The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration awarded for valour "in the face of the enemy" to members of the armed forces of various Commonwealth countries, and previous British Empire territories.
It takes precedence over all other orders, decorations and medals.
It may be awarded to a person of any rank in any service and to civilians under military command.
The VC is usually presented to the recipient or to their next of kin by the British monarch at an investiture held at Buckingham Palace.
The VC was introduced on 29th January, 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Since then, the medal has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients.
The traditional explanation of the source of the gunmetal from which the medals are struck is that it derives from Russian cannon captured at the siege of Sevastopol. Recent research has thrown doubt on this story, suggesting a variety of origins for the material actually making up the medals themselves.
Research has established that the gunmetal for many of the medals came from Chinese cannons that may have been captured from the Russians in 1855.
In 1854, after 40 years of peace, Britain found itself fighting a major war against Russia. The Crimean War was one of the first wars with modern reporting, and the dispatches of William Howard Russell described many acts of bravery and valour by British servicemen that went unrewarded.
Before the Crimean War, there was no official standardised system for recognition of gallantry within the British armed forces. Officers were eligible for an award of one of the junior grades of the Order of the Bath and brevet promotions whilst a Mention in Despatches existed as an alternative award for acts of lesser gallantry. This structure was very limited; in practice awards of the Order of the Bath were confined to officers of field rank.
Brevet promotions or Mentions in Despatches were largely confined to those who were under the immediate notice of the commanders in the field, generally members of the commander's own staff.
Other European countries had awards that did not discriminate against class or rank; France awarded the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour) and The Netherlands gave the Order of William.
There was a growing feeling amongst the public and in the Royal Court that a new award was needed to recognise incidents of gallantry that were unconnected with a man's lengthy or meritorious service. Queen Victoria issued a Warrant under the Royal sign-manual on 29th January, 1856 (gazetted 5 February 1856) that officially constituted the VC.
The order was backdated to 1854 to recognise acts of valour during the Crimean War.
Queen Victoria had instructed the War Office to strike a new medal that would not recognise birth or class. The medal was meant to be a simple decoration that would be highly prized and eagerly sought after by those in the military services.
To maintain its simplicity, Queen Victoria, under the guidance of Prince Albert, vetoed the suggestion that the award be called The Military Order of Victoria and instead suggested the name Victoria Cross. The original warrant stated that the Victoria Cross would only be awarded to soldiers who have served in the presence of the enemy and had performed some signal act of valour or devotion.
The first ceremony was held on 26th June, 1857 where Queen Victoria invested 62 of the 111 Crimean recipients in a ceremony in Hyde Park.
It was originally intended that the VCs would be cast from the bronze cascabels of two cannon that were captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopol. The remaining portion of the only remaining cascabel, weighing 358 oz (10 kg), is stored in a vault maintained by 15 Regiment Royal Logistic Corps at Donnington, Telford. It can only be removed under armed guard. It is estimated that approximately 80 to 85 more VCs could be cast from this source. A single company of jewellers, Hancocks of London, has been responsible for the production of every VC awarded since its inception.
The Original Warrant Clause 1 states that the Victoria Cross "shall consist of a Maltese cross of bronze".
Nonetheless, it has always been a cross pattée; the discrepancy with the Warrant has never been corrected.
On 22nd May, 1920 King George V signed a warrant that stated all recipients would now receive a red ribbon and the living recipients of the naval version were required to exchange their ribbons for the new colour.
Although the Army warrants state the colour as being red it is defined by most commentators as being crimson or "wine-red"
The Victoria Cross is 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.
A recommendation for the VC 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.
The recommendation is then laid before the monarch who approves the award with his or her signature.
Victoria Cross awards are always promulgated in the London Gazette with the single exception of the award to the American Unknown Soldier in 1921.
The Victoria Cross warrant makes no specific provision as to who should actually present the medals to the recipients. Queen Victoria indicated that she would like to present the medals in person and she presented 185 medals out of the 472 gazetted during her reign. Including the first 62 medals presented at a parade in Hyde Park on 26 June 1857 by Queen Victoria, nearly 900 awards have been personally presented to the recipient by the reigning British monarch. Nearly 300 awards have been presented by a member of the royal family or by a civil or military dignitary. About 150 awards were either forwarded to the recipient or next of kin by registered post or no details of the presentations are known.
The original Royal Warrant did not contain a specific clause regarding posthumous awards, although official policy was not to award the VC posthumously.
Between the Indian Mutiny in 1857 and the beginning of the Second Boer War the names of six officers and men were published in the London Gazette with a memorandum stating they would have been awarded the Victoria Cross had they survived.
A further three notices were published in the London Gazette in September 1900 and April 1901 for gallantry in the Second Boer War. In a partial reversal of policy, six posthumous Victoria Crosses, all for South Africa including the three officers and men mentioned in the notices in 1900 and 1901 were granted on 8 August 1902. Five years later in 1907, the posthumous policy was completely reversed and medals were sent to the next of kin of the six officers and men.
The awards were mentioned in notices in the Gazette dating back to the Indian Mutiny. The Victoria Cross warrant was not amended to explicitly allow posthumous awards until 1920, but one quarter of all awards for World War I were posthumous.
