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How the Victoria Cross Was Created

On June 24, 1854, eight months into the Crimean War, Vice Adm. Sir Charles Napier, commander of Britain’s Baltic Fleet, despatched three ships together with the picket paddleboat HMS Hecla to reconnoiter the channels and straits round the Russian fortress at Bomarsund in the Gulf of Bothnia.

As the three vessels labored their method by way of the Aland Islands towards the fort, they got here below fireplace from floor forces after which from the fort itself. Shots got here nearer and nearer to the ships till one well-aimed shell, its fuze nonetheless burning, landed on the eight-gun Hecla’s quarterdeck.

The heroic motion by Hecla’s Midshipman and Acting Mate, Charles Davis Lucas, that occurred subsequent prompted the creation in 1856 of one in all the world’s most well-known and coveted valor medals—Great Britain and the Commonwealth’s revered Victoria Cross.

No Awards For Ordinary Soldiers

Two days after Lucas’ bravery saved his ship and presumably a lot of his shipmates, he was promoted to full lieutenant, however notably was not then given any navy ornament or different award. The cause was that there was no appropriate award out there at the moment for recognizing conspicuous bravery displayed by the British preventing man—particularly these of decrease rank. The solely out there navy recognitions for his or her gallant deeds have been a promotion or a Mention in Dispatches. 

Yet, due to new nineteenth century know-how, equivalent to the telegraph and concurrent burgeoning proliferation of numbers and circulation copies of newspapers, information of the struggle and Lucas’ actions reached extra public readership than ever earlier than. Capturing widespread public consideration, information of Lucas’ exploits—and shortly of different Crimean War British heroes—unleashed a clamor demanding extra honor be given to the common preventing man.

Medals and Knighthoods—For a Few People

Medals, navy and in any other case, weren’t a brand new factor. A half-century earlier than the Crimean War and lengthy earlier than Lucas’ act of braveness, Napoleon himself famous that “a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”

Ancient Egypt honored prowess at arms not with “bits of colored ribbon” however with membership in navy orders, whereas Roman legionaries have been honored with numerous crowns equivalent to a naval crown awarded to the first man to board an enemy ship throughout battle. For centuries there have been chivalric awards of knighthood and membership in numerous aristocratic navy orders with their attendant sashes, stars, and badges. Britain’s Most Noble Order of the Garter was established in 1348 by Edward III, and King George I created the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1725; each are knighthood orders.

From left: Top distinctions in the British honors system embrace chivalric orders with medieval roots equivalent to the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Bath, each knighthoods that may be conferred for navy in addition to civic advantage. The Victoria Cross, the brainchild of Prince Albert, was a completely new idea for the British system and promoted equality.
(from left: British Museum (2); Department of National Defence, Canada)

The first award that would actually be referred to as “a medal” was the medal that John VIII Palaeologuscreated in Italy in 1438 and introduced to court docket officers in Milan, Ferrara, Naples, Mantua, and Rimini. France additionally produced medals in the fifteenth century, and the Netherlands awarded a medal in 1519. In Britain, Queen Elizabeth I issued a commemorative medal in 1588 to mark the defeat of the Spanish Armada that 12 months. Commemorative medals have been additionally awarded to veterans of Napoleon’s 1798 Battle of the Nile. Prussia’s Frederick William III created a precursor of the Allgemeines Ehrenzeichen in 1793 for peacetime advantage. 

Gen. George Washington, commander-in-chief of the Continental Army throughout the American Revolution, created the Badge for Military Merit in 1782. Awarded to 3 males, it was forgotten till 1932 when U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur created its rededication as the Purple Heart medal. America’s Medal of Honor, its highest valor ornament, was established by the War Department in July 1862 (December 1861 by the Navy Department) throughout the American Civil War. 

France’s Napoleon III established the inexperienced and yellow Medaille Militaire award in 1852, one in all the first awards made out there to noncommissioned officers. The French even introduced these medals to British troopers throughout the Crimean War. However, Britain lagged in the creation of a person medal for valor.

Enter the Crimean War

The Crimean War modified that. The struggle began in October 1853 between Russia and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire then). By March 1854, Britain and France had been swept into the battle on Turkey’s aspect. That summer time, the British Admiralty despatched Napier and his Baltic Fleet into the Baltic Sea.

