I don't get the chance to present this very often.
—Queen Elizabeth II
The Victoria Cross is the highest honour that can be awarded to a member of the armed forces of any Commonwealth nation. It is awarded only on the merit of conspicuous courage and bravery, in the face of the enemy.
The cross itself is quite simple. It is a cross patté of bronze, the front side bearing the royal crest (A crown with a lion mounted on top), and a scroll bearing the inscription "For Valour". It is suspended from a crimson ribbon, by a straight bar ornamented with laurels, attached to the cross by a small V-lug, with a small link attaching the two.
On the back side of the cross is engraved the date of the act which earned the Cross, and upon the back of the mounting bar is engraved the rank, name, and regiment of the person it was awarded to.
The Victoria Cross was first awarded after the Crimean War. This particular war was the first one to have regular coverage by journalists from on or near the front lines. For the first time, the British public was informed about some of the horrible problems facing their army at war. From the lack of proper equipment and clothing, to the cholera and typhoid which caused so many more deaths than those soldiers actually killed in action.
But, along with the bad, came the good. The British public was regaled with accounts of sheer bravery, of men risking life and limb in order to save that of their fellow soldiers.
One of the problems exposed, however, is that the actions of these brave men really weren't being adequately recognized. At the time, the only medals awarded for skill or prowess in battle were the Order of the Bath, or a "mention in dispatches", being mentioned in the general's accounting of the battle generally carrying with it an award. The problem with these two awards is that only senior officers are eligible for the former award, and only those officers serving directly with the general tended to receive the latter.
Demand grew for an award for bravery on the battle field open to soldiers of all ranks. Already, the French, Russians, and Austrians had something similar. It was time for the British to follow suit.
And so, after much deliberation, a proposal for the new award was drafted by the then Secretary of State for War, Lord Panmure. The original proposal called for the creation of something called the Military Order of Victoria. Victoria's husband Prince Albert, however, felt that this name was too long, and stunk of aristocracy. So he replaced every instance of the name with the much simpler, and to his mind, more accessible and or desirable to the common soldier, Victoria Cross.
Queen Victoria also took a personal interest in the new award, which explains why she allowed it to be named after her. She was the one who selected the design above, basing it upon a drawing similar to the Army Gold Cross awarded during the Peninsular War. She also modified the original motto from "For The Brave" to "For Valour".
This drawing was submitted to Hancocks of London, the jewelers who still hold the Royal Warrant to produce every Victoria Cross, when required. The original prototype submitted to Queen Victoria was made of copper. She however, thought it looked bad, and requested a new one made of bronze.
The British had just captured a pair of bronze cannons from the Russians in the Crimean War, and someone thought it would be a good idea to use these to make the Victoria Cross. So, they lopped off the cascabels of the cannons (The knob at the back of the cannon used to tie ropes for either moving or keeping a cannon in place), and these have been used for manufacturing every Victoria Cross since. Currently, it is estimated that there is enough metal for 80 more Victoria Crosses. It wasn't until years later that it was figured out that the markings on the cannons were Chinese, and thus the cannons probably were too.
In addition to selecting the design of the cross, Queen Victoria insisted upon personally presenting the award to as many recipients as possible. 62 men were selected to receive the honour for their actions during the Crimean War. With Hancock's working around the clock in the weeks preceding, the first Victoria Crosses were awarded on 26 June, 1857, in a ceremony in Hyde Park, London.
Queen Victoria remained upon her horse during the ceremony, resulting in the (likely apocryphal) story of how she accidentally pinned the cross into the flesh of one Commander Henry James Raby, who was able to stand fast unflinching as he received his award from his Queen. While this story is less than likely to be true, he was in fact the first person to receive the Victoria Cross.
Throughout the years, there have been several changes to the cross and how it is awarded. Originally, the Victoria Cross was given with a crimson ribbon for Royal Army soldiers, and Royal Navy sailors received blue ribbons. This continued until 1918, when the Royal Air Force was formed. Rather than pick a new colour for airmen and airwomen to receive, the decision was made to consolidate all Victoria Crosses to a crimson ribbon.
