A question of dignity for all LGBT+ veterans – the past still matters

02nd Mar 2023

More than a year ago, the family of Lt Col Sidney Rumbold asked the Ministry of Defence to restore to the family the medals – a Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order – it had cruelly stripped from him when he was discharged in disgrace from the Army in 1919.  After more than a year of waiting and an intervention from their own MP Ms Oppong-Asare – who raised a question in the House of Commons about his case last week – they have received a cursory response from the MoD that tells them nothing and just kicks the can further down the road. Much like the case of Royal Naval veteran, Joe Ousalice, the way the MoD is handling this case seems to be another classic MoD own goal on the PR front. But it is also much more important than that.

Sidney was a war hero. He signed up to join the Army at the outbreak of WW1. He rose through the ranks and served with 8th Battalion the York and Lancaster Regiment. His first experience of the frontline was at Passchendaele where his commitment to his men, their welfare and his professionalism was recognised by his senior officers. In November 1917, his Battalion arrived in Italy and Sidney took his men into battle at Asiago Plateau and Vittorio Veneto.   His bravery and leadership were described in letters home from one his his soldiers and he was mentioned in despatches.  He was awarded the Military Cross and the Distinguished Service Order. He is also recorded as a recipient of the Silver Medal of Military Valour, a special award given by the King of Italy.  His picture hung in the National Portrait Gallery. In total, he served from 9 September 1914 to 1 January 1920.

Sidney was also gay. That part of his life was deeply hidden from the world and his family. His career was brought to a terrible and humiliating end when he was arrested following allegations of what were referred to as ‘scandalous behaviour unbecoming the character of an officer and a gentleman’.  He was court martialed, pleaded guilty, and dismissed with disgrace.  His medals – the Distinguished Service Order, the Bar to the DSO and the Military Cross – were all taken from him.

Sidney spent the rest of his life with his widowed mother in St John’s Wood. The family never talked about what had happened to him. His great great nephew Richard Davidson, who is leading the campaign to restore the medals, recalls reading a handwritten letter from Sidney in his later years to the War Office asking if he could receive his war medals back. There is no evidence that they ever replied to him.

How the country comes to terms with what happened to men and women like Sidney is important. It is not just a question of history. The process of recognising past wrongs and doing what we can to fix them now is important to Sidney’s memory, and for his family, but it is also important and relevant to our LGBT+ veterans today, many of whom are still struggling to come to terms with the appalling impact the discrimination they suffered has had on their lives.  It is a question of dignity and respect and it still matters.

So when, after waiting patiently for more than a year, the family receives a brief letter from Minister Baroness Goldie, suggesting that the reason no action has been taken is because the situation is ‘complex’ and the MoD is ‘awaiting any developments resulting from the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act’, without explaining how these mysterious ‘developments’ may unfold – it is hard for the family not to be insulted.  First of all, it has taken the MoD a year to draft a two-paragraph letter to the family and the family had to repeatedly chase and get their MP involved to get that.  More importantly, the MoD could restore the medals if it chose to – but it chooses not to. The question of the grant of honours and awards, including the grant of medals, is a prerogative power, vested in the Sovereign and delegated to the Defence Council. The Royal Warrant specifically allows that “any medal awarded for long service… forfeited by… a member of the military forces or… former member of the military forces, may be restored at the discretion of the Defence Council”.  So they have a discretion – they just need to apply it.

So the MoD once again misses an obvious opportunity to just do the right thing. The family continues to wait.  And the indignity suffered by Lt Col Rumbold continues.

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