The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross

Britain became involved in the costly Crimean War with Russia in 1854, its first major war since the British victory at Waterloo in 1815. Neither side distinguished itself during the war, and the British army was found to have degenerated in the crucial areas of leadership and administration. Far more men died of disease than of battlefield wounds. These deficiencies included a lack of any appropriate recognition for gallantry in battle. Mentions in dispatches were made haphazardly and in many cases all officers above a certain rank were included in the list of those mentioned in dispatches. Promotions were similarly unfairly handled and often went to staff officers rather than those directly involved in the fighting.

In 1856 Queen Victoria signed the warrant instituting a new medal to more appropriately award officers and soldiers who deserved recognition. Eligibility for the award was made retrospective to 1854. The Victoria Cross was to be a new decoration which should be highly prized and eagerly sought after by those in the military services. The warrant stated that the Victoria Cross would only be awarded to officers and men who have served in the presence of the enemy and had performed some signal act of valour or devotion. Furthermore, neither rank nor long service nor wounds nor any other circumstances or condition whatever other than the merit of conspicuous bravery was to be held to establish a sufficient claim for the order. The Victoria Cross is indeed highly prized and has evolved into the supreme decoration for gallantry in battle awarded to members of Commonwealth forces for the last 130 years.


Crimson (described as red in the Warrants), 1.5 inches wide. Originally the ribbon was dark blue or the Royal Navy and crimson for the Army. Shortly before the Royal Air Force was formed on 1st April 1918 the King approved the recommendation that what had been the Army ribbon should be adopted by all recipients. When the ribbon is worn alone a miniature of the Cross is pinned on it, a bar being indicated by a second miniature worn beside the first (when first approved in 1916, a single miniature indicated the award of a bar; from 1917 this was changed to the current configuration).


By a straight bar, slotted for the ribbon, with a V-lug below, made in one piece. The front of the bar is ornamented with laurels (the die-cast bars having the leaves set more closely together), and the reverse engraved with details of the recipient. The Cross and suspender bar are joined by a small link which passes through the lugs of both components. On earlier issues the link is completely circular and the inside bottom of the V-lug slightly recessed to accommodate it. Later the link was made oval and the lug not recessed.


In reality the Cross is not a Maltese Cross, as it is described in the Royal Warrants, but is closer to a cross patté.


The date (or dates), of the act of gallantry is engraved in the centre circle.


This is based on the suspender bar but without the V-lug, ribbon and frame above. The reverse is engraved with details of the recipient and the date or dates of the act.


Details of the recipient are engraved in capital letters on the reverse of the suspender bar, and the date or dates of the act of gallantry in the centre circle of the reverse of the Cross. The style of engraving varies although, generally speaking, the use of serifs seem to have been discontinued during the South African War (Boer) War. However, King Edward VII having approved posthumous issues, some comparatively modern Crosses exist which were awarded for services performed many years before. Sometimes the inscription is of the same colour as the decoration itself. The latter practice seems to have been more general before the Boer War although thereafter no particular pattern is apparent.

The details on the suspender bar include the rank, name and regiment, or other description of the recipient. Abbreviations are used, according to the length of the inscription, and during the First World War the practise of adding the regimental or equivalent number in the case of recipients below commissioned rank was introduced. Occasionally the recipient's full (or abbreviated) first names appear. The First World War and later inscriptions tend to be fuller than those appearing previously. The details on the reverse of the Cross give the date or dates of the act concerned, the month usually being abbreviated.


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