The Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross owes its evolution to the The Crimean War (1854-1856), when it was realised that no award was open to all soldiers regardless of rank. William Howard Russell of the Times, documented numerous unrewarded acts of gallantry by the British forces sparking huge debate on the issue of recognising sacrifice and bravery. It became clear that a new kind of decoration was required. On December 19th 1854 Captain G.T. Scobell moved on the House of Commons ‘to institute an Order of Merit to be bestowed upon persons serving in the Army or Navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry during the present war and to which every grade and individual may be admissible’. By 1855, after much active involvement, Queen Victoria had issued a warrant that officially constituted the Victoria Cross. The Queen was determined that this new medal would become something prized above all other awards in the military. It was stated that this new Victoria Cross should only be awarded for ‘…most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy’ After several submissions and amendments, designs submitted by Lord Panmure were approved and in March 1856 the war office instructed Hancocks to produce 106 Victoria Cross medals. A duty that the firm proudly upholds to the present day.
Metal and manufacture of Victoria cross
Unlike any other award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross is not made in a die. It is not struck, as other coins or medals but, largely due to the type of metal it is made from, it is cast. The obverse and reverse are then hand finished and chased even to the minutest of detail. Finally, the medal receives a special bronze finish that gives it a distinctive colour. Each of these crosses are cast from the bronze casabel from two cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War. There has been some debate over its origin and it is possible the cannons were in fact Chinese. Irrespectively, the remaining metal from these cannons is still used to produce the VC today and is kept under lock and key by the Ministry of Defence.
The medal itself
Each medal bears the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion with the inscription ‘For Valour’. The medal is suspended from a bar decorated with laurel leaves through which a red ribbon passes (originally a blue ribbon for navy and red for army but uniformed in 1920). On the reverse of this bar the recipient’s name is engraved, as well as his rank, regiment and unit. On the reverse of the medal itself, the date of the recipient’s act of bravery is engraved at the centre. And for the rare few who, not only held a Victoria Cross but who then went on to deserve a second recommendation, a ‘Bar’ attachment was created. The original warrant states that: ‘It is ordained that anyone who, after having received the Cross, shall again perform an Act of bravery which, if he had not received such Cross, would have entitled him to it, such further act shall be recorded by a Bar attached to the riband by which the cross is suspended and for every additional act of bravery an additional Bar may be added’ To this day only three people have ever been awarded a Victoria Cross and Bar. Noel Chavasse and Arthur Martin-Leake both doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps for rescuing wounded under fire; and New Zealander Captain Charles Upham for displays of calm competence in the face of the enemy.
The first investiture of the Victoria Cross saw 62 recipients receive their medal, including backdated awards to 1854 to acknowledge acts of bravery during the Crimean War. It is generally accepted that the first official recipient was Lt. Charles D. Lucas R. N. serving onboard HMS Hecla in 1854 and granted for: ‘…..a remarkable instance of coolness and presence of mind in action, he having taken up, and thrown overboard, a live shell thrown on board the “Hecla” by the enemy when the fuse was burning…..’ Further warrants allowed for the Victoria Cross to be awarded posthumously to men from the Indian Army, and to men serving in the RAF. Uniquely, in 1921 the Victoria Cross was awarded to the ‘Unknown Soldier’ of the US Army to mark the contribution of US soldiers during the Great War. Admiral Lord Beatty laid the medal on his tomb in Arlington Cemetery. Other unusual incidents surrounding the awarding of the Victoria Cross include the two occasions where it has been awarded to a father and son, the two instances of it being awarded to brothers, once during the Indian Mutiny and once during the Great War. And in the extraordinary case of the Gough family, who collectively received three medals between 1857 and 1903. In 1856 Queen Victoria also placed a medal under the foundations of Netley Military Hospital. When the hospital was demolished in 1966 the Netley Victoria Cross was then given to the Army Services Museum in Aldershot.
To date 1356 Victoria Crosses have been awarded in the 154 years of its existence. Although the Victoria Cross is made of valueless metal what it represents and the rarity of the medal make it extremely valuable. It is still regarded as the highest possible military honour and in 2004 a national Victoria and George Cross Memorial was instated in Westminster Abbey next to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A service of remembrance followed on 26th June 2006 to mark 150 years of the medal’s inception.
To recognise this auspicious occasion, Hancocks, makers of the Victoria Cross, have produced an official Victoria Cross replica, a limited edition, one to mark every medal issued between 1856 and 2006.
The replicas are £395 (inc. p+p) and can be ordered by calling Hancocks on 0207 4938904
The Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross reverse
The medal being engraved
Victoria Cross Press Coverage 1914
Victoria Cross Press Coverage 1915