 men. Before enlisting in June 1915, he had been in a business partnership down in Flinders Lane here running a soft goods, clothing business, he would have described himself as a warehouseman. He was a quiet and reserved man, family members who I've spoken to and who knew him when he was alive, have described him as a man with a iron fist in a velvet glove. He was very firm, very independent, very confident, I don't think he would have been the life of the party. He was unmarried. He was a busy man, I don't think had time for the ladies. His outside interests were sporting very much sporting, cricket, football and swimming were his his great loves. So that's a bit about him. I think, the other bit I'd just throw in there is that importantly, and this comes back to the importance of the VC here at the Shrine, he was born here in Melbourne, in 1889, in a suburb of Brighton in Bay Street, to be precise, he was the eldest of four children, in probably what was a kind of a comfortable middle class environment if you want to use that word, but his world changed dramatically when he was 10 years old. And that was when his father died. And he effectively became the man of the house. And I think that is a great underpinning of the man who became, his leadership abilities probably came from that time where he effectively became responsible for the household at the age of 10. 

LAURA THOMAS: A big responsibility that fell upon his shoulders, but when did he enlist in the military?

PHILIP POWELL: During 1915 was his formal enlistment in the AI F. And I daresay a lot of that may have been driven by Gallipoli occurring prior. When the war broke out in August 1914, a number of his men at his work joined up straight away. And he took the view that he wasn't able to leave his business straightaway. But at that time, he joined the militia, the Brighton rifles, so I think he was always planning on enlisting. But until he had got through his business commitments and was able to square those away, he enlisted formally in June 1915. And interestingly, he was of the group who weren't sent straight to Europe. This was part of the build up of the third division, and he was actually sent to Duntroon for a few weeks for training, I think, the moment he enlisted, they recognised that he was leadership material. And pretty quickly, he was commissioned as an officer. 

LAURA THOMAS: Now, we're obviously here today to talk about his Victoria Cross, a very significant award. Let's start with how he was awarded this, what happened?

PHILIP POWELL: Sure. June 1917. Battle of Messines, the Battle of Messines was a very important battle. It was a precursor to the what would become as we know, the Third Battle of Ypres. Messines is just a few minutes south of Ypres, and Ypres was the little town which had not fallen to the Germans. But before they could undertake that battle, they needed to take Messines and the other towns which were sitting up on a ridge, and that gave the Germans an oversight into the British area. And it meant that it bulged out, and military commanders don't lie. Like boulders,like bulges, they want straight lines. So it was an important set battle. And the thing about Messines, it was well planned. The British commanders did a great job. That was a first set piece at Monash was involved in, Monash being the leader of the Third Division. He described his planning as a magnum opus in it. So it was a very important battle for him because it was the first time that his division was in full battle. So the battle commenced shortly after 3am on that day, with the mines blowing up, the troops that we had the Australian's down the south, then you had the New Zealanders, and then you had the British troops on this 14 kilometre front. And those initial band of troops, there was a great success, they were able to move fairly quickly and take their objectives. That's not to say the fighting was a walkover, in fact Charles Bean described the fighting at Messines about as tough as it ever was on the Western Front. 

PHILIP POWELL: Grieve's company, the A company of 37 battalion was earmarked to take the afternoon action. And that was that they would start off a line just south of the city of Messines, the township of Messines. And they would take these, what were effectively the second or third line of trenches. And these were well protected trenches. And also, at that stage, the element of surprise had gone. It was a daylight raid, the artillery was still moving up. And they were up against the pillboxes. And these were the German block houses of concrete, which had been built in the trenches above the waterline and obviously, with machine guns in them. At three o'clock in the afternoon, his company moved out, they were immediately brought under fire by these machine guns, there were a reasonable number of losses. That stokes mortar, which he would have called up for, that group had been killed and the machine had been destroyed. The machine gun they brought up and there was a Lieutenant Fraser from the 10th machine gun group. He fired the machine gun at the pillbox, but that didn't have any impact. And he was actually they fired back at him and wounded him and he had to leave, which effectively left Grieve as the last officer with the men. And at that stage, Grieve decided that he would take the pillbox himself. 

