The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry that a British and Commonwealth serviceman can achieve. The Victoria Cross is forever linked with acts of extreme bravery and the original document associated with the medal stated that it could only be awarded for “gallantry of the highest order”.
The Victoria Cross had its origins in the Crimean War. This was the first major war that was reported on by war correspondents in the field. In this case, William Howard Russell of “The Times” reported on the bravery of the common soldier and pushed for a bravery award that could be given to the common soldier in recognition of his bravery. At this time, only senior officers were awarded medals for bravery as it was deemed that it was their leadership that drove men on to victory.
The House of Commons took up Russell’s idea. MP’s from the Commons decided, on December 19th, 1854, that the Queen, Victoria, should create a medal: “an order of merit for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry to which every grade and individual from the highest to the lowest may be admissible.”
Senior military figures were against such a medal. They believed that the strength of the British Army lay in its ability to fight in formations on the command of an officer. There was a concern that individuals might engage in acts of individual bravery (in an attempt to win the medal) and break the strength of a formation in doing so. However, the idea had one major supporter – Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria.
His support for the medal quickly won the backing of Victoria herself. The objections of senior military commanders were overridden. Victoria and Albert ordered the War Office to come up with an idea for such a medal and Prince
Albert suggested its name – the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross was meant to have a simple design though in an era when medals for bravery were anything but simple, the design won few friends in the media of the time. “The Times” called the medal “poor looking and mean in the extreme.” The first one was made to the specifications of Prince Albert who wanted a “simple cross”. It is said that Victoria was delighted by the final version – she added a V to link the medal ribbon to the medal itself.
The bronze for the Victoria Cross came from a captured Chinese-made cannon used by the Russians at Sebastopol during the Crimean War. What is left of the metal is kept at the army base DSDC Donnington, in Telford, Shropshire. Today, there is only enough metal left for 80 more medals. The London jewellers Hancocks, based in the Burlington Arcade in London, make the medals. The bronze has always been unstable to work with as it
has already been worked on when the cannon was made. Hancock’s have seven medals in storage but without the name and rank of the recipient and date on the back, they have no intrinsic value except their novelty. In World War Two, Hancock’s charged the armed forces the equivalent of £1.50 for a medal that today can fetch £200,000 at auction.
Since its inception, 1,357 Victoria Crosses have been awarded for outstanding acts of heroism. Sixteen VC winners are alive today. Three fathers and sons have won the medal.
Two VC’s were awarded were during the Falklands War – both posthumously – to Lieutenant Colonel ‘H’ Jones and to Sergeant Ian MacKay, both of the Parachute Regiment. One VC was awarded to Private Johnson Beharry in 2005 for courage in the second Gulf War against Iraq. Another was awarded to Corporal Willie Apiata from the New Zealand SAS for valour shown in Afghanistan in 2004. Only three men have ever been awarded two VC’s.