A while ago a tiny piece of, badly forged,
Chinese gunmetal with a tatty piece of red ribbon worth, in monetary value, no
more that £1.50, was sold by a world famous auction house for a quarter of a
million pounds. It was, of course, a Victoria Cross the most prestigious award
for valour in the world.
The award began its life on the battlefields of Balaclava, in the Crimea War, and will be forever, maybe incorrectly, linked to the Charge of the Light Brigade when, it is said, the cannon which were eventually to be used in the making of the medals was captured.
During these battles many acts of individual gallantry were reported by William Howard Russell, correspondent for The Times and it was he who firstly suggested an award. Shortly a need began to be felt by the populous, for a medal of honour that could be awarded to any service personnel regardless of rank. It also needed, attached to it, a pension, which was to be awarded to the recipient or given posthumously to his family.
In December 1854 the Lib. M.P. Captain Thomas Scobell, put it to the House of Commons that an Order of Merit “be awarded to persons serving in the Army or navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry and to which every grade and individual from the highest to the lowest may be admissible”.
The idea began to grow momentum and in January 1855 the Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle, gave a speech in the House of Lords on the subject and later wrote to Prince Albert suggesting “a new decoration open to all ranks”.
In the Houses of Lords, Commons and the greater part of the general public, support for the award was great but it did not meet with everyone approval as key military figures believed that the strength of the British Army lay in its ability to fight as one, in formation, and the promise of a medal and award, for an individual act, may encourage men to break ranks and therefore reduce the strength of the formation and endanger the lives of others.
The Victoria Cross had hit its first major obstacle and so strong was the opposition of the military that the idea may have been lost forever if it had not been for the help of two people, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
The Queen had seen photographs and read reports by William Russell on the: shortages of clothing and equipment; the fleas and lice; epidemics of cholera and typhoid; the disgusting conditions in which the ordinary British soldier was expected to live and fight under; and, despite it all how they had met it all with courage and endurance. The reports had filled her with horror and amazement and she believed they deserved something to aspire too. Whereas the Duke of Newcastle, and following a talk with the Queen had recruited the Prince to the cause both had become enthusiastic supporters of the scheme.
The Royal Family noted that, on the whole, the people of the British Isles were in favour of a new award for gallantry and requested the War Office to arrange its design and production.
It was decided, with her approval, that the new medal should carry the Queen’s name and very quickly draft drawings were put forward to Victoria and Albert as to its design. One, based on the Cross Patte of the Army Gold Cross, which was issued to field and general officers in the Peninsula Wars of 1906-14, met with their approval. The Queen suggested that the inscription ‘for the brave’ be changed to ‘for valour’. She also replaced the scrollwork, joining the ribbon to the body of the medal, by the letter V. Then lastly the colour of the ribbon was chosen as red for the Army and blue for the Navy.
Then came the lengthy process of choosing a name befitting such a decoration. Many were put forward and dismissed and at last the Civil Service put forward “The Military Order of Victoria”. Almost in desperation Albert crossed it out and wrote “The Victoria Cross”, which it has remained to this day.
A commission for the production of the medal was taken to Hancock’s, Burlington Arcade, London and proofs were sent to the Queen for her approval. But they did not meet with her taste, she found the shiny copper medal to be too garish and it did not stand out enough against the red coat with brass buttons. Therefore bronze was suggested, but again this was found to be unsuccessful. It was at this point that someone remembered the Russian Cannon that had been captured at the Battle of Balaclava. Too many had been taken to ship them all back to Britain, and those that had arrived in this country had become dispersed, but two eighteen-pounders were located at Woolwich Barracks and placed at their disposal. Finally there was one last ‘tweak’ to the design when, as the gunmetal was heavy, the Queen suggested that the medal should be “a little smaller”.
At last the making of the medal finally began but another problem arose as the gunmetal proved to be so hard that the die-cast moulds repeatedly cracked up. Discussions were quickly held among the workmen and a decision made to cast them, resulting in higher relief and more depth.
The final result met with everyone’s approval and the Victoria Cross and Award came into existence in the spring of 1856, exactly one hundred and fifty years ago.
There then followed a year where dozens of cases were scrutinised for eligibility and after much deliberation sixty-two were chosen and the list published in the London Gazette.
The Queen made it clear, from the beginning that she wished to bestow the medal on all the recipients personally. A grand parade was to take place to Hyde Park, which the Queen would attend on horseback. The sixty-two recipients were to be located, some of which had long since left the armed forces, along with a detachment of the unit in which they served, and all transported to London. A date was then chosen 27th June 1857 and after examination the Queen declared that she was “well satisfied”.
There is one, never to be forgotten story of that day. I quote “As the Queen leaned forward from her saddle, she stabbed one of the heroes, Commander Raby, through the chest with the pin of the clasp. The commander, true to the spirit in which he won the Cross, stood unflinching while his sovereign fastened the pin through his flesh. But the whole parade went extremely well to the rapturous applause of the public”.
The British Public have long been one to reduce the highest to the common denominator but not so with the Victoria Cross it was, and still is, regarded with the highest esteem, not just in Britain, but throughout the world. Today there is only enough metal to make eighty medals and, pound for pound, it is most highly guarded item in the world. It is secured within a munitions magazine, in an arms depot, in an army base, in Shropshire.
The highest number of Victoria Crosses, being one hundred and eighty two, was awarded during the First World War. One of these, we are proud to say, was awarded to Sapper Hackett of Mexborough.
Information Obtained From:
The Journals of Queen Victoria.
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