History & Origin Story of the Victoria Cross (VC)
The Victoria Cross (VC), without a doubt, has been the most desired honor for all members of the British Armed Forces since it was created in the mid-19th century.
The honor traces its roots to the reign of the British Empire and has maintained its prestige and value for centuries. It is arguably the most esteemed award in the British Honors System.
VC medals may be awarded to all members of the British Armed Forces who display the highest bravery and gallantry in the presence of adversaries.
Although it was created at time when the British Empire was in its ascendency, the award has endured to this day.
History & Origin Story of the Victoria Cross (VC)
The Victoria Cross was birthed in 1854, when the British and her allies locked horn with the Russian Empire in the Crimean War (1853-1856).
However, before the Crimean War, it was evident that the British needed a well-standardized award system for its armed forces and war heroes. At the time, military officers could only earn the Order of the Bath, brevet promotions, and honorable mention in dispatches. These honors were very limited. For example, only field officers could earn the Order of the Bath honor. The remaining two honors were mostly awarded to officers directly under the commanding general’s supervision. Indeed, the awards favored high-ranked military officers. It was hard to find low-ranked officers or normal service members who had shown great bravery and courage to earn these awards.
As a result, there was the need to create a new award that would honor individuals for their bravery without considering their rank and class.
Between 1850 and 1856, several British political leaders, including Henry Pelham Clinton (fifth Duke of Newcastle), Prince Albert (Consort of Queen Victoria), and Lord Panmure (War Secretary of Britain between 1855 and 1858), extensively discussed the matter with Queen Victoria (1819-1901). During their discussions, it was agreed that the new honor would be named after Queen Victoria.
After discussions with Prince Albert in January 1856, the Queen finally accepted the suggestion. On January 29, 1856, she officially signed a Royal Warrant for the institution of the Victoria Cross. The VC warrant became official on February 5, 1856. However, the warranted date was switched to 1954, so the Queen could award brave and heroic soldiers of the Crimean War.
READ MORE: Notable Accomplishments of Queen Victoria
The Victoria Cross may be awarded to any person who has displayed the most daring act of bravery, self-sacrifice, heroism, and extraordinary dedication to service in the enemy’s presence.
Regardless of rank, all civilians and armed forces members are eligible to earn the VC. Three or more people should witness these acts before they can be accepted. However, the latter has sometimes been overlooked.
It is worth noting that in the first VC warrant, women were not eligible for the honor. It was only in 1920, that women serving in the Armed Forces became eligible for the VC honor after a royal warrant was issued by King George V.
Did you know: As of 2022, the VC honor has been awarded to seven civilians, with the first civilian, Thomas Kavanagh, receiving the honor in 1857?
Ever since it was instituted, the VC medal has been made by hands by the London-based jewelers Hancocks & Co.
The VC medal has a cross pattée that measures almost 1.4 inches wide. The inscription on the VC is ‘For Valor’. The Queen Victoria had the original inscription changed from ‘For Bravery’ to ‘For Valor’ as way to not to imply that non-VC recipients weren’t brave. The Queen considered all service personnel of hers brave.
There are some who say that the first 111 VC medals (given to heroes of the Crimean War) were made from the melted guns that were seized from Russian soldiers at the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.
Can a person be given the Cross posthumously?
When the VC was introduced in 1856, its corresponding warrant did not explicitly make provisions for posthumous awards. There was also an official policy between 1856 and 1919 that did not permit VC awards to be given to service persons that were deceased.
However, in 1902, the reigning British monarch, King Edward VII, made a decree that the VC award could be honored to both living and dead brave individuals. Since then, many deceased people have been honored with the VC honor.
Perhaps the most famous person to receive the VC posthumously is A.S.K. Scarf, the RAF Squadron leader who distinguished himself gallantly in a number of Far East battles in the Second World War. In 1946, Scarf’s widow, Elizabeth Scarf, received the honor [from King Georg VI at Buckingham Palace] on behalf of her deceased husband.
On Monday, December 9, 1941, Royal Air Force pilot Scarf led an air raid on Singora, Malaya. Not long after he had taken off, he was given a fierce pursuit by an enemy aircraft. The brave pilot managed to shake off attacks and complete his mission. En route to his base, his aircraft was struck by an enemy fire, resulting in him sustaining life-threating injuries. Scarf was left with no other choice but to crash land his aircraft. Sadly, the brave RAF pilot succumbed to his injuries just a few hours after he had been rushed to the hospital.