In June, Lucas’ act of heroism was prompted by Napier’s dispatch of the warships Hecla, Odin, and Valorous below Capt. William H. Hall to reconnoiter the scattered islands and approaches to the 80-gun Russian fortress at Bomarsund. As the three vessels labored a slim channel close to the 1832 fortress and got here below fireplace, Hall, in an motion some in the Admiralty later referred to as “foolish,” returned fireplace and finally attacked the fortress itself.

Lucas was then accountable for the paddleboat’s eight weapons. When night arrived, the three ships, joined by the 46-gun HMS Arrogant, dropped anchor inside vary of the fortress and launched a bombardment that lasted into the early hours of the following morning. 

Lucas Saves the Day

During the peak of this bombardment, a reside shell landed on the Hecla’s higher deck—it’s timed fuze nonetheless burning its technique to ignite the shell’s internal explosive cost. Officers scrambled and shouted for his or her males to hit the deck.

Ignoring the shouts, Lucas grabbed the hissing, sputtering shell with each fingers, carried it to the rail, and threw it overboard. Before the shell reached the water, it exploded “with a tremendous roar.” That motion, Capt. Hall of the Hecla later reported, saved “dozens of lives if not the whole ship’s company.” Lucas’ heroics had saved the Hecla’s crew, though the ship suffered minor harm and two crewmen have been wounded.

Historian Glanfield explains in his e book about the Victoria Cross, Bravest of the Brave, that at the time “explosive shells were essentially hollowed cannon balls powder-filled and primitively fuzed” with fuzes “cut to length by its gunners according to range to ensure it exploded close on impact.” Lucas was himself a gunner, Glanfield wrote, and thus knew the dangers. He “was gambling on a miscalculation.” It was a bet he happily gained. British and French forces would lastly take the Bomarsund fortress and demolish it in August. 

This depiction of Charles Davis Lucas exhibits him hurling an explosive shell from the deck of his ship to save lots of these on board. The public demanded higher recognition for his braveness.
(National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Lucas, then age 20, was already a navy veteran. He was born in 1834 in Poyntzpass, County Armagh, in in the present day’s Northern Ireland and at age 13 joined the Royal Navy. He was praised by Hall for “a remarkable instance of coolness and presence of mind in action,” in Hall’s letter to Napier.

Clamor for odd heroes

By 1854, newspapers had proliferated. Samuel F. B. Morse had despatched the first telegraph message a decade earlier, on May 24, 1842. Consequently, the Crimean War was the first main battle coated by struggle correspondents who introduced the British public into virtually day by day contact with the struggle through telegraph. Correspondents equivalent to William Howard Russell of The Times included protection of frequent troopers and sailors.

The folks again residence learn of their newspapers of the struggling of their husbands, sons, and brothers, the inadequacies of the medical care they have been receiving, poor sanitation, and heroics. They devoured struggle studies together with information of the Bomarsund preventing and of Lucas’ gallantry on the Hecla. Both turned subjects of public dialog in pubs and on metropolis avenue corners all through the kingdom. 

“The war reports of Russell and other journalists,” historical past professor Orlando Figes wrote in 2010, “had brought to the attention of the British public the many acts of bravery by ordinary troops; [and] they had portrayed the suffering of the soldiers in heroic terms giving rise to a widespread feeling that a new reward was needed to recognize their deeds.” 

The Distinguished Conduct Medal for military enlisted males and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal for seamen have been shortly established however, Glanfield wrote, “failed to meet the demand for a single supreme award embracing all ranks and all arms.”

A New Award For All—Opposed By Some

Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, conscious of those information studies and of the public clamor they aroused—and maybe embarrassed by British troopers receiving the French Medaille Militaire—started drawing up specs in 1855 for a gallantry award he proposed to name the Military Order of Victoria (modified to Victoria Cross by the Queen). His proposal included 5 factors: {that a} small cross of advantage for private deeds of valor be established; that or not it’s open to all ranks; that or not it’s limitless in quantity; that an annuity (he prompt 5£) be hooked up to every cross; and that it may very well be claimed by a person who established his proper to the distinction earlier than a jury of his friends, topic to affirmation by the Crown.

