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The Victoria Cross

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The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest award given by Great Britain for bravery in battle. Its holders are a select band, and the history of the VC is one that highlights the extraordinary capabilities of the human spirit.

The First VC

The VC has its origins in the Crimean War - a particularly bloody conflict and also the first in which British journalists were able to report home on the rigours of battle, the effects of poor equipment, and the ravages of cholera and typhoid among the troops.

The rationale behind the award was that it should be available to all regardless of rank; all too often only officers (and mostly senior staff officers at that) received recognition for service in battle. The Distinguished Conduct medal had been made available to NCOs and other ranks in the 1850s, but there was a feeling that fair play was not being served.

Queen Victoria chose the design based on a gold-cross awarded in the Peninsular War, and in particular she decided on the motto 'For Valour'.

'Made from the Metal of Russian Guns'

The legend goes that the first VCs were made from the metal of Russian guns captured at the Siege of Sebastpol. Current theory, though, is that due to time constraints the metal used for the first medals came from some very un-Russian (probably Chinese) guns, which had been languishing in Woolwich arsenal for many years.

The hardness of the metal had an unforeseen impact: when attempts were made to strike the medal from blanks, they cracked, so it was decided to cast the medal instead. Casting gave higher relief and is a part of the character of the medal. The recipient's name and the date and details of the action are engraved on the reverse.

The process of selecting the first recipients proved just as problematic. Special committees were set up by the Army and Navy, with submissions being made by regiments - some more than others. In the end it took around a year to finalise the list of recipients, which was published in the London Gazette1 on 22 June, 1857 - a year after the end of the war and just four days before the planned award ceremony.

The Queen Stabs the First Recipient

The Queen dispensed the medals from horseback, awarding all 62 in only about ten minutes. Legend has it that one recipient, Commander Raby, received rather more than he had bargained for - the Queen managed to stick the pin through his uniform into his chest. True to the reputation of the award, he did not flinch.

The award brought with it a rather ungenerous pension of £10 per year, and the cross carried a plain ribbon (blue for the navy, later changed to match the original maroon of the army).

Victoria Cross Trivia

  • The largest number of VCs won in a single day was 24 at the relief of Lucknow on 16 November, 1857, during the Indian Mutiny.

  • During the First World War, 633 Victoria Crosses were awarded, of which over 180 were posthumous.

  • Until 1977 it was the only military award other than a mention in dispatches that could be made posthumously.

  • Only 12 have been awarded since 1945, of which two were in the Falklands campaign, one of which was the famous Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert 'H' Jones.

  • Three bars have been awarded (a bar is a second award of a medal to the same person).

  • Although the Royal Warrant allows only for an award for actions 'in the presence of the enemy', an amendment in force from 1858 to 1881 allowed for awards 'under circumstances of extreme danger' - of which six have been made.

  • The award is always published in the London Gazette - the only exception being the award made to America's Unknown Soldier buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The metal from which all VCs are now made - made, in fact, by the same firm, Hancocks of London - is kept at the Ordnance Depot at Donnington. It is all that remains after over 1300 awards of the cascabels2 of the original two cannon. The barrels of the cannon stand outside the Officers' Mess at Woolwich. Enough metal remains for around 85 more medals.

1The magazine in which all honours are published. Interestingly, the term 'gazetted' now refers to the publication of one's award in the magazine.2Large knobs at the breech end around which ropes were tied when moving the cannon.

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