Although the 1920 Royal Warrant made provision for awards to women serving in the Armed Forces, no women have been awarded a VC.
In the case of a gallant and daring act being performed by a squadron, ship's company or a detached body of men (such as marines) in which all men are deemed equally brave and deserving of the Victoria Cross then a ballot is drawn. The officers select one officer, the NCOs select one individual and the private soldiers or seamen select two individuals.
Between 1858 and 1881 the Victoria Cross could be awarded for actions taken "under circumstances of extreme danger" not in the face of the enemy.
In 1881, the criteria were changed again and the VC was only awarded for acts of valour "in the face of the enemy".
Since 1940, military personnel who have distinguished themselves for gallantry not in the face of the enemy have been awarded the George Cross, which is immediately after the VC in the Order of Wear.
Due to its status, the VC is always the first decoration worn in a row of medals and it is the first set of post-nominal letters used to indicate any decoration or order.
Similar acts of extreme valour that do not take place in the face of the enemy are honoured with the George Cross, which has equal precedence but is awarded second because the GC is newer.
There is a widespread though erroneous belief that it is statutory for "all ranks to salute a bearer of the Victoria Cross".
There is no official requirement that appears in the official Warrant of the VC, nor in Queen's Regulations and Orders, but tradition dictates that this occurs and as such the Chiefs of Staff will salute a Private awarded a VC or GC.
The Victoria Cross was at first worn as the recipient fancied. It was popular to pin it on the left side of the chest over the heart, with other decorations grouped around the VC. The Queen's Regulations for the Army of 1881 gave clear instructions on how to wear it; the VC had to follow the badge of the Order of the Indian Empire.
The original warrant stated that NCOs and private soldiers or seamen on the Victoria Cross Register were entitled to a £10 per annum annuity.
In 1898, Queen Victoria raised the pension to £50 for those that could not earn a livelihood, be it from old age or infirmity.
Today holders of the Victoria Cross or George Cross are entitled to an annuity, the amount of which is determined by the awarding government.
The original Royal Warrant involved an expulsion clause that allowed for a recipient's name to be erased from the official register in certain wholly discreditable circumstances and his pension cancelled.
King George V felt very strongly that the decoration should never be forfeited and in a letter from his Private Secretary, Lord Stamfordham, on 26th July 1920, his views are forcibly expressed:
The King feels so strongly that, no matter the crime committed by anyone on whom the VC has been conferred, the decoration should not be forfeited. Even were a VC to be sentenced to be hanged for murder, he should be allowed to wear his VC on the scaffold.
The power to cancel and restore awards is still included in the Victoria Cross warrant but none has been forfeited since 1908.
Materials: The majority of the British medals and clasps are made of solid silver, though some were issue in bronze versions, mainly to Indian non-combatants. The majority of the British campaign awards are circular, usually 36mm in diameter.
Ribbons: Medals are worn suspended from their own specific ribbons. These were first made of silk but cotton was increasingly used as the nineteenth century developed. Their own colours often have a symbolic significance: the equal stripes of the ‘1939 to 1945 Star,’ for example, are dark blue to represent the service of the Royal and Merchant Navies, red, to represent that of the Armies and light blue to represent that of Air Forces.
Ribbon width can vary slightly though it is generally 32mm wide.
Ribbon – The ribbon is crimson, 38 mm (1.5 inches) wide. The original (1856) specification for the award stated that the ribbon should be red for army recipients and dark blue for naval recipients.
However the dark blue ribbon was abolished soon after the formation of the Royal Air Force on 1st April, 1918.
Type – Military decoration
Eligibility – Persons of any rank in the Naval, Military and Air Forces of the United Kingdom, its colonies or territories, and Commonwealth countries that award UK honours
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.”
Established – 29th January 1856
Designer – Queen Victoria
Suspender – Straight
Post-nominals - VC
Naming – 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 on which the date of the act for which it was awarded is engraved in the centre.
Total Awarded – 1,358
Clasps – One
Description – The decoration is a bronze cross pattée, 41 mm high, 36 mm wide, the obverse bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion, and the inscription “FOR VALOUR” on a semi-circular scroll. This was originally to have been “FOR THE BRAVE,” until it was changed on the recommendation of Queen Victoria, as it implied that not all men in battle were brave.
The decoration, suspension bar and link weigh about 0.87 troy ounces (27 g).
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 on which the date of the act for which it was awarded is engraved in the centre.
Clasps are usually referred to as ‘bars’. They are single-faced metal bars carried on a ribbon attached to the medal, indicating the recipient’s service in a particular campaign or battle. The clasps carry side flanges to enable them to be attached to the medal and riveted to each other, so that new ones can be attached as earned. Usually the first earned Clasp is closest to the medal, so that the latest earned should be at the top, although they can be found in the wrong order.
A total of 3 people have won the Victoria Cross twice. This is shown by the term "VC and Bar". The recipient does not wear two Victoria Cross medals, but wears a small bar across the VC medal's ribbon.
Major L L Gordon ‘British Battles and Medals’
Medal Year Book 2006
Military Honours and Awards". Defence Internet. UK Ministry of Defence. Retrieved 30 January 2007
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