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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Camilleri

The Victoria Cross - Part One

Updated: Apr 13, 2023



Gallantry Awards


Bravery in battle has been recognised through the ages, and the idea of rewarding it goes back to ancient times. The form of reward has varied from country to country and era to era but has generally included grants of land or money, advancement in rank or social status, the presentation of weapons or jewels, and increased pay.


The idea of bestowing a badge to serve as a visible reward for gallantry dates back to the ancient Greeks, and the concept was then taken up by the Romans, who established a regular system of handing out bronze or silver badges that soldiers could wear on their armour as a sign that they had been honoured for bravery.


Replica of a medal awarded to Sir Robert Welch for recovering the King’s standard at Edgehill, 1642 (Source: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/save-colours)

In Britain, the earliest gallantry medals date to the English Civil Wars of the mid-1600s, such as in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Welch, who was given a gold medal by King Charles I for recapturing the Royal Standard at the Battle of Edgehill on 23rd October 1642. Yet such rewards were not part of a regulated national system.


The first hint of an organised scheme appeared in the 1650s, during the Commonwealth, when attempts were made to create somewhat standardised medals to be awarded for distinguished service at sea during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. Although these continued into the reigns of Charles II and William III, the system did not develop further, and the 18th century saw a return to ad hoc awards, where individual regimental officers commissioned their own medals to reward their men.


The Victoria Cross


In 1854, Britain found itself fighting a major war against Russia. The Crimean War was one of the first conflicts to be extensively covered by war correspondents, who kept the public at home informed on the day-to-day realities on the frontline, including numerous acts of valour by the common soldier that usually went unrewarded.


Incidents such as the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava during the Crimean War captured the public's imagination and led to calls for the creation of a new award to recognise gallantry on the battlefield

There was a growing feeling among the public that a new award was needed to recognise such incidents, and thus, Queen Victoria instructed the War Office to strike a new medal “for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry, to which every grade and individual, from the highest to the lowest, may be admissible.” The medal was thus not to recognise birth or class and was meant to be a simple decoration that would be highly prized and eagerly sought after by those in military service.


The result was the introduction of the Victoria Cross on 29th January 1856, to 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” to persons of any rank in any service, and to civilians under military command. The order was backdated to 1854 to recognise acts of courage during the Crimean War and the first presentation ceremony was held on 26th June 1857, when Queen Victoria personally invested 62 of the 111 Crimean War recipients in a public ceremony in Hyde Park, London.


The Medal


The design of the VC consists of a bronze cross pattée, bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion, and the inscription "FOR VALOUR". The cross is suspended by a ring from a seriffed "V" to a bar ornamented with laurel leaves, through which the ribbon passes. The reverse of the suspension bar is engraved with the recipient's name, rank, number and unit. On the reverse of the medal is a circular panel in the centre of which the date of the act for which it was awarded is engraved.


Originally, the VC ribbon was dark blue for the Royal Navy and crimson for the Army, but shortly before the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, King George V approved the recommendation that the crimson ribbon should be adopted by all three services.


Pre-1918 awards to naval personnel came with a dark blue ribbon before crimson was adopted for all three services

According to tradition, the metal from which the medals are struck derives from a Russian cannon that was captured at the Siege of Sevastopol, during the Crimean War. Research has however established that most of the medals made since December 1914 were made from two Chinese guns that were most likely taken as trophies during the First Opium War. The prototype Victoria Cross was made by the London jewellers Hancocks & Co, and the same company has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since its inception.


Award Process


A recommendation for the award of a Victoria Cross is normally issued by an officer at regimental level or equivalent, and has to be supported by three witnesses, although this has been waived on occasion. The recommendation is then passed up the military hierarchy until it reaches the Secretary of State for Defence, from where it is finally passed on to the monarch, who gives the final approval.


Queen Victoria personally presented 185 Victoria Crosses out of the 472 awarded during her reign. Since then, around two-thirds of all VCs have been personally presented by the reigning British monarch

Although there is no specific rule as to who should present the medals to the recipients, Queen Victoria personally presented 185 VCs out of the 472 awarded during her reign, and since then, around two-thirds of all VCs have been personally presented by the reigning British monarch, either to the recipient or to their next of kin, normally at Buckingham Palace.


First Awards


The earliest action to be rewarded with a VC took place in the Baltic on 21st June 1854. During a naval bombardment of the Russian fortress at Bomarsund in the Åland Islands, a live shell landed on the deck of HMS Hecla. Disregarding orders to take cover, Mate Charles Lucas picked up the shell with its fuse still burning and calmly dropped it over the side, saving many lives in the process. The first man to actually be presented with the VC by Queen Victoria was however Lieutenant Henry Raby, Royal Navy, who at Sebastopol, on 18th June 1855, had run across open ground through heavy gunfire to rescue a badly wounded man.