When phrase leaked out, the proposed award was celebrated by Parliament and the British public. However, some entrenched parts of the navy opposed it, arguing that braveness was anticipated of all troopers and that an award shouldn’t be established honoring somebody for doing what was anticipated. 

Yet such scruples couldn’t maintain towards Albert’s thought, backed by his sizeable status and championed by Queen Victoria herself. The House of Commons joined the motion for the Victoria Cross in December, when retired naval officer and MP Capt. George Treweeke Scobell urged the Queen to create “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” and proposing the medal carry a yearly annuity of £10, reasonably than Prince Albert’s initially proposed £5. 

The Victoria Cross Is Born

The medal was instituted in 1856 when the Queen signed its warrant on Jan. 29. It was made retroactive to 1854 out there “to a person of any rank in any service and to any civilians under military command.” The medal was first created by the gold and silver smiths of Hancocks & Co. of London, which nonetheless manufactures the medals in the present day. It was most certainly designed by the sculptor Henry Armstead, then age 27.

The new valor award took place because of the teamwork of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. Although the VC was Albert’s thought, Victoria launched modifications to it and lent her full help to its creation, overcoming opposition.
(Royal Collection Trust)

The bronze medal is described as being in the form of a Maltese cross (truly, a cross pattée is used), barely greater than one-and-a-half inches excessive and the identical in width. The entrance bears an imprint of St. Edward’s crown with a British lion above and the slogan “For Valour” under. The slogan initially thought-about for the medal was “For The Brave,” however that was modified to “For Valour” on Victoria’s suggestion, noting that the authentic slogan appeared to suggest that not all males have been courageous in battle. The cross hangs from a gold bar on the obverse. On the reverse is inscribed the recipient’s title, rank, quantity, and unit. The date on which the act for which the award is being introduced is engraved on the again of the bronze cross. The cross in flip hangs from the gold bar and a crimson ribbon about one-and-a-half inches huge. 

Originally a Victoria Cross with a crimson ribbon (formally prescribed as “red” however which has all the time been “crimson” or “wine-red” in coloration) was awarded to military honorees whereas one with a darkish blue ribbon was given to navy honorees till all subsequent Victoria Cross medals have been issued in crimson after 1918. Since 1917 a miniature of the cross might be seen in the heart of the bar.

Made from a cannon?

In the few circumstances (three up to now) during which two VCs have been awarded to a single particular person, a second miniature cross is positioned subsequent to the first. The three double-winners are: Surgeon Capt. Arthur Martin-Leake, who gained one VC in the Boer War and one in World War I; Capt. Noel Godfrey Chavasse, who gained two in World War I; and New Zealander Capt. Charles Hazlitt Upham, who gained two in World War II.

To date, the Victoria Cross has been awarded 1,358 occasions to 1,355 people with virtually half, 628, awarded for actions taken throughout World War I and 181 in World War II. Since the finish of World War II, 15 VCs have been awarded: 4 in the Korean War; one for Malaya; 4 (to Australians) in the Vietnam War; two in the Falklands War; one in the Iraq War; and three in the War in Afghanistan. All 15 medals have been awarded to navy personnel. No British civilian has acquired the award since 1879. 

Women turned eligible for the Victoria Cross in 1921. However, no lady has but been awarded one, though Elizabeth Webber Harris, a colonel’s spouse serving together with her husband in India, was awarded an “honorary” VC for heroic efforts treating victims of an 1869 cholera epidemic. By comparability, the United States’ highest navy honor, the Medal of Honor, first awarded throughout the American Civil War, has been introduced 3,511 occasions, together with 19 medals to people who’ve acquired two. It was additionally awarded to at least one lady, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War doctor.

It was claimed that Victoria Crosses have all been made out of the metallic of Russian cannon captured at the siege of Sevastopol in the Crimean War, however historian Glanfield, after learning a metallurgical examination of VCs in the custody of the Australian War Memorial, authoritatively established that Victoria Crosses—at the very least these made since December 1914—come from the metallic of two Chinese cannons. Enough metallic from that supply continues to be out there to make 80 to 85 extra Victoria Crosses. The metallic is saved in a vault managed by the Royal Logistics Corps at Donnington, Shropshire and might be faraway from the vault solely in the presence of an officer and armed guards. 

