The Victoria Cross
A Brief History
By W. E. (Gary) Campbell
The Victoria Cross is arguably the world’s most recognized award for outstanding courage. The Crimean War introduced many changes to the British military. It was one of the first wars to be extensively reported by journalists. Their reports about the many heroic deeds being performed by British soldiers led to a demand for a gallantry award that could be given to all ranks. The result was the Victoria Cross. On 29 January 1856, it was approved by Queen Victoria as the highest award for gallantry that could be given to a member of the British, and later, Colonial and Commonwealth forces. It was to be given to “officers and men who have served Us [the Crown] in the presence of the enemy, and shall have then performed some signal act of valour, or devotion to their country.”
Over the years the criteria for the award have changed. After 1902, posthumous awards were authorized and later women were made eligible. Initially, Victoria Crosses awarded to Royal Navy personnel were suspended from a blue ribbon while those to army soldiers were crimson. In 1918, this was changed to a crimson ribbon for all to reflect the creation of the Royal Air Force. The Victoria Cross continues to be the highest gallantry award within the British and Commonwealth forces. Australia, New Zealand and Canada have all incorporated the Victoria Cross into their national systems of Honour and Awards.
On 26 June 1857, Queen Victoria awarded the first 62 Victorian Crosses during a parade at Hyde Park. To date, 1,355 individuals have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Remarkably, three individuals have received a second award of the Victoria Cross! In addition, Australia has awarded four Victoria Crosses while New Zealand has awarded one. Canada has yet to award a Victoria Cross. The Victoria Cross was deliberately designed to be a simple medal. It is a “bronze straight armed cross pattée . . .; on the obverse [front], a lion guardant standing upon the Royal Crown, and below the Crown, a scroll bearing the inscription “FOR VALOUR.” The words “PRO VALORE” appear on the Canadian version. The cross has a dull, matte finish with burnished highlights. The cross is suspended by the ribbon on a bar that bears the name of the recipient and the date of the action for which the Victoria Cross was awarded. Hancocks of London have made all of the Victoria Crosses except the Canadian ones. The crosses are made of bronze gun metal that has been taken from Russian guns that were captured at Sevastopol during the Crimean War in 1855. It was later learned that these guns had been previously captured from the Chinese. The Canadian Victoria Cross is made by the Royal Canadian Mint and includes metal from the Russian guns as well as other metals that represent all parts or Canada.
Ninety-eight Victoria Crosses have been awarded to Canadians although this number may vary slightly depending on the selection criteria used. The first recipient was Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn who was awarded the VC for his bravery during the Charge of the Light Brigade on 25 October 1854. The last Victoria Cross was awarded to Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray for his successful attack on the Japanese warship Amakusa on 9 August 1945.
During the First World War, 73 Canadians were awarded Victoria Crosses. Of these, 29 were awarded posthumously. Seven Victoria Crosses were awarded on 2 September 1918 for actions during the capture of the Drocourt-Quéant Line. The Second World War saw fewer Victoria Crosses awarded: 16, of which 7 were posthumous.
The details of their heroic deeds can be found on the Veterans Affairs Canada website – http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/medals-decorations/orders-decorations/canadian-victoria-cross-recipients
Victoria Crosses can be found on public display in many museums, such as the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Due to their great monetary value, those on display are usually replicas; the originals are kept in secure storage. If in London, England, the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum merits a visit. Between the collections of the Imperial War Museum and Lord Ashcroft, 239 Victoria Crosses are on display.
Arthur Bishop. Our Bravest and Our Best: The Stories of Canada’s Victoria Cross Winners. Whitby, ON: McGraw Hill Ryerson Limited, 1995.
Swetenham, John, editor. Valiant Men: Canada’s Victoria Cross and George Cross Winners. Toronto: Hakkert, 1973.
Pro Valore: Canada’s Victoria Cross. Governor General of Canada, n.d.
http://www.hancocks-london.com/victoria-cross. Accessed 21 December 2015.
http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/lord-ashcroft-gallery. The Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum. Accessed 21 December 2015.