PHILIP POWELL: So he asked for a bag of hand grenades. And the way he advanced forward was that he would throw a grenade in front, we think it was had about 50 to 80 yards to cover, he would throw a hand grenade and as that blew up, he would quickly run and fall into the next a little pothole or a little shell hole. And he succeeded in doing that. And this is where he brought his well known cricketing skills into action. He was a left hander. He was a brilliant fieldsman. And it's again part of the story that that's how he was able to advance eventually into the trench and eventually able to silence not only one but two pillboxes. So in doing that, he saved the lives of many of his his men. And they all then moved up. And about at that time of them men coming up to join him he was shot in the shoulder or the upper arm by a German sniper. And whilst that wasn't a fatal injury, it was sufficient that he had to leave the battlefield at that stage. And after advising the men what they had to do to achieve their objectives, he effectively left the the battlefield on that day. I have a view that receiving that wound at that time probably saved his life because the man who replaced him was killed in the Third Battle of Ypres on the 12th of October when they'll try to take Passchendaele. So he was taken back for medical action and then sent back to the UK. 

LAURA THOMAS: And the award itself came to be in quite a different way to how other VCs have been awarded. Can you talk about that a little bit Philip?

PHILIP POWELL: Whenever you read about the Grieve medal, you'll see that it was on the nomination of or recommendation of two NCOs, noncommissioned officers. If you go back to the history of the Victoria Cross when it was first put in place by Queen Victoria in 1850s, the action had to be observed by a general for it to be worthy of, to be deemed to be worthy of a Victoria Cross. PHILIP POWELL: And perhaps we should take what is a Victoria Cross for? Victoria Cross is for conspicuous bravery in the face of the enemy. Obviously in Grieve's case, there were no other officers there at the time. And so when the battle finished all that unit was pulled out of action, the NCOs would have reported to the Intelligence Officer of the 37th battalion. And I'm sure that they said something like, 'Sir, you should have seen what Captain Grieve did. It was amazing'. I should also make aware that there were three other Victoria Crosses awarded with the Battle of Messines, one to another Australian, John Carroll of 34th battalion, one to the New Zealand Frickleton, and one to a English soldier.

LAURA THOMAS: And how significant was it that he got this award? 

PHILIP POWELL: Well that's a great question and I'm glad you asked it because we haven't really talked about the significance of Victoria Cross. I mean, the Victoria Cross, from a personal level, elevates that person to the highest award in what was the British Empire , was once the Commonwealth of Nations or however you want to describe it. But it's the highest award, not only for bravery, but for any form of service to your country. It places the awardee at the top of the order of precedence of all awards. So they rank ahead of prime ministers, people who were DSOs, or the AC's or whatever, they are at the absolute pinnacle, and has been the case since the medal came into place in the 1850s. It's only been awarded to 101 Australians. And if you include British Commonwealth troops, I think it's about 1300 times the Victoria Cross has been awarded. It'd be the first mentioned fact about you for the rest of your life. It's a bit like saying well, you know, a Melbourne Cup winning jockey or a person who wins the Brownlow medal. It it sticks with you for the for the rest of your life. And it elevates you, you know, almost in a sainthood kind of way if I can use use that term. 

PHILIP POWELL: My father used to tell me that men back in the 50s and the 60s, if they were in a tram or a train, and they saw a Victoria Cross awardee there, say on Anzac Day with his medals, they would stand up, they would go up and shake his hand, they would thank him for his service. It was a unique and still is a unique award. 

