Old English for Fate or Destiny
The Victoria Cross is the highest award a person can be awarded for valour and gallantry in the face of the enemy. It was born through the death and destruction brought about in the Crimean War. Although it was a good year later before the first was awarded, it was mostly brought about through the efforts of reporters. The Crimean War was the first war to actually be covered through regular correspondents. The most noted of these reporters was William Howard Russell of the Times. His reporting on the War showed officers attitudes and prejudices. He reported on the painful deficiencies of clothing and equipment and the deaths, not brought on by the enemy, but by cholera and typhoid fever. 3,400 men killed in battle, the illnesses killed 20,000 others.
His reporting also showed the exceptional courage and intestinal fortitude of an “ordinary British soldier”. Prior to this, the highest award was the Order of the Bath but was only awarded to Senior Officers. Junior officers and NCO’s might get a field promotion. At the start of the war, only Staff Officers received these because they were always seen performing their duties in front of the Generals. Front line Officers very rarely seen a field promotion. As for common or real soldiers you might, just might, get a campaign medal.
The Order Of The Bath
To resolve this, the Distinguished Conduct Medal was brought about for Non Commissioned Officer’s (NCO’s) and privates in 1854. This medal earned the receiver a pension and was highly valued. But there was a growing need that a decoration be open to all ranks to show personal heroism on the front.
Now, the British always thought of themselves as having a sense of impartiality and an appreciation for bravery and gallantry. So they made a decision to fabricate a new award. So, in part, the new award was for bravery and fair play, in truth medals are a cheap form of incentives. The British were also following other countries in an all ranks decoration. The French had the Legion d’Honneur and the Medaille Militaire, the Russians and the Austrians had their own gallantry awards for all ranks.
Anything that requires common sense to you and me means a great political debate to the “upper class”. In 1854 a retired Capt. Thomas Scobell went to the House of Commons and put forth a motion 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 admissible’. That was December 1854.
Coincidently, a politician came up with the same idea in January 1855. The Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle. He wrote to Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband), suggesting “a new decoration open to all ranks”. He also stated that “It dies not seem to me to be politic that such deeds of heroism in 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 a soldiers to a bit of ribbon is such as to render any danger insignificant and any privation light if it can be attained.”
Now read that again. He thought that a piece of ribbon can inspire heroism in a soldier. Government and Royalty cannot comprehend why soldiers do what they do. Never seen battle or enemy fire, how can government or Royals ever try to get into the minds of commons. We do not do it for the tributes and the admiration of our peers, we do what is right. Awards are nice, but not the reason we do what we do. I cannot put into words why we place ourselves in harms way, so ask a Veteran.
The Duke, on January 29th, followed up on his letter by announcing to the House of Lords, the new award. At the same time an official memorandum circulated in the War Office setting out the details of a cross to be awarded for “a single act of valour in the presence of the enemy”. Well, things would have progressed quickly but the Duke of Newcastle quickly lost his job a few days after the speech and was replaced with a new Secretary of State for War, Lord Panmure. The new Secretary corresponded with Prince Albert on the subject. The Civil Service thought to call it “the Military Order of Victoria” but Prince Albert thought the wording to long. He penciled in the Victoria Cross. Wherever in the document it said “order” he would strike through it. The Prince thought, and rightly so, the word ORDER had overtures of an blue-blooded society.
He stated simply and perhaps most effectively “treat it as a cross granted for distinguished service, which will make it simple and intelligible.”
Queen Victoria took a great interest in this project. She had her hand in all aspects of the new award. When it came to design, she seen the drawings and she chose one that closely resembled an existing campaign medal, The Army Gold Cross from the Peninsular War. Her first concern was that it should be a bit smaller, and also changing the words “for the brave” for the words “for valour” in case anyone thought that only brave men in battle were those that won the cross.
