by J R Ashby
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 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
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
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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entirety, without the permission of J.R. Ashby