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 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War. Since then, the medal has been awarded 1,357 times to 1,354 individual recipients.
Only 14 medals, ten to members of the British Army, and four to the Australian Army, have been awarded since the Second World War.
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 29 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 26 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 barrels of the cannon in question are on display at Firepower - The Royal Artillery Museum at Woolwich. 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 decoration is a bronze cross pattée, 41 mm high, 36 mm wide, bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion, and the inscription FOR VALOUR. 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.
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.
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 1 April 1918.
On 22 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.
In all 46 awards have been awarded by ballot with 29 of the awards during the Indian Mutiny. Four further awards were granted to Q Battery, Royal Horse Artillery at Korn Spruit on 31 March 1900 during the Second Boer War. The final ballot awards for the Army were the six awards to the Lancashire Fusiliers at W Beach during the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 although three of the awards were not gazetted until 1917. The final seven ballot awards were the only naval ballot awards with three awards to two Q-Ships in 1917 and four awards for the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918. The provision for awards by ballot is still included in the Victoria Cross warrant but there have been no further such awards since 1918.
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.
Six such awards were made during this period—five of them for a single incident during an Expedition to the Andaman Islands in 1867.
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.
The Victoria Cross was extended to colonial troops in 1867. The extension was made following a recommendation for gallantry regarding colonial soldier Major Charles Heaphy for action in the New Zealand land wars in 1864.
He was operating under British command and the VC was gazetted in 1867. Later that year, the Government of New Zealand assumed full responsibility for operations but no further recommendations for the Victoria Cross were raised for local troops who distinguished themselves in action.
Following gallant actions by three New Zealand soldiers in November 1868 and January 1869 during the New Zealand land wars, an Order in Council on 10 March 1869 created a "Distinctive Decoration" for members of the local forces without seeking permission from the Secretary of State for the Colonies.
Although the Governor was chided for exceeding his authority, the Order in Council was ratified by the Queen. The title "Distinctive Decoration" was later replaced by the title New Zealand Cross
The question of whether recommendations could be made for colonial troops not serving with British troops was not asked in New Zealand, but in 1881, the question was asked in South Africa. Surgeon John McCrea, an officer of the South African forces was recommended for gallantry during hostilities which had not been approved by British Government. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and the principle was established that gallant conduct could be rewarded independently of any political consideration of military operations. More recently, four Australian soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross in Vietnam although Britain was not involved in the conflict.
Indian troops were not originally eligible for the Victoria Cross since they had been eligible for the Indian Order of Merit since 1837 which was the oldest British gallantry award for general issue. When the Victoria Cross was created, Indian troops were still controlled by the Honourable East India Company and did not come under Crown control until 1860. European officers and men serving with the Honourable East India Company were not eligible for the Indian Order of Merit and the Victoria Cross was extended to cover them in October 1857. It was only at the end of the 19th century that calls for Indian troops to be awarded the Victoria Cross intensified. Indian troops became eligible for the award in 1911. The first awards to Indian troops appeared in the London Gazette on 7 December 1914 to Darwan Sing Negi and Khudadad Khan. Negi was presented with the Victoria Cross by King George V during a visit to troops in France. The presentation occurred on 5 December 1914 and he is one of a very few soldiers presented with his award before it appeared in the London Gazette
As the highest award for valour of the United Kingdom, the Victoria Cross is always the first award to be presented at an investiture, even before knighthoods, as was shown at the investiture of Private Johnson Beharry who received his medal before General Sir Mike Jackson received his knighthood.
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.
In 1900 it was ordained in Dress Regulations for the Army that it should be worn after the cross of a Member of the Royal Victorian Order. It was only in 1902 that King Edward VII gave the cross its present position on a bar brooch.
The cross is also worn as a miniature decoration on a brooch or a chain with mess jacket, white tie or black tie.
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 26 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.
A total of 1,357 Victoria Crosses have been awarded since 1856 to 1,354 men.
There are several statistics related to the greatest number of VCs awarded in individual battles or wars.
The greatest number of Victoria Crosses won on a single day is 18, for deeds performed on 16 November 1857, during Second Relief of Lucknow (primarily the assault on and capture of Sikandar Bagh), during the Indian Mutiny.
The greatest number won in a single action is 28, for the whole of the Second Relief of Lucknow, 14–22 November 1857.
The greatest number won by a single unit during a single action is seven, to the 2nd/24th Foot, for the defence of Rorke's Drift, 22–23 January 1879, during the Zulu War.
The greatest number won in a single conflict is 628, being for the First World War.
There are only five living holders of the VC—three British, one Australian, one Gurkha—one award for the Second World War and four awards since; in addition one New Zealander holds the Victoria Cross for New Zealand and three Australians hold the Victoria Cross for Australia.
Eight of the then-twelve surviving holders of the Victoria Cross attended the 150th Anniversary service of remembrance at Westminster Abbey on 26 June 2006.
In 1921 the Victoria Cross was given to the American Unknown Soldier of the First World War (the British Unknown Warrior was reciprocally awarded the US Medal of Honor).
One VC is in existence that is not counted in any official records.
In 1856, Queen Victoria laid the first Victoria Cross beneath the foundation stone of Netley Military hospital.
When the hospital was demolished in 1966 the VC, known as "The Netley VC", was retrieved and is now on display in the Army Medical Services Museum, Mytchett, near Aldershot.
Three people have been awarded the VC and Bar, the bar representing a second award of the VC. They are: Noel Chavasse and Arthur Martin-Leake, both doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps, for rescuing wounded under fire; and New Zealander Charles Upham, an infantryman, for combat actions.
Upham remains the only combatant soldier to have received a VC and Bar. An Irishman, Surgeon General William Manley, remains the sole recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Iron Cross.
The VC was awarded for his actions during the Waikato-Hauhau Maori War, New Zealand on 29 April 1864 while the Iron Cross was awarded for tending the wounded during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71.
New Zealand Flying Officer Lloyd Trigg has the distinction of being the only serviceman ever awarded a VC on evidence solely provided by the enemy, for an action in which there were no surviving Allied witnesses.
The recommendation was made by the captain of the German U-boat U-468 sunk by Trigg's aircraft. Lieutenant Commander Gerard Roope was also awarded a VC on recommendation of the enemy, the captain of the Admiral Hipper, but there were also numerous surviving Allied witnesses to corroborate his actions.
Since the end of the Second World War the original VC has been awarded 13 times: four in the Korean War, one in the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation in 1965, four to Australians in the Vietnam War, two during the Falklands War in 1982, one in the Iraq War in 2004, and two in the War in Afghanistan in 2006.
The three awards given in the 21st century to British personnel have been for actions in the Afghanistan War and the Iraq War.
On 18 March 2005, Lance Corporal (then Private) Johnson Beharry of the 1st Battalion, Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment became the first recipient of the VC since Sergeant Ian McKay in 1982.
One of the most recent award of the Victoria Cross to a British service person was the posthumous award on 14 December 2006 to Corporal Bryan Budd of 3 Para. It was awarded for two separate acts of "inspirational leadership and the greatest valour" which led to his death, during actions against the Taliban in Afghanistan in July and August 2006.
Another Victoria Cross has been awarded in March 2013 to British Lance Corporal James Ashworth, who showed a courage "beyond words" during a fierce battle with the Taliban in Helmand's Nahr-e Saraj district, Afghanistan, and was fatally wounded as a result.
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