The British Army Gold Cross
The Secretary of State for War, Lord Panmure, took the commission for the new medal to the jewellers of Hancock’s of Bruton Street. Hancock’s had a high reputation for their work in silver. From the onset, it was decided that the new award was going to be made of base metal. Now for you and me a base metal is usually copper, lead, nickel etc. The first proof was not to the Queens standards. She stated “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.”
Someone was inspired by the Queen’s observations and had the idea that they take the bronze from the Russian guns captured in the Crimea War. An engineer went to Woolwich Barracks where they had two of the 18 pounders, and they were placed at his disposal. Now the guns were very clearly antique, but the markings were also very clearly not Russian. It wasn’t until many years later that the markings were found to be Chinese and that they more than likely were never anywhere near the Crimea.
The metal in the Chinese guns was so hard that the dies used by Hancock’s cracked. A decision was made to cast the medals instead of die stamping. In the end a good choice because casting the medal gave them a higher relief and more depth than they ever could have gotten from pressing.
Here is a description of the award. The bronze came from the escabel of the captured cannon. The escabel is the knob at the end of the cannon, very easy to recognize. The ribbon is a crimson red and measures 38mm and the medal weighs 0.87 ounces troy. On the reverse side the name of the recipient is engraved on the suspension bar and the date of the award is engraved in the central circle. The design of the cross has never changed but the ribbon has. At the start, the awards to the Navy were a dark blue ribbon while the Army had a crimson one. On April 1 1918, with the introduction of the Royal Air Force, it was time to re-evaluate the award again. It was decided that the crimson ribbon would be the same for all branches. Now in the spring of 1856 the new award was in hand, (but was backdated to include the period covering the Crimean War), but there were months of faltering at the hands of Panmure and the many departments involved and the debate about who would be eligible. Boards were set up by the Army and the Admiralty, and always, they took a long, long time to make up their minds. Some commanding officers took the opportunity to bring the distinction to their own regiments by naming dozens of men. Other regiments just ignored the whole thing. For example, the 77th Regiment put forth no less than thirty-eight candidates, six other Regiments offered no one. Lord Panmure declared that the awards be limited to the Crimean War and present hostilities. They also decided that the generous pension of the amount of £10 a year to the recipients was well deserved. That decided, the slow process of adjudication proceeded at a snail pace for another twelve months.
Finally, the process was over and the Queen made it plain to Lord Panmure that she wished to present her new award on as many recipients as possible. The Queen chose the date of June 26 as a suitable day and that a Grand Parade be held in Hyde Park and that she “herself” would attend on horseback. Now that decisions were finally done, the preparations were done with a sense of urgency. The Logistics of this task was overwhelming. The final list of the recipients was not published in the London Gazette until the 22nd of June. Hancock’s was under the gun and had to work around the clock to have the names of the recipients engraved on the Crosses. The men who were to receive the award had to be found and rushed to London along with the detachments in which they served. Because of all the delays, some of the candidates left the service, so they would not be in uniform. None the less, the Queen was very satisfied with all of the arrangements.
Now, Queen Victoria, caused some problems during the award presentation by choosing to present the 62 medals from horseback. On a lighter note, which is a legend, the Queen leaned forward to present Commander Raby his award. In doing so, she stabbed him in the chest. The Commander, showing his true colours, stood unflinching while his Queen fastened his pin through his flesh. The remaining 61 soldiers remained unharmed. Queen Victoria managed to pin all of the awards in just 10 minutes which means she did not spend a lot of time chatting with the men. The parade went extremely well and the public was very impressed.
Prince Alberts influence was clearly present in the terms of the Royal Warrant for the Cross. Over the year’s small changes were made, but in all it survived. It says “to those officers or men who served us in the presence of the Enemy and shall then have performed some single act of valour or devotion to their country”.
Instead of something that the public could find fault with, the new award was greeted with outstanding enthusiasm by all of the British citizens.
As of today, 1,358 Victoria Crosses have been awarded.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert 1855