First Presented by Queen Victoria

Normally, a advice for the awarding of a Victoria Cross is issued by an officer at the regimental degree with a minimal of three witnesses swearing to the accuracy of the claims of heroism for which it’s supposed. The advice should then work its method up the chain of command till it reaches, first, the Secretary of State for Defense after which the reigning monarch for approval. 

In 1867, the award additionally was made out there to colonial troops. After World War II, most Commonwealth nations created their very own system of navy awards, which frequently embrace a Victoria Cross medal created by that nation and not immediately participate in Great Britain’s medals system. However the UK authorities can advocate Commonwealth residents for UK honors, and the British monarch can be the sovereign of sure Commonwealth honors techniques, equivalent to these of Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Initial official coverage was that posthumous VC awards shouldn’t be made. Between 1897 and 1901, as British troopers fought in colonial wars and in China’s Boxer Rebellion, the London Gazette listed troopers who would have been awarded VCs had they survived. In 1902, six of these troopers talked about in the Gazette have been “unofficially” granted VCs and later awarded medals after the coverage prohibiting posthumous VCs was formally reversed in 1920.

The first 62 Victoria Crosses have been introduced to honorees personally by the queen in London’s Hyde Park throughout a ceremony on June 26, 1857. Lucas was the first to obtain the medal.
(Royal Collection Trust)

The Victoria Cross warrant doesn’t specify who ought to current the precise medals to the honorees. Queen Victoria favored to current them herself and introduced the first 62 awarded. That presentation passed off on a sizzling June 26, 1857 in London’s Hyde Park earlier than massed British troops, together with dragoons, hussars, a troop of Royal Horse Artillery with two subject batteries, Royal Engineers, three battalions of Foot Guards, and others. A big crowd gathered and cheered loudly as the troops fashioned and the 62 males about to be awarded the VC marched and stood in a single line going through the troops and a desk holding the medals.

Lucas was fourth in the line that had been fashioned by rank. Just earlier than 10 a.m., the subject batteries sounded, and the Queen approached on horseback accompanied by Albert, who that very day had acquired the title of Queen’s Consort. Also current on horseback have been the Prince of Wales, who would develop into Edward VII, and his brother Alfred. Sir John Smyth has referred to as the scenepoignant and impressive.” 

How the VC Changed views About Soldiers

Among the honorees have been 26 males from the decrease ranks: 16 military privates; 4 gunners; one sapper; two seaman; and three boatswains. Besides Lucas, two different males from the Hecla additionally acquired VCs that day, Lt. John Bythesea and Stoker William Johnstone. The first man to obtain his medal was the redoubtable Charles David Lucas. 

The medals seem to have been awarded chronologically by the date of the motion for which they have been being awarded. Lord Panmure, Secretary of State for War, referred to as the title of every man and handed the correct individually-inscribed medal to the Queen. The man then stepped ahead, bowed to the Queen, and Victoria leaned from her saddle and pinned the medal to the man’s chest. 

After the ceremony Lucas remained in the Royal Navy, was promoted in 1862 and for a time commanded the experimental armored gunboat HMS Vixen. He was promoted to captain in 1867, retired in October 1873, and was named a rear admiral after his retirement. Five years later, in 1878, he was summoned to the deathbed of his former captain, Adm. Sir William Hutcheson Hall, who requested Lucas to deal with his spouse Hilaire after he was gone and to marry his solely daughter, Frances Russell Hall. Always loyal, Lucas complied, marrying Frances in 1879. The couple went on to have three daughters earlier than Lucas died at Great Culverden, Kent on Aug. 7, 1914. He is buried at St. Lawrence’s Church, Mereworth, Maidstone, Kent.

Since its first en masse award in 1857, the Victoria Cross  has develop into not solely Great Britain’s highest navy honor, however one in all the world’s most prestigious valor medals. The late creator Sir John Smyth, who gained a Victoria Cross in France throughout World War I, has referred to as it “the most famous award for gallantry in the world” whereas historian Glanfield has referred to as it “Britain’s supreme decoration.” 

The award additionally modified perceptions about odd troopers. “Before the war,” Prof. Orlando Figes wrote, “the respectable middle and upper classes had viewed the rank and file of the British Army as little more than a dissolute rabble—heavy-drinking and ill-disciplined, brutal and profane.” But not. The Victoria Cross “marked a new reverence for war and warriors.”

this text first appeared in navy historical past quarterly

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