PHILIP POWELL: Another example of how people get rather excited about the award was when Bob arrived back in Australia in 1918. He was met at the ship, Port Melbourne, they were driven in a cavalcade to the centre of Melbourne, where they met the Lord Mayor. And then they took him in the car down to Brighton. And at the Brighton Town Hall, there were 5000 people waiting for him to welcome him back. It was described in the local newspaper as the biggest party ever in Brighton. And there are photos available, which just shows people hanging out the windows to see him. 

PHILIP POWELL: Obviously, a burden comes with all of that for all the awardees, you represent forever your service, your family, your country as a VC awardee, you gotta be careful, you don't win the VC, you're awarded the VC. And there must be that feeling that others deserved it as well. But for some reason I've been selected or I've been awarded it. The other matter of significance is what it means for the members of his unit, or any unit which has a person who is awarded a VC. If you read any of the history books of the units, whether iit's World War One or World War Two, if there's a Victoria Cross awardee there, their photo will be at the front of the book. In fact, I was looking at the Wikipedia website for the third division yesterday and there's only one photo on it. Guess what, it's Bob Gireve's photo is shown on there. And it would've been so important for John Monash, for his third division, which had been loudly and frequently described by the other divisions as the late comers, the Johnny come lately, 'When are you going to get over here and do something?', that his division had done so well at Messines, and out of that, at least there had been two Victoria Cross winners, there would have been a lot of pride in that for the unit and the men and the family.

LAURA THOMAS: So obviously for Grieve, as you mentioned earlier, middle class and then he's come back with all of this attention. I can imagine it would have been quite peculiar. What other I guess, run in did he have or events did he attend after being awarded the VC? 

PHILIP POWELL: He certainly would have attended many of the Anzac Day Parades. There's a photo of him in 1927, when there were 46 Victoria Cross winners, brought here for Anzac Day, because the Duke of York was, was here. Perhaps the story I'd like best to tell is when Queen Elizabeth the Second was here in March 1954. Grieve had had a heart attack in late 53 and he was at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in not the best of health, and it was decided by the authorities that the Queen would visit the rehabilitation hospital. And so she went out there. And they got all the various patients up out of their beds and put them into a line, not so much to meet her, but just to see the Queen as she walked by, it was perhaps before the days where it was a walkabout and the actual handshake, which we're used to today. 

PHILIP POWELL: And as she was walking past the group that Grieve was in, she noticed his VC medal on his suit lapel. And so she stopped walking and went up to him and said, 'That's a Victoria Cross if I'm not mistaken'. And he said, 'You're right ma'am, that was given me by your grandfather'. So they had a brief conversation, shook hands, there's a photo of that in the paper. And she moved on. And Bob's story on the day that, that meeting her and meeting her grandfather were the two highlights of his life. And I think it just kind of shows the importance of the Victoria Cross to the royal family. They have to sign off on its award. Bob said that for the rest of the day, he had patients coming up to him wanting to shake his hand because they wanted to shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of the Queen.

LAURA THOMAS: And with all that in mind, Philip how did this medal come to be at the Shrine, it's quite an interesting story.

PHILIP POWELL: Let's start with Bob's death. Fortunately, he survived the war came back to Australia and married and then he died in 1957 of a heart attack. And at that stage, the medal was gifted to Wesley College here in Melbourne. Bob and his his wife, May, who nursed him after his illness in 1918. They came back to Australia, they married but they had no children. Unfortunately, she died in 1929. So there was no children from from that marriage. 

PHILIP POWELL: Bob and his brothers, his two other brothers had gone to Wesley College. Bob was there for two years 1904-1905. His brothers were there for a longer period of time, Bob left to go and start working, but they stayed on. So there was that relationship with Wesley. He'd played football for the old Wesley collegian's team for many years, both pre and post World War One. And his younger brother became a long life teacher at Wesley College as well. So, Wesley College kind of was in the air a lot in in post war environment. 