More VCs were soon being awarded for gallantry in conflicts that followed the Crimean War, including 182 during the Indian Mutiny between 1857 and 1859. A great number of these awards were for rescuing wounded comrades under fire, such as in the case of Private George Monger of the 23rd Regiment of Foot, who was only 17 years old when on 18th November 1857, at Lucknow, he helped recover a wounded corporal from an exposed position.


The Storming of Secundra Bagh at Lucknow, during the Indian Mutiny, led to the award of numerous Victoria Crosses

23 VCs were awarded during the Zulu War of 1879, including that to Colonel Redvers Buller of the 60th Rifles, who would later serve as Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in South Africa during the early months of the Second Boer War. On 28th March 1879, at the Battle of Hlobane, on three separate occasions, he carried on his horse men who had been dismounted while being hotly pursued by Zulus.


Another campaign that saw a considerable number of VCs being awarded was the Second Boer War. There were 78 awards between 1899 and 1902, including that to Private Charles Ward of The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. On 26th June 1900, at Lindley, he was part of a small picket that found itself surrounded on three sides by about 500 Boers. With both officers and all but six of the men having been killed or wounded, Ward offered to take a message asking for reinforcements, despite having to run 150 metres through a hail of bullets. Having reached safety, he chose to recross the fire-swept ground to assure the officer in charge that the message had been delivered, being severely wounded in the process.


Posthumous Awards


When the VC was first instituted, it had been decided that it would not be awarded for an act in which the potential recipient was killed, or where he died shortly after. In such circumstances, an announcement was normally made in 'The London Gazette' that the person would have been recommended for the VC had they survived. Between 1859 and 1897 there were six such instances, including those of Lieutenants Nevill Coghill and Teignmouth Melvill, who were killed whilst attempting to save their regiment's Queen's Colour at the Battle of Isandlwana, during the Zulu War on 22nd January 1879.


Lieutenant Frederick Roberts of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps was the first person to receive the Victoria Cross posthumously

On 15th December 1899, at the Battle of Colenso, during the Second Boer War, Lieutenant Frederick Roberts of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps was mortally wounded whilst attempting to save the guns of the 14th and 66th Batteries, Royal Field Artillery. He died 24 hours after being recommended for the VC, which was nonetheless granted posthumously, setting a precedent. During the remainder of the war, several more posthumous VCs were granted, and in 1907, it was announced that the six posthumous instances between 1859 and 1897 would also be retrospectively awarded. To this day, slightly less than a quarter of the total number of VCs that have been awarded were granted posthumously.


World War One


World War One was to see the largest number of VC recipients for one campaign, with 628 awards. The first two went to members of the 4th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers on the first day of the Battle of Mons - the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force. On 23rd August 1914, Lieutenant Maurice Dease was in charge of a company that was defending the Nimy Bridge. Dease personally took control of a machine gun after all its crew had been knocked out, and continued to fire despite being wounded several times until he was finally killed. With the order to retreat having been given, Private Sidney Godley offered to cover the rest of his section by staying behind to man the machine gun single-handedly. Despite being wounded, he held on for two hours until he was forced to surrender, though not before he had dismantled the gun and thrown it into the canal.


Lieutenant Maurice Dease VC

A typical act of selfless courage was that displayed by Private William McFadzean of The Royal Irish Rifles at Thiepval on 1st July 1916 - the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Whilst part of a group of bombardiers tasked with priming hand grenades in preparation for an attack, he noticed that a box of grenades had fallen into a crowded trench and two of the grenades' safety pins had become dislodged. With little time to react, and knowing that a large number of his colleagues would surely be killed, he threw himself onto the grenades, smothering the explosion but sacrificing himself in the process.


Among a number of VCs awarded to members of the Royal Navy was that awarded posthumously to Major Francis Harvey of the Royal Marine Light Infantry. At the Battle of Jutland on 31st May 1916, whilst serving as a gunnery officer on HMS Lion, he was mortally wounded when his gun turret received a direct hit. Yet, with great presence of mind, he ordered the gun’s magazine to be flooded seconds before he succumbed to his injuries. With his dying act, he prevented a catastrophic detonation that would surely have destroyed the vessel and the more than 1,000 men aboard her.


Second Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse VC

Second Lieutenant William Rhodes-Moorhouse, of No. 2 Squadron Royal Flying Corps, was the first airman to be awarded the VC. On 26th April 1915, whilst carrying out a bombing raid on a railway junction at Kortrijk, in Belgium, he was seriously wounded after coming under heavy ground fire, which also damaged his aircraft. Despite being hit again and receiving further wounds, he managed to get his aircraft back and insisted on making his report before being taken to the Casualty Clearing Station. He died the next day.

 

References


Duckers, P. (2005). The Victoria Cross. Shire Publications Ltd.

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