The Victoria Cross was born out of the carnage of war, specifically, the Crimean War. When Britain entered the war in March of 1854 it found itself embroiled in its first major military conflict for over forty years The War of the Seventh Coalition in 1815 had been the last major conflict. Though the British Empire had engaged in various small conflicts in the midst of its empire expansion, the forty-year gap between major wars had seen a vast improvement in the arena of news reporting and correspondence.
The Crimean War involved the first regular reporting of war correspondents. William Howard Russell reporting for The Times is particularly remembered for his influential reporting. Russell’s reports from the field were quite critical of a military system that awarded only those of superior rank. He shed light on the frequent errors made by commanding officers, errors that often resulted in the lost lives of many common soldiers. At the same time, he was quick to report the acts of courage and bravery that occurred among the ranks of common soldiers. This was one of the first times that the British public received direct reports of the bravery of individual soldiers.
Before the Crimean War there was no established, official system for recognizing superior accomplishments by British servicemen, and even those awards that did exist were only granted to senior officers. The common soldier could only expect to receive a campaign medal, something that was given to every man who participated in the war, regardless of his gallantry in battle. Russell’s reporting from Crimea prodded the public to call for the creation of a new, non-discriminatory military decoration.
In addition to Russell’s influential reporting, the existence of non-discriminatory military honors in other nations contributed to the growing public support for the creation of a similar honor in Britain. France awarded the Légion d’honneur while the Netherlands awarded the Order of William, both given to soldiers of any rank who distinguished themselves in battle. The Commons was quick to back the suggestion of a universal military honor, but senior military officers felt that it may result in rank soldiers weakening the strength of their ranks in order to attempt an individual feat of heroism.
As debate over the creation of a new honor continued, Prince Albert provided crucial support to those who were in favor of creating the new honor. Evidence of the general thinking behind the proposal can be found in a letter written by the Secretary of State for War, the Duke of Newcastle. In a letter he wrote to Prince Albert, the Duke suggested ‘a new decoration open to all ranks. It does not seem to me right of politic,’ he wrote, ‘that such deeds of heroism as the war has produced should go unrewarded by any distinctive mark of honour because they are done by privates or officers below the rank of major. . . . The value attached by soldiers to a little bit of ribbon is such as to render any danger insignificant and any privation light if it can be attained.’
As plans for creating the new decoration progressed, Queen Victoria became more involved. It had been decided that the decoration would bear her name, but the Civil Service had suggested a name that Victoria was not overly fond of, ‘the Military Order of Victoria.’ In a nod to the royal desire that the decoration be kept simple and recognizable, Albert suggested the simple title, ‘the Victoria Cross.’ He erased any mention of the award being an ‘Order,’ as he felt that the term carried with it aristocratic overtones ill suited to a decoration open to all servicemen.
The official order for the creation of a new military honour came on 29 January 1856 when Queen Victoria issued a Warrant under the Royal sign-manual. The Victoria Cross was created to be awarded “to those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the Enemy and shall then have performed some signal act of valour or devotion to their country.” The order creating the Victoria Cross was backdated to 1854 in order to include any acts of valour committed during the Crimean War.
Queen Victoria’s main interest in the project was on the design of the cross itself. Her desire for the cross was that it be a simple design, a choice that surprised many given the fact that most existing military honours were ostentatiously designed. After receiving an early version of the VC, the queen disliked that it had been cast in copper over her preferred bronze cross.
At the queen’s instruction that the VC medals be cast in bronze, someone had the inspired idea to take the necessary metal from Russian guns captured at the siege of Sevastapol. Two eighteen-pound guns were taken from Woolwich Barracks to use as the bronze supply for the VC medals. Despite the facts that the guns were even then of obviously antique design and they bore inscriptions clearly not Russian, it was not until years later that that the medal casters realized that the guns were actually of Chinese origin.
Queen Victoria personally bestowed the first Victoria Crosses at a ceremony and grand parade at Hyde Park on 26 June 1857. At the first ceremony, sixty-two recipients of the VC were recognized for their acts of valour. Since the inception of the VC as a military honour it has been awarded only 1,357 times, only 14 of those medals having been awarded after World War Two.