A history of the Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross was born in the carnage of the Crimean War, even though hostilities had ceased a good twelve months before the first award was made.
The Crimean Campaign was the first war to be covered by regular correspondents, especially by reporters as perceptive and critical as William Howard Russell of The Times . Under his scrutiny the errors of officers, their prejudices and rigid attitudes, did not go unnoticed. He reported the disgraceful shortages of proper clothing and equipment, the ravages of cholera and typhoid fever, which caused the deaths of 20,000 men against the 3,400 killed in battle during the war. He also reported for the first time the courage and endurance of the ordinary British soldier. When the infantry stormed the heights above the Alma River, when the 93rd formed the 'thin red line' at Balaklava, when the Heavy Brigade charged the Russian cavalry and the Light Brigade the guns, Russell watched and reported what he saw to the British public.
At the time, the most esteemed award for military prowess in the British Army was the Order of the Bath, but the Bath was awarded only to senior officers. Junior officers and even NCOs might win promotion in the field - or 'brevet rank', as this kind of promotion was called. It was also possible to win distinction by being mentioned in the general's despatches, but at the outset of the war most of these honours were given to staff officers immediately under the general's eye and very rarely to the officers actually engaged in front-line action. The common soldier might expect a campaign medal, but this would be issued to every man who took part in the war, whether he had fought bravely or not. To remedy this situation the Distinguished Conduct Medal was instituted for NCOs and privates in 1854. This medal carried a pension and was highly valued but there was a growing awareness of the need for a decoration which would be open to all, regardless of rank and which would more fairly reflect the individual gallantry of men in the front line.
The British sense of fair play and a genuine admiration for gallant behaviour certainly played a part in the decision to institute a new award, but there may also have been an element of cynicism. Medals are a potent incentive to courage in battle, but they are also cheap.
The French, our allies in the Crimea, already had the Legion d'Honneur (first instituted by Napoleon in 1803) and the Medaille Militaire . The Russians and the Austrians also had awards for gallantry regardless of rank, and it was high time that the British followed suit. In December 1854 an ex-naval officer turned Liberal MP, Captain Thomas Scobell, put a motion before the House of Commons that an 'Order of Merit' should be awarded to 'persons serving in the army or navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry.... and to which every grade and individual from the highest to the lowest.... may be admissable'.
The same idea had also occurred to the Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle. In January 1855 he wrote to Prince Albert (Queen Victoria's husband), reminding him of an earlier conversation. The Duke suggested 'a new decoration open to all ranks'. 'It does not seem to me right of politic,' he wrote, 'that such deeds of heroism as the war has produced should go unrewarded by any distinctive mark of honour because they are done by privates or officers below the rank of major.... The value attached by soldiers to a little bit of ribbon is such as to render any danger insignificant and any privation light if it can be attained.' On 29 January the Duke followed up his letter by announcing the new award in a speech in the House of Lords. At about the same time an official memorandum on the subject was circulated within the War Office setting out the details of a cross to be awarded for 'a signal act of valour in the presence of the enemy'.
Events might have progressed quite quickly if Newcastle had not lost his job within a few days of this speech. But interest had been aroused. Lord Panmure, the new Secretary of State for War, corresponded with Prince Albert on the subject and the Queen herself was actively involved in the proposals. In a letter to Panmure Albert made pencil alterations to the draft warrant, which arose from his discussions with the Queen. It had already been decided that the award should carry her name, but the Civil Service's proposal was clumsy and long-winded: 'the Military Order of Victoria', Albert put his pencil through this and suggested 'the Victoria Cross'. Throughout the document, wherever the word 'Order' with its overtones of aristrocratic fraternity occurred, Albert applied his pencil. 'Treat it as a cross granted for distinguished service,' he noted, 'which will make it simple and intelligible.'
Queen Victoria took a great interest in her new award, especially in the design of the Cross. When the first drawings were submitted to her, she selected one closely modelled on an existing campaign medal, the Army Gold Cross from the Peninsular War. The Queen suggesting only that it should be 'a little smaller'. She also made a significant alteration to the motto, striking out 'for the brave' and substituting 'for valour', in case anyone should come to the conclusion that the only brave men in a battle were those who won the cross.