Other military men that received the VC posthumously include:
- Lieutenant Philip Curtis for his heroism at the Battle of Imjin (April 1951) in the Korean War.
- Kevin Arthur Wheatley, an Australian soldier who distinguished himself bravely during the Vietnam War. The soldier was one of four Australians to be honored with a VC in the entirety of the Vietnam War.
- British Army officer Colonel Herbert Jones received the VC for his heroics during the Falklands War.
- Corporal Bryan Budd, a British soldier who died in 2006 while serving in the Afghanistan War.
The VC in Commonwealth Nations
The VC undoubtedly remains the UK’s most prestigious honor for gallantry and has equal honor in a number of Commonwealth nations that the British monarch serves as ceremonial head, including Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. These nations currently have independent VC awards. Thus, there is the Victoria Cross for Australia, the Canadian Victoria Cross, and the Victoria Cross for New Zealand. However, the eligibility requirement for these honors are the same as Britain’s VC.
Procedure for awarding the Victoria Cross
- Firstly, a military officer of the regiment rank or any officer of an equal rank names the potential VC honorees in a report.
A poll is taken among high-ranking officers to select VC honorees in a situation where many men perform bravery acts worthy of a VC honor at the same time and place, for example, marines on a ship.
- The officer’s report is then forwarded to the Secretary of State for Defense.
- The Secretary then sends the report to the office of the royal family. Finally, the reigning monarch may confirm and approve the VC honor of the recipient with a signature.
Majority of the ceremonies for honoring the VC have been held at Buckingham Palace. In addition, the British monarch has awarded and presented the most VC decorations.
Holders of the VC honor are allowed to add V.C. after their name.
Victoria Cross versus George Cross
The Victoria Cross stands in a class of its own when it comes to the honors that a British soldier can receive. The honor rubs shoulders with the George Cross, which was instituted in 1940 by King George VI, the great-grand son of Queen Victoria.
Like the George Cross, the VC neither discriminates on the basis of rank nor color, race or gender. This explains why the recipients of VC over the centuries have hailed from a multitude of social backgrounds from all over what was the former British Empire and Commonwealth Nations.
How the VC got its crimson ribbon
Prior to getting its distinctive crimson ribbon, the VC had different color ribbons for the various branches of the military. Recipients from the Royal Navy received a VC with a dark blue ribbon, while the Army had crimson. King George V was the one who standardized the ribbon color of the VC, making it crimson for all three branches of the military.
Persons that have won the VC multiple times
There have been some exceptionally brave soldiers that have bagged the honor multiple times. For example, as of 2022, three people – Major Arthur Martin-Leake, Captain Charles Upham, and Captain Noel Chavasse – have received the VC two times. Chavasse and Martin-Leake were medical doctors who served doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps, with the former receiving two VC medals for brave actions in World War I.
Captain Charles Upham, a combat soldier, received his two VC medals for his bravery under enemy fire in the Second World War. His second VC medal came for his actions in the First Battle of El Alame in Egypt in July 1941.
An extra bar (clasp) is used to signify the second VC honor.
Read More: Top 10 Military Generals of World War One
Interesting Facts about the Victoria Cross
Established during the Crimean War by then-English monarch Queen Victoria, the Victoria Cross ranks above all other orders, medals and decorations in the British Honors System. Here a few more interesting facts about the cross:
- Queen Victoria always wanted the VC medals to look simple and yet be the highest decoration for members of the armed forces. As a result, she rejected the VC’s first name, “The Military Order of Victoria,” and chose “Victoria Cross” to keep it modest.
- It was the 1858 VC warrant that made it possible for non-military persons to be eligible for a VC honor. Since then, there has been more than 10 VC Royal Warrants.
- The Queen did not allow the phrase “For the Brave” to be written on the VC medals after she stated that all British soldiers fight bravely. She then chose “For Valor,” a traditional slogan for bravery, which should be written on them.
- Between 1858 and 1881, people could earn the VC for performing brave acts, whether outside or in the presence of an adversary. However, in 1881, the provision was changed and was only awarded to people who committed acts of bravery in enemy presence.
- Queen Victoria awarded the earliest set of VC medals on June 26, 1857. The Queen gave 62 VC decorations to honorees on that day at an event in Hyde Park in Westminster, London. It is said that the Queen sat on her horse for the entirety of the ceremony.
- As of 2022, no woman in history was a VC recipient.
