Every so often, history provides a story that is every bit as improbable as it is inspiring. This is one of them.
Permit me to share the truly remarkable tale of how a badly injured young soldier’s heroism defied the odds … and how his enemy helped him receive the recognition he deserved for it. Not any old recognition, either, but the highest honor Great Britain can bestow: the Victoria Cross. It’s their version of the Congressional Medal of Honor.
To fully appreciate just how big this Big Deal is, consider this: since the VC (as our British cousins call it) was created exactly 150 years ago, it has only been awarded to 1,355 people. In fact, it has only been presented to eleven recipients in the 70 years since World War II ended. When military personnel and veterans display ribbons on their uniform, it is always positioned first. The honor is so significant, King George V decreed in 1920 that if a VC recipient later committed a crime, regardless how horrific, the award could not be rescinded, saying, “Even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the scaffold.”
Yeah, it’s THAT big.
With the back story established, let us now turn our attention to Edward Colquhorn Charlton.
Born in northern England in 1920, his early life was so unremarkable, little is known about it.
Drafted at age 20 in September 1940, he eventually wound up serving in one of Britain’s premiere military units, the Irish Guards. They’re guys you wouldn’t want to tangle with. How prestigious are they? Prince William wore the uniform of the Irish Guards during his 2011 wedding to Kate Middleton. I repeat … a Big Deal.
Fast forward to Spring 1945. It was the closing days of the Second World War, and Allied armies were thrusting ever deeper into the crumbling ruins of Hitler’s Third Reich.
On April 21, Charlton was driving one of four tanks which, along with a platoon of British infantry, had captured the town of Wistedt in northern Germany, not far from Hamburg.
Suddenly, the Nazis launched a surprise counter-attack, trying to retake the town. Three British tanks were put out of action by enemy fire. The fourth, Charlton’s tank, developed electrical trouble and couldn’t move. Talk about bad timing; the disabled tank was a sitting duck.
So Charlton was ordered to climb out of the turret, remove the tank’s Browning Automatic Rifle and support the infantry.
But he did a lot more than that.
The Germans badly outnumbered the Brits, who were in serious danger of being surrounded and captured.
Nobody knows what happened inside Edward Charlton’s head and heart at that precise moment. But this much is certain: without orders, and without saying anything to anyone, he launched a one-man man attack, running straight into a column of Panzer tanks and infantry, firing the BAR from his hip and inflicting heavy casualties. In minutes, he disappeared from his comrade’s sight.
But the Germans saw him. All too clearly. More and more of them kept falling as Charlton plunged into their midst.
A bullet ripped into Charlton’s right arm, shattering it. It didn’t stop him. He mounted the gun on a fence and kept blazing away with his left arm. He was wounded again, and then again. The third injury was so severe, he ultimately collapsed from loss of blood. The Germans captured him.
Although now a prisoner, his one-man charge had stopped the enemy in their tracks, allowing the Brits to safely fall back and regroup, sparing them Charlton’s fate.
He died later that day, age 24, just 16 days shy of Germany’s surrender.
Soon afterward, British officers were reading documents handed over by the German Army. There, in writing, was the Nazi’s report on the Battle of Wistedt, telling of Charlton’s heroics in precise detail. German POW’s who witnessed the attack were then interviewed. They corroborated the report, with several even insisting the brave enemy soldier deserved a medal.
How do you explain what drives a man to voluntarily go so far above and beyond the call of duty? What makes him keep fighting while he is tortured by pain, knowing he will not survive this, his final battle?
Maybe a spirit whispers in his ear, the same spirit that answers the question Macaulay poses in Horatius at the Bridge:
Then out spoke brave Horatius
the Captain of the gate,
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh sooner or late.
And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds,
for the ashes of his fathers
and the temples of his gods?”
“Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for others.”
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