The Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross (VC), Britain’s best known military award was established 160 years ago today, the 29th January 1856. It is Britain’s highest military decoration awarded for valour in the face of the enemy. 1,358 medals have been awarded with 1,355 individuals being decorated. Three recipients have won the medal twice, this sees the individual award an additional clasp, this called the VC and Bar. Only three men have won the VC twice: doctors Noel Chavasse and Arthur Martin-Leake and New Zealander Charles Upham.
The VC was created as an award for British servicemen of all ranks following an outcry from the public to recognise the heroism being reported by William Russell newspaper dispatches from the Crimea. Prior to this bravery was often rewarded by promotion, orders of chivalry or gifts - most commonly among officers. However, by this time other countries had instituted awards such as the Legion of Honour introduced by Napoleon in 1802. Following the end of the Crimean War Queen Victoria ordered the War Office to create a new medal for valour in January 1856. One suggestion for the name of the new decoration was The Military Order of Victoria however, this was dropped in favour of the simpler name, Victoria Cross.
The casting of a simple medal was ordered that would recognise neither birth nor class. The medals were ordered to be cast from the bronze cascabel’s of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastopol. Each medal weighs approximately 50 ounces, one of the original cascabels remains (see image #2). However, there has been some investigation into the true origin of the bronze, with Chinese cannons being found to be the actual source. However, it’s unknown if these were captured from the Russians or had been taken from the Chinese earlier during the Opium Wars. Regardless of the bronze’s source the same metal has been used in the casting of VCs for 160 years.
Diagram showing a cannon’s cascabel (source)
The remaining block of bronze (see image #2) weighs 358 oz (10 kg) and is stored in a Royal Logistics Corps vault and is only removed under armed guard. An estimated 85 more VCs can be cast from the remaining bronze. The medals have a red ribbon (although until 1919 the VCs awarded to members of the Royal Navy were dark blue) and have the crown of Saint Edward, a lion and the inscription ‘For Valour’ which was chosen by Queen Victoria. The recipient is also paid an additional lifetime pension, which for private soldiers during the 19th century was very rare.
The first medal was awarded to Charles Lucas of the Royal Navy for his heroism in August 1854. Lucas was aboard the HMS Hecla during the bombardment of the Russian fortress of Bomarsund when a shell from the fortress landed on the Hecla’s deck before it could explode Lucas picked up the shell and threw it over to the ship’s side. Lucas was promoted and upon the recommendation of Admiral Charles Napier he was retroactively awarded the first VC. 110 other VCs were awarded for heroic actions during the Crimean War.
The VC is awarded to those who have carried out an act of “ …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.” 111 medals were issued for the Crimean War, 182 for the Indian Mutiny, 23 for the Zulu War, 78 during the Boer War, 181 during the Second World War and a staggering 628 during World War One. However, for various reasons eight medals have been forfeited since 1861, for reasons varying from theft to bigamy. No recipient has had their VC forfeited since the 1920s.
The VC was initially awarded to all British subjects but since the formation of the Commonwealth member nations have moved to award their own decoration. Australia, Canada and New Zealand all award their own versions of the VC. The most recent British VC issued was awarded to Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey of the Parachute Regiment for gallantry while fighting in Afghanistan. Leakey was awarded his VC in February 2015 for organising medical evacuations, re-siting machine guns and engaging the enemy under heavy fire.