PHILIP POWELL: So when he died in '57, he hadn't left any provision in his will, for the cross. So it was really left up to the family to decide what to do with with it. And on the recommendation of some of Bob's former colleagues, it was decided to gift it to the school. So the metal was displayed in a display cabinet in the school's main hall, along with the other school type of trophies, which were there till about the mid '70s, when there was a restructure of that hall. And then the medal was effectively kept in a safe and only brought out on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day commemoration services. And that's where it was in around November 1989. It was in the display case, in the library, when a fire went through that area and gutted the central part of the school. And the following day, the medal was found in the ashes. It had survived the fire. The ribbon had been burnt, unfortunately. But the medal had survived. And that was a great relief to everyone at the school because it had been a fairly depressing 24 hours with that major fire occurring,

LAURA THOMAS: And is the reason that it survived, I've heard, because of the material that it was made out of?

PHILIP POWELL: The Victoria Cross is made of bronze, and it comes from a part of the Chinese canon, which was captured during the Crimean War in the 1850s. That bit of cannon is under a secure guard in England. I know you've had Michael Madden here a couple of years ago, I think described it quite in detail. There's high levels of security around it, how then when a medal has to be made, they cut metal off it and it goes to the Hancock's jewellery company, and they make the medals. And so it's just made of simple bronze, the most basic metal property known on the planet but once a name gets engraved on the back of it, it's worth a lot of money. So I think that is a sign of Yes, it was built to last

LAURA THOMAS: Which in this case was pretty extraordinary. So after the fire Philip, what then happened?

PHILIP POWELL: It was then retained at the school in mainly in the safe for quite a period of time but in 2003 when the Shrine was doing renovations out the front and I think constructing the gallery of metals, it was decided, offered, I'm not quite too sure who asked first, that the VC would be lent to the Shrine for it to be put on display. And here, it's been for 21 years, which, look, it's a great outcome. It's here on display for all Victorians , all visitors to the Shrine to come and see. So that's why I think this medal is pretty important that it's, it's here at the Shrine. 

LAURA THOMAS: And this podcast shines a light on just one of the items in our galleries. So why Philip, do you think that people should come in and see this and learn more about the Grieve story?

PHILIP POWELL: Well, in my view, it's the most significant mdeal in the Shrine collection. I'd almost argue that, I know there are a lot of other unique items here, like the Gallipoli Boat, like the Changi flag, the Beaufort gun, all well worth coming to see, but I would still rank the medal as being the must-see when you come to Shrine. Sure, you can go to the Australian War Memorial, and you can see their collection of 70 Victoria Crosses there. But here, this is a mdeal of a local Melbourne boy lived, worked, died in Melbourne, he's buried at the Springvale cemetery. 

PHILIP POWELL: The other thing I was reflecting on is that it's partly to do with a VC awardees in the 1920s that the Shrine was built. The story goes that there was a lot of debate about whether a Shrine should be built here, or whether there should be a cenotaph in front of the Parliament House. And I think there were some other suggestions as well. And I think it was in 1927, Monash addressed a group of returned soldiers, he was very much for the Shrine to be built here. And it was a kind of then a arranged event that the VC winners in that group, and there were quite a few of them in that meeting, got up and stood up and said, 'Yes, we agree with you, Sir. That should be the Shrine'. And from what I understand that was the end of the argument, because of Victoria Cross winners stood up and said 'build it here', the Shrine was built here. So I think there's another little story in that as well in the importance of that medal. And just to say it's a very basic, ordinary looking medal, it doesn't glitter. It doesn't shine. The only time it's not been here at the Shrine in the last 20 odd years was when it was lent to the Australian War Memorial during the centenary of World War One, they sought to get as many Victoria Crosses as possible for display. And so the cross with the schools permission and the family's agreement was sent up to Canberra, but we made very sure that came back. 

LAURA THOMAS: Yes and it's a treasured possession in the Shrine's collection. So thank you so much, Philip for coming in and speaking today. 

PHILIP POWELL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure. 

LAURA THOMAS: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Shrine Stories podcast. Make sure you subscribe wherever you listen to stay updated with our new episodes.