Victoria Cross Created

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Victoria Cross Created

London The 29th of January 1856 AD

While other nations conferred honours regardless of rank on those who had performed particular acts of heroism, no such system existed for British forces until after the Crimean War .

France, for example, bestowed the Legion d’Honneur on her heroes. Britain until 1856 limited recognition for heroic acts in the face of the enemy to mentions in despatches, brevet promotions (promotions in the field), and for Majors and above membership of the Order of the Bath at varying levels. This latter honour and mentions in despatches tended to be given to staff officers as they alone were in sight of the field commanders deciding on the award.

The Crimean campaign was widely reported on in the newspapers, and pressure grew to democratize the system of awards as the heroism of junior ranks under fire was contrasted with the frequent idiocy of higher ranks at headquarters. Queen Victoria herself was very taken with the idea, and her consort Albert became a driving force to bring it about. In December 1854 Thomas Scobell, a Liberal MP and former naval Captain, moved a motion in the Commons for a medal to be awarded for “distinguished and prominent personal gallantry”.

Scobell’s idea was seized upon by the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for War, and his successor, Lord Panmure. On January 29 1856 Queen Victoria signed a Royal Warrant recognizing the Victoria Cross. The Civil Service had wanted to call the honour “The Military Order of Victoria”, but the Queen and her consort insisted that the thing be kept simple, rejecting the word “order” with its aristocratic overtones.

The medal itself was kept simple, a cross with a red ribbon, and the words “For valour” inscribed upon it (Victoria was said to have vetoed the wording “For Bravery” as it might have indicated non-recipients had not acted bravely).

The Victoria Cross is given for conspicuous gallantry in the face of the enemy, a requirement that led to the later creation of the George Cross, where the act of heroism does not require the presence of the enemy.

The VC was struck in 1856 by the London jewellers Hancock’s of Bruton Street, who have made every British VC since then. It was decided to use the metal from the cascabels of two Russian guns captured at Sevastopol (cascabels are the cannon-ball looking pieces at the non-business end of an old fashioned cannon), so the VC has been made from that bronze ever since – part of one is still available for use, kept in the vault of the Royal Logistics Corp at Donnington in Telford. By order it may only be removed under armed guard.

While the VC is awarded regardless of rank it has to be approved by the reigning monarch, after nomination by other survivors of the action in question – remarkably one recipient, New Zealander Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg, was nominated by the captain of the U-Boat he sank.

Since the first awards (backdated to 1854 to allow for Crimean veterans to be nominated) presented by Victoria on June 26 1857, 1357 have been awarded (as of December 28 2007). Incredibly there have been four men who have received the VC and bar (that is, been given the VC twice). Until 1905 the award could not be made posthumously and equally invidiously until 1914 no Indian or African serviceman was given the award – they were not even allowed to be nominated until a few years before that.

The VC is of such significance that it is always the first mentioned after the recipient’s name (for example, an MBE would be listed after the VC). At awards ceremonies it takes precedence over all other honours, even knighthoods. And the VC is held in such high esteem by the services that, while not required to do so in regulations, all ranks will by tradition salute the holder of a VC, leading to the incongruous but truly merited sight of even the Chief of Staff saluting a private who has been given the medal.

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On this day:
Richard III becomes king of England - 1483, Corn Laws abolished - 1846, Berlin Airlift begins - 1948, Britons Slaughtered in Tunisia - 2015
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