Lord Panmure took the commission for the new medal to a firm of jewellers, Hancock's of Bruton Street, who had a high reputation for silver work. From the beginning, however, it had been decided that the new decoration would be made of base metal and the first proof which the Queen received was not at all to her taste. 'The Cross looks very well in form, but the metal is ugly; it is copper and not bronze and will look very heavy on a red coat'.
Inspired perhaps by the Queen's remarks, someone had the happy thought that it would be fitting to take the bronze for the new medals from Russian guns captured in the Crimea. Accordingly, an engineer went off to Woolwich Barracks, where two 18-pounders were placed at his disposal. Despite the fact that these guns were clearly of antique design and inscribed with very un-Russian characters, nobody pointed out until many years had passed that the 'VC guns' were in fact Chinese, not Russian, and may or may not have been anywhere near the Crimea.
The Chinese gunmetal proved so hard that the dies which Hancock's used began to crack up, so it was decided to cast the medals instead, a lucky chance which resulted in higher relief and more depth in the moulding than would have been possible with a die-stamped medal.
By the spring of 1856 the Order was in hand, but there followed months of dilly-dallying on the part of Panmure and the various departments concerned, while they sorted out who would be eligible for the new award. Boards of adjudication were set up by the Admiralty and the army, but they took a long time making up their minds. Some commanding officers seized upon the opportunity to bring distinction to their regiments by putting dozens of names forward to the selection boards. Others ignored the whole thing. So while the 77th Regiment put forward no fewer than thirty-eight candidates, six regiments offered none at all. Lord Panmure declared that awards should be limited to the present hostilities, the Crimean Campaign. A rather parsimonious pension of £10 a year to each recipient was finally agreed upon, and the slow process of adjudication ground on for a full twelve months.
The Queen made it plain to Lord Panmure that she herself wished to bestow her new award on as many of the recipients as possible. The 26 June 1857 was chosen by the Queen as a suitable day, and that a grand parade should be laid on in Hyde Park and that she would 'herself' attend on horseback.
Preparations for the great day were made in something of a hurry. The final list of recipients was not published in the London Gazette until 22 June, and Hancock's had to work around the clock to engrave the names of the recipients on the Crosses. Those destined to receive the award had somehow to be found and rushed up to London, together with detachments of the units in which they had served. But because of the earlier delays some of the candidates for the Cross had left the services and were therefore not in uniform when they arrived for the ceremony. Nevertheless, the Queen herself was well satisfied with the arrangements.
Queen Victoria caused some consternation by electing to stay on horseback throught the ceremony of awarding the sixty-two recipients with the Cross. There is a pleasing legend that the Queen, leaning forward from the saddle like a Cossack with a lance, stabbed one of the heroes, Commander Raby, through the chest. The commander, true to the spirit in which he had won the Cross, stood unflinching while his sovereign fastened the pin through his flesh. The other sixty-one seem to have come through the occasion uninjured. The Queen managed to pin on the whole batch in just ten minutes, which does not suggest lengthy conversation, but the whole parade went off extremely well to the raptuous applause of the public.
Prince Albert's influence was clearly expressed in the terms of the Royal Warrant for the Cross which has survived, with some alterations, to the present day. It was a medal awarded 'to those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the Enemy and shall then have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country'. Far from striking the public as something with which to 'find fault', the new award was greeted with great enthusiasm by the British people.
TO DATE, 1,355 VICTORIA CROSSES HAVE BEEN AWARDED
including: Captain-Surgeon Arthur Martin-Leake VC & Bar (RAMC)
Captain Noel Chavasse VC & Bar (RAMC)
Captain Charles Upham VC & Bar (New Zealand Military Forces)
The US Unknown Soldier, Arlington Cemetery
Iain Stewart, 26 January 2000 (updated September 2006)