- As of 2022, all VC recipients except for 27 people were British. These were two German citizens, thirteen Nepalese, three Danes, five Americans, a Swiss, a Ukrainian, and a Swede.
- A total of 626 and 181 VCs were given to brave service personnel that fought in the First World War and the Second World War, respectively.
- The VC medal has shown to be very valuable, raking in hundreds of thousands of dollars at auctions for the recipients’ families. For example, A.S.K. Scarf’s family sold his VC medal at an auction for a staggering £682,000.
Notable Victoria Cross recipients
As of 2022, the VC honor has been presented 1358 times. And between its inception and 2022, 1354 people have been bestowed upon the honor. Some of the notable VC recipients include:
Lucas was a native of County Monaghan, Ireland, and the first to receive the Victoria Cross. He was a crew member of the HMS Hecla during the Crimean War (1854). He earned the VC honors for grabbing a grenade that fell on the Hecla on June 21, 1854, and sharply throwing it a far distance overboard. His actions saved all the people on the ship.
Andrew Fitzgibbon was one of the youngest people to earn the Victoria Cross. During the Second Opium War (1856-1860), he was a hospital assistant at China’s Indian Medical Establishment. He earned the VC honor at only 15 years for bravely treating injured service members during the war despite intense enemy attacks and crossfires.
Lieutenant Frederick Roberts, the son of Field Marshal Lord Roberts, one of the leading military commanders of the Second Boer War (1899-1902), was posthumously given a VC medal. The honor was for his bravery shown during the War, which saw him lose his life after succumbing to battle injuries he had sustained at Colenso on December 15, 1899. The young soldier sustained those injuries as he tried to salvage weapons of his unit in the Royal Field Artillery. It was the first time the honor was awarded posthumously.
Upham is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding Kiwi soldiers in history. As of 2022, he remained the only warfighter to receive the Victoria Cross twice.
He earned his first honor for approaching enemy territory, taking out many opposition soldiers, and later rescuing a wounded soldier in Crete, Greece, in 1941. He received his second VC honor for defending his troops under serious enemy artillery for several hours in Egypt (1942).
General Sir Philip Neame
As of January 2023, he was the only Olympics champion to earn a VC honor.
During World War I, he worked in France for the Royal Engineers and earned the VC for throwing hand grenades at an advancing German army in December 1914. He then received his Olympic gold medal after he won the men’s running deer event at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Raynor received the VC at age 61 in 1857 and remained the oldest person to earn the medal as of 2022.
During the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858)– a failed attack against British rule in India, he was among nine soldiers who used bombs to destroy the “Delhi Magazine” artillery store when rebels were on the verge of securing it. Unfortunately, five of the soldiers died in the blast. However, Raynor survived and was later awarded the VC for his actions.
Joshua Mark Leakey
As of January 2023, Color Sergeant Joshua Mark Leakey was the last to receive the VC honor. He earned the VC on February 26, 2015. Leakey was awarded the VC for leading troops under heavy crossfire during a combined patrol of UK and US soldiers on a Taliban territory in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on August 22, 2013.
Leakey’s position as a lance corporal did not stop him from taking control of his unit when they came under intense enemy shots. During the attack, he created several evacuation routes for injured soldiers and helped treat their wounds. In addition, he re-positioned ammunition for his team, which enabled them to overpower their adversary and prevent many casualties.
Interesting facts about VC recipients
- As of 2022, the VC has been awarded thrice to people related as father and son. They are Earl Roberts and his son Frederick Roberts, Walter Congreve and his son W LA T Congreve, and Charles Gough and his son John Gough.
- Before 2023, the VC had been awarded to siblings on four occasions. Honorees included Charles Gough and H.H. Gough, R.W. Sartorius and E.H. Sartorius, A.B. Turner and V.B. Turner, and R.B. Bradford and G.N. Bradford.
- On July 1, 1980, the VC medal of the late Canadian officer Milton Gregg was stolen from the Royal Canadian Regiment. As of 2022, the medal was still not found.
There have been some instances where a VC holder to be stripped off his honor, especially in the case of a criminal offence. Between 1861 and 1908, eight men were stripped off their Victoria Cross honors. They included George Ravenhill, Thomas Lane, James McGuire, Michael Murphy, Edward St. John Daniel, Valentine Bambrick, Frederick Corbett, and James Collis. For example, George Ravenhill had his VC taken away after he was found guilty of theft. Then-reigning English monarch King George V intervened, stating that no VC holder should forfeit his/her VC because of a crime committed.