The original Royal Warrant regarding the Victoria Cross had a clause allowing the award to be revoked. This stood until 1920. King George V felt quite strongly that there was nothing that a Victoria Cross recipient could do that was bad enough to warrant revoking it. In fact, he wrote that "Even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the gallows".
In the years before this happened, 8 men forfeited their Victoria Crosses, after being convicted of a number of offenses ranging from the theft of a pair of sacks of oats, or a cow, to bigamy, to desertion and evading court martial, to theft of a comrade's medals.
The Victoria Cross originally came with an annual pension of 10 pounds. What with inflation and all, that had to be increased. In 1993, it was increased to 1300 pounds, from 100 pounds.
While it was originally, and is currently, only awarded for actions taken in the face of the enemy, there was a period from 1858 to 1881, when it could be awarded for actions made "under circumstances of extreme danger". Only six awards of this type were made. After this clause was revoked, it eventually necessitated the creation of a new award. The George Cross, created in 1940 by King George VI is the highest Commonwealth award for non-operational or peacetime gallantry. It is considered to be equal to the Victoria Cross, however were someone to win both, I have a feeling the Victoria Cross would take precedence when worn, if for no other reason than seniority.
Some countries within the Commonwealth have been replacing the British Decorations system with their own. Most notably are New Zealand, Australia, and Canada. They have still kept the Victoria Cross as the top honour, and it still needs to be approved by the reigning monarch, and will also be presented by her. The Australian and New Zealanders' Victoria Cross designs are identical to the British version, whereas the Canadian version is unchanged with the exception of the phrase "For Valour" being replaced with the Latin "Pro Valore". This is of course, a neutral compromise between the country's two official languages of French and English. While these awards have been approved for use by Queen Elizabeth II, they have yet to be awarded.
In 1920, the Victoria Cross became the first British Decoration that could be awarded posthumously. This was rather important, as it is estimated that the odds of surviving an act which would qualify one for the Victoria Cross is only about 10%. It remained the only British Decoration that could be awarded posthumously until 1977.
And as mentioned above, the Victoria Cross is the highest possible award given to a member of the armed forces of any of the Commonwealth Nations. It has been so, since Indian soldiers became eligible in 1911, soldiers from other Commonwealth Nations having been eligible since 1867. (Of course, Indian solders are no longer eligible, ever since India gained its independance from Britain in 1947.)
Since its inception, the Victoria Cross has been twice awarded to three people. This is called a VC & Bar, because instead of being awarded a new cross, the recipient is given a bar almost identical to the bar from which the Cross is hung, which is placed about halfway up the ribbon.
The three men who have deserved this honour twice over are Arthur Martin-Leake and Noel Chavasse of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and Charles Upham of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Of the 1355 Victoria Crosses that have been awarded, only 12 have been awarded since the end of World War II. The reason for this is probably a combination of the introduction of slightly less prestigious awards, such as the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross or the Military Cross, given for acts which may have previously merited a Victoria Cross. Another obvious reason would be the fact that situations where someone could possibly earn a Victoria Cross have been much rarer since then.
The most recent person to have earned the Victoria Cross is Private Johnson Gideon Beharry, of the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment. He received it for his actions in extracting wounded comrades after a rocket propelled grenade attack upon his convoy in Iraq, all the while open to fire. He becomes the first person to be awarded the Victoria Cross since the Falklands War, and the first to survive winning it since the Vietnam War.
Should you ever meet a recipient of the Victoria Cross, I charge you to at least purchase them a drink. You would very rarely find someone more deserving of one.
Mike Chapman. "Victoria Cross Reference" 18 March, 2005. <www.victoriacross.net/default.asp> (13 August, 2005.)
Iain Stewart. "The History of the Victoria Cross" 25 May, 2005. <www.victoriacross.org.uk/vcross.htm> (9 July, 2005).
Wikipedia. "Victoria Cross," Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 11 August, 2005. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Cross> (13 August, 2005.)
British Ministry of Defense. "Military Honours and Awards" Ministry of Defense. 29 March, 2005. <www.mod.uk/honours> (8 August, 2005.)